Amanda Slavin is no different than a lot of millennials today. She grew up in a relatively upper-class neighborhood in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey and had parents that supported her financially. This was Slavin’s reality for the first 16 years of her life and something she grew accustomed to.
Unfortunately in 2002, Slavin, then 16, and her family were greatly hurt by the U.S. recession. Suddenly finances became a huge issue and Slavin had to move a total of three times during high school because of her family’s money problems. Because of that, Slavin had to quickly learn how to take care of herself. She told NextShark:
“We had a lot of money and then we didn’t have a lot of money. The economy crashed and I saw what it looked like for 16 years of my life to live in a very rich town and then I saw what it looked like to have to make it on my own. I think what happened is my work ethic shifted when I moved three times in high school. I had to validate myself other than my social activities. Again I didn’t have the money at 15 years-old. So I started working all these jobs to prove to myself that I could keep up with the people that did have money around them.”
Slavin eventually graduated high school and went on to study education at the University of Connecticut. However, she quickly learned that teaching wasn’t for her.
“I taught first grade and middle school, but the classroom was very stifling for me. I’m a creative mind and felt frustrated in a small little classroom. I felt like the bureaucracy of education was going to destroy me.”
While she was in school, she started throwing events in New York City every weekend to make money. She would throw elaborate parties at Cellar Bar at the Bryant Park Hotel for people mostly from the finance and marketing industry.
“By the time I was in my 20s, I didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t have an opportunity to have a lot of money from anyone in my life. My parents supported me beautifully and they’re the most incredible people, but I just didn’t have the financial support. The reason I got into hospitality in NYC is because it paid me. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of making a lot of money. I was just thinking of making a paycheck.”
Upon graduating college in 2009, Slavin accepted a position at Paige Hospitality Group as their director of marketing and events. There, she helped the company grow from two restaurants to seven properties in three years.
At the same time, she was still doing freelance work on the side and was hired by Summit Series to produce an event for high level players in technology, finance and entertainment.
It was during one of these events that she met Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Back then, Hsieh was just about to solidify a $350 million investment into the Downtown Project, which aimed to build a sort of startup paradise in Las Vegas for entrepreneurs. When Slavin got a casual invitation by Hsieh to check out the Downtown Project, she leaped at the opportunity.
But things didn’t go as smoothly as she’d hoped when she flew all the way to Las Vegas from New York only to find that Hsieh did not know who she was or remember that he’d ever even met her. Slavin told the BizJournals.
“He didn’t remember inviting me out there. He backed away from me when I went to say hello. I was confused, I thought, ‘What am I doing in downtown Vegas?'”
Luckily, things picked back up pretty quickly despite the setback. Hsieh later invited her via text to come meet him with a group of people at a bar.
“He invited me out and it was awkward. We actually sat at this exact table when he said, ‘Come meet me. I don’t know who you are, so tell me what you want to do with your life.’ At the time, all I knew was that I knew hospitality and education. I knew how to engage young people but I didn’t know what that actually meant. I wanted to create inspirational experiences to make a difference in the world. He said, ‘Why don’t you do that? Start in downtown Vegas.’ I said, ‘No, you’re crazy. I live in NYC, no way.’ Six months later, Downtown Project became my first client.
From there, Slavin moved out to Vegas and her company, CatalystCreativ, was born with an investment by Tony Hsieh himself. CatalystCreativ creates experiences for people with the sole purpose of building brand equity for companies, cities and movements.
“Our whole mission is to create more active participants and making the world better. For CatalystCreativ as a company, I would love to just touch as many lives as possible and inspire as many people as possible. I know that sounds lofty and crazy. I think that brands and influencers are the best teachers in the world; we just need to give them the curriculum.
One of the company’s biggest events is Catalyst Week, a speaker series that’s brought tastemakers like Sean Stephenson, Indiegogo Founder Slava Rubin and actor Harry Shum Jr. into Las Vegas to learn about and help promote the Downtown Project. Aside from the Downtown Project, CatalystCreativ has curated events for the W Hotel, NPR and Popeye’s.
After three years of being in business, Slavin is still working hard at building her startup. She recounted to NextShark the reason why she became an entrepreneur.
“In terms of entrepreneurship I didn’t do it for the money. I think the reason why I did it was for the freedom. I realize that I work best having an entire field of creativity to play with — like an open field, no doors, no walls. Again, it was really based on passion. I hope that now, two and a half years later, I now realize the value that we offer. I hope now that I can start to put money as a priority because I haven’t. I’ve put passion and purpose and making the world a better place, and eventually you have to say what is the value that we offer and what should someone pay me for that value.
As someone who’s worked closely with Hsieh, Slavin shared some of lessons she’s learned from the entrepreneur.
“Tony always says to people when they ask him, ‘How do you make a billion dollars?’ and he says, ‘Do what you love first and do what you would want to do every single day if you were to be paid zero dollars.’ And so I do believe that the passion is everything and having that purpose and being driven by what you love is so crucial, but I do think that eventually a startup either goes public or gets acquired. That’s really the two options.
In order to eventually get from a startup to a company, I do think you need to have a team in place that knows what they’re doing and have a strategy in order to grow effectively. I think that’s what we’re really learning how. We’ve had our runway of great success of just doing what we love and working really hard, but now in order to get to the next level we need partners that will say, ‘Here’s how we can support you and allow for you to grow,’ as well as team members that can also help with that.”
While it’s no secret that women are the minority in the business world, Amanda Slavin sees her gender as a strength:
“There’s a great book by Mika Brzezinski, it’s called ‘Knowing Your Value’ and it’s about the challenges that come from being a woman. It’s not necessarily how anyone else treats me; it’s how I treat myself and knowing the value that I add as a woman. The whole book is just around the idea that women don’t know their value, don’t know how to negotiate. They really put themselves in a situation where they don’t feel like they deserve a raise or a promotion or even the right amount of money for the work that they’re providing. So I had to do the work on myself and recognize the value I offer, and I’m very emotional. So I’m emotional and vulnerable. I didn’t understand that could be a part of leadership. So as a woman in business, I’ve learned that actually makes you a better leader. It’s about having an open environment and people being able to share with you and you share with them.”
Like all early-stage startups, CatalystCreativ is experiencing the battle between creating a great product and making more money. Slavin, however, said she’s prepared for the challenge.
“It’s been a struggle over the past 15 years to constantly be catching to up those who do have financial support. What I’ve learned in that is I think it’s more crucial to have parents that support and love you and say, ‘Whatever you do, we’re here for you.’ That took a lot of work myself to come to terms with that. I really believe that if you’re doing something good for the world, then money will follow. I really believe it, it just takes time.”
Check out Amanda Slavin’s startup CatalystCreativ.