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Jonno White

7 Questions with Serena Houlihan
7 Questions with Serena Houlihan

Name: Serena Houlihan

Current title: Co-Founder & CEO

Current organisation: Le Wren

Serena Roberts Houlihan, Co-Founder & CEO of Le Wren, is a retail executive turned entrepreneur. After graduating from Brown University, she honed her merchandising and buying skills at Saks Fifth Avenue, Coach and Gap. She lost her mother to Glioblastoma in 2009. She now resides in Houston, TX with her husband and three small children while following her dream of building a mission-led retail company.

7 Questions with Serena Houlihan

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader of a small or medium enterprise?

I've never been a CEO before. I've never been responsible for literally everything before. In larger organizations, areas of responsibility are clearly defined (typically), scope is specific. That is not the case in SMEs. It's been an adjustment coming from the corporate world to a startup environment, but also incredibly exciting. I am learning so much every day and faced with decisions I never would have encountered in my old corporate life.

2. How did you become a leader of an SME? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I co-founded Le Wren with a friend, Amanda Goller, during the pandemic. We were both in transition periods in our own careers and had talked for years about starting a company together. Finally the concept came to light through some unfortunate personal circumstances but it gave us the focus to get working on Le Wren and bring it to market in 2019.

We had both had long successful corporate careers in our respective fields (me in retail and Amanda in management consulting and strategy) but wanted to work on something that had more personal meaning and potential for social good impact. We also both firmly believe in the power of women-led companies (especially those with women customers). From that passion, Le Wren was born.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Frankly, my work life is defined by my children's schedules. I am their mom first and foremost when they are not at school or being cared for by our incredible nanny. The hours during the day where they are happily engaged elsewhere are mine to work and make the most of. In that window, I try to be as structured as possible with my time and find that I am actually more effective with a shorter working window than I was before becoming a mother. As soon as they are accounted for, I sit down, write a clear to do list (that is also manageable) and take care of mission critical first, while leaving some space for "soak/strategy" time. I find I need to dedicate at least an hour a day to ideation and creative work vs. just tactical. I struggle with getting distracted by "all the things", so the to-do list truly helps me stay focused. Then, after their bedtime, I will check in on work again, more out of curiosity than necessity. I truly love what I do so I find the lines between working and doing what I love are happily blurry these days.

4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

What a great question. Humility. No leader, no matter how talented or successful, knows everything. It simply isn't possible. Those that lead without egos or chips on their shoulder are going to be far more effective than those that do.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

It's not a traditional business book, but a book about perspective and empowerment: "Untamed" by Glennon Doyle. "Untamed" articulated so much I didn't even realize I had been carrying. It helped liberate my way of thinking about my own potential, both as a business person and a human, and I think in part pushed me towards creating Le Wren. It helped me look inward to find the courage to build this brand from the ground up. It has also helped me understand how I can empower others (including my daughter) to fulfill their dreams and hopes, which is a really important part of being a terrific leader, regardless of organizational size.

6. How do you build leadership capacity in an SME?

I think it's always helpful to stay clear on your vision for the organization you're leading. If you get too bogged down in the weeds, you lose the ability to really impact the business and team in a meaningful way. Obviously this is easier said than done, but so critical. And if you find yourself veering off course, or getting distracted by details that perhaps a team member should be handling, you have to take a pause and remind yourself of the priorities, the mission, the purpose of what you're trying to accomplish. I find that a little pause usually helps clear the air, so to speak, and give me back the capacity I need to continue leading.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader of an SME so far?

My entire career, before Le Wren, I was always in the right job, meaning, I was a product person. That's what I did, that's what I was really good at, and I knew how to do it. I progressed along a specific path and while the leadership challenges grew, the nuts and bolts of the job were more or less the same over time.

Now, I'm a Founder of an ecommerce start up and find myself having to navigate all sorts of new fields that I've never encountered before: digital marketing, website design and maintenance, etc. It is a whole new world and while that is incredibly exciting and I'm learning so much each day, it is also very daunting at times.

Our first website, I built myself. Truly. I was so proud of myself for doing it (never having built a website before), but it wasn't until we actually hired a firm to revamp it (ie, build it all over again) that I realized how important it would be going forward for me to accept where my limitations sat and to delegate those tasks to the subject matter experts.

I think perhaps that is an especially hard lesson to learn when you're a founder and building a brand or company that has so much personal meaning. I want my stamp on every single bit of the business but recognizing that I can still influence direction without being involved with the execution has been a big and important lesson.

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