Female Founders: Audrey Hanneman and Lori Tomimatsu of Serenity Organizers On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview with Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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Photoshoots are not as easy as they would seem. We had our first photoshoot and thought everything went well until we saw the actual photos. How hard can it be to take pictures, right? Boy, did we learn a lot! Detailed pre-planning is the key, such as selecting models early, planning make-up, hair, and wardrobe, having storyboards with shots outlined and setting a shooting schedule by the minute to stay on task. We are becoming experts now on our photoshoots. Third was the charm.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Audrey Hanneman and Lori Tomimatsu

Serenity Organizers was founded by Audrey Hanneman and Lori Tomimatsu, two well-seasoned travelers on a mission to organize and simplify lives, one trip at a time. Both women bring exceptional planning and organizational skills to the brand, each traveled extensively abroad and understood what was necessary to improve the flying experience when traveling for work and with kids. They came up with the idea for multifunctional travel organizers two decades ago, yet it wasn’t until COVID hit that they knew it was the right time to bring the concept to fruition and introduce consumers to the perfect travel accessories.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

AUDREY: I’ve always dreamt about being an entrepreneur and thought about how wonderful it would be to create a cool product. Well, it took a lot longer than I expected. I have never been at a loss for ideas, but finding the right time to make it happen, was the real challenge. Then COVID hit and a product which I had toyed with 25+ years ago popped back into my head. After years of traveling non-stop for my job in the U.S. and the Asia Pacific, I was always disgusted with the lack of cleanliness on airplanes. I carried a pack of antibacterial wipes and a throw to cover my headrest and seat when I flew. Years ago, I sewed a sample seat cover to put on my airline seat, but always had the feeling everyone was staring at me when I used it. They probably thought that I was nuts! But then, when the pandemic hit and the world instantly understood more about germs and viruses, I knew it was the perfect time to redo my seat cover prototype and figure out a way to cover the dirty airplane trays too! Now I knew no one would think I was crazy!

LORI: I have been in the apparel business for many years and was ready to ease into my retirement. Finally, it was time to enjoy weekly golf games, travel to places I’d never been to, and learn Spanish. But then I got the call from Audrey. Instead of heading towards retirement, I did the opposite and completely immersed myself in getting this business off the ground. I knew I could take my many years of experience in global sourcing and put all of those skills and connections to work. I was always bothered by the lack of storage for my essentials when I flew. So we fine-tuned Audrey’s vision, added organizing pockets to both the covers and had samples made…all without ever being in the same city. Long story short, we designed and developed two organizing products that we have tested on many of our trips and now we can’t fly without them! We know that all travelers that give our organizers a try will be in love with having everything they need at their fingertips when on any flight, long or short.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

We have realized that when you want to start a company and spend hours creating that legendary business plan, it is really a loose template to help get you started. At least it was for us. Once we started the company, there were days we were like in an episode of Stranger Things. In our new reality, we had to be nimble, forever altering the grand plan, regrouping daily, taking a deep breath and be willing to adjust the business plan. In our case, before we even got started, we flipped a long-term strategy into a short-term one, which in turn jumbled our original plans…all in a good way!

We had always planned to get a licensing agreement with a major entertainment company, ultimately expanding marketing to kids by printing Marvel heroes or Disney princesses on our products. Operating on a shoestring, we knew this would be a long-term goal, but early on, we were immediately connected with the head of licensing for Disney Mexico and Latin America. After one Zoom with the team, they loved the product and we had a licensing deal for Mexico and Latin America in the works. Given we had no idea how licensing worked, we both had to reach out to our network to learn how that business worked…very quickly. Marketing a product in a new product category and international markets would now be a challenge, but luckily both of us had worked in sales, marketing, and production internationally and felt comfortable moving forward. In hindsight, we are not sure any reasonable business person would have advised us to go ahead with it, but because of our international business experience, our production being based in Mexico, and the fact that Mexico has the largest number of international visitors to Disneyland parks, we ran projections and decided to go for it. Products will be available in November 2022 in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay.

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?

We both consider ourselves competent, efficient, and organized. We both find our ability to multi-task at a high level of good quality. We both worked in big companies where it takes a long time to get decisions made with all of the bureaucracy and politics. Being our own bosses, we were able to be nimble and move faster than in corporate Amercia. Although this was empowering and seemed so efficient, we also learned the value of slowing down and thinking things through. Instead of calling them mistakes, we like to refer to them as “start-up” missteps. Lucky for us, many turned out to be a blessing in disguise and allowed us to have a good laugh afterward. We are not shy to say, we have had and still, have them frequently. We’d say 99% of tour missteps were caused by our efforts to get too many things done quickly. On the plus side, our missteps always force us to “stand down” and “reflect” and learn from each experience. Many of our missteps stopped us from making bigger costly mistakes later on. Lesson learned: Faster is not always better when you are making important decisions.

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?

We have been grateful to have so many friends and friends of friends help us get this business up and running. We have received endless contacts, advice, and help from both of our strong networks. One memorable conversation early on set us up and gave us the direction we needed to move forward. We had a call with Lori’s friend, who now runs a marketing agency and was actually someone she hired over 35 years ago. He kindly brainstormed, asked us a lot of questions about our products, and then helped us drill down to the essence of what our organizing products represented. During our discussion, he said our products were “simple things that work” — Bingo! That became our tagline and guiding principle we will use when we develop products.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Of course, there are a ton of reasons why women hold back from starting their own businesses, such as not having the right time in their lives, lack of available finances, no passionate ideas, etc. But if you could figure out fixes to those issues, we would say fear of failing, a lack of confidence, and a lack of a support network would be the main reasons women may feel like they can’t start a company. No matter what age or years of experience you have, self-doubt seems to prevent many women from taking that scary first step to starting a company. Audrey experienced this when I stepped out of full-time work while my kids were young. By chance in 2016, a good friend helped start ReBoot Accel, an organization targeting women professionals that had taken a “pause” from the workforce for a variety of reasons..caring for their kids, taking care of elderly parents, etc. Most had advanced in their previous jobs in marketing, finance, and law and many had degrees — JDs, MBAs, Doctorates. All were trying to get back to work in a corporation, start their own company or try something new. There were two challenges: The biggest impediment for all the women was clearly a lack of “self-confidence” and they thought they were aging out of many positions, where people were much younger now and that technology had passed them by. The world had changed dramatically in 5–10–15 years, mostly due to the rapid growth in technology. The solution was simple. Provide mentors, support, accountability, and training on the latest technology apps and programs to help build back their confidence. A packed 4-day workshop provided all the tools necessary to give women the confidence needed to get back to work. The program was powerful. I enjoyed it so much. Audrey set up the same program in Los Angeles for 40 women. It was so fulfilling to see these women just needed so little reset to get their confidence back. Audrey is still in touch with many today and it has been very rewarding to see them succeed and move forward.

We both went through the ReBoot Accel program and gained a lot from the experience. Our age (we are both 60 years old) and past experiences worked in our favor when starting a company. Going back into corporate America wasn’t a viable option for either of us for many reasons and we weren’t ready to retire (well, one of us wasn’t!). So for us, ReBooting our skills and rebuilding confidence was the key.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

During the past 5 years, it has been encouraging to see more and more women lead organizations and appear in industries that have been predominantly male-dominated. Many companies now have excellent resources to support and mentor women in business, which wasn’t the case as we were building our careers. We hope it grows exponentially in the future and we know there will be much more support and opportunities for women to start businesses. As women that have worked in male-dominated industries in the past — investment banking, high tech, and global sourcing — there were very few women mentors to turn to for advice. Over the years, and after ReBoot, we realized how important it was to continue to build a network and connect with women in business. We honestly believe our strong network is what helped us get started. We have also reached out to many organizations that support women-led companies. One very helpful organization has been the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). Amazing how many resources are available these days.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

We can speak to this from the perspective of two minority women being over 60 years old and only recently founding our own company. I think the world is experiencing a politically challenging time and sadly an unprecedented level of divisiveness never seen before over many important topics. Finally, issues relating to equality have been brought to the forefront of conversations which will be vital to bring about much-needed change. Women have a stronger voice now and many more platforms to help them be heard. We have a lot of organizations focused on supporting women and minority-led businesses, which we did not see 40 years ago. Everything from funding from women-run investment companies to an increased number of resources to provide contacts and networking for women in business. This alone will help women move forward. I also think that women have an untapped superpower, which is underappreciated in the working world — the ability to multitask. It sounds crazy, but it is a conversation we have with many successful women in business. I know times have changed and I hate making generalizations, but many women I know manage their families, careers, and other responsibilities and keep things running smoothly while putting out fires along the way and taking it all in stride. Our multitasking superpower has served us well during the startup phase.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

One myth is that you have the autonomy to make all decisions. While this may be true, you also have to understand that every decision made impacts the brand, your colleagues, and your wider business circle. You need to consider all factors when making decisions to ensure that you are operating fairly and don’t unintentionally offend anyone or any group of people. You must always be thoughtful and think of others with every decision, particularly when working with a partner. You have to take into account how you can make it happen within a wider context.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

We don’t think everyone is naturally cut out to be a founder, but we think anyone can be one if they have a vision, can surround themselves with people that have skills they lack, have the courage to ask for help and accept advice, and are risk takers and flexible. Audrey always wanted to be an entrepreneur and had an eye out and followed entrepreneurs throughout her jobs at an investment bank through business school. Upon graduation, she thought it would be amazing to start a company, but didn’t have any ideas. There always seemed to be an excuse as to why she couldn’t start my own business — working, raising kids, moving countries, etc. Then as the kids moved out, she knew she wanted a new challenge with a small business that she would enjoy running. When COVID hit, she remembered an old business plan she had written years ago, that’s how it all started. We have no idea if we will be as successful as we like, but are willing to plow forward and take on whatever comes our way.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. It will always cost more $ than you thought. We think of it as like renovating a house. There are many ways to renovate a home, you just never know what you will find behind a wall, floor, or roof. It could be nothing or something that will cost a bundle to remedy. When you are in the start-up mode, you are operating on a “shoestring.” We thought we knew what most of our expenses would be, but there have been unexpected costs we never imagined. For example, we recently found out we had to set ourselves up as a Mexican company to sell our products in Mexico and other Latin American countries. We thought all along we could hire a distributor to manage the project, but due to complicated Mexican law and tax structures, we could not run our business that way. Who imagined we would be a registered Mexican company? That surely was not in our business plan.

2. Starting a company when you are 60 years old is really fun if you have the right attitude! Why? It’s all about perspective and having the right co-founder. It’s been 2 years and we’re still having fun. We agreed we would set our priorities straight before starting the company. Enjoying our lives after 60 years old was a priority, including travel, family, and friends. We would have to work around those priorities and respect each other’s priorities. We also agreed that if at any point it wasn’t working as expected, we would tell each other. Sure, we expected the usual rollercoaster days, but we wouldn’t stress out about the things we would have done when we were 25 years old! With experience comes wisdom. Should one of us make a mistake or a bad decision, we both accept it, learn from it, laugh (if it is funny) and move on. There’s no reason to sit around sulking about it — well maybe just a little bit if it costs us some cash. We chalk it up to “start-up” missteps. We fully grasp the fact that “we don’t know what we don’t know,” but we try to avoid those situations by asking as many questions as possible to as many people as we can and getting advice from all different perspectives. But at the end of the day, the reality is you don’t know, what you don’t know!

3. It is not as hard as it looks to start, but it takes a LOT of hours of hard work to get it moving forward. We loved the challenge of starting a business, but the hours were never-ending. Our husbands could not believe how many hours we spent holed up in the office working on getting the project off the ground. It doesn’t matter how organized or how much experience you have, it’s all new and the learning curve is steep, particularly when there are only 2 of you doing all the work.

4. Always, always, always have multiple backup plans! We tend to be very trusting people and rely on those we are working with to have things under control. We have learned that we need to always have a plan B and C. Even though we are a startup and our initial orders were small, we realized that we should always have at least 2 factories producing for us. This will help with cost negotiations and also allow us to increase our volumes as sales increase. But it will also help us plan for unexpected situations like when one of the factories had a COVID outbreak and production slowed to a standstill due to a lack of employees. By having good backup plans, you can avoid costly disruptions in your business.

5. Photoshoots are not as easy as they would seem. We had our first photoshoot and thought everything went well until we saw the actual photos. How hard can it be to take pictures, right? Boy, did we learn a lot! Detailed pre-planning is the key, such as selecting models early, planning make-up, hair, and wardrobe, having storyboards with shots outlined and setting a shooting schedule by the minute to stay on task. We are becoming experts now on our photoshoots. Third was the charm.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We sure hope we will be successful and can make a small impact on something good. We have pledged to donate 5% of our profits to the Southern California Counseling Center (SCCC). Audrey has been involved with this organization for over 15 years and we believe as SCCC does, that mental health care is a right, not a privilege. SCCC provides mental care to anyone on a sliding scale. You pay whatever you can afford for counseling and psychiatric services. The work they do is life-changing and we are grateful that we can help them in their mission.

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.

Mental healthcare is a huge black hole. I feel people and the healthcare industry know how important it is for it to be addressed on a larger scale.

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.

Audrey would love a chat with Arianna Huffington. She respects what she has done and finds her political path perplexing but intriguing. It would be interesting to get her perspective and discover what powers her.

Lori would love lunch with Joe Lacob, owner of the Golden State Warriors. He is an entrepreneur and took a huge risk in purchasing the team when they weren’t very successful. He proceeded to build a franchise that other owners now want to use as a model for their franchises. It would be a dream to have our seat organizers on every seat at Chase Center for a giveaway to the fan base!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.