I’m always looking for blue-toned nail polish to brighten my toes during my favorite days of the year – anytime it’s above 75 degrees! I think I’ve just found my perfect match – ‘Suzi Without a Paddle.’ Now why couldn’t I have thought of that?
If you ever wanted to meet the woman behind the ingenious names of your favorite nail lacquer color, then come meet Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, co-founder and brand ambassador of OPI Nails. Suzi will be the featured speaker at Memphis Jewish Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy Luncheon on January 16, 2020.
Suzi recently released a memoir about how she persevered, alongside her longtime business partner, who happens to be her brother-in-law, to become known worldwide as the “First Lady of Nails.”
“I’m Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time,” recounts her life beginning in Hungary, how Ondontorium Products, Incorporated transitioned into OPI, and how a timid schoolgirl who arrived in the United States with little money and no English became a beauty industry game-changer.
Born in communist Hungary to Holocaust survivors, Suzi immigrated to Israel before settling in the U.S. She shares her Jewish journey believing that a human connection and ongoing education will help reverse rising anti-Semitism and hatred. She encourages her family to do the same by talking about her parents and their generation.
Suzi may have made a name for herself as “the First Lady of Nails,” but she takes tzedakah (charitable giving) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) just as seriously as she does her business.
I had the opportunity to chat with Suzi via email prior to her visit to Memphis.
Jewish Scene: I see that you’ve served on the board of directors of several organizations including The Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, Jewish Women International and USC Shoah Foundation – the Institute for Visual. What drew you to these organizations?
Suzi Weiss-Fischmann: I’m very passionate about education. I’ve chosen to focus on providing scholarships and financial aid for students at schools my children have attended; for obvious reasons, these are closest to my heart.
JS: Do these organizations represent what you are most passionate about? If yes, why?
Suzi: Yes, I strongly believe that education is one of the most important things we can provide for our children. No one can take it away from you once you have it, and with education comes so many other opportunities. I’ve also focused on Jewish organizations because of my own personal history. Both of my parents survived the Holocaust. I think it’s so important to keep telling their stories, so it never happens again.
JS: Do you travel often to talk to Jewish philanthropic organization audiences?
Suzi: Yes, I do speak often to different Jewish audiences. My message is typically tailored depending on the audience; sometimes it’s focused on philanthropy, other times it’s focused on entrepreneurship or leadership. However, I always speak about tzedakah, which is a mainstay of my life. The act of helping others less fortunate is something I value greatly. My father always said, “you give, you get.” Acts of generosity go out into the world and sow more acts of generosity. Sometimes, you’ll be the one bestowing that goodwill and other times you’ll be the one receiving it. Whether you have the ability to give funds or time – or both! – contributing to your community is so important.
JS: What is the most important message we can send to the younger generation of women to empower them to be their best?
Suzi: Today, there’s often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that’s not true. I’ve always found that being nice, being humble and listening to people has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, collaborate. Focus on making real, meaningful, and authentic connections. These connections allow us to grow while also simultaneously anchoring us.
Also, there’s no substitute for hard work. Patience is considered a virtue for a reason; it goes a long way in the world of business. Having patience in the workplace will lead to an open-minded approach to business and flexibility in decision-making. Building a business is slow work, and patience is necessary when it comes to nurturing relationships, overcoming the inevitable challenges, and staying committed to a long-term vision.
JS: I read that you were a nail biter. What did you do to break the nail-biting habit?
Suzi: I used to be a terrible nail biter. During my college years, you could find me on the NYC subway on test days with my nails completely destroyed. After becoming the face of OPI, that habit had to go. It was tough, but testing and wearing nail lacquer daily is what finally helped me to stop. Getting regular manicures is key.
JS: Do you think that your freedom to express yourself fashion-wise was specific to being brought up first in communist Hungary? Do you feel this was an innate instinct or brought on because of everything that you saw going on around you in New York?
Suzi: Growing up in communist Hungary, my experience made me especially aware of the options and variety I experienced after immigrating to the US. I’ve always had a deep love of color, and that love manifested itself in self-expression through fashion, and later, through nails.
JS: You say in your book that you saved your paychecks until you had enough to buy special outfits. Was this the reason you got a job in the first place? Or did you just want to get out in the world? Or was it simply like you state in the book, money gave you powers and possibilities?
Suzi: Making money gave me choices and opportunities, and ultimately, the ability to control my own destiny. I’ve always been very independent and ready to work hard so that I don’t have to rely on others.
JS: Was OPI the first nail color company to start naming polishes?
Suzi: Before OPI, nail lacquer wasn’t marketed to the average woman – it was marketed to nail technicians. Therefore, shades had very generic names like Pink No. 2 and Red No. 4. There wasn’t a need to appeal to consumers with fun, memorable names because they weren’t purchasing the nail color themselves. Our playful, humorous names changed all of that!
JS: What was the first nail color named?
Suzi: Our first color collection launched in 1989 with 30 shades – some of which are still available today – including Kyoto Pearl, OPI Red, Dutch Tulips, Malaga Wine, and Alpine Snow.
JS: What goes into the process of uniquely naming your colors?
Suzi: OPI naming meetings are top secret, but I can say that the process is very fun! There is a group of people at OPI who go behind closed doors to brainstorm hundreds of potential monikers for the new colors. We channel each other’s creativity to come up with unique and interesting names for each shade. This group dynamic is very important to the creative process. We are able to tell which names get the biggest laughs, or which ones really resonate. We usually have too many names and have to narrow down the list. Everyone shares their funniest, most creative names for final voting! It is such a fun and interactive process and there is usually no shortage of opinions and thoughts.
Coming to the meeting prepared and with props really helps inspire us and keep our imaginations flowing. Food is a very important part of the OPI culture, so we always have things to eat that reflect the spirit of the collection for inspiration. Inspiration comes from food, music, fashion, film, art and pop culture. For destination-based collections, which are launched twice a year, the group will play upon unique, interesting, or noteworthy elements from the country or city in question to come up with hundreds of names for consideration. It takes a full day to name a collection. The name for a single shade might happen very quickly, or it might be deliberated, shelved, and revisited throughout the course of the day.
Fun fact, every seasonal collection features a shade with my name, “Suzi.”
JS: Why/How “I’m not really a waitress,” for a nail color?
Suzi: In Los Angeles, “I’m not really a waitress – I’m an actress (or singer/model/artist)!” is a well-known mantra. The name exemplifies that we’re more than just our job. It speaks to anyone laboring for a dream, offering a reminder that our goals are worth pursuing. This shade is more than just a color, but a form of self-expression.
JS: You started as a family business and grew into this international company with hundreds of employees. Does OPI maintain an intimate workplace and how?
Suzi: I can only speak to when the company was sold to Coty in 2010, but at that time, OPI had nearly 700 employees spread out on a seven-acre campus in North Hollywood. Our products were in 100+ countries – yet we still had an open-door policy, where any employee could come to us with a suggestion, complaint, idea, or request at any time.
After all, we started as a family business and as we grew, we knew we wanted to deliberately foster an environment filled with warmth, collegiality and a sense of fun. I personally wanted to look forward to work every day, and why wouldn’t our employees feel the same? We wanted everyone to know they were valuable, and in return, many people made working at OPI their lifelong careers. At the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. As we became more successful, we invested not only in our products and our marketing, but in our employees as well. We all cared about each other, and cared for each other, and as a business leader, that’s what I’m most proud of when I look back at my career.