CEO Stories: Secrets of successful women

Veronica Dagher
Author, The Wall Street Journal's ebook, Resilience

The Wall Street Journal’s Veronica Dagher talks about lessons she’s learned from her “Secrets of Wealthy Women” podcast and her new eBook, Resilience

In profiling successful women, Dagher realized what they all shared and what set them apart was how they reacted to the numerous obstacles they faced, personal and professional. It was a lesson that resonated strongly with Dagher, who saw her own mother learn how to run the family business after being widowed. Her mother instilled in Dagher the desire to be financially independent and sparked her interest in other women’s stories of resilience.

Dagher notes there is a different level of confidence in older women, whose track records allow them to feel more comfortable about their success. Yet none of them take their achievement for granted. Two standouts of the older generation, in Dagher’s eyes, are designer Josie Natori, who refused to put limits on herself and made a pact with her husband to put their marriage first; and novelist Mary Higgins Clarke. The widowed writer endured numerous rejections before she got published, persisting out of necessity. By contrast, millennial women are more inclined to think broadly and be highly entrepreneurial.

Neither generation claims to have conquered the challenge of work-life balance; instead, they have made accommodations, such as getting extra help at home, working odd hours after children are asleep, and relying on flexibility in their jobs. To Dagher, this is part of another important lesson for women: don’t be afraid to ask, whether for help, an opportunity, for people who can help guide you to the next level, or for advice.

This Is Capitalism, Veronica Dagher

RH: This is Capitalism, I’m Ray Hoffman. Putting this in the form of a note from one podcast interviewer to another, I like your work, Veronica Dagher, I like your Wall Street Journal columns on successful women, your “Secrets of Wealthy Women” podcasts, as well as your new eBook, based on the columns and podcasts. It’s called Resilience, and it offers a lot of lessons in life, and take it from me, not just lessons for other women. And you and I would both agree the timing is perfect for the column, the podcast, and the book.

VD: We know that there’s this huge wealth transfer happening in America. About 33 trillion dollars is transferring from one generation to the next. Women stand to inherit a lot of that money. And so we wanted to share some stories about wealth, about success, about entrepreneurship, and feature some really well-known women such as Maria Sharapova and Josie Natori and Rebecca Minkoff and hear how they built their success and some of the obstacles they overcame. And then the book came later.

RH: You write in the introduction to the book, “The subjects of this book understand that anything is possible and that you have the strength within you to cope the challenges that life will surely present. You too can achieve greatness.”
VD: For sure. Yeah. So all the women we featured have faced obstacles, whether it’s bankruptcies or divorce, very difficult divorces, or the loss of a child, or a business that blew up or almost didn’t make it. All these women have had various obstacles they’ve had to overcome in their life. They’ve also had obstacles starting out—people telling them they’ll never be successful, they’ll never make it, they’ll never be wealthy, they’ll never be a famous person on TV or famous author.

All these obstacles that they overcame, they just didn’t listen to those voices. That’s the key difference between some of the people who are super-successful and sort of successful, is these people are knocked down, yet they get back up much faster than average folks.

RH: The fact that you wrote those words, the ones that you did in terms of, “You too can achieve greatness,” it’s my experience that only a person of optimism or faith would write those words. And so how far back would we have to go to find the seeds of those things in you?
VD: Oh gosh, both optimism and faith. I grew up in a strong family of faith. But my personal experience has been two-fold. The first one, my dad died suddenly when I was eleven. And basically, that changed our entire life. My mom became a single mom to two pre-teens—how to handle my dad’s businesses, how to handle the family finances—she was completely not prepared to do that, had a really steep learning curve, had a lot of people trying to take advantage of her because of her position. And so she taught me a lot about resilience and the need to keep going despite obstacles you may face and people who are trying to take advantage of you.

And so she instilled in me this desire to be a financially independent woman from a very young age, and a desire to rely on people you can trust, whether it’s your family, your faith community, your friends, just being very selective in who you associate with because you know that not everyone always is going to have your best interest in mind. So that’s one thing that I was taught very early on. And it sounds a little cynical but I think it’s reality, especially for some women in the workplace today. So that’s one issue.

And then recently, again, talking about my mom, my mom, she’s doing much better now but I had to take leave for four months last year when my mom got sick suddenly. Seeing the obstacles she had to overcome and her comeback from being very ill, very suddenly with someone who’s always been very healthy, and that came on very quickly and have to fight through the medical system and deal with a lot of unanswered questions and be okay with that. That was a huge learning experience that actually made me a much tougher, more assertive person.

RH: Now did the light bulb go on immediately in terms of you recognizing that you were going to have to pitch in?
VD: It went on pretty quickly, I would say, just because…well, we were fortunate enough to keep the house and keep our lifestyle pretty much the way it was. That said, my mom had a very different philosophy about money than my dad did. My dad was very, he just had a different upbringing and he looked at money, like, you know, “It’s okay, abundance, no problem,” no matter what the situation.

So it was my dad always pushing her, saying “Go shopping, go out to dinner, go out to dinner, do things.” And she’d be like, “No, no, no.” So I think she had that instilled in her. And so even growing up, my dad would be like, “Oh no, I want to buy you this toy,” and my mom would be like, “No, she doesn’t deserve that toy.” And so there was this constant conflict going on which, you know, obviously informs my work today as I think because as I see it, I like the family dynamic-type stories.

But all that said, I think because her new philosophy wasn’t really new, like, she was just now the one calling the shots in a more prevalent way. Whereas in the past, my dad was the one calling the shots. So now we were in my mom’s school of thought.

RH: You go off to school to study finance.
VD: Exactly. I just figured it would be practical. It never occurred to me to become a reporter, I didn’t really know what that was weirdly enough, even though I had written for my school newspaper. I wrote for my college newspaper as well. I just never thought of journalism as a career, I just thought, “Go into finance, make some money, and learn that way.” I thought it would be a good idea.

RH: And that was a continuation of your mother’s experience of necessity, I assume.
VD: Exactly. Yes. I guess studying English didn’t sound so, you know, stable.

RH: Now, for the title of the book, you chose Resilience, resilience in the sense that none of the 20 women you profiled ever seemed to give up. But let’s say I went to market with my book first, and mine was titled Resilience, and I got there ahead of you. What other titles might you have chosen for this book?
VD: That’s a great question. Perhaps Bouncing Back, Ambitious Women, although there are some interesting contexts to that. Maybe even naming it after the podcast, Secrets of…or some spin on that, Secrets of Successful Women, Secrets of Wealthy Women, again, just to get that branding out there.

RH: What’s the age range of the 20 women?
VD: It’s vast. So we’ve got people, Ayesha Curry’s our youngest one, I believe, and she’s 29, she just turned 30. And Mary Higgins Clark is our oldest, yet she’s a very young 90-something year old woman, and she’s incredible, they’re both incredible.

RH: Now did you notice any fundamental differences between the oldest and youngest in outlook or did you find that age wasn’t much of a factor in the basic approach?
VD: The older women perhaps, were a bit more relaxed about their success, or a bit more comfortable talking about their wealth and their businesses. Maybe because they’ve done it so much or maybe they don’t feel like they have to prove themselves, or maybe…I’m not sure. Maybe they’re not worried about cultural expectations, perhaps, that other people have put on them. I think the younger people are still getting used to some of the language.

RH: And if there’s an entrepreneurial and or success gene, it certainly isn’t an America-only entrepreneurial gene, and you can see that for sure in Josie Natori.
VD: Right, she is great. She was one of my favorite people. I mean, they’re all great and wonderful women to speak to. But she’s initially from the Philippines, but she came to the United States in her twenties, I believe, for college and also to start a business eventually, which became The Natori Company.

But she has those strong Filipino roots, but she is also very proud to be an American. She understands the opportunities this country gives to immigrants. She understands the opportunities that were afforded because of the freedoms in this country. And she takes full advantage of that. And she has built this multimillion-dollar company that has several different brands, that is known around the world. And she’s proud of that and she’s not afraid to say that this country has given her a lot of opportunities.

She also isn’t afraid to say as a woman it’s okay to be successful, and it’s okay to believe that anything is possible. I think so often women—in her view, and I think I agree with this—put limits on themselves because they think, “Oh, because I’m so-and-so, if I hadn’t come from this background, or because I’m a mother, I can’t do things.” Yes, things can be more difficult for women, absolutely, but she says just, you know, “Keep forging ahead and find the support you need. And you can make it happen, don’t limit yourself.”

RH: And that’s partly an immigrant’s attitude, a successful immigrant’s attitude certainly.
VD: I would imagine. I mean, my grandparents were…well, on one side, were immigrants from Ireland. And so they worked hard. And my grandmother always said—this is my mom’s mom—essentially she said that she would scrub floors if she had to do so to put her kids through school. I mean she never did scrub floors but all of her kids got masters degrees, and she never even went to college. So I think that work ethic, you know, you do whatever it takes to make it happen is something that inspires a lot of people.

RH: And in Josie Natori’s case, she had the benefit of a grandmother that tapped into the entrepreneurial matriarchal culture of the Philippines.
VD: That’s right. It’s a huge matriarchal culture and she brought that over with her. And so she was a working mom back in the day when it wasn’t so common, and maybe wasn’t so fashionable. And she completely owned that. She had help at home. She worked long hours at the office, she said she went out for a lot of dinners, wasn’t home so much with her son. Fortunately her son was very independent from a very young age, it sounds like. And now he is running the company, essentially, and he is doing very well for himself. I didn’t interview him for the book but I get the impression that they have a nice relationship.

RH: And as a romantic, something I thought was particularly wonderful, was how she and her husband, who have been working together for roughly 50 years, had an agreement, that if their working together ever led to trouble within the company, they would sell the company rather than divorce.
VD: That’s huge, that really blew me away, that they were that committed to their marriage. But like you said, they’re married what, 50 years now, over 50 years, and I think that putting that family first, and their relationship first, before the success, really paid off. And luckily, I think they have personalities, I think, that complement each other, skills that complement each other, so they weren’t competing, they were just having this enterprise that they were trying to advance together.

RH: And she handled the creative all the way through.
VD: She’s completely the creative, yes, he is more the financial and strategy-type person, although like I said, their son is really taking a big role at this moment.

RH: You know, from the group of 20, I think probably my favorite, at least in terms of listening to with the greatest enjoyment, would be the oldest one, at I think 91 now, Mary Higgins Clark, the Queen of Suspense.
VD: The Queen of Suspense. She’s amazing. I was fortunate enough to go tape with her for the podcast and do some follow-up interviews. But we initially taped at her home in New Jersey. And she was lovely. I think I was her first podcast. And she enjoyed the process immensely, she told me.

But she has not had an easy life. Her dad died suddenly when she was young. Then her husband—her first husband—died suddenly, leaving her with, I think, five children to raise. She was in her thirties at the time. And a lot of editors initially told her she’d never be successful. Her short stories—which used to be a very popular thing back in the day—her short stories were rejected something like 50 times. And some editor said, “You’ll never make it, don’t bother.”

And then she was like, “You know what, I’m going to be successful, I’m not going to give up.” So she kept trying and she eventually became this best-selling novelist, one of the highest-paid women and highest-paid novelists in probably U.S. history. I mean, she’s done incredibly well for herself yet still stays very humble and very family-focused.

RH: How did she get onto your radar for this?
VD: She’s a Fordham grad and I went to Fordham. And so I had met her at an event several years ago. And I remember going up to her and saying, “Oh, I love to write, what should I do?” And I was expecting some very romantic answer. And I said, you know, “What inspires you to write?” And she was very honest. She said, “You know, at one point, we were almost on the food stamps with my kids” and, she’s like, “I needed to write for money.” And she was unapologetic about that. She just said it, she wasn’t afraid to admit it. And obviously, that worked out.

RH: And when she started writing, there were so many popular magazines out there that you could submit to. And yet, she still wasn’t getting any submissions.
VD: Right, they said, she just didn’t understand the audience or I think one… Cosmopolitan magazine at the time, one editor said, her stories were light, trite and something else, some other word that rhymed with it. But the irony is, years later, Cosmo came to her and her agent, and said, “Will you write for us? We would love to have you.” And Mary, you know, she’s such a class act, she said yes. She told the agent, “Tell them yes, but make them pay.” (Laughter.)

RH: Yeah. And now when you started the podcast—I’ll go back to the radar issue­—when you started the podcast and you looked at possible guests, what were the first names you wrote down?
VD: Oh gosh, that’s a good question. Well, Oprah, we haven’t gotten her yet. I’m a huge Oprah fan and I grew up watching her. Maria Bartiromo, who we actually had on today. We have taped with her today. Who else? Maria Sharapova, who we had on in the fall, I believe. Bobbi Brown was also a big one. Some of the people that I grew up with were some of the women who first came to mind for me.

RH: Do you remember physically the setting when you started writing down the names or thinking of the names?
VD: I do. I was sitting at my desk in midtown, and I just started a Google doc, you know, sort of a big spreadsheet, just essentially saying, “Okay, here’s my list of dream people. And here’s who we might know who could connect us with them.” And just went down the list. It was a lot of me pitching people, trying to make connections between who knows who, also going to a lot of events too and trying to get in front of people and say, “Hey, this is who I am, I’m not”…because people who get a cold pitch, it might be a little skepticism. But people got to know me and hear the show. And then it just sort of evolved from there.

And now what’s really neat is…I’m still obviously going down and trying to track people down and get in front of those big names and going to events absolutely. But we’re getting more and more high-quality incoming pitches. So a lot of people have pitched us over the time but it’s not always the big names. But now we’re starting to get a lot of incoming big names, which makes my life so much easier.

RH: The lessons that you’ve learned though from the younger women, the millennial entrepreneurs, are they fundamentally different from the lessons you’ve learned from the older entrepreneurs?
VD: I think there’s a lot in common. I think that whole idea of resilience is the common thread between all of them. I think the younger entrepreneurs perhaps are looking at things in a different way in that they see opportunity everywhere. They are not necessarily limiting themselves to one sector or one area of business. They see like, “Oh, I’m an entrepreneur, I can play in all different arenas.”

Like Ayesha Curry…she’s into cookware and she’s into media, and she’s into I want to say, fashion. I mean, she’s got so many different tentacles to her brand and she’s not afraid to branch out in different ways. Whereas I think in general, some of the older entrepreneurs may have not thought that broadly.

But partly that’s also because the world had changed. I think it’s a lot easier now to be involved and make those connections. Because of social media, because of the way the world is structured, that younger generation, I think, often is a bit more collaborative and is open to different opportunities in a way and are given those opportunities in a way that older ladies may not have had.

RH: Now some cynics would look at Ayesha Curry, and say, “Well, that’s Steph Curry’s wife and there’s just infinite money just to go play with in different arenas.” But I notice that very early on, she started sitting down and having strategic meetings with key people who could show her the way to move into certain industries in smart ways.
VD: Exactly, she met with a lot of different people. She leveraged her network. Yes, and that is one of the most common obstacles she overcomes is, people say, “Oh, you only got this because of your husband.” And some of the people we speak to who are heirs to various dynasties, for lack of a better word, are told, “Oh you only got this because of your dad or because of your mom or whatever.” And that’s very frustrating for those people. Yes, there are certain doors that are open because of their parent, but at the same time, to Ayesha’s point, she had to be the one to walk through those doors and to follow up and to build the company that she has today­—build her brand and build her vision.

Like your parent is not going to sit there and write your stories for you or make those further relationships that you need to grow. And so yes, of course, some people have a lot more advantages than others but a lot of people just go to lunch all day and they don’t decide to do anything with those advantages. So I give a lot of credit to those people and I push back when they say, “Oh, it’s so easy for this woman. Why did you profile this woman?” I’m like, “Well no, she’s worked really hard.”

Like Loreen Arbus is an example of that. Her dad founded ABC, she’s you know, very, very financially successful. But she’s this enormous philanthropist. She’s a programming executive in her own right, has her own production company. I mean, this woman doesn’t sleep, she does so much stuff. And she doesn’t need to do any of that technically. But she just keeps on working. So I have a lot of admiration for that.

RH: And I didn’t know that story about Leonard Goldenson having a daughter with cerebral palsy, which influenced the dynamics of the family in ways that continue today.
VD: Exactly. Yes, their daughter Geneese—she died when she was 29—she had cerebral palsy and because of that, in that time. …It was a different time and it was before some legislation came out that is more welcoming to people with disabilities. And so they would go to hotels and they would go to restaurants and places would turn them away just because she had a disability.

And Loreen, that really stayed with her. And so she had become this big advocate for people with disabilities. She actually does this too in this media space. So she tries her best to get people with disabilities roles and helps them train so they can go to auditions and become successful in the media business as well. And so that is something that she’s really committed to.

RH: And she deliberately did not use the Goldenson name because she didn’t want to ride on her father’s coattails.
VD: And I think she decided that at something like 13, which is pretty amazing. She’s a very independent spirit. I was at a party at her apartment a couple of weeks ago, and she’s got a New York City apartment and it is incredible. Look it up online, you’ll see some pictures. It’s hot pink and there’s all this different type of art. It’s the funnest place you’ve ever seen. It’s unlike a typical New York City apartment. But that just shows what a free spirit she is and she’s just willing to take risks that other people aren’t.

RH: You know, the eBook and the podcast are filled with great things for entrepreneurs to take home, file away. And I think of the unlikely creator of Vera Bradley Handbags, Barbara Bradley Backgaard, who told you she wasn’t very good at math and didn’t have an MBA, so what was she going to do?
VD: I know! You know, other people she said would have been scared away by that but her and her friend, her neighbor at the time, had this idea for cute handbags and luggage. They were sitting in the airport and they didn’t see any cute luggage around. And they said, “Oh, we should work on that because women want more bags that look a little more fun to them.”

And so they’ve just decided to start sewing. And they borrowed at the time, I forget what year this was, but they borrowed 500 dollars from their husbands collectively, went to the fabric store, and hired some people. They came up with some patterns and they hired some people, other women, to start sewing the bags. They didn’t know anything about marketing so to speak. They didn’t know anything really about finance, all of these things they learned from SCORE which is…help me with this.

RH: The Service Core of Retired Executives.
VD: Right, thank you. And so that’s a huge resource for entrepreneurs who don’t have a lot of resources but want to learn. So SCORE was very helpful in helping them get their business off the ground.

RH: Did you come away with any really unlikely or unexpected lessons from these women?
VD: Oh gosh, I think the unexpected lesson for me­—and it’s just more that I haven’t thought about it­—is from Bonnie St. John, who is an Olympic athlete. She’s disabled, she suffered abuse, she had a very difficult childhood. But anyway, despite everything she went through, she went on to the Olympics. She’s a Harvard grad, a best-selling author, all these things.

And one of the things she says is that as a child, you have a lot of people around you who push you whether it’s teachers, whether it’s coaches, whether it’s just a guidance counselor, what have you. But when you’re an adult, you don’t have people necessarily pushing you to the next level. And so she said her success as an adult has been usually fueled by her seeking out other people around her who will push her to the next level—whether it’s in business, whether it’s in fitness, whether it’s in her personal life—she seeks out various types of coaches or mentors to help her advance to the next level.

And so I think that’s a really important point for entrepreneurs, especially women in business too, to seek out people who are going to challenge you and push you to the next level.

RH: Something that men could certainly learn from as well.
VD: That’s true. Absolutely, men too, yes.

RH: Speaking of which, something I didn’t expect in terms of the content: When I started reading the eBook, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but being a guy I was, the fact that so many of these interviews touch on work/life balance and being a working mother.
VD: Right. It’s not easy to do and so one of the big takeaways, I think it was Katia Beauchamp, who is the co-founder of Birchbox, she said this whole idea of work/life balance is a bit of a myth. You’re never going to feel fully in balance. You’re always going to feel like you’re sort of failing at something, so to speak.

And she said, “Just kind of give it up. I think the best scenario is that you love what you do at work and you love your home life and all sort of fits together. But know that there are certain times in your career you’re just really going to have to focus on the career more than you’re going to focus on the family life. And if you’re a mom, realize that certain things, if you’re able to delegate, that’s great, but even if you’re not, you don’t have to be perfect all the time.”

No one’s perfect. And like, what does perfect mean anyway? And so, just do your best and compliment yourself on the good that you are doing. Focus on the things you’re doing right instead of sitting there criticizing yourself always and saying, “Oh I’m not good enough for anyone.”

RH: And I love the advice from Kate White’s time as a working mother. She’d leave her office at Cosmo at five o’clock, have the babysitter make dinner so she could spend more time with her children at that quality hour. And then after, then she’d go back to work. That sounds really sensible to me.
VD: Right, I know a lot of women today who are doing that. They’re logging back on after they’ve put the kids to bed and it helps them get the work done. Obviously, it’s not the ideal situation because you would ideally like to have your nights free too but in reality sometimes the workload demands that and it’s a way to work things out. And hopefully, you have a flexible enough boss who understands that sometimes you need to leave at five o’clock for the soccer game or what have you. But there’s things you can do to work around it and hopefully there’s some give and take from your employer.

RH: Is there anything that you heard from any of these women that made you rethink something that you had been doing as a matter of course?
VD: Oh, that’s a really good one. You know, I don’t know if it’s so much rethink but rather reinforce. I think that this whole idea of asking for what you want and not being afraid of asking. I think sometimes women and I guess men too, maybe are afraid to be just kind of “call it in,” so to speak, and say what they’re looking to do and what they’re hoping for. And a lot of these women—by reading their stories­—they acknowledge that that’s not always easy to do and sometimes there’s pushback for doing it but there is a way to do it in a way that suits you as a person.

And the thing is you’re never going to get what you don’t ask for. So just knowing that alone—you’re afraid of failing by asking? But you’ve already failed if you don’t ask.

RH: So what now, Veronica, 20 more?
VD: [Laughter.] We’ll see. We’re going to be doing a video series next. We’re going to be doing more on social media and Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and a lot more podcasts, a lot more Secrets of Wealthy Women podcasts and then hopefully just branching out into more stories about women in finance and the workplace.

RH: I’ll listen, I’ll read, I’ll watch.
VD: Thank you.

RH: You can download Veronica Dagher’s eBook, Resilience, at This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman.

About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.

About Ray Hoffman: Ray Hoffman, a veteran business journalist, is highly-regarded for his news and analysis features and insightful CEO interviews. Representing BusinessWeek on air for twenty-one years, Mr. Hoffman was the morning business news voice on the ABC Radio Networks from 1995 to 2006. Mr. Hoffman also represented The Wall Street Journal, on air, for eleven years. His daily WCBS CEO Radio feature was recognized by the New York Press Club as best radio business news report in both 2012 and 2015. In this podcast, Mr. Hoffman invites some of America’s most dynamic CEOs to share their stories as business builders and perspectives on free enterprise.