2014 Women of Vision: Sara Pirok
Chief marketing officer, Fromm
With a passion for beauty, wellness and education, Sara Pirok has dedicated her career to helping others achieve their full potential. She started her career at DeVry University, where she served as associate director of admissions, and quickly learned the importance of challenging the traditional method of educational delivery to ensure success for all learners. She combined her background in education and passion for beauty when she joined Pivot Point International, and spent nearly a decade serving as the vice president of academies where she led operations, education and sales and marketing. Sara is currently the chief marketing officer at Fromm, where she joined the team in the spring of 2012. Since then she has compiled a team of highly skilled marketing professionals and led a remarkable rebrand and evolution of a company that has been in business since 1907.
How are you a rule-breaker?
Pirok: For me, it’s not so much about “breaking the rules,” it’s about following my gut. If the rules and my gut don’t match up, my gut wins.
What do you do on a daily basis to help you grow as an entrepreneur?
Pirok: Every day, I thank my lucky stars that I have an amazing husband, a beautiful son who is turning one this month, and incredible parents that moved to Illinois to “retire” and take care of my baby while I am at work. I drive to the office every morning, thankful that I am surrounded by an incredibly talented team and have a job that I love. I never let myself forget how blessed I am, and that drives me to learn and grow every day, both professionally and personally.
Who or what inspires you?
Pirok: The young women on my team inspire me. They are smart, funny, thoughtful and driven. They inspire me to be a better mentor. Today, less than 10% of companies are led by women. My team gives me hope that we will see the pendulum swing in the other direction soon.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from leading a business that you would share with other women?
Pirok: Always be yourself and resist the urge to edit your thoughts before sharing in hopes of avoiding conflict. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and push others to do the same. Don’t try to fit into the “old boys club,” because you won’t. Instead build a new club where any person of any gender, age and race is invited, but the members must be passionate, intelligent, open-minded and vulnerable. And finally, don’t be afraid of being perceived as unlikable—you are not running for office, you are running a business.
As you grew your company/brand, what ‘Ah-Ha’ moments of clarity helped you shape its future course?
Pirok: My favorite “ah-ha” moment occurred when I was presenting brand plans to the executive team with Liz Hagopian, our director of marketing communications. We had our good, better, best model ready to go, but we were struggling with naming our “better” brand. Though we hired an agency and went through numerous brainstorming sessions, we just couldn’t get it right. As we gave our updates during the meeting, John Cox, our vp of operations, stopped us and said, “What about 1907? You always talk about Fromm since 1907, why not make it a brand?” And that was it. We still try on occasion to recruit John to our team.
How would you describe your management style? What do you think makes you a good leader, and in what areas would you want to improve?
Pirok: I hold extremely high expectations for my team. I believe people will perform their best when you let them focus on their strengths and give them the autonomy to do the job they were hired to do. My leadership style is to be as open and honest with my team as possible, and I expect the same in return. I am not a hand-holder. I will not solve an employee’s problem if I believe they are capable of doing it themselves. It’s the only way to learn and grow, and hopefully, if I do my job right, they will continue to climb the ladder in their chosen field, either with my company or elsewhere.
I need to work on inspecting what I expect. With my style of management comes a high level of trust. But I’ve learned no matter how much I trust someone, I should still inspect their work, and this is a struggle for me.
Throughout your professional history, what’s the best lesson you’ve learned after making a mistake?
Pirok: I’ve learned that making a mistake is necessary in the study of getting it right. Instead of letting mistakes keep me up at night, I try to view them as an opportunity to improve and a possible road to an unexpected success. A mistake can be a great opportunity to connect with your support system over a cocktail and uncover new wisdom.
What is the number-one quality you look for when hiring employees, and how do you evaluate if they possess that trait?
Pirok: As cliché as it may sound, I look for someone that exudes passion—passion for what they do, how they do it, and most importantly, for the beauty industry as a whole. I have passed on countless candidates with amazing experience and Ivy-League level education because they lacked passion, interest and respect for our industry.
Share something personal that very few people would know about you:
Pirok: I’m a documentary junkie. It drives my husband crazy. The only time of year I turn off the documentaries is during the holiday season, because I’m also obsessed with really cheesy, made-for-TV Christmas movies. My husband doesn’t complain about my documentary watching for a good 2-3 months after Christmas.
What’s the best thing an employee/colleague ever said about you?
Pirok: I had an employee 30 years my senior with significantly more experience than me. It took us both a while to trust each other, but once we did, we built a great relationship. She later told me that while working for me, she learned to listen to her own voice. I’ll never forget that.
If you were training another woman to take over your job, what’s the most important advice you would offer her?
Pirok: Focus on building and growing the team. Madelyn Albright is famous for saying, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Make it your business to mentor and coach deserving women who are looking to you for direction. And don't just devote your time to women, help anyone who needs it. Be a role model for how to develop other people.
If you were to look at a scrapbook of your professional career, what would be your favorite page? Which page would you like to remove?
Pirok: My most recent favorite page is the rebranding of Fromm. Fromm was truly a diamond in the rough; she just needed a little polishing. I am honored to work for such an amazing company and after 107 years, its Fromm’s time to shine. I have lots of pages that I’d love to tear out, but I do believe our greatest achievements happen when we are able to uncover the good in a bad situation and pull ourselves up again.
If someone were to write a book about your life, what would be an appropriate title?
Pirok: Tales of a Not-So-Dumb Blonde or something cheeky like that.
If you weren’t in the beauty industry, what would you be doing?
Pirok: I was born to work in this industry. I’ve been a bona fide beauty junkie from the moment I understood the magic of lip-gloss. I started giving makeovers to my friends in first grade. My mom thought it was cute, but the other mothers weren’t nearly as amused. If I weren’t in beauty, I’d work in the fashion industry, for a health/lifestyle brand, or maybe in publishing as a beauty editor.
What is you vision for the future of your company? What is your vision for the future of the industry?
Pirok: My vision for Fromm is simple. Our goal is to make the best beauty tools and beauty essential products in the world. We expect our products will not only outperform the competition, but will look more beautiful while doing it.
My vision for our industry is for us to unite as one and to expect more from our industry. Right now, beauty schools are in jeopardy because of the gainful employment legislation. Without well-trained students available, the professional industry will suffer, potentially leading to decreased salon sales and product sales. This affects everyone. We should all be very concerned and doing everything we can to support the schools.
In the beauty industry, we should be considered leaders not just in hair, skin and nails, but also in health and wellness. Our stylist spends her days taking care of everyone but herself. Starting in beauty school, health and wellness should be part of the curriculum. Salons should strive to provide a healthy environment, and manufacturers should strive to create the healthiest products possible.