2013 Enterprising Women: Sophy Merszei
CEO/President of NovaLash, Inc.
In 2004, Sophy Merszei was three years into a Ph.D. program in molecular biology at the University of Houston when she took a leap of faith and started NovaLash. Today, the 23-year beauty veteran, who got her start working for Clinique Cosmetics at the age of 14, is credited with being the mother of the eyelash extension industry as she pioneered the very first distribution and training network for eyelash extensions outside of Korea. NovaLash products are now being distributed in 38 countries. NovaLash's mission is to create better paying jobs for women and support women entrepreneurs in the beauty industry. The company has invested over ten million dollars back into the development of the eyelash extension industry and regularly works with charitable organizations aimed at providing educational assistance to women and girls.
From where does your entrepreneurial drive originate?
I think part of the internal drive is just in one’s blood. I also learned that women could be strong, independent business owners like my great grandmother, who owned olive and almond groves as well as the only general store in her small town in Italy.
As you grew your company/brand, what “Ah-Ha” moments of clarity helped you shape its future course?
The most significant moment for me occurred the first time I read the official copy of the bill we passed into law to create safety standards and licensing opportunities for professional eyelash extensionists. That was a milestone for us and has allowed us to dedicate our company to education.
As you shaped your company, what have been some of the biggest stumbling blocks?
For NovaLash, it has been difficult because we were the trailblazers. We had no path to follow. All the while, many people thought what we were doing was no different from techniques done in the past. That unfortunate line of thinking caused many people to dismiss the need for proper training and education to learn how to use new products and techniques, which were much more difficult to use than past products.
Throughout your professional history, what’s the best lesson you’ve learned after making a mistake?
I did not plan ahead for the amount of counterfeiting and other types of intellectual property theft that goes along with innovation. I recently was lucky enough to be accepted into an Intellectual Property Business Strategy class at Harvard, where I learned that the innovator of novel technology is often not the one who profits most from it.
As you grew your company, what, if anything, has held you back?
Growth was so rapid for us that it became expensive and difficult to create proper infrastructure, because our needs and tasks changed so quickly and dramatically. It sounds like a good problem to have—until it happens to you!
What is the number-one quality you look for when hiring employees, and how do you evaluate if they possess that trait?
Internal motivation—most other things can be learned or developed, but it is difficult to instill motivation in a person who is apathetic and uninspired inside. When hiring, the most obvious place to start is to look at the person’s past history and feel out their energy level face to face.
What’s the best thing an employee/colleague ever said about you?
People often tell me I inspire them and that I am a role model. That’s a lot of responsibility to shoulder, so I try hard to always behave in a way that would make my customers and employees proud of me.
If you were training another woman to takeover your job, what’s the most important advice you would offer her?
Harness, develop and practice creative thinking. Creativity is necessary not only for innovation, but also for developing novel tools for the management of people.
If someone were to write a book about your life, what would be an appropriate title?
If you weren’t in the beauty industry, what would you be doing?
I would definitely still be working in molecular biology/genetics. It was in the lab that I learned to basically split hairs and perform all sorts of delicate microscopic tasks that made applying one lash fiber at a time second nature.
What are you working on now? What’s your next professional step?
Right now we are working on international NovaLash Signature Studio lash salons. We just opened one in India. We are also working on opening more NovaLash schools around the world so more people can learn proper techniques and earn a good living applying lash extensions.
How would you like to spend your retirement?
I would love to go back to my roots in genetics/molecular biology and create my own breed of dog. It’s something I’ve had on my mind for many years and I’d like to see more planning go into promoting health, as well as a certain look and disposition. We have incredible technology available to us now, and I would love to use it to create a beautiful, healthy breed that meets human beings’ needs and desires in a pet, while going back to a little more of what nature intended dogs to look like.