The Path: Hard Candy and Smith & Cult Founder Dineh Mohajer

IThe Path, we spotlight different women making a difference in the fashion, beauty, wellness, medical aesthetics, and more industries. Here, serial beauty entrepreneur Dineh Mohajer shares her road to success.

Dineh Mohajer is one of the original beauty entrepreneurs to focus on filling white space. No one had really made nail polish cool until she came along. And, according to the way she tells it, it wasn’t more complicated than her active imagination: she looked at a bunch of old nail polish bottles and reimagined the colors inside them. 

Born in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Mohajer studied pre-med at Boston University before transferring to USC. Her plans to become a plastic surgeon were thwarted by those aforementioned nail polishes. At that time (the mid-1990s), the world of nail polish was mostly limited to pinks, reds, and purples, with the occasional edgy shade (like Chanel®’s iconic Vamp® lacquer) mixed in.

It was when Mohajer was 21 and getting her nails done at a salon that her business idea struck. She observed “these crusty, old, used-up bottles of blue and purple polish that looked like they’d been chewed up by some animal,” and asked to buy them. “I figured I could mix them with white [polish], so I did,” she explains. After blending a “clean, pastel baby pink” and visiting a party store (where she saw kitschy rubber rings), her first brand, Hard Candy®, was born.

Those rings would go on to crown each bottle of nail polish that she would mix up herself, almost like a mad beauty scientist. She bought that “crusty” brand’s lacquers in bulk and would dump all of one shade into a squeeze tube to combine it with white to make pretty pastel shades. “I’d sit there and watch TV as it slowly poured in,” Mohajer shares. “My friends would walk in and heave over the toxic smell, but I’d been dealing with it all day, so I couldn’t even smell it. Nice, right?”

Three years after that point, in 1999, Hard Candy had become such a huge phenomenon (with an extensive list of celebrity fans) that she was able to sell it to LVMH for an undisclosed sum. She then launched two more brands, including the beauty collection Smith & Cult®. And throughout all that time, she develops “little cyber brands,” mastering Illustrator, Photoshop, and Aftereffects so she can create things herself. (In fact, she’s even developed a new brand, which is still in the incubation phase.)

Successes like Mohajer’s don’t just happen without thinking quickly on your feet and a hearty dose of gumption. So, we sat down with her and asked her to walk us through it all, from founding brands and career advice to the skincare products and treatments that keep her glowing

Spotlyte: So, what was the impetus for Smith & Cult?

DM: I met the guys from Luxury Brand Partners. They owned Oribe® and developed R+Co® hair care, and they wanted a nail brand, so they came to me, and we whipped one up. I went into my bed (which is where everything gets done), and I developed a whole line based on the concept of the “diary of a beauty addict” — how the components of how beauty manifests into our lives. It was fun because we could give it a fresh take. It has a piece of smoke and mirrors, because art is so important to me, but there’s also this edge to it that’s based in being raw.

Spotlyte: Why do you think that is?

DM: I think it’s an extension of my personality. That’s really who I am: missing an edit or a filter button. I’m just really honest to a fault — when it’s not a good idea to be that honest, but well, too bad. But I do think people find it refreshing. There’s a fine line between “Ugh” and refreshing.

“Ugh?” Meaning, “Enough already?”

DM: Yeah, or “Shut the f*ck up” or “You’re pushing the boundaries, so you’re making me uncomfortable.” But mostly, it’s well-received because I’m not a jerk.

Spotlyte: You are definitely not a jerk. What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting her own beauty brand?

DM: Think twice! Just kidding. Think one hundred times before you walk down that path. It really depends. If you’re creative, you’d better find a business partner who knows what they’re doing, and P.S., good luck with that. That’s really hard. But, really, the best advice I can give is this: Recognize your weaknesses and recognize your strengths and play into both. The first step is self-realization. Knowing that, flourish within that. Rise in that place.

Spotlyte: You’ve been fortunate with your business partner, Jeanne Chavez.  How did you meet?

DM: I was this 21-year old dodo bird, dealing with big retailers I hadn’t pursued myself. I also sent the product to all the magazines, thinking maybe one of them would write about it, but they all did. So, I was in over my head, I was just running with it. Jeanne, meanwhile, was repping a bunch of independent brands. One of the Nordstrom buyers asked her to check me out, concerned that I might not know what I was doing because they had a lot of orders with me.

Spotlyte: How did you know that you two were a good match?

DM: As soon as I spoke to her on the phone, I could tell she was someone special, but I pushed her off, as nicely as I could. Two and a half months later, I had an office — and the minute I moved into it, I called her up. I had a fax machine and a phone on the floor, with two people helping me. Not one piece of furniture. Oh, and then there were the boxes full of all of the orders that had missed their ship date.

Nevertheless, Jeanne and I fell in love the minute we met. I always call us the Odd Couple. She’s fancy and comes from academia, and I’m a child of immigrants that’s on the short side and has no filter. But it works so well for us. It’s where the name Smith & Cult came from. She’s the Smith and I’m the Cult.

Spotlyte: Looking back, what was the best advice you received about starting a business?

DM: The best advice is what my dad claims he told me, but I don’t believe him. Then again, that time was filled with a lot of volatile vapors, but let’s pretend he said this: Keep all the equity yourself. Don’t dole it out. And, of course, I didn’t listen to him. I mean, you’re going to need the money for capital infusions, but that’s different. Also, review your contracts and as though you don’t trust anyone, because you never know what could go wrong. You need protection!

Spotlyte: What’s been the most satisfying element to running Smith & Cult?

DM: Creative expression and being able to work with my lovely partner. Having an outlet to create what I want to create—all the artwork, all the colors, all the packaging, being able to work with friends I’ve collaborated with, like my best friend Spencer Susser, who’s an amazing director. He shoots all of my stuff. He’s just brilliant. Just collaborating and making wonderful things — those are the best parts.

Spotlyte: What goals do you still wish to accomplish with the brand?

DM: To keep expanding and doing wonderful things. And maybe that’ll lead to that incubating brand I mentioned earlier. I would love that, because that’s what I do. I do things for three or four years, sell them, then move on and do another vibe. I kind of can’t keep still.

Spotlyte: How does it feel to be called an entrepreneur?

DM: Being an entrepreneur is both scary and very liberating. For many people, it’s unchartered territory because there’s all this room to be open and explore, so it’s kind of boundless. However, on the flip side, you’re on your own. You might have a lot of obstacles, a lot of people to deal with whom you might not be able to navigate, but the wonderful thing is you don’t really have to answer to anybody else. You’re the boss.

Spotlyte: Who shouldn’t try it?

DM: Someone who can’t make decisions and doesn’t know how to pick a business partner. Did I mention that I have lucked out? That said, because of my weaknesses, historically, I have had some bad set-ups…

Spotlyte: Shifting to you and self-care, what products do you swear by at home?

DM: I use so much SkinMedica®! The Dermal Repair Cream ($129), TNS Essential Serum® ($281), SPF, and the AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser ($47). And then I use the standard subjects, like prescription [tretinoin] and vitamin C — I use Lira ClinicalTM Pro Lite Serum ($40).

Honestly, I don’t love going into a store and being sold hope in a jar. I like the doctors a lot, and chemicals. I really am a doctor’s girl. I go to my dermatologist and that’s it.

Spotlyte: Do you do in-office treatments these days?

DM: I’ve been going to AfterglowTM, this amazing place in Beverly Hills. They did a gem peel and some face-ironing thing. I don’t know what it’s called, but it delivers heat to your skin underneath. I also love lasers. I had a combo of great products that helped smooth out a scar I had. And I also love me a peel.

Spotlyte: What’s the most important thing you rely on to balance running your businesses and having a happy non-work life?

DM: That’s something I’m really struggling with that’s affected my life. The three Ps: perfectionism, pleasing and procrastination. These are things that very much run interference in balancing my business and having a happy non-work life. It’s just something I struggle with every second.

Spotlyte: Do you sleep?

DM: Not a lot. I have a combo [of] ADHD and brutal deadlines that I have to meet, but I want everything to look perfect. I will fall into the computer program for hours and hours and hours. Next thing I know, 16 hours will go by. That can’t be a good thing.

Allergan® may receive commission for purchases made through links in this article.

SkinMedica is an Allergan-owned skincare line.