Women In Business Q&A: Elena Hansen, Founder, Swim Social

11/10/2016 05:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Elena Hansen

Elena Hansen is the founder of Swim Social, a full service social media agency based in Los Angeles. She grew up in Yakima, WA and graduated from the University of Washington in 2010 with a focus on New Media Strategy in Communication. While in school, she developed her photography skills and worked as a wedding and lifestyle photographer. After college, Elena transitioned into corporate marketing and navigated the fashion and hospitality industries. She recognized the need for a progressive marketing approach and began freelancing social media services, from content creation to platform management. Elena earned a reputation as a social media marketing expert and quickly built a referral-based business. She launched Swim Social in 2015 and the agency grew to 10 full-time employees in one year. Swim continues to grow and service over 30 businesses nationwide, from consumer goods to fashion brands, hotels, restaurants, non-profits, personalities and more.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
For as long as I can remember, I've been in my own lane. Growing up, that wasn't always easy or accepted by my peers. Rather than hang with the cool kids, I would do creative work on my lunch break or start a new extracurricular club at school. This individuality resulted in my share of mean girls and bullying throughout school, but those experiences put a healthy chip on my shoulder. It also taught me the value of treating others the way you want to be treated and I carry that life lesson into my leadership approach.

When it comes to leading the team at Swim, I relate a lot of situations back to sports. I grew up playing basketball and nearly every management and business situation reminds me of sports. It has helped me to keep calm under pressure, rise to the occasion when my team needs me, and even hire the right people by looking for team players. Basketball also conditioned me to be very competitive and that has helped me to keep Swim ahead of the game.

As an adult, I don't look at the norm or standard and feel comfortable there. Whether standards are set by age, gender, race or other - I always aim to raise the bar. I never want to impose myself as a leader on others, and would rather lead by example. I've read numerous books on leadership - how to be a better leader, how to get respect from others - but there is no better manual than what you learn from leading by example.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at SWIM SOCIAL?
My path to Swim Social was an unexpected one. Growing up, I pictured myself in a number of jobs like a sportscaster or an executive at an ad agency. I graduated from college in the midst of the recession in 2010, and knew that I would have to really prove my value for a company to hire me. In college, I had rigorous internships and did photography for money. I developed an online portfolio of creative projects that I could share with potential employers, which ultimately led to a full-time job in Los Angeles with a major fashion brand. They actually hired me 2-months before graduation and I was flying to and from their New York headquarters while taking my final tests.

Perhaps by coincidence, I have held 3 corporate positions in which the role did not exist at the company before me. Therefore I have always felt a responsibility to set a high standard in a new company role. It always felt like a test so I invited the challenge of setting up new systems and showing the positive impact of my position.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SWIM SOCIAL?
A major highlight of Swim Social has been, no doubt, the clients that we have had the opportunity to work with. I've been very selective in who we take on, because we become so involved in their story and community. To properly manage a business' social media, it requires a lot of research on that industry. We have the opportunity to learn so much about a variety of industries and markets.

The biggest challenge has also been the most exciting part - the fast growth of the company. It has been really rewarding to see the business grow so much in one year. I'm really focused on doing everything right from the beginning at Swim, whether it's financially or culturally.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
The honest advice that I would give women in this industry is to lose the distractions and put in the work. I think society, especially social media, can complicate things for women. You have to be motivated and focused and willing to work hard. Nothing worth having comes easy and I think too many women still shy away from challenge in the workplace. I've conditioned myself to invite challenge. Everyone is on the same playing field to me now, men and women, and I would argue that I'm at advantage because I'm a woman. In regards to marketing, women are very intuitive and have a unique ability to connect with people. If we are focused, eager and working hard, there is no limit to what we can do.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The most important lesson I've learned is that no opportunity is too small. I have approached every opportunity like it's a game changer for me and Swim Social. That has helped us build a strong reputation. You never know which opportunities will open new doors, or who you will meet, so it's important to bring your A-game every time.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Year one of Swim Social was a complete wash for my personal life. I didn't have work/life balance and that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. In year two, I'm starting to make time for myself and my needs. But that is exactly what you have to do - set aside the time as if it's the most important meeting you have. I could still fill every morning and evening with work if I allowed myself to, but instead, I am taking time to workout, meditate or be with friends. I have realized that being an entrepreneur is a marathon and not a sprint, and I want to be able to function at a high level for a long time. I'm also working on being a well-rounded person. I think about situations like sitting across from someone at dinner and what I would talk about- and I want to be more than my work.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've taken bits of what I need in terms of mentorship from different people. I haven't looked to an individual for mentorship, and I haven't found mentors in the social media space because it's so new. I look to my parents for life guidance because they know me so well. They help me to stay on track and trust myself throughout this whole process. I look up to Oprah and Beyoncé for how they have fearlessly trail-blazed their careers and industries. I learn from the people around me every day. I'm very observant and try to learn from everyone's strengths and weaknesses as well as my own. I'm committed to being a lifelong learner and I think I'll find mentorship from a variety of people and places along the way.