As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Samantha George Smith.
Master Stylist and CEO of Split Enz Salon in Gloucester, VA, Samantha George Smith, has expanded a small town salon to a massive multi-faceted empire slated to break the million dollar mark in 2022. Disrupting the industry standard by revolutionizing a business model that actively employs a team of stylists instead of traditional chair rental, Sam is forging a new path for salon owners that leverages the power of team solidarity and employee culture to organically elevate client experience to generate long-term customer loyalty and brand recognition. Passionate about equipping and empowering other salon and spa owners to create sustainable, thriving operations with vibrant, top talent teams, she is committed to sharing her experience and insights as an entrepreneur, a mother, a wife and a woman.
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 never saw college in my future. I’ve always been one of those people who excels at those things that truly interest them, and have absolutely zero mojo in that which does not. I was a VoTech kid through and through — I always reached for opportunities to work with my hands.
My mother had a good friend who was a hairstylist and cosmetology instructor. She captured my attention early on. I admired her and felt drawn to the energy of being in her creative space. When sophomore year rolled around in high school, my class options leaned towards either culinary or cosmetology. Both my mother and her friend asked me a point blank question — “Which career is better suited for a family in the future?”
The answer was crystal clear to me. I immediately enrolled in the Career and Technical Cosmetology program at our local high school. The rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I don’t know that I would use the word “interesting,” but my first year was overwhelmingly marked by unexpected circumstances.
It was my husband, Ian’s, encouragement that prompted me to take action on my dream of owning my own salon. With him cheering me on, we emptied our savings, bought a struggling business, and prepared for Ian to provide for our family while I spent the next few years reinvesting every single cent I made into bringing the business back to life.
I had been with my previous salon for 17 years. After the ink dried on the salon purchase, my next step was to resign from that position. Driving home after that difficult conversation, I got stopped on the local bridge in deadlock traffic. My phone rang. It was the oncologist calling to tell me that my husband’s cancer had returned. And it was everywhere. He never went back to work again.
Every fiber of my being screamed that I needed to turn the car around and undo what I had done. Get my old job back, ditch the new salon and prepare to care and provide for my husband. I tried calling my friends and family while I was stuck on that bridge. No one answered the phone. I firmly believe God kept me still and silent in that moment so He could contend with my fear and what would have been a catastrophic mistake of backing out of my dream.
I can also sweetly and confidently say Ian would have never let me.
That whole first year as a salon owner, I was the hustle hairdresser/CEO from Monday evening — Friday afternoon (thank God to my uncle who came daily to care for Ian while I worked). Weekends were full of long trips into the hospital for Ian’s care. During my evenings at home, I was nurse to Ian and mother to a serious dancer (thank God for my own mother who carted her back and forth to the studio).
Ian passed away 14 months after we received his diagnosis.
Somehow, miraculously, with the help of the two other stylists who stood by me during that first year (and whom I still am in contact with today!) I closed out the first year of business with 3 times the income of the old business. I ask myself now “How did I do that?” Even in the midst of life falling apart, I somehow went all in on small town living. Wherever and whenever we could, we ate, worked and played on Main Street. I poured what little was left of myself into building relationships in my community. I showed up everywhere. I went the extra mile. For me. And for Ian.
My second year in business was marked by my navigating grief and rebuilding life. Working hard helped me cope. As a stylist, you are challenged to always put the client first and compartmentalize your own stuff to deliver the experience they deserve. Admittedly, I leaned on this muscle memory and inherent skill many times during that year. The salon was my refuge — a controllable space where emotions could be (and often were) checked at the door.
Ian believed in my dream and in me. I owe my success to him.
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?
Oh sweet Jesus, do I have stories. There’s that one time I got suckered into body wraps and spent a ton of money and time setting up a corner of my salon business that ultimately turned out to be a total mess and absolute flop. LESSON: Stick to what you know!
Ah, here’s one. I look back at my early struggles with technology — websites, social media, collateral. It is absolutely shameful what I let other people see. LESSON: Spare no expense on proofreading and quality marketing.
How about the time I accidently waxed part of a woman’s eyebrow off by using the same wax strip twice. LESSON: One strip, one time. ‘Nuff said.
Or that time I caught a client on fire because I had a lit candle near the bowl of acetone where her nails were soaking. LESSON: No open flames in the salon. Anytime. Anywhere. (#commonsense)
And one cannot forget about what I refer to as “Foil-a-palooza.” I was pumped to execute on this amazing pigmented lightener (I’ll spare you the explanation of what that means). Long story, short, it took FOREVER to get the foils in, and when I unwrapped afterwards, I was shocked to find ZERO highlights. I had been so excited by what I was doing that I forgot to add developer. That was a fun conversation with the client. LESSON: Jeez, there aren’t enough words to describe all I learned that day.
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 so many memorable people who have contributed to my success. Picking one feels overwhelming. I can say that Charles Ieni, the owner of the salon where I worked for so many years, tipped the first domino to me believing something bigger for myself. Transparently, I’m not even sure I knew that was what was happening. I was willing to do whatever it took, but my motivation was money. Owning my own salon or rising up as a leader wasn’t even a whiff of a dream when we first met.
He believed in me, and contributed time and resources to equipping and empowering me to thrive as an employee. He gave me books like The One Minute Manager, Who Moved My Cheese? and How to Talk to Anyone About Anything. He showed me different ways of doing business. So much of what I learned from him I now apply to my own business model and see reflected in my own perspectives and ideas.
One noteworthy item, while Charles openly and graciously led by example, I want to be clear that I do not believe it wise or ethical to duplicate someone else’s win. Everything he taught me is grounded in my inherent respect for him. I embraced each lesson and then sought my own avenues of wisdom to lay the foundation for my company.
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 rely deeply on my faith. Christ is my cornerstone.
I’m also happy to share that I remarried four years after Ian’s death. I honestly didn’t see that coming. I was pretty certain I would ride solo for the rest of my life. Thank God He saw otherwise for me. My husband, Eric, who respects and honors a special place in my heart for Ian, is again, my biggest champion. I’m grateful. So grateful.
My go to stress relievers are yoga, hiking, getting out on the water. My strategic planning generally takes place on a long walk outside, followed by classical music, lots of prayer and a scripted roadmap that runs the gamut of Eric’s questions and unique perspectives.
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?
I often struggle with the reality that we are still lacking in such “obvious” core ethics in our society. We can and should be better than this by now (and should have been better all along). Transparently, living and operating a business in a smaller community presents its own challenges, and diversity is one of them. As a stylist and instructor, I absolutely require my team to honor our guests by recognizing, celebrating and properly caring for the unique characteristics and textures that externally mark a piece of who that individual may be. I refuse to limit our opportunity to expand our horizons and welcome individuals from all walks of life. We are a safe place where all are honored.
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.
The foundation of my company is a commitment to doing business differently. I believe what truly limits our access to an inclusive, representative and equitable society is our discomfort with change. Simply put, what’s always been done isn’t always best. And isn’t always right. Business can and should be done differently, especially when those changes open opportunities for others to thrive. I will not let the status quo or complacent industry standards limit my team from reaching new heights and serving all people. I’ll break the mold all day, every day.
We need more mold breakers!
My team functions outside the traditional salon model. They are actively employed by the salon and serve as a team. We do not follow the traditional chair rental/contractor model and also ditched the ever-popular tier system. I prioritize their natural talents and abilities over their years in the industry. When the business grows and celebrates a new milestone, everyone benefits.
I want them to feel ownership in the salon. They are unique individuals with varied needs, challenges and passions. We spend considerable time and resources understanding and celebrating each other’s differences. Whether that’s on a company retreat, or reviewing Love Language and Strengthsfinder results, I am committed to forging a clear path to grace, dignity and respect, which fuels our genuine love for each other as we learn to communicate effectively by honoring how others see the world. We are united around a common goal and a commitment to each other and our clients. Every employee’s contribution to our success is honored as equitable and critical to our long-term sustainability.
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?
As the CEO, the first words that immediately come to mind are “I am responsible for more than just my family.” I must show up and give my very best. There is no phoning it in. My team needs to feed their families too and they rely on me to provide the opportunity for them to do so.
While other leaders in my salon may be given specific roles with expectations and responsibilities they must meet while they also encourage, train and hold accountable those that may answer to them, as the executive, I have to evolve moment-by-moment to identify and address critical issues that are often utterly unexpected. I must simultaneously be present today, be looking ahead to tomorrow and be aware of yesterday.
The buck stops here.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The bad news — You don’t go home rich. You don’t have weekends off. The CEO often gets paid last (if at all). Your team’s paycheck always comes before your own.
The good news — There is no one formula for success, even within a particular industry. As a CEO or executive, you are not bound to do things the way they’ve always been done. Break the mold!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Even within the salon industry, which is often categorized as female dominant, women struggle for recognition and respect among their male counterparts. As a female salon owner, I constantly have to work harder, be smarter, prepare more and evolve quicker to command respect among male salon owners. I am determined to move above and beyond the “club membership” that often fastlines my counterparts’ progress against my own singular efforts.
The salon industry as a whole is not always recognized as a real business which requires a real CEO. As we prepare to move into a new salon space so that we can and will crack the $1 million dollar mark in 2022 (in a small town, no less), I am here to tell you this is a very real, very viable career.
I stand firmly against the stigma that hair stylists are all “Snip, snip, yak, yak, cute hobby to get you out of the house so you can gossip while playing dress up.”
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I am working harder now than when I first opened, even with everything I was personally navigating back then.
As the salon grows, it requires more of me — mentally, emotionally, physically, even spiritually. I am in a never-ending self-dialogue assessing growth, potential for my business and my team. Each step forward is exciting, and also means more moving parts.
Even as we prepare to move into a new salon space, I am already looking ahead two years from now and beginning to consider the steps to what’s next. Always more to do. Always more to consider.
Do you think 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?
Skills can be taught, operations can be taught. Core character, values, work ethic, drive/desire — You can’t teach that. Without it, executives will be swiftly swallowed up.
Executives have a unique capacity for embracing mistakes and failing forward. They thrive in the unknown ebbs and flows, with an agility that pivots without hesitation. Whether feast or famine, they’re going to keep walking, crawling, dragging to stay in the game. There is no getting stuck or staying still, waiting it out. We live for the challenge and will fight to the death.
These businesses are our babies. Just like parents, we have to be whole-heartedly committed to the long haul — the skinned knees, the brutal breakups, the devious sneaking out, the exciting recitals, the celebratory milestones — we are consciously all in. Not everyone is wired with the capacity to go the distance.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Actively connect with other female CEOs. I know that sounds obvious, but it is quite often the last thing on my mind operationally, even while my soul is craving it. Executive level leadership is lonely, especially as a woman. You must prioritize and protect your need for community and like-mindedness.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My employees are my first mission. I have been entrusted with their care, and that’s a calling I take very seriously. If they are supported, empowered, equipped, engaged and most importantly, loved and extended grace; that in and of itself creates a ripple effect that makes our community and our world a better place. Beyond my commitment to making their worlds better each and every day as their leader, as a company, we actively volunteer in our community to give back and help those in need.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
PRIORITIZE A MONTHLY EXECUTIVE MEETING
Yup, this might look like a meeting with yourself. Make it happen. Protect it fiercely. At the beginning of my career, it was so easy to push high level business strategy to make room for the busyness of the day-to-day operations. I was desperate to get money in the door and I got lost in the short-term minutiae and missed opportunities to map long-term growth. I wish I had known how important it was to commit time for myself just to think about the business.
BREAK THE MOLD!
This is old news by now based on my previous answers. You don’t have to do business the same way everyone else has done business. Thankfully, I had great mentors who gave me early on, sneak peeks into the opportunity this held. Give yourself permission to do it your way.
DON’T HIRE OUT OF NEED
Yes, growth demands manpower. That being said, I would rather run lean with top talent than be flush with the wrong people. Don’t ever let you need them more than they need you. Ask me how I know…no stories necessary there ha ha.
ENGAGE A BUSINESS COACH BEFORE GOING INTO BUSINESS
Most people engage the help of a business coach when they’re stuck, in crisis or navigating growth. I contend that a business coach is best engaged before you officially open the doors. I wish I had spent more time mapping my business, understanding the vision and designing the systems and strategies that would get me there before I got the ball rolling. In particular, hiring was exponentially more difficult because I felt I was constantly backtracking to address unexpected issues and circumstances that I should have proactively considered from the start.
PROTECT YOUR TIME
Don’t let anything interfere with how you choose to preserve and prioritize your time. It’s sacred. For me, this looked like not letting clients sneak into space on my calendar where they weren’t supposed to be. Mark the calendar, tell the people and don’t walk it back. Otherwise the business will run you.
The last piece of this is figuring out how to turn off/unplug. Yes, you always think about the business and it never wholly goes away, but you must find ways to decompress. Especially when it comes to the people you love most. If you’re like me, you’re building a business for your family. Don’t miss out on them because of it.
P.S. Go take a sabbatical. (I have yet to take one and know I need it.)
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.
I’m not afraid to build salon owners. I’m not trying to keep my team “small” for my own personal benefit. Don’t be afraid to mentor others to greatness. I hope to inspire other leaders to give wholeheartedly. Don’t hold back to self-preserve! There is enough opportunity for everyone to win.
On a practical level, I would love to see more industries offer community internships for high school students or gap-year young adults. If more companies opened the door to even short, six week opportunities, our young adults could make educated, experience-led decisions that would drive informed choices for their future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” — Jeremiah 29:11
My mother framed this for me many years ago and I still recite it back to myself often. Take note, it isn’t a message of easy living or everything going well all the time. It’s a wide angle view. This is a bigger, better plan at work in my life. If I don’t take the time to explore and find the lessons, the healing, the joy and the wisdom of my circumstances, I’ll miss out on the whole picture.
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.
Brene Brown. Her message on vulnerability has impacted my life, both personally and professionally.