As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Risa Barash.
Risa Barash is the CEO and co-founder of Fairy Tales Hair Care, the leader in all-natural hair care and lice prevention products for children. Created in 1999, Fairy Tales Hair Care is the first line of natural lice prevention hair care and is now sold in nearly every retailer in the United States. After years working in other career fields such as stand-up comedy and given the fact that hair care for kids was the family business, Risa was ready to explore the entrepreneurial gene she was gifted. A 4th generation entrepreneur, Risa took to creating a brand like a fish takes to water. After 20 years, Fairy Tales Hair Care is now sold in thousands of stores, pharmacies, grocery chains and salons. Never one to slow down, Risa created the TBH Kids line when she noticed her own children were growing up and entering the scary land of puberty! TBH Kids is a DTC brand that focuses on hair, skin and body care for tweens.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was winding down my former career as a stand-up comic and engaged to my husband when he came to me with the Rosemary Repel shampoo that he saw in his cousin’s kids’ hair salon, Fairy Tales. The lice shampoo that was selling like crazy and he wanted us to take it on and grow it. Since no one really likes a happy comic, I decided this was a great idea to explore. I changed up the packaging and updated the formula to include more natural ingredients. I created a conditioner and detangling spray to round out the selection as well. I used to walk up and down the streets of NYC asking salons to put it in their shops and that’s how it all began!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Just one?? There have been so many in the last 20 years! I would have to say that navigating a business through a global pandemic has been the most interesting story for me. Managing a business and staff of 25 during COVID was like playing a really long game of chess with the devil. You figure out early that you might not win, but you really needed to figure out how to just stay in the game! The speed in which a leader needed to think, act, pivot and do it all again the next day was fierce and scary. There was no playbook for this and as a leader, I needed to rely on instinct and a prayer to not only keep the business afloat, but to be there as a support system to my team. It was harrowing to say the least but we came out of it stronger and more determined to diversify and succeed.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This one goes back a long way!!! So, when we first started with just our Rosemary Repel line, the Rosie O’Donnell show was on TV. One day she was on air talking about head lice! So, I ran a package over to the NBC Studios with a funny note offering up our shampoo to repel lice to her and her viewers. Now, when I say we were a new business, I wasn’t kidding — our website wasn’t even up yet! So, the next day when I turned on the TV and Rosie had the bottle of Rosemary Repel shampoo on her desk, I realized I had no website or even a store list to send a national TV audience to for purchase. Lesson learned — slow down, make sure you have all your ducks in a row before you go out and publicize your business!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many obviously who have been instrumental in helping me grow a 20 year old brand but my COO and friend, Abbie Mietz is my person. Abbie worked for our Midwest manufacturer and was there when we used to order 5 dozen cases and worry that we wouldn’t sell them. Fast forward to 6 years ago and Abbie is talking about moving back East. I basically said to her that if she didn’t come work for me, I would hunt her down and kidnap her! Abbie’s expertise in operations, processes and procedures are the perfect mix for my blend of creativity, vision and crazy. Together we make the perfect team to grow and lead a business with vision and precision. I am notorious for sending her late night emails with the heading, “we need to look into this” and by the next afternoon, Abbie usually has a plan in place to make it happen. Our business would not be the success it is today without Abbie’s contributions.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I have a lot of what some may call superstitions about preparing myself for a high stakes meeting! First, I make sure I am always prepared and know not only all I need about the meeting topic, but the people as well. One of my strengths is connecting with people on a personal level and I’ve learned when I start off on a personal note, it breaks the ice and relaxes everyone. But first, my prep routine. I make sure to always wear something that I feel great in — I love clothes and shoes and I know which outfits make me feel powerful. Then its Armani Red 401 lipstick. There is nothing I can’t do or say when I wear that color! Then, it’s a little dance party to my theme song, Stayin Alive from the BeeGees. I do my John Travolta walk and I own the room! It makes me laugh every time and yes, I know it sounds a bit crazy.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
As a female business owner, I have always known the importance of diversity but now more than ever, it is important for leaders to be make a conscious effort to step up. Educating ourselves on the issues is the first step. Just being reactive is not enough, true change comes from understanding the issues and being thoughtful and thorough in your long term goals and action plan. It is important to have a diverse executive team because it mirrors the real world! How can a company truly grow if they are not inclusive? I look forward to making this a priority as we take our company to the next level of growth. Our brand serves a multi-cultural audience and our voice and team must as well.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As a leader and brand owner, it is up to me to set the tone. First and foremost, we have a zero tolerance policy. Any whiff of discrimination would be dealt with ASAP. Education is the first step and we read and discuss current events and then review our policies. As a brand, we are more inclusive in our reach and audiences making sure to include multi-cultural models, influencers and design elements to ensure we are inclusive of everyone. As we hire, it is my goal to make sure we continue to hire from all races and put together a strong team where we are all represented.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
There is certainly a learning curve for an entrepreneur to learn to lead. For me, when we started it was just my husband and I in our one bedroom NYC apartment. 20 years later, we have 25 employees. I have learned that leading means to make sure I’m involved in all aspects of my business but allow my executives to do the job I hired them to do! This is a hard lesson for entrepreneur/control freaks! Creating the vision and strategy for the future of the company is the most important lesson a CEO can learn. Keeping the team on track to follow the vision and gently guide, redirect and pivot is a CEO’s responsibility. Getting out of the weeds is necessary to focus on big picture.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Being a CEO does not require any more special skills than anyone else. Do we work harder and faster — probably but anyone can learn to do that. Are we the smartest people in the room — maybe, maybe not, but a CEO does need to be the most prepared. CEO’s are not egomaniacs, a good CEO knows that teamwork is the key to success and a big ego can be the downfall of a company.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
That’s a hard one for me to answer as I have not been in many environments where I have had to go up against a difficult male counterpart. I have been lucky to work with some great men and women and have been treated with respect, equality and kindness.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I wasn’t too sure what to expect as my business grew. Being an owner is very different than working in a corporate environment. I just knew that as my business grew, industry standards changed, and technology developed I had to educate myself as all these things happened in order to stay relevant and make sure that our brand grew with the times.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe that anyone can become an executive if they chose to. It takes a natural curiosity, hard work and the ability to be self-aware and empathetic, too. An executive must enjoy working in a team and to truly succeed, a person should always feel the need to strive to learn and grow professionally and personally. The ability to make a decision, stand behind it and lead a team to execute your decision(s) is important as well.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
The ability to listen is imperative to a thriving team. Asking for help and others’ opinions is a key to making all team members feel that they are a valuable contributor. A thriving team knows that the leader is in control but accessible to talk with. Saying “I don’t know” is not a weakness as long as you trust your team to advise, discuss and move forward. Those 3 little words show vulnerability, a willingness to learn and it shows that you trust your team to help you get to the answers you need.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Well, I have made the world a better place by providing lice prevention hair care to all! As a parent, when your child is sent home with head lice, it disrupts everything! Many parents need to stay home from work until their child is clear to return. While not solving world hunger, I like to think my small contribution has made a difference.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- No one told me that a high quality, salon line of children’s hair care had never been successful.
- Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. Many times when I first started, I was afraid to stand my ground on what I believed in.
- Stop trying to find a work/life balance, it finds you. Some days work takes precedence and some days life does and trying to manage that is kind of a waste of time. Each deserve your focus, but it’s all a give and take.
- Know your end goal. Working backwards is a great way to plan your own short term goals and your steps for success.
- Learning to say no is ok. Trust your instincts! If something doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t. We met with the Walmart buyer who wanted to discount our products more than our other retailers. We said no, walked away from the deal and a year later, they came back — on our terms!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
That is a very big ask for a woman who makes children’s hair care! If I could inspire a movement, it would be to empower young women to know their worth at an early age. For me, turning 50 was a time when I was truly comfortable in my own skin, I valued my opinion over others and trusted that and I really just don’t care what most people think about me anymore! While I knew this in my head when I was younger, it wasn’t until I turned 50 that I truly understood it and made the connection to actually believe it! I would love to find a way to speak to young women — especially women in business to trust their instincts and help them articulate this to help ensure their self-confidence is exactly where it should be!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Its simple, but it gets me every time! Knowledge is power. I’m a huge advocate of reading as it opens the mind to learn and understand the world. In business, I try and read as many industry articles as I can to see what the trends are, the mindset of the business leaders, etc. I love to read about other people’s journeys in business as it helps me see I’m not alone and it can help guide me to make a decision after learning about another entrepreneur’s success and even failures.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I am a bit obsessed with Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. I would give anything to have a drink with her! I have always admired how she saw a need for a simple product that ended up changing the world! I remember the first time I tried on Spanx in Bloomingdales in NYC and thought it was the greatest invention ever! She has continued to develop new products and evolve. Personally, she has taught me that its ok to follow my own path, to have confidence in myself and my personal style of management. Sara has never been afraid to think and act outside of the box and that is my style to a T. I know I’m not the smartest person in the room, but I am smart enough to try and hire them and I’m confident enough in my own believes to continue to move my company forward. I feel that Sara has the same mindset. She also isn’t afraid to put herself out there in the public eye. I love watching her crazy husband and kids on Instagram. It has shown me that I can be my own slightly kooky self and lean into it! Sara, if you’re reading this — let’s do dinner!