Willow Spotlight: Maisonette CEO Sylvana Ward Durrett on Overcoming Self Doubt

If you’re looking for gift ideas for the kids in your life, look no further. 

Sylvana Ward Durrett has built her business around making shopping for kids as streamlined as possible. She’s the Co-Founder and CEO of Maisonette, a curated online marketplace that brings together all of the best children’s products from around the globe. In other words, a one-stop shopping solution for parents.

Before launching Maisonette in 2016, Sylvana spent 16 years at Vogue, where she worked closely with Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour. When we recently spoke with Sylvana, she shared her biggest lessons from Anna, the importance of having women supporters on speed dial (for her, that includes Gwyneth Paltrow), and what she wishes every female entrepreneur knew before starting her own business. 

Plus, we discussed the best gifts for kids and her favorite family activity for killing time over the holiday break.

 

Natalie:

You just had a huge weekend with Black Friday and Cyber Monday. But for those who haven't made their holiday purchases yet, what are the best types of gifts to get kids? What are the gifts that they really love?

 

Sylvana:

It totally depends on the age, but here are some of my recommendations:

 

1–2 years

For younger toddlers, toys that are educational and inspire them to learn how to open and close things, and Montessori-type learning toys, I think always keep little ones engaged.

 

2–4 years

When you get into the toddler, young-kid phase, ride-on toys are great and give them a sense of independence. When I got my kids their first ride-on toy,they would go out for hours and hours just driving around even a small little space.

 

3–6 years

My six and three-year old are now starting to play together, so I like to buy larger gifts that they can enjoy together as sisters, like a beautiful dollhouse. It's nice to give gifts that can be shared among siblings because it teaches them that they don't each have to have their own thing, that they need to be able to share, and to practice that skill.

Tenderleaf Toys makes many great dollhouses or barns. My kids love a dollhouse, but they’ll just as easily play with a barn setup and pretend play.

I think anything that encourages pretend play is great for that age range. So costumes, pretend food, kitchens-—things where they're recreating what they see their parents doing. They're attentive to that for hours and hours.

 

Maisonette dollhouse

Toys that encourage pretend play make great gifts.

 

6+ years

As they get older, they tend to leave the toy space and get more into sports and games. Games are really fun for the whole family, making it one of my favorite gifts. There are so many games, of course, but classics like dominoes or checkers, where you can include the whole family, I think are the best options.

 

Natalie:

How do you start or keep holiday traditions?

 

Sylvana:

I think traditions are mostly inspired by what you did when you were a child. In addition, your own children will inspire you to start new traditions.

For us, we really like to bake and decorate cookies, and we're very informal about it. There's all these beautiful Instagram accounts with the most perfect cookies—and our cookies are just like, icing and a dump of sprinkles!

But they love the process, they love eating the batter, they love painting them. It's a great activity when you're a parent and you're on Christmas break and you need a 30-minute activity. So that's always fun and super easy. You can also just buy ready-made cookies, which I love, like ginger snaps or any kind of gingerbread cookie, with white frosting and some sprinkles, and you have an activity for them without having to worry about the baking piece.

 

Sylvana Ward Durrett

 

Christmas caroling is big for us too—and when I say Christmas caroling, we don't sing—but we always have Christmas carols on at all times. In fact, I start November 1st sometimes, and my husband gets very annoyed. 

But having the sounds of the holidays on at all times is just so lovely to wake up to in the morning, when the kids come down for breakfast and it's already on, with maybe a fire going. It just feels warm and cozy and wonderful.

So for us, it's really about the feeling.

 

Natalie:

I love that. Okay, shifting gears a little bit. How do you advocate for yourself?

 

Sylvana:

I think it all starts with your own mindset. It's about making sure that you're confident in your own abilities, even if you doubt them. 

I think a lot of women doubt, can they be a finance expert? Can they do Excel? Can they be a CEO? These types of male-associated skill sets that women are often intimidated by, it all starts with your perspective. “I can learn how to do anything, so I can be an expert in any area, as long as I work hard at it.”

So for me, it starts with having that confidence and doing the work to become an expert. To learn where you feel you need to tune up a little bit. I think it is just a mindset, really.

 

Natalie:

Speaking of female entrepreneurship, what do you wish every woman knew before starting a business?

 

Sylvana:

To extend that metaphor, I think learning the language of finance a little bit prior to going into, for example, a fundraise. You just have to be informed and comfortable speaking about financial terms. Because I think the biggest struggle for women raising money is that, particularly male VCs, don't trust that you can actually run the numbers, that you can actually build a successful and healthy business.

So for me, it was a really deep dive into okay, what are these terms? What does EBITDA mean? Tell me how to read a P&L? What is the difference between budget versus forecast? All of these things that are just nomenclature in a male-led industry. It's pretty easy now to get resources online, to just start learning the vocabulary and getting comfortable with it.

 

Natalie:

Do you feel like that was the most effective way to educate yourself on those terms? Or did you have a guide?

Sylvana:

I wish I had a guide! I did the business 101 for dummies-type approach, but I wish there was an outlet or a resource that was like, here are the 10 terms you need to know.

But I kind of had to do that on my own. And you learn as you go. 

It’s also important to remember that it doesn't have to be perfect. You don't have to know everything. You just need to know a little bit, and you will just as effectively learn as things start. By having the conversations over and over again, you start to learn what's important.

So it's not about being perfect. It's just about getting a leg up with some research under your belt.

 

Natalie:

Do you have a coach or a mentor or a guide in your life?

 

Sylvana:

I have many, but I would say my biggest mentor is Anna Wintour.

I worked with her very closely for 16 years, and would be so in awe of the way she could get things done and the way that she thought about things.

She is a perfect example of a female advocating for herself. She could stand up to anybody in any scenario, in any industry and have an audience. And I think that is the mentality—that nothing is too big. I am enough for all of these big wigs. So, learning from her how you manage people, how you think about fundraising—I learned a lot about fundraising from her. It was a 360-view of business from a woman's perspective. And that's been so valuable for me.

Then, after launching my own startup, there have been a lot of people who have been very helpful. Gwyneth Paltrow has been one of them. We share an investor, and I can call her or text her and be like, 'This is happening in the board meeting. What do I do here? I've never seen this before.' And she is very quickly like, “Okay, think about this.”

Having women like that in your life, particularly as an entrepreneur, is so important. You need people on your speed dial who are ready and willing to support you whenever you need it, because there are situations you can’t prepare for and that you just don't know until they happen. And so, there are many people who've done this before you, and will have really great advice.

My husband has also been really helpful. He comes from a finance background and is always helping me put things into perspective and think of things differently. It's nice to have him as a sounding board.

 

Natalie:

What does it mean to you to be an empowered and modern woman?

 

Sylvana:

I really do think taking control of your own financial education is a big step. I think there's a lot of fear from women that it's too overwhelming.

But it's not unfeasible—it just takes a little bit of research and a little bit of work on your end to really alleviate that fear. 

And then it's really about making sure that you tell yourself: you can do this. I think it's all about educating yourself, taking that step, and having the confidence to take that step.

 

Natalie:

Yeah, I love that. Those are two of our brand values: assuring women that they can do this and you can take that first step. The first step is the hardest.

 

Sylvana:

Exactly.

 

Natalie:

What is the best piece of personal finance advice you've ever received?

 

Sylvana:

Before my husband and I got married, I had a credit card balance that I just kept paying the minimum on and wouldn't pay it off. 

He told me, “You need to pay this off. It’s important for you to understand that you should be paying things off monthly. That means really planning and making sure you can afford these things. The reason you have a balance is because you’re buying things you can’t afford.”

And there I was thinking, 'Wait a second, but I really want that pair of shoes. And if I just pay it over 10 weeks or 10 months, it's fine.' 

So it was kind of a wake up call. He put me on a timeline to help get me on track, and it was difficult, but I haven’t carried a balance since. 

 

Natalie:

Anything else you want to share before we wrap up? 

 

Sylvana:

I think what you guys are doing is amazing, and I wish it was around when I started Maisonette.

 

Natalie:

Thank you so much again for taking the time, we really appreciate it.

 

 

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