The talented creator didn’t have the typical dreams many starry-eyed kids have. “My childhood was so disruptive and so chaotic that I lived in a survival place. I didn’t live in a ‘Oh, this is what I’m going to do when I grow up,’” Smith tells Tinseltown Mom.
“What makes me who I am and love what I do is… growing up, my home was not a safe haven,” she continues. “We had so much chaos. There were a lot of drugs involved, a lot of inappropriate men that was always around me and I never felt safe, and it wasn’t safe. My mom did the best she could working twelve-hour shifts so when she was at work, I was the parent to my siblings. I focused more on getting home in time to make sure they were safe…”
Despite the challenges at home, the CEO in the making went to college and pursued a journalism degree at Cal State University, Northridge, and like many students her pursuits took her in a different direction from her declared major. While in school, she landed a job at a high-end baby and kids’ furniture store, Bellini. That store allowed her to secure experience in retail and design while working with celebrity clients. During that season, the designer was able to quickly move up the ranks. “I went from being a salesperson to assistant manager to manager to being a district manager… I got into my senior year, and I couldn’t keep up with my school workload and my full-time workload,” Smith says.
Eventually, the entrepreneur went part time which prompted her boss to offer her a position to own her own Bellini franchise. By this time, the rising star had been in the interior design industry for 3 years and developed a passion for the field. Interior design became her dream, so she moved to the Bay Area with her fiancé at the time and current husband, Calvin, after choosing a store location. Once there, she ran into a challenge that would prepare her for future success after she realized that she had to design her store from scratch. “It was a complete blank slate of just ugly. It was a black warehouse that I had to transform in six weeks into this whimsical baby furniture store. Officially that moment of having to do that started my schooling in interior design. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have known how to get my hands dirty. I wouldn’t have known how to hire the people to get it done because I was in a city that I’d never lived in before…,” Smith reflects.
Once she got the store opened it looked beautiful. “…when days were slow out there… I would tell people ‘I could come to your house and measure and help you figure it all out.’ And I didn’t realize then that God was preparing me and planting the seed to be beyond just a retail salesperson, so I started doing in-home consulting, and that was definitely the beginning of my schooling,” Smith recalls.
Unfortunately, the agreement she was given was far from fair and equitable so after one year Smith had to walk away from her dream. “My big break was actually ending the relationship with Bellini. That was the hardest thing that I had to do because I did feel like that was going to be my future and I had invested so much time.”
From there, Smith moved back to Los Angeles and started her own company, GaGa Designs, an interior design firm that specializes in baby and kids’ rooms, and the first of its kind. The pioneer steadily made a name for herself doing interior design and baby concierge. “It was birthed after giving birth,” she says. At the time, her oldest daughter, Callie, was just six months old and that’s when she also adopted her husband’s nephew, Demoun who was nine at the time. She was now a mom of two managing a rising brand, determined to succeed in motherhood and entrepreneurship.
At the start of her business experience her portfolio consisted only of the designs she had done with Bellini. During that period, television personality Wayne Brady and his wife at the time were interviewing designers and Smith was in the running alongside a well-known celebrity designer. The up-and-comer thought to herself, “It was only going to be by the grace of God if I get this job.” And then the call came in. She got the job, and from there Smith’s prestige began to steadily climb.
Two and a half years later, Smith had her second daughter, Tyler. One would think that being a young mom with three kids and a rising company would be unmanageable, but she made it work. “Because of the way that I was raised, I thrive in chaos,” the designer jests.
It wasn’t until her “biggest break” came in 2006 when managing work and life became hectic. “… when Sean Combs and Kim Porter hired me, that was an amazing experience. And I do remember being on the floor nursing and telling one kid I was playing hide-and-go seek just so she could hide, and I could have a conference call with Sean Combs. I remember that season being very stressful. God elevated me… He was my first client that I was traveling from LA to New York, while having babies,” she recalls.
Although the hands-on mom is a multi-faceted talent it wasn’t until 2015 that she expanded her brand to include full residential and commercial, but what took so long? “One of my best friends [British actor Sam Sarpong] passed away, and him and I used to always talk about goals,” Smith remembers. The designer said that the actor had been a huge light in her and her husband’s life since childhood. “…He would say, ‘Why aren’t you doing full residential?’” Even clients like Mariah Carey would ask her to design other rooms. “I ended up realizing that that was rooted in fear of expansion. It was rooted in not wanting to get outside my comfort zone… I liked that I was the go-to nursery designer. I liked that it was a little niche that I could do in my sleep, and that doing full residential and doing commercial would be a lot more work, and if I’m being honest, I didn’t feel qualified. So, I was hiding in GaGa Designs as, ‘This is my niche’… So, when he passed away, it was like ‘I have to really live my life out for you’ and it also made me realize that life was short, and you don’t necessarily have the time you think you have to grow your dreams.”
During that painful season, Smith took a few months off to regroup. “In those three months I was prayerful, and I was also running out of money, and I said, ‘Okay I’m ready. I’m going to create Shalena Smith Interiors and do residential and do commercial.’ My first client when I said that ended up being an NBA player in Newport Beach,” the visionary remembers.
This year, the dedicated mom of adult children and loyal wife to her high-school sweetheart launched her own retail showroom Shalena Smith Interiors & Home Decor at the prestigious Vineyards shopping and entertainment center in Porter Ranch, CA. “Making the decision to have a showroom was totally a mom thing. I waited until I raised my kids well to put more on my plate,” Smith says.
While Smith says that the peak of her accomplishments as an interior designer has been opening the showroom, there is more to come. “…I can’t wait for showroom number two and three and four. I want to expand… really what I love about the showroom is not everybody can afford an interior designer, but everybody deserves a well-designed space that they feel safe and comfortable in, so the showroom allows me to bring the elements to the public that I’ve put into my clients’ homes… I love it. I’m just like living in answered prayer. I feel like I’ve gotten more than I could ask or imagine. My cup overflows…”
For more on Shalena Smith and the services that she offers visit ShalenaSmith.com