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Female Founders: Jenna Sereni Of HandsDown On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Everything takes longer than expected: All adventurous come with unknowns, and entrepreneurship is no different. I wish I had a better idea of how long things would take in general. From finding the right partners, hiring, raising money, negotiating with vendors, to launching a product, one thing has been a steady truth–it always takes a bit longer than you think it will.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenna Sereni.

An Influencer Marketing innovator and pioneer, Jenna Sereni is widely known as the original creative inventor for the first ever influencer marketing agency, WHOSAY (co-founded with CAA and acquired by ViacomCBS). Today, Jenna continues to pave the way into the future of influence as the Founder of HandsDown, the social commerce platform that allows users to share what they “hands down” can’t live without and discover what they’ve been missing, from people they trust the most, their inner circle.

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?

I was raised in an entrepreneurial family. My great grandmother founded our family business in the garment district of New York City in the 1940s, which my grandfather eventually took over, and my uncle after that. Everyone in our family worked for the business at some point, whether it was answering the phones or working in the warehouse. I worked for my uncle straight out of college, and he taught me so much about running a business, managing people, and how to navigate the dynamics of work and family. My parents both had amazing careers as well and I was raised in an environment where people worked really hard, but valued family and friends over everything.

When I got my first job outside of the family business, it was at Teen Vogue, and I was so excited. After my initial interview, they told me that sometimes they look for candidates who have a “fire in their belly.” And that I had a “bonfire.” I loved my time there, and raised my hand for every project I could possibly participate in. I was really interested in the trust that the brand had established with readers, and I think this is where my career-long passion for “voices of trust” really launched. I moved on to work in digital marketing at various publishers, and was recruited to be the first member of the marketing team at a new start up called WHOSAY, co-founded by CAA. WHOSAY was a celebrity social media app — that helped celebrities to launch and manage their presence across various social media platforms. The business evolved into becoming the very first and most trusted Influencer Marketing agency, which I helped run for about 8 years. We were acquired by Viacom in 2018.

Aside from career, my immediate family is huge and blended, so I experienced a lot of change throughout my childhood and ended up living in a house with six teenagers. It’s safe to say that organized chaos is a comfort zone for me, hence my interest in start-up life.

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

The most interesting thing that’s happened since we started HandsDown, is discovering what’s happening in the state of Vermont. You think of Vermont and you think of Bernie Sanders, Ben & Jerry’s, Gardener’s Supply, Burton and Seventh Generation. But what’s actually happening is a massive boom in tech and entrepreneurship.

I just so happen to live here in the Green Mountains (I escaped New York City during COVID) and needed to register my company with a mailing address. So, I visited a coworking space in Burlington, and met the CEO of a Tech Accelerator that day. It turns out, investment in Vermont companies grew 500% in the past year alone and brilliant people are flocking here to create businesses. Some of the best skin care (Ursa Major, Ogee), electric airplanes (Beta Technologies) and space systems (Benchmark Space Systems) are being designed and produced right here in Vermont. So, HandsDown ended up smack in the middle of an incredible community of new startups, venture funds, former CEOs who’ve exited, and we have seen an epic amount of love and support from this community.

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?

When we first began designing HandsDown, it was called “Faves.” It’s the name Sonia (my co-founder) and I came up with in the earliest days, and our friends and family started using it in everyday language as a verb and a noun–which for a brand is an excellent attribute in a name. “It’s on my Faves,” “I Faved it,” etc. We noticed new companies popping up using the name Fave or Fave App and a few others, and we were so tied to “Faves” that we didn’t even really consider changing our name. We then had a call with an advisor, who told us about her experience in googling “Faves.” The name was everywhere. There were more companies than you can count on one hand–which was enough for us to decide to speak with a trademark lawyer and consider making a change. Another advisor was currently going through some naming issues at the time–and she reiterated to us the importance of originality and taking advantage of this opportunity that we had to make a shift, since it was so early on. It was such a massive thing that we didn’t pay attention to in the beginning because we were so emotionally invested. But, we spoke with a lawyer, and then began our search for a new name. It took what felt like forever. We ended up conducting focus groups and surveys, and landed on HandsDown about 5 months later. We learned that there’s always a strategic solution–and started leveraging “Fave” as a product attribute, instead of as our name. It was a pivotal moment for use, to see how flipping things upside down, can actually turn things right-side up.

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 people who have helped me to get where I am. My mom, many past managers, friends, etc. But Lauren Jay is the first that comes to mind when it comes to serious managerial inspiration. Lauren is that Teen Vogue Associate Publisher I mentioned earlier, who noted the “bonfire” in my belly. I was nobody. A young wannabe at most. And Lauren not only gave me the opportunity to break into marketing, but she also always had my back at every turn. There was one experience where I made a huge mistake. A mistake that held legal implications for the company and our client. And while it was fixable, it was also catastrophic to a 20 something manager who was trying to impress everyone. From the moment I told Lauren about what had happened, she exemplified strategic thinking, support and the most epic management skills I’ve seen. She made me feel like we all make mistakes. And then we need to quickly shift to making the situation better, and avoid looking back. She also promoted me shortly after. Since then, I’ve managed many people — and one thing I tell them all on day one with me is, “You can make any mistake once, just learn from it, and grow from it.” I think this is extremely important. In order to truly innovate, you need to take risks. And taking risks requires making mistakes. Fostering a culture of acceptance when it comes to making mistakes is incredibly important to me and I’ll never forget how Lauren showed this to me.

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?

  1. Parenthood + Home Management: Being a mother and an entrepreneur is almost impossible–yet we do it anyway. And in a pandemic? Gosh, queue therapy. Founding a company is 24/7. I don’t even look at it as a job, but as a lifestyle. I think about my company, our strategy, our tech, our people, social posts, user experience all day and all night, every single day. On weekends, on vacation, in the shower, on a walk. I can’t escape it. And frankly, it brings me a ton of joy. I love building things–making things, and watching them grow. It’s my favorite thing to do. But I certainly do have to work extra hard to be focused on myself and my family when I’m home at dinner time, working out or doing yoga, and while I rock my son to sleep at night. Nothing pains me more than those cute little words, “Mommy, put your phone down, stop working.” It’s like a knife to the heart every time. But at the same time, I want him to know that I believe in going for it, working hard, and empowering yourself to be your absolutely best and most authentic self. I think finding this balance between all of your babies: partner, kids, business, pets, is incredibly hard, and if you aren’t willing to take that on, then I can certainly see women shying away from founding a business because of it.
  2. Funding: We are much less likely to get funded. Deciding to start up a business takes a lot of planning and strategic thinking. If you go through the risk analysis of what it’s going to take to pull something off, then as a woman, you’ll see, you’re highly unlikely to get funded. Less than 3% of funding goes to women, and without funding, in most scenarios, you’re highly unlikely to be successful. For some reason, I decided to take on this risk–but I don’t blame others who decide not to. Thankfully, there are a lot of amazing women rising in VC, and many funds erupting in success who have put their coin in female founders. We appreciate the work being done by BBG Ventures, Female Founders Fund, Venture Collective, and more…

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?

  1. Access to affordable childcare for all families. Right now, families are expected to pay too much and early childhood educators are paid too little. Running a business means needing support both for your family, and for the families of your employees, and without affordable, dependable childcare, there will never be more women in business.
  2. Since over 93% of Venture Capital is spent by white men, we still need more women and people of color in decision making roles at VC firms. But what can we as individuals do every day? Support female founded businesses. Shout about them on social media. Join their cause, buy their product, speak their names. Word of mouth is everything, and the louder we are, the closer we’ll get.

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?

  1. The more women become founders, the more female founders’ success stories there will be. The more female founder success stories there are, the more successful female founders will invest in other female founders. It’s a cycle that we can initiate to seriously change the data.
  2. Female Founders bring a different perspective to business that reflects half the population. To create more businesses that will serve half the population, women, we need smart women to be spearheading this type of work.

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

Myth: Being a Founder is Glamorous

HA! I’ve worked red carpets, glitzy advertising shoots, high profile events, you name it. That was glamorous. Being a founder is hard work, epic responsibility to your product, users and your team, and an always-on schedule. While there isn’t much glamour (that I’ve experienced yet), there is flexibility. And to me, that’s a better perk.

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?

A great founder is resourceful and has an unwavering determination to succeed. They have to be so open minded, that they are willing to learn and even fail. The experience of starting and running a business, raising capital, running out of capital, raising more, growing, etc, it’s an emotional roller coaster. There are high highs and low lows, pretty much all the time. Specific traits needed are an incredibly high level of emotional intelligence, and risk tolerance.

Those who may not be as interested in the founder journey, are people who are creatures of comfort. Also those who may not have a thick skin. Founders experience a spectrum of discomforts and negative feedback on a daily basis. Investors turn you down, people question your ideas, users or customers share feedback. It’s never ending.

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. The importance of self care and good physical health:

When you’re an entrepreneur, just starting out, you’re on a solo mission. Researching, reading, writing, strategizing, talking to anyone who will listen, and planning, planning, planning. I learned early on that if I get run down or sick, all things come to a halt.

When we were building our MVP (Minimum Viable Product) in our first year, we worked for months to plan, discover, design, build and test what would be the very first iteration of our app. We were getting closer and closer to launch, and were about two weeks away. My son got sick. He was a mess. Cough, cold, fever, you name it. I set everything aside to hold him, rock him, give him popsicles, whatever I could do to make him feel better. He finally started feeling better a week later, and I was relieved that he was okay, and that I could get back to work on our MVP launch. I stayed up late and woke up early, doing whatever I could to catch up, report bugs and comb through the experience, despite feeling run down myself. A week from launch, I felt a sniffle but thought nothing of it because I had too much to do. I went about my day, and stopped at Walgreens to get a Flu shot and my COVID booster. By the time I got home, I was exhausted. I felt as if all of the energy in my body had released and went somewhere else. I got more sick than I have ever been in my life. I was bed ridden, unable to move, fever, cough, you name it. I lost my voice and couldn’t even make out a whisper. Within 4 days or so, I started to get a little bit better, day by day although my voice was gone for weeks. On the day of our MVP launch, I got a call from the health dept. I had COVID. I launched HandsDown from my bed in isolation for the next 5 days.

There was really nothing I could have done to avoid this situation, but it made me realize that I’m the center of the team, and that I need to invest time and commitment in my personal health, both mental and physical. I’m glad that I discovered this in the early days of my business, because I was able to get ahead of generating a self care regimen that would keep me in tip top shape, to the best of my ability. I make sure to take care of myself, to take time to workout, eat a healthy breakfast, and to go for a walk outside on a stressful day. Culture filters down, and my team knows that on stressful days, I may pop out for a green juice and a hike, and they should too.

2. Everything takes longer than expected: All adventurous come with unknowns, and entrepreneurship is no different. I wish I had a better idea of how long things would take in general. From finding the right partners, hiring, raising money, negotiating with vendors, to launching a product, one thing has been a steady truth–it always takes a bit longer than you think it will.

We planned the release of our Beta product conservatively and to the day. Everything was going right. Our UX looked impeccable, our brand was on point, and the design tech teams were on standby and ready to rock. With two more weeks of design, we were untouchable. Then, our lead UI designer caught COVID. He was the person who truly understood the look and feel of our brand, and we didn’t want the product designed without him. We would wait. Then, his entire family caught COVID, and he needed to take some time from work. We ended up being set back about a month, which could have been worse, but you just never know what’s going to happen, and at the end of the day, supporting the team and prioritizing their health and wellbeing matters most.

3. Flexibility Makes it All Worth It: Being your own boss is truly a gift. While I work long hours regardless of weekday or weekend, home or traveling, day or night, I get to choose “me.” I get to prioritize my health, my wellness and my family. I get to stop and take a break when I need to. Some days, I just need some time to go for a walk and stretch. I find on the days that I take time to raise my heart rate, I end up getting so much more accomplished. I also am able to create space in my mind for more creativity and free flowing of ideas. I always struggled with the 9 to 5, manager check ins, and doing what someone thought I should do. Having the freedom to work as I see fit has opened me up to a whole new world.

4. Pitching is 98% of the Job: I’ve always had a knack for sales, but didn’t necessarily plan to choose it as my career path. That all changed when I started my own company. I pitch HandsDown on average 8 times a day. Everyone in your life wants to talk about your startup adventure. Those you work with, VCs, your investors, your friends, your family, the local coffee shop barista, the women at the nail salon, etc. These are all potential users or customers, and the more people you tell about your business, the more exposure your business will generate.

5. Don’t Wait to Build a Team that Shares Your Vision: As a start up, I just assumed that my co-founder and I would be the team for the foreseeable future. It would be the two of us brainstorming, planning and executing until we raise tons of money and launch the company of our dreams. But this couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Our business didn’t truly start to come together and have legs until we started bringing in passionate and talented people with innovative ideas to contribute with us. After the first 6 months, we started calling on some friends to join us in various ways on our journey. We offered equity as payment for brilliant design, legal advice and strategic planning. Every time we brought in someone new who shared passion around what we are building, things have progressed in such a positive and inspiring way. In hindsight, I wish we started building a team from day one, but now that we have, things are getting really exciting.

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

We are still in our go-to-market phase, but are committed to an amazing organization called 1% for the Planet. Essentially, HandsDown will be donating at least 1% of all revenue generated on the platform to address the most urgent environmental issues of our time.

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 am a huge believer that equal pay for women, access to affordable childcare, and unlimited and free access to postnatal care for all new moms could completely change the culture of our country–enabling women to participate more freely in the workforce. Especially in a time like right now, I am inspired by companies like Mamava who are publishing their parental leave and support policies for others to learn from. I think female founders need to band together to commit to elevating women to the where they deserve to be.

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.

Oprah! We’re both very passionate about curating “Favorite Things!”

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

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

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

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