“The Word No Means Nothing:” Celebrity Stylist Olori Swank On How To Make It As An Entrepreneur
When celebrity stylist, entrepreneur, and author Olori Swank, who is known for her blue tresses and electric style, graduated from college she thought that she was going to continue on the path to becoming a neurosurgeon. However, a meeting with a Jive Records A&R executive changed her life and set her on the path to fashion styling.
Fast forward years later, and the talented Swank’s client roster now includes talent such as Lance Gross, Christina Milian, Teyana Taylor, Keyshia Cole, Tyrese, among many others. She’s been featured on OWN, CNN, BET, Black Enterprise, and more for her fashion and beauty advice. She is also the owner of swankblue.com, a fashion e-boutique, where she retails high-end looks at affordable prices, and she recently released 101: The BluePrint For A Swank Life where she shares her personal fashion, style, dating, finance, and entrepreneurial advice.
We had the opportunity to chat with Olori about her career and the steps she took to ensure following her passion was her long-term reality. Her advice to those that want to transition careers but are not sure how? “Jump and build your wings on the way down.”
Check out the highlights from our chat below. To hear the full audio of this interview, check out her episode on the Dreams In Drive podcast.
Madame Noire (MN): When you were in college, what were your plans post graduation?
Olori Swank (OS): I planned to be a neurosurgeon. I was going to get my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia (which I did). I was going to attend Medical School. I had been telling everyone since the age of two that I was going to be a doctor. I decided that before I went to medical school I was going to take a year off. In that year off is when I discovered the wonderful world of fashion styling.
One of my friends from Jive said, “Hey, I just signed this new artist. I want you to style her.” I remember telling him that I don’t do hair. I didn’t know what a fashion stylist was. He explained to me that he wanted me to dress her how I dress and we’d be good. An hour later I’m getting a phone call from the accounting department at Sony BMG. They said they needed a W9, an EIN number and where they were wiring the budget to– [there were] all these questions that I had NO idea how to answer. I got off the phone with them. I spent that hour googling every single thing that she asked me for and figuring out how to get my hands on it. I created my business in that six day span that I had to get the job.
MN: Was it at that moment that you realized you could make a living out of fashion styling?
OS:When I started doing the styling thing, I said that I was really passionate about this. I asked myself, “Why did you want to be a doctor anyway?” Somewhere along the line I realized the only reason I wanted to be a doctor was because I was really good at school. Fashion and entrepreneurism felt like a challenge to me. It felt like something that I needed to work at even though I had those innate skills for fashion. I stuck with it. It was something that I could see myself doing for free so I decided to make a career out of it.
MN: What would you say to someone who is scared to take the leap of faith because they are scared of what others may think?
OS: To be honest, I am very good at taking myself outside of myself and looking at the situation like I’m not in it. When my parents were like, they want me to go to school, I knew why they were doing it. It’s because they were nervous or scared to take risks. They know the downside of what can happen if it doesn’t work out. I respect that. One thing that I do know that it is high-risk, high-reward. I had to look at it like this: No one ever makes it without taking a risk and this is a risk that I am going to take. I didn’t count out their opinion. I knew where they were coming from and acknowledged and appreciated that. At the end of the day, the bigger picture for me was that high reward that came with that high risk.
MN: What were your early days as a stylist like?
OS: The biggest challenge for me was learning how to trust my intuition and being okay with not having all the answers. I’m always so used to knowing everything that I involve myself in. Being that I had never went to school for styling or assisted or interned under anyone, there were a lot of things that I didn’t know…down to how much I was supposed to be charging. It took me a few years to be comfortable saying what my rate was or being able to tell people what I was charging them. The biggest thing for me was being okay with learning while I went along and winging it 99% of the time and praying that it turned out right.
MN: How did you secure other celebrity clients like Teyana Taylor, Keyshia Cole, Lance Gross, etc.?
OS: The industry is very referral based. One client would mention me to another. Each job gained more momentum and spring-boarded me to the next one.
MN: At one point you took a hiatus and moved to Alabama. You took up a job as a Sales Consultant selling gym memberships. How did that impact your life?
OS:When I was at the gym, I learned so much about running a business on a larger scale with minimal resources. The gym was the high life of the town. I was so good at sales early that it only took them a very short amount of time to upgrade me to a managerial position. Then they gave me my own gym to manage. I asked if they were going to teach me what to do and they told me to continue selling gym memberships, find staff, try to hire people. Just how I learned the business of fashion styling, they threw me into the gym and told me to figure it out. As long as those sales numbers were where they needed to be every month, they didn’t care how I was doing it. I was at the gym from sun up to sun down. I’m pretty much in there by myself…I didn’t have a huge staff. I think I made them about $1.6 million in six months by myself. The gym is where the money is. I was sitting there looking at the sales numbers and projections for the next month and said, “What am I doing here? Why don’t I just do this for myself?” I took everything that I learned from that experience and started applying it to my own business.
MN: What were some specific things you learned that helped you build your clientele?
OS: The word “no” means nothing. You’re going to hear “no” a ton of times but you can’t let that stop you from achieving your goal. Eventually somebody is going to say yes. I would always ask for a referral. I learned the basics that go a long way when it comes to sales.
MN: You ended up buying a one-way ticket to LA to return to styling. How did that move change your life?
OS: I discovered the fashion district. I became a buyer for my website swankblue.com. I would buy one shirt I thought the girls back home would love. I would take a photo on my iphone, post it on my site and when that shirt sold, I would go back the next day and buy another…[and so on.] That is how swankblue.com grew.
MN: For someone who wants to be a stylist, what are the basics that they need in place before opening up shop?
OS: You need to be disciplined. You have to be self sufficient. No one is going to wake you up in the morning and say it’s time to go to work. If you’re sick, you don’t have anyone to call in to. It’s pretty much if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Knowing that you like to do it or because you feel that you are destined to do it, doesn’t mean that it is going to be easy. You still have to put that work in to be disciplined and do the things you don’t want to do so that you can do the things that everybody else can’t do.
MN: How did you get comfortable charging what you’re worth?
OS: By learning what I needed to know to be the best at what I was doing. When I felt like I had enough experience and was good at what I was going, it made me confident enough to know my worth and add taxes to it.
MN: What are your go-to tools?
OS: One website: Google. Google will be your best friend. Google has taught me how to code my own website, how to be my own graphic designer and how to form my own business.
MN: What are your tips for building a successful online brand? Do you need a signature look?
OS: Be organic and find a focus. Don’t try to do too many things or be too many things. If you’re brand is nails or you want to be a nail blogger, focus on just that. Figure out what your brand is and be consistent. We are all individuals with different fingerprints. Certain people get lost in trying to be what is popular. If you stay true to who you really are and find your personal self and you stick to that. You will stand out automatically.
MN: What are your long-term goals?
OS: Most people want to be relevant. I want to be revolutionary. I want people to be able to look back and be like, “She paved the way” or “Without her, this wouldn’t be around right now.” I’m not thinking about anything specific. Most of the things that I do are organic. I pray that one of these organic things spark a revolution.
MN:What is the hardest thing about this industry?
OS: Not getting distracted. Some people want to fake it until they make it. They fake it for so long that they never make it. They want to keep up with the next person or copy instead of running their own race. Stay focused on what it is that you are doing.
MN: What advice would you give to that person who is scared to take the leap and pursue their passion?
OS: Jump and build your wings on the way down.
To listen to the full audio interview with Olori, click here.