In ELLE.com’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month, we spoke with Maria Dueñas Jacobs, the founder of the children’s accessories brand Super Smalls. As someone who got her start in fashion at this very magazine, Dueñas Jacobs has a keen eye for style. But more importantly, she developed a drive to work hard. Below, the entrepreneur and mother of three shares how everything in her career has led to Super Smalls, what she does to maintain balance as a mother of three and a company founder, and the biggest lessons she’s learned along the way.
My first job
I was an after-school teacher school at an all-girls private school doing crafts and taking care of kids. It’s so funny because that was the job that was basically available to me, and I loved it because kids are so funny. I felt that way when I was 16 and I feel that way now, over 20 years later.
My worst job experience
I’ve had a lot of bad days and some bad jobs. When I moved to New York, I knew I wanted to study at FIT, but I also knew I wanted to start working. I called all the agencies that represented different stylists and photographers to tell them, “Hi, I’m an assistant stylist—I have extra time and can work for someone else.” This was all despite the fact that I had zero experience. This was very much a “fake it till you make it” situation, and I finagled my way into every job; [I was] willing to do anything.
One of these agents referred me to an agency that booked dressers for fashion shows, and right off the bat, I became a dresser. It was the most amazing experience, but also the worst because I was totally invisible—no one noticed me, but I was so happy to be there. Same with the assistant stylist position; it was the worst because you get treated like you’re nothing, but you learn the most. I felt motivated that I was in the industry I was meant to be in.
The biggest lesson I learned early on in my career
There’s something to learn from everyone. I’ve always felt that way, and I still feel that way now that I have my own company. You can learn as much from the intern as the CEO. Every year, I tell myself to listen more. There’s so much to learn, and I believe in lifelong learning.
What led me to become an accessories editor
I started my career at Glamour under Xanthipi Joannides—an amazing mentor; she’s like a mother to me. She would say things like, “Here is what I need; here is the deadline. I don’t care how you do it, just get it done.” I think other people might feel overwhelmed, but I felt empowered. It was my puzzle to solve. We traveled the world together and she taught me what a kind leader is like.
After four years of working under her, I was ready to do more. That’s when Xanthipi, having seen how I cared for the accessories during our shoots, told me about an accessories position. Her belief in me helped me believe in myself. From there, I decided that I was going to be an expert in the category. I made my way up the ranks at Glamour, and then Samira Nasr—who was the fashion director at ELLE at the time—reached out about a role to be the accessories and jewelry director at ELLE. She was wonderful, and it was a dream job. She also hired me when I was pregnant with my first daughter—which was such an amazing thing.
How I navigated the hiring process while pregnant
I didn’t doubt myself, and Samira didn’t doubt me. I told her, “I’m pregnant, but I want this job and I know I can do this job better than anyone else.” I barely took maternity leave at all—oftentimes, people feel bad for me because of that, but I was so excited, I wanted to work! I get so much joy from my job. I get so much joy from my kids, too, but it’s the combination of both, personal and professional, that keeps me happy and lights me up. That said, I did take proper maternity leave when I had my twin daughters.
Why I decided to pivot and launch Super Smalls
I was ready for my next career challenge, and I met Katrina Lake, the founder of Stitch Fix, through a friend. At the time, she was launching Luxe, which was the contemporary fashion program for Stitch Fix. It was all about using algorithms and technology with a stylist. I realized that I could learn so much working at a tech company, and—in a leap of faith—she hired me.
While I was there, I still felt like I was missing something and knew it wasn’t my be-all and end-all. I was still going to events and dressing up so much to go out, wearing lots of jewelry, and my then-5-year-old Luna was stealing my things and playing with them like toys. She said, “I’ll stop stealing your things, but give me something that’s a toy that looks like it.” I thought, “Why isn’t there a Tiffany experience, but for [children]?” I started what would become Super Smalls when I was at Stitch Fix, but as it grew I realized this is what I’m meant to be doing. Now, we are creating accessories and gifts with an adult sensibility, but made for play.
The biggest lesson I learned since starting my brand
You can’t take your foot off the gas—not for a second. I read Cleo Wade’s What the Road Said to my daughters all the time; the message is that it doesn’t matter what road you take, you just have to keep going.
How I find balance as a mother of three and the founder of a children’s brand
Honestly, I don’t. It’s so hard. Some days, I feel like I’m doing it all right, and others I feel like I’m doing it all wrong. When I’m with my children, I try to put away my phone and be present for them, 100 percent. When I’m in a meeting, I try to be 100 percent present. I think the balance is a myth—there’s just the aspiration of the balance.
How my background prepared me to run a business
I was trained to work like “no” is never an answer, and it’s the perfect mentality for a start-up—you pull it all together. No is a motivation in a lot of ways, so that really prepared me. I also built this network that I didn’t realize I was building. Finally, my eye was trained to know design. I’m not a designer by trade, but I’m very clear in my vision and I know exactly what I want. Because of my background and everything I learned and was exposed to, I have a really clear sense of direction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dale Arden Chong is the Senior Fashion Commerce Editor at ELLE.com. Previously, she was an editor at MensHealth.com and has written for Who What Wear, GLAMOUR, The Coveteur, and more. She loves fashion, food, and art, among other things—but her greatest love is K-pop idol V of BTS.