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Inner Beauty, Personal Style, Power Figures

Advice and Inspiration from a Successful Female CEO, Sara Sugarman Brenner

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In this month’s edition of Power Figures, our exclusive interviews with some exceptionally self-actualized ladies, we’re visiting with Sara Sugarman Brenner. At 29, she conjured up Lulu & Georgia, her own cool-and-contemporary-meets-rationally-priced home décor company. Though young, make no mistake: She’s already learned a few thousand things about striking out on one’s own, delegating like a #boss, balancing without breaking, and redefining what it means to be a successful female CEO this century—oh, and she does it all in 5″ heels.

SARA SUGARMAN BRENNER, CEO/FOUNDER OF LULU & GEORGIA

How’d you get to where you are now as a female CEO?

I started out in publishing in New York, first in circulation (those people who make the annoying insert cards in magazines), then in editorial and special projects for O, The Oprah Magazine. While exciting and glamorous, I wanted to move back home to Los Angeles and work for Decorative Carpets, my family’s 60-year-old custom rug business. After learning about the industry for a few years, I noticed a void in the market for fashion-forward rugs at a fair cost. I was traveling to international rug shows, found the price point and construction I was looking for, and started designing rugs for my friends. I realized e-commerce was the future of retail and the way to reach my audience. I was buying most of my clothing and household items online—usually from my desk at work—and figured others were doing the same. I started Lulu & Georgia in 2012.

Why did you start your own company as a female entrepreneur when you could have taken over your family’s?

There’s a saying about family businesses: The first generation builds the business, the second makes it a success, and the third wrecks it. But a mentor of mine amended that to the third reinvents the wheel. That twist gave me the confidence and motivation to bring my own ideas to the table. I wanted to build on the foundation my family had created.

What about home décor speaks to you so much?

I want to inspire people to surround themselves with beauty and create spaces that reflect their personal style. When I’m in a gorgeous environment, my attitude changes. I feel uplifted. We aim to make choosing décor easier so people can have fun creating their own happy place.

As a successful female CEO, what motivates you?

I think people have always underestimated me because I’m 5’ tall, younger, and have a dainty demeanor. When people get to know me, they see how strong, direct, decisive and fierce I am. The image of the loud, authoritative CEO is outdated. You can be young, feminine, kinder and softer and still be an exceptional leader.

Recently, I’ve also been extremely motivated by my 9-month-old daughter Vivian—not just in the sense of being a role model of success, but I feel like if I’m going to spend time away from her, I should be 100 percent dedicated to what I’m doing.

How do you balance your priorities?

I learned early on that being a leader is also being a firefighter. On our launch day, our server crashed. I had done all this marketing to spread the word, and no one could get on the site! Though I wanted to cry, I realized I couldn’t sit there and freak out. I had to fix the problem. There are challenges every day, but they keep it interesting.

As a mother, I also know the importance of staying calm. I remember my blood pressure rising every time the baby cried—but I also found I could soothe her if I was calm. Someone once told me a mother has to act like a tree: The wind will swing your branches, but you have to remain grounded. Being a business-owner is a similar experience.

What’s a typical day like?

Vivian gets up at 7 AM and we have girl time before the day starts. For a decade, my husband and I have had French-pressed coffee every morning while watching The Today Show. Then I head to the office, where every day is different. Sometimes I visit our warehouse; other days are filled with meetings. My dog, Dolly, comes to work with me. She’s our most loyal employee. I try to get home an hour before my daughter goes to bed so we can do bath time, bottle and stories together, which is important to me. Occasionally my husband and I have plans after she goes to bed, or I’ll get back on the computer to do more work.

How does being a mother inform how you work now?

I used to work until 10 o’clock at night and all weekend. I definitely don’t do that anymore. Because I’m not spending as much time at the office and we’re growing rapidly, I’ve hired more people to help. I will say that I’m more productive with my time. I’m clearer about my priorities and more comfortable delegating. It’s always challenging to let go, but I knew I couldn’t grow by micromanaging, at home or at work.

What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps as a successful female entrepreneur?

In life, I think you have to give a lot of love to receive love, and that reciprocity is what it’s all about. In work, you have to find something that excites you since you’ll spend a lot of time at it. You have to be motivated, dedicated and confident in your ability to succeed. In general, you have to be very clear about what you want and who you want to be. Writing it down can make it more concrete. Then make choices every day in line with those goals because the small steps add up.

At Bare Necessities, we care a lot about women’s breast health. How did you learn you have the breast cancer genetic mutation, and how does it affect your life?

I discovered I had the BRCA1 mutation about five years ago. Interestingly, no one in my close family has had breast or ovarian cancer. My uncle, a doctor, was doing DNA testing on himself and found it. It was scary at first, but now I can make informed decisions and make my health a priority. I get regular checkups—MRI, mammograms, ultrasounds—and am constantly monitored so if my doctors did find something, they would find it early. I understand people not wanting to know, but I see it as a gift. I don’t know if my daughter has the gene; it will be her choice to find out. I am careful to feed her a healthy diet. Mostly, I’m grateful she’s growing up with role models like Angelina Jolie who have shed light on the issue.

What does empowerment mean to you?

It’s about realizing your own potential and taking initiative. I used to be one of Gayle King’s assistants at O, The Oprah Magazine, and she used to sit me down and ask my opinion. She really listened and made me feel respected. I try to do that with my staff. I let them take ownership over their work and listen to their viewpoints and ideas.

How about support?

For me, it means having someone who can relate to my experiences, who allows me to lean on them when I need to. It’s important because so many experiences in life can feel lonely. Right after I had Vivian, I relied on the love and reassurance of my husband, parents and a community of mom friends who knew what I was going through. In business, there needs to be a team for the wheels to keep turning. There’s no way I’d be able to do it all on my own.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SARA

Style signature: 5” heels. I’m 5’ tall, and heels have always been my look.
Essential intimate apparel: Cosabella Never Say Never Thong
Style icon: Sofia Coppola
Go-to beauty product: I slather Aquaphor on my face every night.
Favorite styling trick: Belt it! With jeans, it makes your look more put-together. With a dress, it gives a nice hourglass shape.
Personal mantra: Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.
Best way to destress: Manicures are my time to shut down and relax. At home, it’s usually an episode of RHONY or The Bachelor. We also love to hike on weekends.
First thing you do when you get home: I set my bag down and shower my baby with kisses.
Last thing you do at night: Before bed, I check my email. I know, I know, I need to stop that!
Favorite vacation destination: Palm Springs
In a word: Determined

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Brooke Glassberg
Brooke is the editor of this here blog. In a previous life, she was an editor at Good Housekeeping and O, The Oprah Magazine. Brooke has written for Glamour, Travel+Leisure, New York Magazine and more. She’s into concerts, calligraphy, travel and her exceptionally adorable toddler and husband.
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