Growing up in the well-appointed suburbs of Detroit, Pooneh Mohajer had her future mapped out. She’d become a doctor, like her father, a successful surgeon. But as an undergrad at Vanderbilt University, it was English lit classes that captivated her, not the sciences.
So Mohajer charted a new course: She’d become a lawyer instead, one who specialized in entertainment law, because of her love of the arts. Eventually, she’d work as a producer. She had a 10-year plan.
Fast-forward to today, however, you find that Mohajer is actually a successful entrepreneur. Her third startup, Tokidoki, is a global lifestyle brand, with Japanese-inspired, eye-catching products available in 60 countries, a cultlike following, and big-name partners, including Marvel, Barbie, and Sephora.
Despite her love of plans, Mohajer is someone who has learned to be open to the unexpected. In fact, it was that first startup opportunity back in the 1990s with her sister, Dineh, that affected the trajectory of Pooneh’s life like no other moment.
Things were happening as you had envisioned – law school, L.A., your first job in entertainment. What changed?
I was hard at work at a production company, and my sister was premed, one class from finishing, I think, when she came up with this beautiful nail polish color-;blue pastel. She mixed it herself. Pastels were hot in fashion then, on everything from accessories to clothing. I kept telling her to start a business, and she’d say, “No one will buy it.” But everybody who saw her colors wanted them.
What made you even suggest starting a business? You had a job and that plan of yours.
I get it from our parents. We both do. My parents immigrated here from Iran in the early ’60s. They started from scratch and built a life for themselves. They were pretty brave. Even though my father was a surgeon, he also had his own business, a surgical outpatient facility in Detroit. My mother ran the business. I remember helping in the office, filing for her, when I was a girl.
Was it hard to leave your law career and start something from scratch yourself?
I talked to some of my colleagues about it. I thought, I’m young and the entertainment industry isn’t going anywhere, but this opportunity is right now. I just need to go for it. When opportunities present themselves, there’s a window, and you have to be able to jump through it before it starts to close.
How did you overcome your inexperience and make Hard Candy a global brand so quickly?
We didn’t know what we were doing, but it didn’t matter. We thought, We need to do everything we can to keep growing. We’ll learn as we go. My sister was 22, and I was 29. Today, it’s all about the rise of the female entrepreneur, but it wasn’t like that then. It was a struggle. My law degree turned out to be very important because I negotiated our contracts.
What was the turning point, your big break?
The first was when we got in Sharon Segal’s store in Santa Monica. My sister was working there part-time, and they agreed to sell the first three bottles on consignment. A teenage girl begged her mom to buy her all three. Sharon was thrilled and asked my sister for 200 bottles immediately. We were soon selling there for $11 or $12 per bottle, a luxury price point at the time.
The second break was when Alicia Silverstone, the actress, showed up on David Letterman wearing our nail polish. This was pre-Internet, so national TV exposure was a huge moment for us. Things really took off.
Did making that initial leap into the unknown and having it pay off make it easier to take a chance with your current company? When you started Tokidoki with Simone Legno, he was a complete stranger.
I was very, very skittish. But I was so in love with everything that Simone was doing before I met him. He was living in Milan when I saw his illustrations and graphics on his site one day. I just freaked out. I fell in love with his work right then and there. I said, “Oh my God, I have to work with this guy.”
I was really scared, because I was enticing this young man to pack up his whole life and cross the globe and move to California. He was 26 years old, and I was urging him to start this brand with me and my husband at the time.
I felt an incredibly strong sense of responsibility from day one – and I still feel that way.
Opportunity and risk are so intertwined. What’s the secret to getting comfortable with risk?
I wouldn’t say it’s ever comfortable, but risk is almost like a necessity. If you don’t take risks, you never get a shot at the benefits of taking them.
As someone who values planning and preparation, how do you stay open to—and embrace—the unexpected?
There’s so much serendipity that goes into my life. It’s very consistent with Tokidoki. Do you know what it means? “Sometimes” in Japanese. Simone’s interpretation is we all wait for those moments that happen in our lives that change our destiny.
It’s funny, we have these plans for ourselves, these well-laid plans, and then you meet someone or are influenced by something or exposed to something-;and we end up going in another direction, which is great.