#FemaleFounders – An Interview With Smith & Cult’s Dineh Mohajer and Jeanne Chavez


#FemaleFounders smith & cultEven if you’ve never heard the name Dineh Mohajer, you’ve undoubtedly seen her influence on the beauty world. Remember that baby blue nail polish Alicia Silverstone rocked throughout the mid-90s? Dineh made that. In her bathroom…when she was a 22-year-old pre-med student. Indeed, it was her rebellious spirit and outside-the-box thinking which lead her to quit school completely and start Hard Candy—the 90’s brand which nothing short of revolutionized the color cosmetics industry. (Who doesn’t remember those dreamy, pastel polishes and matching rubber rings?)

And while Mohajer sold Hard Candy in 1999, her creativity and unique vision live on through Smith & Cult—a line co-founded with cosmetics veteran Jeanne Chavez. Together, they’ve created something both whimsical and impossibly chic—the perfect marriage of Dineh’s signature punk sensibility and Jeanne’s subtle sophistication.

We had the honor and privilege of sitting down with these #FemaleFounders for a truly engaging and thoughtful conversation about their inspiration, mutual respect, the pursuit of work/life balance, and what’s next for the brand. Read on for more….

Advice to entrepreneurs and women

Whether you love them or love to hate them, words like “ladyboss” and “girlboss” are super trendy right now, signifying someone who’s determined, creative and innovative. But Dineh, you’ve been repping the message since 1995—way before it was fashionable. How do you think the attitude towards women in business has evolved since the 90s? What are some challenges you experienced as a female founder, and how might those challenges differ from the ones female entrepreneurs experience today?

Dineh: I think we’ve come a long way, and still have a long way to go. In 1995, Hard Candy exploded about 3 months after inception and I was only 22 yrs old (although feels like 100 Yrs ago). It was exhausting to manage, for so many reasons, including too much demand and my lack of knowledge and experience in business, manufacturing or inventory control. Basically, I knew nothing and my biochemistry education was of no help. Furthermore, it certainly didn’t help that many people I dealt with perceived me as a young, helpless girl. I think I appeared younger than my age because I never drank, smoked, or used drugs, and I avoided the sun. Also,  I was operating way out of my comfort zone. I faced the difficulties with little grace and elegance (ha). It was tough and took a huge toll on me, but the payoff was huge in terms of accomplishment: I single-handedly changed the face of the cosmetic industry forever (sounds arrogant, but somehow it’s true) and sold my cosmetic brand to LVMH after only 3 years of starting it in my early 20’s. The bottom line is being a “young girl” worked both for and against me. Sometimes it’s jarring to my ear when I have an auditory flashback to some of the offensive statements that were made to me back then, by significant business associates no less. I think there’s a teeny morsel of PTSD that emerges when remembering those statements. I can remember, “You’re just a little girl…what do you know”, coming from an executive man that I myself had hired. That same comment was said too, once we were acquired. It was infuriating and really offensive – almost abusive, whether said with a beautiful French accent or in a plain old American one.

One thing I will always be proud of and grateful for was the inspiration I sparked in others. I had experienced so many different girls, young women, and mature women expressing how inspired they were by my story, which in turn inspired me to find the strength to make it all work. Women seemed to feel as though they identified with me as a “normal girl” who made it big and they thought, “if she did it, maybe I can too”. All in all, it was a mutualistic benefit that we shared.

I think today we’ve made leaps and bounds, although we are definitely far from an equal rights society in terms of gender, or race for that matter. Society has moved closer to a gender-even playing field…with an emphasis on the word “closer”. The numbers of professionals, entrepreneurs, and physicians have increased tremendously (I don’t know the stats, but one can just look around within their own microcosm and witness it). I think the objectification of women is still very much alive, but the one good thing that I’ve noticed is that the individual now has the tool to exploit oneself…wait, that might be terrible actually. I like to hope that as a society we are collectively becoming more conscious of so many social issues, inclusive of gender equality.  

#FemaleFounders Smith & Cult cosmetics

What’s one piece of mentoring advice you would give to female entrepreneurs, young girls in school, or women graduating from high school?

Dineh: I can only advise them from my perspective of my experience and for me, it would center on education. If you want to be in business, educate yourself accordingly, whether that means academically or out in the real world. I did not do that and I suffered great setbacks and challenges as a result.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about yourself while pursuing your dream?

Dineh: I’ve learned unequivocally that self-awareness is paramount. People watch whatever movie they want to about themselves. They tell themselves whatever stories they want to believe about themselves, and see what they want to see – believe what they want to believe about themselves. The more one can maintain clarity about one’s strengths and weaknesses, the better off one is. Jeanne is a master at applying this – an absolute master, it’s second nature for her – she’s actually not trying in any way.

Creativity and Innovation

One of the things we love about Smith & Cult is how avant-garde it is. From the artistic packaging, to the attention-grabbing product names, to the compelling backstory, everything about the brand feels unique and original. Where do you draw your inspiration from, and how do you strike a balance between form and function?

Dineh: I’m inspired by both the meaningful and trivial experiences I’ve had and have in life. Everything that I make comes from an emotional center, which drives me to create and also drives me crazy much of the time. The balance between form and function is one of delicacy and is constantly in flux. I think what I do that is the most important thing that I do is follow my creative gut and instincts about what feels right and what brings me joy.

On working as a team

Jeanne, I’ve heard you say you’re the yin to Dineh’s yang. What does it take to build a business together, as a duo? How do you create balance in your business, your friendship, and your personal lives? Clearly, balance and harmony are integral to your ethos, and are even reflected in Smith & Cult’s branding.

Jeanne: Our history was formed years ago when we forged our friendship/partnership as first-time entrepreneurs at Hard Candy. We had an instant respect for each other’s unique gifts and quickly learned that we shared the same taste in art, music, fashion, design: a like-minded aesthetic. Basically, we had found a harmonious creative partner, which has kept us a solid team for the duration of our twenty plus year relationship.

For us to be a successful team you must be able to recognize, value and support your other half’s abilities. To know when to pull back and let the other exercise their strengths and to know when to step in and utilize what you have to offer. Dineh and I are very vigilant at keeping business and personal separate, sometimes the lines get blurred, but we have a unique ability to switch gears immediately. We learned very early on not to take things personally. We share very similar tastes in such things as art and interior design, this is something we bond over on a personal level and that pretty much always segues into inspiration for our brand.

#FemaleFounders Dineh Mohajer and Jeanne Chavez

Dineh—as the brains behind Hard Candy (a brand that shaped our collective aesthetic in the 90s) a lot of people are familiar with your background. Jeanne, what’s your background in the beauty world, and how did you connect with Dineh to become 1/2 of Smith & Cult?

Jeanne: My background in the beauty industry started years ago as a kid. My mom and grandmother shared all their beauty rituals with me. On my 12th birthday they brought me to the Erno Laszlo counter in SF to get “clocked” and from then on I was hooked on beauty products and regimens. I always knew I wanted to work in the beauty industry, after college, I went to beauty school to get my esthetician license and I specialized in makeup for film & TV.  I started from ground zero, worked my way up, and quickly learned that I didn’t only want to work on the service side of the business. I turned my career around by joining the prestige skincare brand La Prairie. By the time Dineh and I met I had built relationships with all the beauty buyers while working for prestige beauty brands such as La Prairie, Erno Laszlo, and Dior cosmetics. One of my favorite buyers introduced me to Dineh and when we met and it just clicked and formed a partnership on the spot.

Inspiration, philosophy, and work/life balance

We know you’re big-time beauty moguls, but what are your interests apart from cosmetics? Do you practice any rituals to keep you happy, healthy and grounded?

Dineh: Omg, please don’t make me think about how I need so desperately to start to take care of myself so that I can be more happy and healthy. I am definitely grounded as an inherent part of my personality, but health and happiness are dwindling, unfortunately. I always make the not so funny joke that an inverse proportion exists between my looks and that of the brand’s: the better looking the brand gets, the uglier I become. Funny/not funny. Send me to the spa for the love of God! I think eating well, meditating, and exercising is the non-negotiable pre-requisites for a happy life. I love playing tennis (so I do so vicariously through Jeanne…this needs to change). I also love all of the art I make with our branding by manipulating our images, doing our graphic layouts and using all the computer programs I’ve learned to communicate my artistic vision. I love photoshop, illustrator, after effects, editing, etc. Jeanne and I are both so moved by music, fine art, artists themselves, film, and culture. One thing that kills me dead is soul, funk, r&b and the like. Dancing to soulful music makes me beyond happy, and it’s one thing I think I’m actually good at. One thing that is very much true is that I enjoy sharing these experiences with my friends and loved ones. Being with Jeanne alone is inspiring…especially when we are just idiots and are playing, which is always…it’s pervasive and ever-present among our partnership. My relationships with both my wives (my husband Mike and my Jeanne), my closest friends and my family are the best part of my life. When I’m with them it’s the time when I’m the most beautiful I can be, I’m sure of it, and certainly the most grateful.

Jeanne: I exercise on a regular basis, a lot of Soul Cycle and Yoga, this keeps me feeling healthy and grounded. I feel pretty out of sorts when I don’t have time in my day to fit in one of those classes. I also love my nightly routine of a detox bath and mint tea, but my happy place is with my family, having to travel so much for work makes any quality time I have with them precious and allows me to press reset.

#FemaleFounders Dineh Mohajer and Jeanne Chavez

How do you define beauty? What’s your “beauty philosophy?”

Dineh: Beauty is doing and being whatever actions that makes one feel beautiful. Being beautiful is a choice, in an overall sense, not solely in terms of a superficial aesthetic, but very much in terms of actions. Beauty is something that manifests itself in every facet of one’s life. It can be more present in failure than in success. I think that it’s critical to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. For me, that translates into, “treat yourself well so that you can treat others well”. If you pass out from lack of oxygen, you can’t help anyone else with their mask. I struggle with living this kind of beauty every day. Answering these questions is helping me face the fact that I need to check myself continually. A beautiful life is worked for, not handed to anyone, regardless of their circumstances.

What’s next?

The beauty industry moves so quickly, but you both have an incredible ability to anticipate trends. After all, baby blue nail polish didn’t even exist until you made it, Dineh! What do you think the next big “thing” will be, in both nails and makeup?

We are working on some incredible new formulas that we can’t wait to introduce to you! It’s top secret for now!

Smith & Cult cosmetics

When Smith & Cult expanded into color cosmetics, the whole office basically lost it with excitement—that’s how obsessed we are with your polishes! What products are you going to wow us with next, and what should we keep our eyes out for?

We are coming off an incredible color story for fall with burnt oranges, terra-cotta-ish toasted taupes and forest greens so trust that we will create a unique color story for next spring/summer!

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