Lauren Dunne, Co-founder and CEO, Varnish Lane

“My leadership style is to lead from a place of empathy and kindness. I’m a strong believer that whatever situation you are in, there is always a kind way to deliver a message. And the response that you get from saying it in that way is going to be much more productive than coming at it from a place of fear or negativity, particularly when you are giving feedback to people you are leading.”

January 2019

“Focus on yourself, your business, and what makes you unique”

Lauren Dunne is the co-founder and CEO of Varnish Lane, a natural, waterless nail salon and product brand raising the industry standards of nail care in Washington, D.C.

After many visits to the nail salon with her mom and three sisters, Dunne often questioned why there wasn’t a clean, safe, relaxing, and beautiful (but reasonably priced) salon for them to go to.

Along with her mother and co-founder, Carrie, Dunne used this as an opportunity to elevate the nail-care environment from unsanitary and unprofessional to a clean and relaxing place that looks less like a salon and more like your dream living room.

With a background in client experiences within the fashion and high-end wedding and catering industry, Dunne believes the relationship between a business and its clients is much more than a transaction of services—it’s a relationship between a brand and its community.

Varnish Lane is the first salon in the country to go waterless—a choice that’s both more sanitary and more environmentally friendly. Each salon offers a truly beautiful and tranquil setting. When you enter, you are offered a drink, your chair has an iPad loaded with magazines, you have a variety of non-toxic polishes to choose from that are a minimum of 7-free—meaning free of the major chemicals that used to be in nail polish—and all other products are natural and locally made.

It is not just about manicures, pedicures and skincare products for Dunne; it’s about offering the ultimate experience for each customer and creating a place to escape and pamper yourself.

Varnish Lane’s flagship location is in Friendship Heights, and the second location opened in the West End in early October. A third location is slated to open in early 2019 in Mt. Vernon Triangle, with plans to open additional locations in D.C. and beyond in the next couple of years.  

Varnish Lane has been featured in InStyle, Allure, Seventeen, Good Housekeeping, Washington Business Journal, Washingtonian, DC Magazine, Fox-5 “Good Day DC,” ABC-7 “Good Morning Washington,” and more.

Who are some leaders you admire?

I really admire Sallie Krawcheck. She is the CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, a digital financial advisor for women. She built an incredible career in the male-dominated finance industry, rising through the ranks at Bank of America to president of Global Wealth & Investment Management. Instead of fitting into the typical male style of dominant leadership, Sallie homes in on the qualities that make women strong leaders.

Two other people I greatly admire are Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice—founders of SoulCycle—for their ability to build a steadfast and loyal community around them that believes in their vision (and community) as much as they do. In small business—and really any business—that is a large part of the equation.

What is your leadership style?

I try to lead from a place of empathy and kindness. I’m a strong believer that whatever situation you are in, there’s always a kind way to deliver a message. And the response you get from delivering a difficult message kindly is going to be much more productive than communicating the same point from a place of fear or negativity. This is particularly true when you are giving feedback to people you are leading. Understanding other people’s situations and being empathetic to their points of view goes a long way.

The other key component of my leadership style is collaboration. I think the biggest mistake leaders make is thinking that their way is the only way and not seeking out other people’s perspectives. Even when I ultimately need to make the final decision, I never come to it without collaborating with others or hearing what my employees have to say.  

How do you balance it all?

First of all, I don’t think anyone can actually “balance it all.”

I think at this stage in my business, it’s critical for me to come up with the right organizational tools to make sure I’m focusing my energy in the right areas. Instead of trying to do everything, I make sure I’m focused on areas of my business that are going to yield the best results.

I’m also at a point in my life where I can give 120 percent of myself and my focus to Varnish Lane. There’s definitely not that much balance, but that’s what’s required at this stage in the company’s growth. On a day-to-day basis, I make a conscious effort to block time and prioritize tasks—keeping my schedule carefully—ensuring that I don’t get distracted working on things that aren’t important.   

Speaking more holistically, I’m a strong believer that you don’t have to sleep only three hours a night to be successful. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you aren’t taking care of your business. Self-care is critical to building a successful—and sustainable—platform for your business long-term. Self-care means that when you’re knee-deep in work, you’ll be more focused and operate more efficiently.

What keeps you motivated?

Hearing other entrepreneurs’ perspectives keeps me going.  

I think it’s important to connect with other people who are going through the same thing (or something similar) and use them as a sounding board. I cannot stress enough how important it is to expose yourself to a broad entrepreneurial community to stay inspired and in check.  

What do you do to challenge yourself, your way of thinking, or your way of staying relevant in the business world?

Getting out there and socializing with other entrepreneurs is not my strength. So I have to hold myself accountable for networking, making sure I’m seeking out peers in the business world. It’s a constant struggle, but it’s also the best way I can push myself to constantly learn and stay involved in the latest industry trends and innovations.   

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

No one expects you to know all the answers. It’s important to seek out advice and help in areas that are outside of your expertise.

It’s not a sign of weakness to say you don’t know something. I say, better to ask for help and have someone guide you along the way.   

What leadership style do you think is the least effective?

I feel the least effective leadership style is leading from a place of fear. It limits collaboration and erodes respect from those you’re leading.

Did you or do you have a mentor? Why or why not?

I’ve had several critical mentors, and I’ve made it a point to seek out mentors that were specifically not related to my field or expertise. I encourage people to find mentors who can guide them in areas where they’re least knowledgeable or comfortable.

I’m where I am today because I sought out mentors who were better than I was in finance and operations. Their expertise allowed me to fill the holes in my skillset and more quickly identify potential issues within the business. I didn’t have a strong business background when we launched Varnish Lane, but I had a vision and a great idea and was open to accepting help.   

Do you have any regrets?

No, I don’t have regrets, but I’ve definitely made mistakes that I’ve felt bad about. I’ve found that dwelling on past business mistakes for too long or holding onto negative energy will have more of a negative impact on the business than the actual business mistake itself. You have to focus on doing your best in the present, learning from experiences and forging ahead. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in the past.

Which job taught you the most?

My current job as CEO and co-founder of Varnish Lane has taught me the most. When people are looking to you for guidance in their job, that responsibility forces you to learn quickly. This business has been a crash course in all types of functions—real estate, marketing, finance—because I’m so heavily involved in all the different elements required to keep the business going.    

What was the turning point in your career?

Our turning point came as we closed out our first round of funding. Once you have money from outside investors, it legitimizes your idea and what you’re doing. It propelled our business and expectations to the next level.

What’s next for you?

We’re excited to continue expanding into new locations and products. In addition to our Varnish Lane Cuticle Oil, we’re working to finalize another product—a nourishing hand cream—which we plan to launch in early 2019.

What is your dream job?

Building Varnish Lane and seeing what we’ve accomplished has been a dream come true. But if I were to ever step away and work on something else, it would have something to do with investing in other female businesses. The number of women involved in venture capital is limited, and I think there are endless possibilities for innovation and mentorship in the space.  


Interview By Brooke Brogan & Kadia Koroma

Fast Facts

Washington, D.C.
Number of employees:
First job:
I worked as a tennis instructor when I was 14
Time in current role:
Since August 2014
Previous experience:
Wedding/Events Coordinator and Designer
Leader you admire most:
Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, a digital financial advisor for women
Five things she can’t live without:
Taboo by Habit Cosmetics Nail Polish
My Maltipoo, Rosie
Varnish Lane Cuticle Oil
Compass Coffee

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