The actress and CEO chats with her mentee, the cofounder of Maisonette, about finding support as an entrepreneur.
July 10, 2019 9 min read
Gwyneth Paltrow has played many public roles — most notably, of course, first as an actress and now as the creator of Goop. Her lifestyle business and content platform launched in 2008 and has grown to a $250 million company by selling Paltrow-endorsed health-and-wellness products that shoppers swear by (even when the medical community cries foul). But here’s a role she’s less well-known for: Behind the scenes, she mentors female entrepreneurs. Sylvana Ward Durrett is one of them. She’s a former Vogue staffer who for years produced the annual Costume Institute benefit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then went on to cofound the children’s e-commerce site Maisonette in 2017. Today, Maisonette is a fast-growing business with more than $18 million in funding, and Ward Durrett often leans on Paltrow for advice. Here, the women chat about the value of mentorship, what it’s like to be a woman running an early-stage startup, and texting during board meetings.
How did you two first meet?
Sylvana Ward Durrett: We were introduced through Anna [Wintour, Vogue’s editor in chief] two years ago. I had launched Maisonette that spring, and as a young — well, not young, but new — entrepreneur, Goop and Gwyneth had kind of been like the North Star. In your first couple of months in business, you don’t ever know if what you’re doing is right. So to have a conversation with Gwyneth about those early stages and to hear her say, “You’re doing everything right”? It was incredibly soothing.
Gwyneth Paltrow: I’ve really learned on the job and made so many mistakes. I welcome the opportunity to share those mistakes so that nobody has to experience the same pitfalls I did.
After that initial meeting, how did the relationship progress?
SWD: Gwyneth said, “If you have a question, just text me.” And I was like, “That’s crazy; I’m not texting you all the time!” But I actually do. I’m sure she’s super annoyed by my texts.
SWD: But it really is as simple as that. I’ve texted her from board meetings. It’s been so valuable.
GP: Awww, I’m blushing!
SWD: It’s true, though! It’s half business, half therapy.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Homepolish
What kinds of issues has Gwyneth helped you with?
SWD: We talk a lot about company culture. She told me to read this book I loved called The Collaborative Way: A Story About Engaging the Mind and Spirit of a Company. She gives advice on things like that, but I’ve also talked to her about really practical stuff, like voting rights, when we were closing our Series A round.
Gwyneth, have you seen a lot of parallels between what Sylvana is experiencing now and your early days at Goop?
GP: I didn’t raise money until about six years ago, and I just thought, Oh my gosh; it’s tough to be a woman going into a group of mostly white males and try to explain to them why you’re building a platform that’s going to be impactful. They don’t understand. It’s hard when you’re doing something for a female consumer and you have a bunch of guys allocating capital — especially at the nascent stage of a business, when there’s not much to point to and they don’t understand why someone would be interested in baby stuff or content about female sexuality.
How did mentorship impact you while you were building Goop?
GP: I had to sort of cobble together a group of people. I was very brazen about calling people and asking for their help and totally leveraging my celebrity to get them on the phone. [Laughs] You know? Like, it’s good for a dinner reservation and it’s good to get [Airbnb CEO] Brian Chesky to call you back. I would also listen out for people. For example, I was speaking with a woman who is a professor at Harvard Business School and I said, “Who comes [to Harvard] every year to talk about culture but also lives in Los Angeles?” And she pointed me to Alan Horn, who is co-chairman at Disney Studios now. I called him, and we talked about how he communicates with his team, and how he communicates bad news. Get really specific.
SWD: One of the first things you told me was to build my mentors with very specific skill sets. Gwyneth, I’ve learned, is always learning and doing. She puts in all this work, so when you talk to her, it’s like she’s done it for you. She’ll say, “I’ve talked to 25 people about this, and here’s what you should do.”
GP: Nerds! Nerds Anonymous.
Sylvana, have you followed her lead in terms of cold-calling people to ask for help?
SWD: I do a ton of cold calls. I’ve been really surprised to see that people do want to help. Everyone has gone through this grueling process, and they want to pay it forward.
Have either of you been able to build a strong support network of other female entrepreneurs?
GP: At the CEO dinners I get invited to, I’m usually the only woman. I was at dinner once with Tina [Sharkey] from Brandless, and it was great to connect with her. But it just proves that we need more female entrepreneurs. If we’re only getting 2 percent of the money from the VCs, there just aren’t going to be that many of us. We need to seize this time and make this cultural shift. And obviously it will help when, quantifiably speaking, our businesses work and people can look to Maisonette or Goop or Brandless or Rent the Runway or Who What Wear or Stitchfix and say, “OK; maybe this is a good bet!” But it’s been a slow process.
Image Credit: Bryan Bedder | Getty Images
How does that make you both think about that aforementioned idea of paying it forward to the next generation of women?
SWD: I think about this a lot, even with our customers. Moms, women — we’re sharers. When people come to me who are just starting out, I love walking through the process with them. It’s sort of like the glory days even though it was five minutes ago. I want to give back the kind of support I got from Gwyneth.
You mentioned that the two of you talk about company culture a lot. What are you trying to create?
GP: I spend a lot of time thinking about culture, and had sort of figured out, Oh, with a company of x amount of people, this feels good — easy to maintain and model culture and transparency. But I went through a bit of a crisis at the end of 2018 and had to completely reassess the way I approach culture. We had grown to 250 people — I can’t have one-on-one time with everyone anymore, and it becomes increasingly hard to model behavior and hope it gets dispersed. So how do we re-create the feeling we had when Goop was just eight women in a barn behind my house? The aha moment I had over Christmas break was Wait a minute; we’re all responsible for the culture at Goop. We have to hold ourselves accountable, as opposed to being annoyed that you have a new manager you don’t like and creating toxicity or back-channeling. We have an all-hands meeting every Tuesday, and I’ve said, “We’re all responsible for our own side of the street.” If we were to double in size again, I have no idea what that would entail. Company culture is its own living, breathing thing, and you have to have a lot of agility with the way you approach that.
As a leader, in what ways are you each accessible to your teams?
SWD: It’s a little easier for me; we have 45 people. Even at this micro level, you do start to sort of lose touch with everyone. You go from the days of speaking to literally every member of your team a million times a day to … not. I like to just get out of my office and chat with people.
GP: I just finished Reid Hoffman’s book — Sylvana, have you read it?
SWD: No, but I will now.
GP: Oh my God, you have to. He talks about how at the beginning, a startup is a family. And then it’s a village, and then it’s a city. Each stage requires rethinking. For Goop, we’re very much at the village stage, and that all-hands meeting is a critical part of how I operate. Having a moment every week where everybody really feels part of the process is so important. On a less frequent basis, I try to have quarterly lunches with all the different teams. It’s an open forum to ask me any questions about business or life or whatever. What makes a strong culture is that people feel valued and part of something bigger than themselves.