gold line svg


The Surprising Lessons I Learned About Design (& Business) from a Mazda Influencer Event



Despite having a business, I don’t identify as an “entrepreneur.” Despite having a following, I flinch when people call me an “influencer.” And despite living in the most “car culture” city of the world, I’m certainly not a “car person.” So when Mazda invited me to an “Entrepreneurial Influencer immersion trip” to launch their new CX-30, it was a quick but polite “no.” While I knew it would be fun, it didn’t feel like the right fit for this lady. It would be like inviting The Rock to a hair and beauty influencer event. Sure, I drive a car and I want it to work for my family but the level of torque in a car’s flux capacitor doesn’t hold my interest. Wherein lies the twist?


I finally (and enthusiastically) said yes because A. They told me that my job would simply be to “cover the event” in whatever way I wanted to, not try to sell you their new car. And B. It was two nights in Montecito the Rosewood Miramar Beach, with a resort full of “Entrepreneurial Influencers.” Your damn right I was curious how this was going to go down and wanted to know who the heck these people were.

Cut to, it was incredibly fun and extremely worthwhile. I met a “beard influencer” and did yoga on the beach with dolphins jumping (literally). But little did I know that I would come away with something that will heavily influence me, my company, my design and my team in 2020. It’s not a car. No. Somehow, I turned what could have been a random “gig” with a car partner into my own personal self-improvement weekend.



But first, I’m sure you are wondering…what happens at a sponsored “Influencer trip?” Well, they are all different, I’m sure, but the goal for these types of experiences is for the attendees to be immersed in the brand in a more impactful, meaningful way. Some pay influencers, some just comp their trip. Some require specific deliverables, some just trust that you will tell whatever story to your audience that you feel is right (if any). Most let you have creative freedom on how you cover it, because they understand the extreme importance of our authentic voice for our audiences, on different platforms.

It started on night one with what we would have predicted to be a very boring and standard brand presentation. Instead, we were enthralled by a very compelling French artist that is now the head of design at Mazda. It was less about tech and car innovation and more about the creative process and their larger philosophy on people and business. Thank god.

We learned of Mazda’s mantra—what everyone on the team values and brings to their daily work:

Performance, positivity and humility.

On each person’s desk, they have this simple sculpture of three entangled wire triangles that represent the three pillars of what they deem is good success both in business AND creativity.

The fact that humility was in there struck me. HUMILITY???? It’s definitely something I feel I don’t see valued as much these days and certainly not something I would have touted as a common theme at an “entrepreneur influencer car event.” It’s laughable, actually. The oft-correct stereotype of “influencers” and “entrepreneurs” is literally anything but humble. It wasn’t intentional “brand messaging” by Mazda. Humility wasn’t written on a brochure. It was simply what I took away from it and maybe it’s what I needed to hear or is what I’m looking for right now, both in business, my personal growth and in my creative projects. I turned 40 this year and the blog turns 10 in January, so the level of self-reflection is HIGH right now.

Projecting a successful image, “knowing it all” and having a large and respected sense of self are what we are taught make a great CEO. The world is full of “fake it ‘til you make it” idioms, which I have always abhorred. Instead, let people ask the perceived dumb questions without shame. Lord knows I do.

This obsession with ego is probably why I never identified with being a CEO or entrepreneur (have you seen Succession yet??). Am I creatively driven and hardworking? Sure. But the word entrepreneur has always implied valuing “business,” which I link too closely to valuing money and not valuing people. It feels false to me, which is where my imposter syndrome kicks in. But being confident in fact that you don’t know everything, and being willing to fail, say it, adjust, ask questions and try again is crucial to truly creating anything new and meaningful. Whether you are creating a sculpture, climbing a cliff or running a digital media company. So many of our projects would have turned out badly had we not stood back and admitted something that I did wasn’t working. It’s not ideal when you have a client involved, but it strangely gives you even more credit with them as they likely were thinking the same thing.

Jimmy Chin Profile Freestone Route Yosemite Falls
photo by mikey schaefer via national geographic

This was echoed the next night by the very inspiring filmmaker Jimmy Chin (shown above), both about the importance of optimism and humility when building a team. He had to find the impossible—a group of world-class rock climbers that were also videographers to film Alex Honnold attempting the death-defying free solo climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan…no ropes, nearly 4 hours of climbing with just a handful of videographers who had agree to do this 3-year project and climb without spooking him). They could have no one with ego on the team, they were there for him, or it could literally have led to death. If you haven’t seen the documentary Free Solo, please do, it’s incredible and beautiful and certainly not just a documentary about rock climbing.

To have two highly successful men in widely different industries touting the importance of “humility” in 2020 was insanely refreshing and was something that I actually DID identify with, despite my missteps in this category, as well. After 10 years in the public eye, you bet that my humility has been challenged.

But yes, this was an event through by a car company, so…how did they bring this unpredictable value into the design of a car?

Here’s what the Mazda team did:

When Julien Montousse became Senior Director of Design at Mazda North American Operations, with the intent (5 years ago) of creating the CX-30 that launches today, he took the entire design team on a two-week retreat full of meditation and bonding. The intent was to come together to attach one singular emotion to the design and experience of this car. A car.

When we design a room/house, we always put adjectives to it, caring more about how it feels than looks, but not homing in on or naming emotions other than my usual “happy.” I certainly wouldn’t have thought that a car company would care so much about emotion.

What they came up with, the intent of this car, was the feeling of “restrained allure.”

I identified with this immediately, although we at EHD often say “quiet impact” or “simple but special.” It’s a bit sexier, for sure, but I think a lot of people want to feel a bit of sexiness when driving their car. It also, again, hits on this humility point. It doesn’t scream “I’M FANCY’ or “I’M RICH’. It’s quiet but attractive.

So how the hell do you make A CAR have “restrained allure”? How does that actually translate into the shape, style or finish of a steel vehicle?


Here’s what they did (which blew me away):

1. In the design process, they got rid of all the hard lines in the body of the car, so that nothing stopped your eye and instead it flowed beautifully, but it’s not flat. They actually created a water-like and subtle S shape on the side that when moving, gets hit by the natural light in a really pretty way. Yes, it was strangely alluring (check my stories).

2. Check this out: they took a painter and hooked his arms up to nodules to track his exact painterly technique and motion, so they could create robots/machines that painted like him. WHAT. They successfully replicated a painting technique that makes it look and feel more hand-painted, with more depth and movement.

I don’t know how most cars are conceived and designed, honestly, but this seemed so thoughtful and impressive to all of us.

I loved the spirit of the design and my wheels were turning fast for what that means in design, in digital media?

In a town that highly (and mistakenly) values how fancy your car is, Brian and I have always tried to reject this. I drove a 2005 crossover until 2017 and only upgraded because it seemed crazy not to have any sort of ability to voice call while driving, especially with kids. My hesitation was out of laziness, but I also liked rejecting a culture that judges your success on what you drive.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are “car people” that value innovation and tech, who notice and care about engines and torch and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I obsess over the finishes of wood and the tuft of a sofa to a shockingly and seemingly superficial degree. We all value different things and driving a really high-end car certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t humble.


So I drove it around because what car partnership wouldn’t let you actually test it for a day. We cruised around Montecito in the CX-30 and checked out all their design stores. I liked it, guys, a lot. It was smooth and easy and super intuitive; all the necessary bells and whistles are right there and simply laid out and I really did like how fluid the body was. It’s unpretentious, functional and pretty.

Beyond the features of the car, I more identified with the notion of its “restrained allure” and the philosophy behind the company. But that’s likely because I’m, again, “not a car person.” What “I am” is a person (influencer or not, entrepreneur or not) who, 10 years into running a business, is seriously searching for growth in design, personal connections and business, but in ways that feel intuitive and right to me. Mistakes have been made this year, bad ones, and oh have the lessons been learned but coming out of this event where I was reminded of the importance of humility in all of these processes, I felt strangely so much better about myself. Empowered even. Of all the things I maybe can’t tap into as a business owner, humility is one that I think I can—both in design and business.


The sharp, wonderful and humble entrepreneurs who joined, from left to right: Natalie Elizabeth Ellis of BossBabe, Evelyn Torres of Brickellista, Amy Landino who authored Good Morning Good Life, Tara of Rad and Happy, ME, Sarah Faherty who was runner-up on Masterchef Season 10, Erika De La Cruz from Passion to Paycheck, and Caileen Kehayas Holden of Career Contessa.

Of course, the irony didn’t escape me. I was staying at the beautiful Rosewood Miramar Beach resort on the beach, wearing snakeskin knee-high boots, being followed by my own personal paparazzi (Mallory and Sara shooting and banking my insta-stories and photo assets for the partnership) while eating $28 breakfast from Malibu Farms. I definitely wouldn’t say this event was setting the landscape for an article about humility. This wasn’t the intended take away.



And yet if what they are saying is true, that humility is one of the keys to success and greatness in business, then, guys, there is even more hope for me and this business that I’ve proudly (if not accidentally) created. I’m looking at you 2020, we got this.

I left with some great connections with entrepreneurs that are indeed very humble, thus shaking my judgment/fear of that word a bit. I went in intimated by their business prowess, but by day three, they were telling me all of their failings and mistakes (of course, I shared mine on night one RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE). It was such a great reminder that we all FAIL, because running an actual business that was born out of creativity is hard as the two are innately at odds. It’s the subject of my third book and no I’m not joking. There was a ton of great advice exchanged and a lot more of it coming from me than I thought possible. Turns out, I’ve learned a thing or two.

If you want to see who all was there over the 3-week period (they had a creative/influencer group and a more outdoorsy/influencer group), head over to the hashtag on Instagram. The car launched today as did all of our different stories on different platforms and I for one am excited to see how each “influencer” told their story of this trip to their following. Turns out, that while I may have a big following, I for one was highly influenced by what I learned.

Thank you, Mazda, for a lovely few days. And thanks to all who I met for your generous advice. Head to stories to see what we did and come back later today for a “design store tour in Montecito” post.


**NOW PUT DOWN YOUR LAPTOP AND GET YOURSELF A MAZDA, CX-30, TODAY! For this weekend only, head down to your local Mazda dealer and quietly whisper the name Emily Henderson into the ear of your salesmen, to receive exactly ZERO% off. (I’m joking, dear god, I’m joking).

*This post is in partnership with Mazda but all words and feelings are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that help support us. 

**photography by Sara Ligorria-Tramp

Fin Mark


Never miss a single post and get a little something extra on Saturdays.

Comments are closed.
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

[…] post The Surprising Lessons I Learned About Design (& Business) from a Mazda Influencer Event appeared first on Emily […]


Emily, I have never seen a more beautifully written sponsored post! I actually teared up a bit. Your discussion on humility shows reminds us of what the world needs right now. I appreciated Mazda’s retreat process!

thank you so much. it seriously means so much to me. xxx

[…] {$excerpt:n} Source: The Surprising Lessons I Learned About Design (& Business) from a Mazda Influencer Event […]


Very cool! We’re on Mazda #3 in our household and it makes me happy to hear we’ve been supporting a company with positive values.


You are an ‘influencer’ to aspire to be! I know you recognize that many of your ken are not the same and distinguishing yourself must be working, but I can see those lurkers hunched over their keyboards trying to copy your tone even now… Just keep on doing what you do, (but watch over your shoulder).
And yes, I am a boomer…

thank you, thank you, Cavin. xx

Jeffrey C

Jim Collins, one of the world’s most renowned business leadership researchers and authors, long ago extolled the value of humility in what he calls Level 5 Leaders.

“Level 5 leadership is a concept developed in the book Good to Great. Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will.”

You might enjoy his take on the topic. Excerpt at

Jessica Krakoski

Emily, what a beautiful post. What you have written about the power of humility is what actually makes you a great leader. And more in the business world are starting to talk about humility and vulnerability as key traits of great leadership. There’s a ton out there to read, and here is one article. Hope it inspires your journey ????


why are you promoting cars? Are you not worried about climate change. This upsets me


Agreed. I understand there are bills to pay but this feels very off to me.


I agree.


Because some people still drive them.


Annie: Do you walk everywhere? You’ve never owned a car? Or bought a car? You never once get into a car now? Talking about cars does not contribute to climate change. Driving them does. And unless you never get in a car, you need to slide off that high horse.


I agree with this! I live in a rural area where there isnt an option to not drive a car. We do not have electric car companies and the car companies we do have offer very few hybrids. Not everyone has the luxury of a different mode of transportation. If my family did not own a car we wouldn’t even be able to get to a grocery store. That being said, this article also did not discuss her wanting to run out and buy a car and encourage anyone else to do so either. Rather, it discussed feelings and opportunities… Read more »


That’s right, we jettisoned our car and use public transport exclusively. I admit, we live in London, not L.A. so it’s easier for me and my family to ditch the convenience of a motor, but still, we did it. And pious as it might sound, we no longer fly anymore either (or eat meat from ruminants). Bush fires are raging through Australia as I type, there’ll be worse than ever hurricanes hitting the Caribbean in the new year. I am sorry to appear preachy and, another admission, I didn’t read the article because I was so shocked to see it… Read more »


That’s right, we jettisoned our car and use public transport exclusively. I admit, we live in London, not L.A. so it’s easier for me and my family to ditch the convenience of a motor, but still, we did it. And pious as it might sound, we no longer fly anymore either (or eat meat from ruminants). Bush fires are raging through Australia as I type, there’ll be worse than ever hurricanes hitting the Caribbean in the new year. I am sorry to appear preachy and, another admission, I didn’t read the article because I was so shocked to see it… Read more »

Sarah Hepburn-Smith

Thank you for such a thoughtful post and commentary on humility. I really appreciated your thoughts on the fake it ’till you make it culture – I’ve never identified with that and your comments really resonated with me.

Jenny B

We started with a Mazda Miata in 1990 that we still have and works great, and currently have 3 others (including for our children). Had some other cars in there that always had issues, NEVER an issue with any of our Mazdas. Waiting for their electric cars to come out for our next cars. So glad that they walk the walk!

that’s good to hear. I”m sure they’ll appreciate hearing that, too. I was honestly very impressed.


When you get it right, you really get it right and I appreciate that. I also love the inspiration and honesty that you approach all subjects with but lately I feel like I don’t understand this blog. Every other post is talking about how you/your team feel terrible about consumerism and want to do better in terms of sustainability, but the posts in between are marketing things that people don’t need and are terrible for the environment. It comes across as tone deaf.


but why don’t they make an electric car, or even a hybrid 🙁


I have to admit Emily the first time (ok, only time; in real life anyway) I met you, I left saying how humble you are. I don’t know why that was shocking or a surprise (I’ve listened to you and read about you for years) but I was happy, relieved even that you were REAL and approachable and humble. Loved reading this and here’s to Humility! ????????

[…] Despite having a business, I don’t identify as an “entrepreneur.” Despite having a following, I flinch when people call me an “influencer.” And despite living in the most “car culture” city of the world, I’m certainly not a “car person.” So when Mazda invited me to an “Entrepreneurial Influencer immersion trip” to launch their new… Read More … The post The Surprising Lessons I Learned About Design (& Business) from a Mazda Influencer Event appeared first on Emily Henderson. Read More […]


I own a Mazda CX-5 and it is the best car I have ever had! I live in the mountains, we get a TON of snow and I always feel confident that I’ll be able to drive home, get to work, etc. in my car. I was drawn to it for this reason, but I have to say the design is why I love it. It definitely has that sense of “restrained allure”. What I really came here to say was this: As a burgeoning small business owner I found your words to be so inspiring. I’m always learning something… Read more »


Almost skipped reading this as it was about cars, but it is an amazing piece, Ems. Beautifully written & heartfelt. Week done!

Stephanie Gutierrez

I can’t believe I’m writing this but your sponsored post actually *moved* me.


I love my Mazda CX-5 – the design aesthetic was what sold me – so pretty, but not over the top. I call it my Mazda-rati (not sure if that is humble or not!). 🙂


Agree! I drive a cx-5 and I LOVE it. I love the style, love the way it drives, and love that it’s not a $40,000 car (or more). It feels good to get good quality without compromising my values.


Loved this post!!! Humility is indeed (or at least appears to be) a virtue of a bygone era that is shunned and looked down upon nowadays rather than embraced and emulated. One of the pieces of art hanging in my office is “Work Hard Stay Humble”, and this post is a great reminder to do exactly that.


While this isn’t necessarily the point of your story, I love my Mazda. It’s a 2009 Mazda 5 and completely unlike anything on the market (then or now). It feels like a car, looks like a station wagon, has a manual transmission, and sliding doors like a minivan.
The fact that the Mazda design team thinks so differently, both then and now, makes me respect the brand even more.


This is truly puzzling to me. This is a car company. What they care about is making money. The rest is window dressing designed to fake people out. Cars are one of the single biggest creators of air pollution, which in turn is destroying our planet, and in exchange for a fancy vacation you agreed to spend a weekend at a fancy resort and then tell your readers all about it? Mazda doesn’t even currently sell a hybrid, let alone an electric car. We all pollute, and nobody is a perfect ecological citizen. But this is absurd. You are shilling… Read more »


Unfortunately, I have to agree that I think this post is disappointing. Leaving the climate change implications of promoting a car company aside, I saw this post and thought, ‘why is EH—an interior designer—promoting a car corporation?’. While the post is wrapped in a ‘humility’ theme and supposedly not only about a car, it’s just one more article in a series of posts that stray further and further away from interior design. I used to read this blog every day for inspiration and tipps on interior design but lately, the content feels more and more like product advertising for all… Read more »


I agree.
I’m pretty turned off hearing about creating content. (The very term “content” rubs me wrong.) I’d rather just read the piece and let it speak for itself. Too much hearing how the sausage is being made, for me. Maybe this is part of the charm for some. To each his/her own.


On the heels of the U.N. Climate Change conference… you could use your power to change Mazda, not to acquiesce…


I agree. The point of the post was she went with the agreement that she didn’t have to sell people on the cars….then proceeded to sell people on the cars. I feel like the “this is a post about being a humble influencer” was just written to skirt the issue that it’s a sponsored post about cars. The thing I hate about “influencer culture” is when blogs try to sell me on things that don’t fit their blogs. It’s just selling for the sake of selling, even when it doesn’t make sense. This is the perfect example of this. Sponsored… Read more »


I’m so bummed that I have to agree too. As a long time reader and huge fan, I am finding the posts to be less enjoyable to read. Also as an entrepreneurial business owner, I get having to feed the machine. Growing pains are hard, but hopefully with a few deep breaths in 2020 you and your awesome team can find the old EHD mojo.


Emily, to start with I love your blog and generally really enjoy posts written by you and your way of thinking. However, I did not enjoy this post at all, it just made me feel bad about you doing sponsored content while at the same time telling me you’re not trying to sell me something. Please, if you could be more comfortable about it, I think the readers would be too. It’s ok. Every blog does this, all influencers do it from time to time, hence all the people at the resort with you – none of them have much… Read more »


Completely agree with this comment.




Completely agree as well.


Great post – FYI, you have [TBD LAST NAME] before Tara in the influencer photo.

Chris Wiitala

Too bad Mazda is backing Trump in denouncing California’s tougher emissions standards. Are you a climate change denier now too? Very irresponsible. This is whitewashed BS.


I can’t help seeing a giant dent on the side doors.


I love your work and heart. Your intention is always pure.
However, I didn’t like this messaging about a car company that notably does not make cars that lessen our environmental impact. It really feels off from your ethics- re ensuring a better planet for your children.


GOD please


Thank you for a thoughtful post. I find this subject right up your alley, as you are really a life-style blogger, with a big side of design. Two thoughts; my 12 year old Mazda 3 has been just an excellent car, with mileage averaging about 34 mpg (no freeways here,) and as to your “mistakes” which you mentioned several times here, I have one adage that I refer to frequently (I am a small business owner, and have been self employed for 20+ years) “if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.”


Emily, I know you receive a lot of comments about things you do (no matter what you do) and it’s entirely up to you how you absorb, ignore, handle. However, please know that there are people (of whom I am one!) who found this super interesting to read, genuine, heartfelt, and authentically your voice and found it a little weird/different in a creative way. Way more than that, know how humble you come across in EVERY post you write– I’ve been reading this blog daily for 7+ years and that has always been how I’ve perceived you and only increasingly… Read more »


What a great post. I have seen Free Solo and had to cover my eyes during parts of it. Such an incredible movie. I thought it was interesting that a doctor said he was capable of doing these frightful/lethal climbs because the fear part of his brain that we all have, was so small. This kept him from fearing. Wow!

I wonder what we would all do and try if we, too, had very little of the fear part in our brain like him. A thought provoking blog post Emily and happy driving! XO


What a great post Emily. I have seen Free Solo and it’s mind blowing. I had to cover my eyes a couple of times. I thought it was interesting that a doctor, who had examined his brain, said the fear factor in his brain, that we all have, was almost non-existent which is what allows him to do these fatal and scary climbs.

Can you imagine the things we might do or try if we, too, had no fear.

Happy driving! XO

Jessica Nevins

For those pooh-poohing on this re: cars & climate, and some even mentioning the recent climate summit, please read this NYTimes opinion from someone who attended said climate summit: And the get off your “Mazda doesn’t even have an electric model or hybrid” high horse. Guess what! Every single comment posted or anything you do as an individual online, every banking transaction…has. a. carbon. footprint. The author of the opinion re: the summit details the strategic business policy implementation across the globe to work through this crisis. Work thru. Together. So when you bitch how your formerly-beloved-inspiration-machine Emily dared… Read more »


Spot on. The internet would be a much better place if people stopped constantly looking for reasons to be pissed off, based on their own political preferences and biases.


I love Emily’s comment section as much as the posts sometimes. I love the diverse (strong) opinions that I didn’t even know existed.

Thanks for the NYT article recommendation. My take away was that YES every single action matters, including pressure on car companies via blogs to invent cleaner technologies.


I work for a auto supplier that specializes in color & trim (I get rather picky when it comes to purchasing a vehicle when it comes to the exterior and interior cabin). I wound up purchasing a Mazda CX-3! The design and quality just stands out, and now I know why! Thank you for this post!


It’s one thing to participate in car culture because you feel like there is no other option. We’ve all been there and that’s a problem our country should work on. It’s another thing entirely to promote it on a huge platform. Cars put us in debt, congest our cities, pollute, and kill us at alarming rates that we mostly ignore. Cars already outnumber people in America. We don’t need more. I get that we all have to pay the bills, but I’m pretty disappointed in this very off-brand post that is supposedly about humility, but really about cars. Maybe think… Read more »


Emily…One of your best blog posts ever!! How refreshing to hear Mazda’s mantra and your insight on humility. A good word for all of us as we enter a new decade. Thank you!

Go To Top