Meet the Woman Who Inspired the Oscar-Nominated Film Joy

Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Welcome to Kind of a Big Deal, a series dedicated to introducing powerful women who are breaking boundaries in their fields. You’ll meet the rising stars and get the inside scoop on how they made it, what they’re working on now, and what’s up next.

Meet Joy Mangano. Does her name sound familiar? It should. She's the inventor who went from developing household cleaning products out of her father’s garage to starting her own multimillion-dollar company, Ingenious Designs, LLC. Her story inspired the major motion picture Joy featuring Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, and starring none other than Jennifer Lawrence (who ICYMI won the 2016 Best Actress Golden Globe for her role).

While Joy popularized her name, Mangano success continues to soar; the Miracle Mop and best-selling Huggable Hangers are on track to hit 1 billion sales this year. Now the entrepreneur is telling her story in a new book, which she promises will read “better than a romance novel” and features “real-life adventures and stories the movie couldn’t tell.”

We caught up with the invention guru just before she spoke at WeWork's NYC Creator Awards launch event (celebrating local entrepreneurs) in New York City earlier this week to talk building a business, working with family, and what it's like to attend the Oscars.

You’ve talked a lot about living the American Dream. How do you define it?

I see it as finding what you truly love to do and being able to do that every day with your family. You are what you do. When you love doing something and you love the people that you’re doing it with, it becomes a perfect storm. I’ve worked with family, close friends, and eventually even my three children. I couldn’t work without them now. People don’t realize how many businesses in the world are family-run. It’s something like 90 percent.

Why do you think that figure is so high?

It’s a testament to life. I always say lean on your family. That’s a good thing.

As a woman and a single mother of three, what kind of additional challenges have you faced in the business world?

I think that it is harder, but it made me realize that I could depend on myself. People say you have to balance family and work, but I meshed them together because you have to turn to yourself when you’re a single mom raising a family. My kids came with me when I went on TV or to examine a mold because starting a business doesn’t even compare to raising beautiful, world-conscious, good-hearted people. I worked hard at that.

When a product idea falls through, what keeps you going?

I just love it so much. I look at the world through products—it’s the way my mind works. And we’re not talking about rocket ships, you know? We’re talking about stylish, basic things that make a difference in people’s lives every day. It may not be the next iPhone, but I think a product like Huggable Hangers is still important to someone who has a very small closet and lots of clothes.

It’s been almost two decades since you released your Huggable Hangers. What has that success been like for you?

It’s the 20th anniversary this year and we will probably hit 1 billion sales. It’s been amazing. I think of it as a phenomenon that’s created a whole industry of knock-offs. But I’ve heard it a million times, “I bought the knockoff but I come back to the Huggable Hangers.” Because there is a science to that hanger and I’m very, very conscious of the quality of the product.

What inspired you to invent them?

I was filming something in Paris and I went into a high-end store just to look. They had this $10,000 dress on this thick hanger that had velvet on the sides—they thought I was looking at the dress, but I was looking at the hanger because my brain just started to click. And so when I got back to the United States I thought Oh my gosh, I figured it out! I thought of all the details. I would design the curves, make them ultra-slim, add velvet, and make sure the hook turned. But when I told everybody I was developing something called “Huggable Hangers” they looked at me and said, “Nobody wants to buy a hanger. We get them for free at the dry cleaners; they give them for free at the store. Nobody’s buying a hanger.”

Looks like they were wrong.

Almost a billion sold later; I can definitely say people do care about hangers.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

What are you working on right now?

I literally reinvented the wheel on new luggage we recently released. They give you 20 percent more packing space and they can’t break off because of the way they’re designed. We’re also going to be changing categories soon launching something we’ve been working on for 17 years. And in November, I’m releasing my book, which I think is my best product yet. I think it’ll help people live a more joyful, braver, creative life. I really do.

Let’s talk about the movie. What’s it like to find out your life is going to be turned into a major motion picture?

It was really one of those it can’t be real moments. Shortly after I found out, David O. Russell called me and said, “Joy, Bob wants to talk to you.” I was like Bob? And then all of a sudden the voice of Robert De Niro was saying my name, “Joy!” I thought This can’t be happening. He’s an amazing man. And Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant beyond her years. To be involved with that group of talent was such an amazing experience.

What have you learned from all that time in the spotlight?

It made me realize that my story had so many touch-points for so many people because, at the core, we’re all alike. We all have to deal with family. We all have to deal with the struggle of how we’re going to do certain things in life whether it’s starting a business or handling a divorce. That’s really what made me realize I have to write a book. So many people came up to me and said things like, “I used to play the piano and you inspired me to go back and play it again” or “I designed something. I wanted to open up a store, and you gave me the courage to try it.” I think hearing that was the true benefit for me. Plus, I got to go to the Oscars.

I was going to say… that had to be wild meeting all those stars.

Yes. It was surreal.

What kind of advice can you give to someone who’s looking to start inventing?

Absolutely do it. You don’t have to mortgage your house; you don’t have to drain your bank account; you don’t have to do all of these incredible things that you think you have to do to start a business. Start it in a small way. Feel it out. You will be shocked at where you’ll end up. I promise.

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