Beauty, individualization, and a titan of industry

Guest: Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
Suzi Weiss-Fischmann's parents were Holocaust survivors and her country of birth was overrun by the oppressive communist party of the 1960s. There was nothing easy about her origin story. Suzi fled Hungary as a child and capitalized on the American Dream to become co-founder of one of the largest beauty corporations in the world, OPI. Having built a billion dollar company, Suzi reflects on a lifetime at the top of the beauty industry and its complex relationship to the unattainable beauty standards of American society. She shares her journey of moving from immigrant to CEO, the lessons she's learned about female leadership, and how she's trying to pay it forward.
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Suzi Weiss-Fischmann Transcript

Sabrina Merage Naim
From Evoke Media, I'm Sabrina Merage Naim, with me is Kassia Binkowski, and this is Breaking Glass - a series of conversations with women around the world who are shattering glass ceilings and challenging social norms. They are audacious, gutsy, and their stories are echoed across borders and generations in a rallying cry that is changing the narrative for women everywhere. Today we had the pleasure of speaking with Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, the founder of one of the largest salon brands in the world, OPI. This is a conversation about the relationship between the beauty industry and America's own cultural beauty dilemma. Susie is reflecting on how she was able to bring individualization to that industry by giving women a product to express themselves and also feel playful in their femininity. We talked about how she disrupted the industry rose to be one of the only female leaders and built a billion dollar company led by 95% women.

Kassia Binkowski
It's true Sabrina and it's a theme that we hear again and again from guests on the show - women who joined us and share stories about shattering glass ceilings and then intentionally creating the space for other women to join them. In our conversation today with Suzi she reflects on how the strength and resilience displayed by her mother was a major ingredient in her own success, and how those values are being passed on to her kids and her grandkids.

Sabrina Merage Naim
So this is a story about beauty and femininity, but also individualization and work ethic and grit. Take a listen. Hi, Suzi, thank you so much for joining us. We're very excited to have you.

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
My pleasure. I'm honored to be asked.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Absolutely. Well, you have such a story to tell something that I think women everywhere can learn from, really a saga of entrepreneurship that has spanned many years and decades. And as with most of our conversations with exceptional women, I want to talk to you about being the co-founder of one of the most recognizable brands in the beauty industry OPI and about that journey. But where we usually start is who you were before becoming, you know, the co-founder of one of the top salon brands in the world. More specifically, your mother was a Holocaust survivor, you were born in hungry. So I want to start with your childhood in communist Hungary right around the time of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. And that must have been a very different kind of country than that of your parents and grandparents and generations before. So what I want to understand is how was it for you growing up there? And then when did your parents escape?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
So as you mentioned, I was born in Hungary, actually in 1956, during the revolution. And I lived in Hungary until 10 years old. So formative years of, of growing up. And you know, I always tell people I'm a very positive person in my adult life, but certainly as a child, you know, I, we lived in fear at all times. And you don't forget that. As you mentioned, my parents are Holocaust survivors. Jewish, my parents were after the war, went back to Hungary, they married, they met each other and married after the war. But, you know, so many times I remember at night when there was a knock at the door and secret police would take my dad and you know, we never knew if he was going to come back in the morning or end up someplace in, in the Gulag, you know, in Russia, so those things left I think their mark on me as a child of you know, living in fear. I remember growing up, but I would always close the shades because I remember my mom, she always closed the shades. So that you know, when we celebrated some Jewish holiday or something so that the neighbors would not see anything. So I had this thing of always closing and my husband said "Why are you closing the shades or the curtains? What's the matter with you? It's our garden. Nobody sees you." And you know, those are little things but there are many bigger things but these are symbolic. You know, it's just one thing that symbolizes what the feelings that I had of how I grew up, always being afraid. Always looking over your shoulder. And, you know, I am just so grateful to my parents who left Hungary at an all in on my dad was 54, when we left and first we lived in Israel. And to make this move for my sister and I to have a better life and to live in freedom.

Sabrina Merage Naim
That must have been incredibly challenging for your parents, having just survived the Holocaust to come back to their home country. And then very soon after another kind of uprising, a revolution that turned the country on its head on, like you're describing, they brought up their children in this environment of fear, and so much of what they had experienced then kind of transfers down, I assume, in some form or another to you.

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
I cannot even imagine, you know, the hardships that my parents went through surviving the Holocaust, seeing having their families perish, and then coming back to their native country, and then, again, having to go through a revolution in the communist system. And again, maybe a different fear, but a fear itself. And people always ask me, who are my heroes, and I say, "My parents." My dad and my mom are my heroes in my life. And, as I say, for I'm forever grateful for, to be able to live in freedom. I have two children to give them freedom education, to be able to practice our religion, to live our life, our customs, and that you don't really know this until you experience the other side. And the people ask me, "You're so successful," and I say, "I never forget where I came from every single day. I remember how it was and where I came from." And I certainly don't want that ever again.

Kassia Binkowski
What was your expectations growing up? You said that your parents left in large part to give you and your sister a better life. What were their hopes and dreams for you? What were the women around you doing? What opportunities did they have? When you rewind to being a little girl what did you imagine your life like as an adult? What were you kind of allowed to dream?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
So I have to say that under a communist system, women were never pushed down. Women were the doctors, women were the the engineers, women were the chemists or anything. So when people ask me I say, "I didn't experience that! The men were drunk most of the time." So I never grew up believing women are not able to achieve anything as far as professional career. And we were brought up in that sense, my mom was very strong. And I'm a strong woman, so is my sister. So that was not part of my, my growing up, you know, persevering, overcoming obstacles, hardship, always trying to have a better life. And that, you know, for me has that internal flame to, to make my own life. And, and for me, the expectation, and that's how you grew up is, you are responsible for your own life and for your own success. And, you know, God gave me two hands and two feet, and you do the best you can. Yes, if somebody has hardships or something and needs help, by all means. You know there's a very Jewish word Tzedakah. And you know, every day I wake up and I try to make a better world for people who are less fortunate than myself. But I grew up with individual responsibility, and that's so important for young people, men and women, to know and to grow up with and to have the passion to succeed. Because, like I said, where I came from it was bad.

Sabrina Merage Naim
What an interesting dichotomy that you experienced, where women had opportunity where women had careers and were not pushed down, but living under communist rule in Hungary at that time was extremely oppressive generally. It's kind of an interesting dichotomy, just to recognize.

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
Absolutely. And that's why sometimes people ask me a question and that question of you know, I mean even throughout by my business career, I never felt like I couldn't achieve the most that I could because I was a woman. So that question I always hesitate you know, a little bit to answer because that's not how I grew up.

Kassia Binkowski
So I want to talk about your your relationship with your mother a little bit. I mean, you said that your parents were your heroes and always have been. Your mother was a Holocaust survivor, she clearly survived some of the most unfathomable human conditions in history. How did her experience of survival and resilience impact your own journey personally and professionally? How did those threads kind of carry through into your narrative? And what did you learn from her?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
I mean, I learned a tremendous amount of course, resilience, I mean, my mom for 18 months, so that every single day, it's unfathomable for me to even imagine the hardships that she went through. And to have the strength in order to come back to Hungary marry and have her own family. And my mom had tremendous faith, which, you know, I admired every single day. Again, many times people who go through such hardship have a problem with with faith, and my mom never did. And I'm a first generation of a Holocaust survivor. And many times, you know, there were some issues of love, being able to show affection and love. And I grew up in a very warm home, very fortunate. My mom had a smile on her face every single day. The experiences that my mom had, and I had, the stories that she told us and the experiences that I had really shaped my life. And I really learned from that how important storytelling is for women. And that I mean, you're doing it in a, whether it's in a podcast form. So when I was able to travel and speak directly to young women or women of all ages. Storytelling has such an importance, because you know, that what we tell each other, the stories, the experiences that we share, as women only helps us grow and become better - better humans and better women and better people. To be able to, to help the people who are less fortunate. And I always emphasize how importance Tzedakah is and helping others is in life. And that's something that I never want to be able to forget or to give up.

Sabrina Merage Naim
I want to talk about your OPI days. And before we get into the actual, you know, founding of the business. I want to understand a little bit from your perspective now having you know, and in retrospect, right, looking back on your career, looking back on everything that you experienced, your brand stood for kind of femininity in a way that was expressed in a certain way. And I'm curious, what does femininity mean to you now, particularly after all these years, and all of these experiences post the OPI days?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
For me beauty is, of course, inner and outer. What's inside is just as important as what's outside. But you know, I think nail color. And what I gave women is to permission to self express through your nails and through color. And through nail art, and all the fun things that you can do on the smallest canvas in the world, which is your nail bed. And it's amazing what you can do the messages you can send. And I remember at the Olympics or during the revolution in in the Middle East - Arab Spring - women were sending messages on their on their nails. And that I think that is incredible. And to be honest with you, in the beginning I didn't realize what I was what we were doing. You know, because you are building a business and you are in the middle of literally filling bottles and putting caps on and labels. And just as the company was growing and I realized the opportunity that that we have and the message is that I could send in a bottle of nail polish to help women whether it's a different causes, put the name on it or all those things. It was really incredible and to be able to touch different industries and to touch pop culture. It is really, I would say crazy that a bottle of nail polish can do this. And I didn't realize it in the beginning.

Kassia Binkowski
I'm sure and I love this idea about giving women the opportunity to individualize themselves to kind of make their own mark. This idea of you bringing choice to femininity and to beauty coming from the background that you came from coming from communist Hungary where you said, you know, all choice was denied. Right? You there was one option for everything. So I love this, this idea of bringing complexity and individualization to the market. You founded OPI in the early 80s, alongside your brother in law, George Schaefer, is that right?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
Correct.

Kassia Binkowski
How has the cultural definition of beauty evolved in that time? I mean, the world we live in now looks so radically different than it did when you launched this business. What's changed?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
I mean, remember, it was always supermodels on every magazine cover in the beginning. I remember we were on the river advertising in the first edition of In Style magazine. And there were supermodels, all the magazines, that's all you saw. And then you started to see celebrities and then you started to see women of all color of all ethnicities of all shapes. And that is the reason that I always say beauty is inside and outside, you know. The messaging to young girls that you know, you had to be this rail thin, and have a certain lips or eyes, it was terrible. It was such bad messaging. And I love the messages that we send today about individuality, it is about who you are. And I always tell my my children, if you want to raise chickens just be the best at raising chickens. It really doesn't matter what you do today in the world, you know. So much of that, we're kind of going back to that more simple life. And and showing examples to young girls of who and how you know, who they think the importance, I should say, what is important, and what is just frivolous and just on the surface. And that will make them stronger, better people and better humans in this sometimes very complex and crazy world.

Kassia Binkowski
So you're talking about how in the 1980s and 90s, the magazine covers were only supermodels. And young girls would only see supermodel levels of perfection. Now we have a more diverse group to look at, that's true. However, with the onset of social media, the obsession for production really hasn't subsided, the damage this can pose for young girls is tremendous. What role do you think social media plays in the beauty expectation that is communicated in our country, with our cultural obsession with women's bodies, and with our overwhelming push for perfection?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
Nothing brought greater changed than social media and all the different platforms. And I cannot agree with you more than the danger of social media and what it presents. Because you know, this bullying bit, you know, you don't even know the person and you can send these horrible messages and really hurt people. And to be honest with you, it's only getting worse. And I don't know how to to fix it. Of course, and this will take time, but I sometimes wonder where we will be in 10 or 20 years. And this is something that society as a whole needs to grapple with is the this power that social media has over us. So have we gone from one bad to another bad? Yes. The answer for me is yes.

Kassia Binkowski
So what we're talking about right now, America has a kind of cultural obsession with beauty and the impossibly high standards that so many girls grow up believing as as what they need to achieve to be beautiful - it is really at this intersection of the media industry, the beauty industry, it affects mental health. The ripple effects are tremendous. You were at the top of the beauty industry. Were there conversations there with other leaders. conversations about brands influence on this issue? Were there conversations about how to create change or how to market more responsibly? Was this ever something that came up?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
Yes, I mean, especially when I started in OPI as opposed to the later years. I mean, women were not in manager your roles. It was all men. Speaking to women, and that I feel part of my success was because I was a woman. I was a mother, a businesswoman. And I said, Let's get, you know, let's speak to women, from women, by women. And certainly OPI's management team was 95% made up of women. And that was part of our success. I mean, did I do it alone? No, never. I mean, the best part of OPI are the people working for OPI, and the OPI team - an incredible group of women and men, mostly women, who really knew how to speak to women. And this whole idea of allowing women to self-express. I mean, when we started with this, it was really very early on that, you know, women are single, I don't have to be just like that, I can be an individual, I am who I am. And that's what I always try to tell young women, "You can only be who you are." And you will succeed. If you within yourself, you realize who you are. And that sometimes takes takes time for for young women to be comfortable with who they are. And once they are, the world is open to them.

Kassia Binkowski
How did building a leadership team of women influence the brand's success, the brands strategic decisions? What what was tangibly different about building such an influential brand led by women?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
But the first thing that I had to learn is that I can do everything. And there are only 24 hours in the day, which is not easy. When you start an entrepreneurial business, it's a very difficult thing to learn, but once you get that the business will grow. So, you know, I was not a micromanager. I allowed people to think, bring ideas. And take women, I always say take women along on the ride with you. Many times women tend to be cutthroat, especially when they're on the rise. And that I always said, Let's take everybody with us. Let's make let's give opportunities to each other. Think smart, think out of the box, don't micromanage and give opportunity to other people to speak their mind, to bring ideas. Sometimes great ideas was not possible because of business reasons to execute. But that's okay. You know, maybe not the first one. But the second idea was possible to execute. So it's very, very important to mentor, to be role models, and to take women along to help other women rise and achieve things. And that was part of the company's DNA.

Kassia Binkowski
Is leadership in the beauty industry out large, fairly balanced? Was OPI an anomaly with having this kind of dominant female team?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
In the beginning, the beauty industry was all male dominated. We were an anomaly. But in later years women have gained much more leadership roles in all aspects of the beauty industry.

Kassia Binkowski
As you grew the business, I'm curious to know were there barriers that you faced then as a female entrepreneur? Was there ever discrimination that you experienced? Were there challenges that you had to overcome that you were looking across the industry saying, you know, my male colleagues, and peers at other companies, they didn't have to do this, they weren't faced with this, they didn't have this funding obstacle. What did that look like for you? Were there any gender specific barriers that you had to overcome?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
I was called the nail polish lady. I'm like, really? Was that necessary? But when I went up there, you know, passion, and I really believed in what I said. And I remember sometimes hearing other presenters and we were presenting for the Bond movie, and that was the guy from Coca Cola. He probably worked for Pepsi the week before. I'm like come on! But when I went up there, I mean, those colors I created and that's so important that you believe in what you do, that you sound authentic and real. I think that's very important for any woman that you know, in any role, to be authentic and to be honest, and to really believe in what she's doing because that comes across. You cannot force it. You cannot fib that. And I was fortunate enough and passionate enough and believed in myself, like I mentioned to you, I grew up also, I wasn't confident or anything. I didn't sleep, I couldn't swallow a sip of water, and then you're up there speaking and your mouth is so dry that you think you just landed in some desert? And when is this going to be over? The one thing you always have to have is a sense of humor to get through those days. But as I became more confident than I did take a drink of water, you know, my presentations became better and more self confident, then, you know, like I said, if I wasn't "that nail polish lady", oh, the co-founder of OPI is here to speak to us. Okay, that's pretty good.

Kassia Binkowski
I want to talk about that sense of silliness for a second that that willingness to have a sense of humor with yourself. I mean, you made your mark on this industry, in large part, because of the creativity you brought to these products. So you have products that have been inducted into the Allure Beauty Hall of Fame, you have nail polish colors that have won awards again, and again and again. This cheekiness that you bring to the product line to the naming is something that I just find really fascinating, the mark that you have left on the industry because of that. I'm curious about the relationship and the place for silliness and playfulness in femininity. I don't think those two things have always gone hand in hand. And I would love for you to reflect on that.

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
I agree with you that it didn't always go hand in hand. But for us at OPI, I mean, I'm kind of a silly person I haven't really grown up yet, although I'm a grandma. But I'm the silliest grandmother. Sense of humor is very important for any successful person or anybody. I mean, if I can't make fun of somebody, my husband, my kids, anything, then I make fun of myself. But again, the huge part of the OPI brand's DNA is the is the fun, memorable names. And if you notice, a lot of names are named after food. Certainly we love to eat at OPI. And travel, that's how all the idea of the geographic locations came about. We are traveling the word and kind of taking women with us traveling to exotic and fun destinations and through the names they can kind of be part of it. And it's very, very important to have a sense of humor. And sometimes we forget that, but I think life would be so much easier for all of us if - of course some things need to be taken seriously - but sometimes just have a good laugh and enjoy the silliness. Or something unexpected that life has to bring.

Kassia Binkowski
How did women respond? Were they desperate for that kind of attitude and personality? Was that well received right away by the market?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
Unbelievably.Yes, yes, and yes. People love, you know, people look for the new trend shades for a season. But the first thing they do is turn the bottle to look at the names. And when I travel, I meet women and they recite a dozen names, or more. They remember all these names. It's unbelievable. And I love that. It's such an amazing thing.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Yeah, I love what you're saying about the need to have playfulness and silliness even in the workplace. I think that for so long women have been getting this message that if you want to compete, you know at the "big boys table" you need to be serious and you need to be intimidating and in order to be taken seriously in some regard to lose that playfulness that, frankly is such a beautiful benefit that so many women have and what I'm assuming create a culture at OPI, that people would love to stay for years and years and years and enjoy that kind of environment and that culture of a happy working place. And then that trickles down like you're saying to your customers.

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
No question and sometimes women have to overcompensate for being proper and no sense of humor to because they feel like that's one way to compete for for positions but a culture of a company is extremely important.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Your story is one of grit and determination and a country that often provides opportunity for immigrants to come here, which by the way, is, is the same for my family who left during a revolution from their home country and had to start fresh. And it's something that is not so uncommon to hear in the US. You even took that opportunity and built a billion dollar empire, which is something we refer to as the American dream. But not everyone in America is living the American dream. Has your success shaped your perceptions of opportunity, of equity, and worth?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
I mean, like you said, I live the American dream. And I'm extremely fortunate. But I live that American Dream every day, as I mentioned, in the beginning of our conversation, of remembering where I came from, and how it was and how it is now. I mean, OPI was not successful for the first two years. I worked 24/7 all the time. I filled the bottles, the caps, you know. Where was glamour? People said, "Oh, you're so lucky, you can travel" And I was like "Really?" I didn't even know what country, what city I was in sometimes the lack of sleep, the lack of, you know, proper nutrition. But you just persevere and you and you go on. And then you know, you reach a point where you can take it easy a little bit and, and you can grow at a lot more normal pace. But in the beginning, it's hard for everybody. But if you believe in something, I think you can succeed.

Kassia Binkowski
So your children and your grant one grandchild, is that right?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
Yes.

Kassia Binkowski
Congratulations, your your children and grandchildren, they are clearly being raised with a different amount of privilege than you grew up with. In communist Hungary. And then and, and more than what you knew when you came to the United States? How are you raising them? How have you raised them to have the same sense of perseverance, the same sense of grit, the same sense of resilience that was presumably rather innate to your immediate family growing up, your mother having endured what she did. How have you passed that on to the next generation having achieved such a different level of security and stability than you knew as a child?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
That's a very important question. And many times my husband and I discussed this, you know, raising the children and obviously differently than either my husband or I grew up. Where do you set limits, and how do you show them? But you lead by example. First of all, my kids heard the story of my parents, because it was my duty to tell them and it's their duty to pass it on to other generations of the Holocaust and what happened, and how I grew up and how they growing up. And to learn, again the word tzedakah to help others to give back, whether it's the schools that they attended in a small way, and then being able to in a larger way, it's very, very important. I'm quoting the head of my daughter's High School, Dr. Bruce Powell, who said, "Children should be A+ human beings." And you don't learn that as an adult, you need to learn that growing up. And, again, we need to be examples to our children of it's okay to have more than when I grew up. I mean, as long as there is a balance.

Sabrina Merage Naim
We've now heard the journey of where you came from your family, the hardships that you've endured, you growing up part of your life in communist Hungary, having to flee that country start a new, the journey of building what ended up becoming a billion dollar brand, the importance of female leadership, of grit, of resilience, of playfulness, and silliness. And all of those factors that have since played into what became a very successful story. And even what it means for future generations of your family. And I'm curious, now - you know you built your brand, and then you sold it in 2010 - now, 10 years later, tell us about navigating that sale and what the next chapter has looked like for you.

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
Well, in my brain, I knew it was the right decision because we took OPI to a certain level and it really needed a big company behind it to take it to the next level. You know, George and I did what we could. And then it needed something. So that was the decision to sell. In my heart, it was very, very difficult but in my brain, it was the right decision. And it's sort of allowed me to, when you're building a business, the money financially stays in the business, because that builds, builds, builds, builds, and it you leave the money into to help the business grow. So was the first opportunity opportunity to take money off the table, as they say, and it really allowed me to, to help others. I'm very much into scholarships, giving opportunities for kids to be able to achieve, again, every school that my kids attended I help other kids that are less fortunate to be able to receive the same education. You know, my dad always said, "You can be rich, you can be poor, but nobody can take away your education."

Sabrina Merage Naim
What I love about what you're saying, though, is that in having a very successful career, you, you know, you've mentioned now tzedakah a number of times, but you recognize how it became your social responsibility. And it sounds like it was part of your ethos and your family for a long time before you even started this company, that your success became then an advantage for others to benefit from what you accomplished, and in order to help however you could. And I think that that's something that should kind of be a universal piece to success, that there's a social responsibility that goes along with it. Hopefully, you'll be able to accomplish something big and beautiful in your career. And then what are you going to do to give back? What are you going to do to help others, to bring others with you? And that's something that's super important to highlight.

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
And sometimes that gets lost in this world. But I cannot emphasize the importance of that. And that really is, you know, your legacy. I mean, my two children, my grandchildren, and also how I help others is my legacy in this life.

Kassia Binkowski
Suzi, what is it that you want for the next generation of women? What is your wish for your daughter, for your grandchildren going forward?

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann
To be independent, strong, passionate. To be able to be anything that my daughter will want to be or women all over the world that they should really be able to be strong, passionate, and hard work. I that's one thing we didn't discuss. When I talk about OPI the first thing I tell young people, "I really work hard, really work hard." So when you know, don't think you're going to be the next person inventing some app, that is one in a million. Hard work. To really be able to achieve all the things that we discussed all these steps. Be authentic. Be true to yourself to who you are, you know, trying to be somebody else, it doesn't really work, and it sometimes steers you in the wrong direction. So being authentic, will make you make you successful in this life.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Breaking Glass is a production of Evoke Media. Evoke is a nonprofit organization that exists in order to elevate the people and stories that are working to make the world a more unified and equitable place. Learn more at weareevokemedia.com

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