THE BLOG

Women in Business Q&A: Shireen Jiwan, Founder and CEO of Sleuth

02/04/2015 06:48 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

Shireen Jiwan is the founder and CEO of Sleuth, the leading brand management consultancy operating at the intersection of luxury and technology.

Backed by Sleuth's propriety methodology and network of partners, Shireen's approach injects creativity, deep analysis and imagination into solving complex business problems. The result is immersive, transformative and technology-fueled experiences for clients including The Breakers Hotel Palm Beach, Microsoft, Xbox, DeBeers, Ralph Lauren and Harry Winston.

Prior to Sleuth, Shireen held senior planning positions at WPP, Ogilvy & Mather, and Fallon Worldwide where she developed highly disruptive global campaign strategies for leaders like Coca Cola, BMW, CitiGroup, Levis, MTV, American Express, Kraft and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. Her breakthrough planning work resulted in a myriad of awards including Cannes, Effie, Clio One Show (Gold) and D&AD.

She enjoys ongoing pro-bono work for The American Red Cross, YMCA and Free Arts for Abused Children and has lectured on brand building at Columbia Business School and The University of Washington Foster School of Business.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm the Canadian, mixed-culture daughter of two African refugees, both of whom work in public service. They taught me that empathy is everything. Thinking about life from someone else's vantage point is really important in planning. You have to be able to get out of your own shoes.

Also, growing up I attended a number of schools ranging from diverse inner-city public school to an elite all-girls private school. Social survival hinged on the ability to shift, chameleon-like, into any group. Today I'm very comfortable working, talking or hanging out with people of vastly different backgrounds. The brands I work with range from value retail to high luxury. I love the elasticity of thinking that brings to my work. It's never boring.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Sleuth?
I lucked out early on and landed a job at a classic planning agency (Fallon) where I was given a rigorous and disciplined degree in classic brand planning. I was taught to craft (and fight for) a strong point of view. I was taught that a planner's job is to make the creative work better and more powerful. Those early lessons come in very handy, especially when working in the tech field, where there's more expertise in engineering than in brand.

I've also had the privilege of working for some of the leading minds in brand and marketing - Jon Steel, Cindy Gallup, Adam Morgan, Chuck McBride and Emma Cookson. There's no greater pleasure than being the dumbest guy in the room.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Sleuth?
Starting a business from scratch is a great experience. Every successful entrepreneur has faced and surmounted a fear of having to live on a friend's couch. It's hugely empowering.

One of the greatest challenges is also a highlight - these days I'm rarely hired just to crack a brief. My business has shifted to teaching clients how to activate a brand idea across everything they do from product innovation to packaging to logo design and more. Each client's challenge is unique but Sleuth's method finds ways to use branding to solve each of their business problems.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Don't underestimate the pitch process. Clients that don't hire you right away may come back to you later or refer you to someone else. Learn to love shaking hands and kissing babies. It'll become your way of life.

Protect your time - don't let people waste it and don't waste theirs either. Prioritize high-potential work, projects, meetings and people. Get comfortable with saying no and know when to walk away.

Mentor & Train Great Peeps. Hone your eye for talent and potential. Then invest time and resources in training and mentorship - you're only as good as your weakest link. And don't forget to listen, too.

Trust Yourself. People will question your ideas, but stay the course. Remember why you did this in the first place. I started Sleuth 10 years ago because I believe that there's a better way to build and activate strong brands. Remembering that is incredibly clarifying and motivating for me on a daily basis.

Dress The Part. For the love of God, don't work in your bathrobe. Your wardrobe is costume for life -- dress to ensure the most successful outcome in any given situation. Dress like the CEO because that's who you are.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I've learned that everyone is a "creative." You can solve any business problem and solve any mystery with ingenuity, healthy risk-taking and lateral thinking. Also, don't forget to have fun. We're not tax accountants.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
First, I've chosen a job that I love so much it often feels like I'm just spending my days having fun.

Also, I don't work with people I don't like - despots, bigots and bullies need not apply. Life is too short to work with people who throw phones.

I've structured a life that allows me to reserve time for my VIPs. I'm Art Docent at my son's school. I'm actively involved in our local community.

Finally, I've come to terms with the fact that there's no such thing as balance. Real life is more of a constant wobble - I try to fall gracefully. Don't pretend everything's perfect. That's an a**hole move.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Without a doubt: confidence. Don't let people undermine you or push you around because of your gender. Conflict is difficult in the heat of the moment but I've never regretted standing up for myself. Lastly, whenever possible, help a sista out. Helping other women to be successful benefits all of us, men and women, in the long run.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've been blessed with incredible mentors over the years.

I try to pay that forward with work for the American Red Cross, Free Arts For Abused Children, and the YMCA's At Risk Youth program. I also guest Lecture at Columbia and University of Washington business schools.

I want others to know that there's more than one kind of success story.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many. I love watching women succeed on their own terms. My current girl crush is Jenna Lyons. It helps that she rocks feathers and fur at board meetings. Respect.

What do you want Sleuth to accomplish in the next year?
Much of Sleuth's client work happens intersection of luxury and technology. We have expertise in these spaces separately, but increasingly these sectors are blending, creating tremendous growth opportunity on both sides. In the decade since I launched Sleuth, I've worked with some incredible brands and CMOs when they recognize they're hitting a brick wall to help them navigate this Instagram-fueled landscape. In the next year, you'll see Sleuth's clients launch groundbreaking work in both luxury and tech. We will introduce new forms of life changing, lust worthy technology and - at the same time - redefine classic luxury with fresh takes on social media and mobile.