Marketing entrepreneur Nicole A. Cashman is a fixture in the Philadelphia area. She's founder and president of the aptly named Cashman & Associates, a high powered lifestyle marketing firm run exclusively by women. The company will celebrate an impressive seventeen years in business this January.
One look at Nicole Cashman and you'll see a woman who has it all - a successful and growing business, enduring reputation, and beautiful family. But these things were not handed to her.
As a child, Nicole dreamt of being a dancer or a big Hollywood lawyer. She even acquired a Screen Actors Guild membership.
Nicole worked as soon as she was old enough, and discovered her true passion for retail and fashion while working at The Gap as a teenager.
After studying at Drexel University, Nicole moved to New York and became one of Bloomingdales' youngest PR directors at just 22 years old. Soon, she was recruited to Strawbridge's to run the PR & marketing for 28 stores in the region.
Nicole was riding high when she decided to take a career risk that resulted in a surprising crash. But like all great entrepreneurs, Cashman turned her failure into a launchpad and propelled herself from the ashes.
We'll begin this story at rock bottom.
What was it like to be have such a role at a young age?
I never thought I was ever going to leave New York City. I was working at Bloomingdales. I was the youngest PR director in the history of the company. I was 22 years old. It was nuts.
I got recruited back to Philadelphia when Hecht's bought John Wanamaker's, and then we bought Strawbridge and Clothier, and I ran 28 stores in three states. Fashion, PR, community relations, and seasonal marketing. I allocated a million dollars a year to non-profits in the region. I did that until I was 27.
Through working in retail, I was exposed to beauty and home and other elements of lifestyle. The whole world of lifestyle opened up to me through my work in department stores.
I loved to throw a party and bring all the elements together. It was like choreography in a way. It was very visual. I loved the whole idea of people having fun and being happy. It's in my DNA. I just can't imagine doing anything else.
Why did you decide to leave retail?
Then when I was about 27, a friend said, "I'm starting this fashion PR firm, have you ever thought about leaving your job? I already have the office, I already have a fax machine."
A fax machine, this is how old I am [laughs]. I left my job, and joined up with her. Within a year it was a disaster.
What do you think went south?
It was the partnership that was unsuccessful, not the business. I went to meet with my mentor Ed Rendell, who was a very dear friend of mine for many years. I said, "I'm going to go back to New York."
He said, "We need people like you to stay here. We need people like you to believe that this city is going to support your type of agency." That was 17 years ago.
I'm sure that you were devastated at first. Were you afraid for your future?
I was embarrassed because there was so much notoriety around me when I was young. The first issue of Philadelphia Style Magazine I was in, a feature when I had my job at Strawbridge's, I was named one of the 50 people to watch in the next millennium by Philly Mag. I had gotten a lot of press. Unsolicited. It's always been unsolicited, contrary to popular belief. I had a lot of young notoriety around me as this rising star, and then to be so unsuccessful at my first venture out on my own was heartbreaking.
I was devastated. I left a big job in the big city. It was hard, but I realized that I still had clients from the previous company.
I'm like, all right, Cashman LLC, all right, Cashman and Associates. I gave no thought to any of this. Oh crap; someone wants to pay me, I better have a name. I better open a checking account. I better have an LLC. That's sort of how it happened. It's crazy.
Right, you were piecing together pieces of the wreckage so you could move on.
Yes, that's what I did. I pieced the wreckage together, and I all of a sudden had a ship. I was on my way.
I didn't have any other choice. I come from a modest background. I had to work. There was no other option. I took my former clients on in freelance projects, and I bought my new computer with the deposit of my first event, and people believed in me.
It's a blip that I am proud of because I was able to come back from it, and it's a good story when I lecture at universities, or I speak to students or even other women who are starting their own businesses.
I think people have a perception that I've never had any failures and one that was so epic. It could have left me a shell, but it didn't, so for me, I think it's given me the opportunity to share the story, and also an opportunity to know what I will never do again. I learned it young, and I learned it early.
Besides Ed Rendell, did you get advice from anybody or do you have a mantra that sticks out to you from that time?
I just do it. I really just do it. I have never been one to analyze. This is the first time in my career that I'm taking a step back and thinking and processing things. What do I want next? I've always just been a doer. I've been a gut follower. I'm not a sideline person.
What was it like during the early days of Cashman and Associates?
The early days of Cashman and Associates were so much fun. It was a blast.
I learned how to run a company. I learned how to grow something. I don't have an MBA. I have a degree in design and merchandising with a minor in marketing. I was so fearless then. I didn't care what anybody thought. I didn't care if we tried something and it didn't work because nine times out of 10 it did work.
It seems like those early days you were following your intuition.
I was going off my intuition. We also took whoever called us. We did everything from little South Street boutiques to Kiehl's, to Lucky Brand, Diesel, Puma. I launched every store on Walnut Street. Big events with magazines and movie premieres and things like that. It was a fun time. That early renaissance of the city 15 years ago was fun. Stephen Starr and I did so many awesome things together.
I worked hard. I worked differently than I work now. It was boots on the ground, stuffing every goodie bag, working the door. It was writing that press release, pitching every angle, building that database, having the database crash and spam people. Crazy stuff would go on.
What is it like now to look back on the scope of your early work and to see how it contributed to Philadelphia as a place where there is more retail and more opportunity?
I feel very fortunate that I was part of the fabric of who we are today. There was no agency like mine when I started it. There wasn't anything like it. When I started, it was all corporate communications firms, and it was heavily male-focused. There were a few independent women that had niches, whether they did restaurants or maybe some corporate consulting, but there was nobody that did what I did.
There was nobody that came with the approach of events as part of a strategic marketing plan, PR that wasn't just staid, boring press releases. Dynamic press conferences, influencer engagement, database and email marketing, none of that was here.
I feel fortunate that I can look at my client base like Stephen Starr. We started around the same time, and he's been my client since day one, since before day one, when I was throwing parties! I did New Year's Eve with him at the Bank in 1998. We go way back. When I look at the people that I started with, I'm just so proud of the cool factor of the city.
Yeah, I can't imagine how exciting that time was. How has the strategy of your firm evolved 10, 15 years later?
We certainly have evolved from the early days. I think we've evolved as the world has evolved. 15 years ago, social media didn't play a role in our business. I think what I've done is stay on top of what the market wants, what technology has brought to the table, what a new generation wants.
I'm a Gen Xer. I'm not a millennial. My big concern was what do baby boomers want, what do tweens want? We have educators come in all the time to teach us the latest, whether it's trends in PR and in marketing or what's at our fingertips to do a better job. We've become much more strategic.
You guys work with a lot of charities and do a lot of pro bono work. Why is that important to you?
We do a lot of charity and pro bono work, and it's important to me because I went to school with the nuns. I swear it's the nuns. I went to a small private grade school run by the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart, and all we did every day, all day was think about how we're going to give back to the poor, and what are we going to do to help the world? It was so ingrained in me.
I never wanted to take on a client that didn't believe that community relations was an important part of what they should and could be doing in this market. If you audited all my agreements, there's a community relations piece. It's important to me for my clients to believe in it, and it's important for us to do.
You work with a lot of young women.
It's so important to me to mentor women because I was mentored by some amazing women. I got to experience first-hand how it changes your life. I was raised by a single mom who was a pioneer in her field and was one of the first nurse practitioners.
It's not an equal society, and I also think that there is 1,000% a glass ceiling, and I think that women suffer from huge self-confidence issues. I think that I have been given the gift of strong self-confidence that I just want to see other women have, and I want to bring that out in them because so many people settle. I've seen so many women settle for a variety of things. Sometimes you can help, and sometimes you can't.
Do you attribute a lot of your leadership style to your mom?
Oh yeah. Majorly. A lot of my leadership style to my mother. She's also kind of tough too. She sacrificed a lot, a lot that I don't have to sacrifice as a mom. When I worked at Saks in New York, it was for an incredibly strong woman who created her own business within that company, Connie Buck in Studio Services, Denise Askins who had Askins Models, and Marianne Gris who had MAG Productions, and my big breaks in New York were all given to me by women. That's not typical, so I vowed that I would be, as best I can, the same way.
To what else would you attribute your success?
Hard work. Hard work. Hard work. Constant. It was my entire life until I was 39 years old. I got married at 39. I had my son at 41. It was my entire life. Yes, I traveled. I had fun. I did things, but it was all under the guise of my career. Hard work, dedication, honesty.
I make mistakes like everybody else. I don't have perfect days, but I try to operate from a place of integrity and doing what I say I'm going to do.
How, if at all, has becoming a mother changed your perception of your work and the world?
Post-baby Nicole is a kinder and gentler, more mellow Nicole. I'll be the first one to say it. I'm tough, but I'm tough on myself. I have high standards, high expectations of myself, and a quest for perfection. I hold everybody to those standards, good or bad. It's just the truth.
Now I have been given the gift of learning patience, which I never thought I would have. I have a calmness about me now that there's more than this. I have a wonderful husband, a great guy. I waited a long time for that and didn't settle. That's what I tell everybody.
I don't think everybody should go my route. I'm very fortunate that I didn't have a problem having a baby, and those things that you have to consider when you're a woman and you have a career and choices you have to make. I also lived a clean life; I stayed healthy.
You've touched a little bit on what's next.
We plan on growing and expanding, but differently. We're taking on the same kind of clients, but clients that are maybe a little bit bigger or have multiple units. We're focusing more on national brands that are coming into this market like Shake Shack and Snap Kitchen. We're helping them create identities and build customer bases.
We are spending a lot of time and money on employee retention and development. That is very new for me. I was from the Kelly Cutrone school of PR where they should pay me to work here because this is like graduate school.
I want to try to limit some of the turnover that happens because we do have younger people, and attracting more senior level talent.
I'm spending some time on the process. I never wrote a business plan. I never had a three, five-year plan. I never even knew what projections were for next year. I swear to you. Never. But I was like, 'well maybe I can start.' Maybe I can start learning some more of that because I'm not retiring anytime soon. I love what I do. I can be a better CEO now that I have a better support team.
I'm lucky because now I'm able to focus on things that I was never able to focus on for the first 15 years. I bought this building as a representative of me and the brand and my staff and my clients. That was a huge accomplishment for me. I never dreamed that these things were even a possibility for me.