Bring Your Best Self To Work
Entrepreneur Sali Christeson is founder and CEO of Argent, the venture-backed brand helping women suit up to level the office playing field. A business major with an M.B.A. from the University of South Carolina (my alma mater), Christeson spent a decade in the Bay Area’s finance and technology scene, where she struggled to find clothes that were bold, practical and professional.
After reading hard statistics that women in the workplace are judged on appearance, with a tangible impact on their careers over time, she set about tackling the workwear-joy gap and Argent was born.
Sali is based in Los Angeles, home to Argent’s new headquarters.
I had the opportunity to see Sali interviewed at this year’s WSJ “The Future of Everything” Festival in New York. I sat two rows back from the stage. When it came time for Q & A, I was given the microphone. I praised Sali’s vision: “Women do need ‘utility’ in their clothes…” Then I turned around to the packed house and proudly opened MY Argent jacket to display all the pockets. The crowd loved it!
Recently, I learned more from Sali. Here are the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin: Where did you grow up? Describe your early childhood and its significance on your life.
Sali Christeson: I was born and raised on a farm in Hardeeville, South Carolina and spent summers with family in Turkey, a bit of an odd combination, but it sparked my passion for language, travel and cross-cultural relations. Growing up in nature also fostered a toughness and resilience that has served me well in the startup world.
Griffin: When did you first get the whisper you belonged in business?
Christeson: From as early as I can remember, I loved business. When I was young, I would go to work with my dad and looked forward to the day that I would have my own stapler, typewriter and fax machine (it wasn’t obvious that computers were the future in those days). The entrepreneurial bug struck early. I had lemonade stands, sold piggy banks and horseshoe picture frames, launched a baking company and dreamt of having my own office. When I turned 13, I remember going around downtown Hardeeville trying desperately to land a job. Unfortunately, I had to wait until I turned 15 for that to be legal. There’s something that has always excited me about connecting people with a product or service they desire. I also love that satisfaction that comes from hard work. As you can see, there were many signs that I belonged in the business world.
Griffin: Was there an early teacher that inspired you? Who and how?
Christeson: I was inspired by my dad and great grandfather (on my mom’s side).
My dad grew up working in the Turkish bazaars where he sold water starting at 5 years old. After two decades of working in the bazaars, he moved to the States and started his own rug business from which he retired 40+ years later. I used to go to work with him when I was young. That’s where I learned the value of relationships, communication, work ethic and integrity.
I was also inspired by my great grandfather. I never met him, but he started Argent Lumber Company from which we derived the name for Argent. He was an entrepreneur through and through. During my childhood, I would read the many boxes of letters he had written and newspaper clippings that we had about him. He was a perfect role model to look up to and I only wish that I could’ve met him.
Griffin: What’s a great piece of business or life advice you received, who gave it to you, and how has it enhanced your life?
Christeson: My first manager at Cisco, Diane Beamer, told me to do whatever I needed to personally to ensure I brought my best self to work. “If you need to work out every day, do that.” She offered full flexibility and created a work environment that fostered prioritizing yourself with the belief that your best work product comes from that. I extend that to everyone who ever works for me. Some want flexibility to be with their kids, some want a workout, some need time to meditate. It leads to a happier, more fulfilled team.
I was incredibly fortunate to meet with Howard Schulz prior to Argent’s launch. He gave advice on hiring and team building, “Be sure that anyone that you bring on is passionate about what you are building. It’s you against the world so you need to maximize the power in your corner. Don’t hire someone who just sees you as a paycheck.” I can’t express how important this advice is for entrepreneurs. Hiring is one of the hardest parts of the job, and it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes. It’s important to be aware of this and to work towards trusting your gut and creating a framework that prevents hiring mistakes.
Griffin: Please give me the top three bullet points in your Personal Leadership Credo.
1) Lead by example and be above nothing
2) Always be learning and keep yourself uncomfortable
3) Have a bias for action – foster environments for differing opinions and quick decision making
Griffin: What advice do you have for young, talented, ambitious women who want to rise?
Christeson: Learn as much as you can about challenges and double standards women are up against both in the world and specific to your company. Awareness is key to successfully navigating the workforce.
Be vocal about bias that you see, but do so in a strategic and thoughtful way. For example, I once had a mentor and manager that was a huge advocate of women in business, but was unintentionally asking me to do non-promotable tasks that were taking up a lot of my time (plan events, take meeting minutes, etc.). I addressed this during our 1:1’s, which led to changed behavior immediate term, but also in future roles that he has held.
Network. Don’t be afraid to ask for people’s time. Executives pride themselves on giving back to the next generation. Recognize that relationships will be responsible for a lot of your informal understanding of work which is critical. These relationships will also be critical with promotions, future jobs, etc.