Full disclosure, I grew up hearing I was ugly, dumb, fat, lazy and wouldn’t amount to much. I heard this from my parents. My father, in particular, would tell me I should be further along in my schooling or career. I grew up in a Chinese home where my parents motivated me by always wanting me to achieve more—nothing I did was enough. In a way, I’m grateful because it made me resilient and determined “to show them.”
Although I was interested in science and took quite a few pre-med courses in college, I had my sights set on graduate business school. I scored 540, out of 800, on the entrance exam. . . not a great score. But I was filled with “I’ll show them” attitude and a combination of solid undergrad grades, extracurricular activities and strong recommendations resulted in my acceptance to Harvard Business School. Incidentally, I was also accepted to Harvard Medical School—my MCAT (entrance exam) scores were much higher–but I knew business was the direction I wanted.
For me, Harvard Business School was a place where, for two years of my life, I was spectacularly unsuccessful. The experience was a huge culture shock and very intimidating. I had very few friends and I walked around in complete fog. When you’re in the wrong environment, you don’t like anyone, and no one likes you. To this day, I have no idea what it took to get through it. Thankfully, after I graduated, I moved to New York, and became myself again.
I’ve always loved beauty and fashion and focused my career in that area. Due to my business and science background, I was hired at Avon Products. During that time, I was fortunate to meet and work with some of the greatest dermatologists. I learned everything about skin and skin products, including one of the most important discoveries in skin care . . .glycolic acid, which transformed the industry. It was incredibly exciting to be part of the team that created a billion-dollar brand; Avon Anew. I realized we’re all given a gift; mine was to create innovative technologies based on science and I was fortunate to create and launch over 400 beauty products over the past 30 years.
During my many years of working in the beauty industry, I never had the desire to start my own beauty company. It’s extremely difficult and you must be ready for serious challenges. Yet, at the age of 50, I found myself starting a beauty company called Restorsea and it all began with a hike through the fjords of Norway!
Prior to Restorsea, I had a consulting firm, and from 2008 – 2010, I visited Oslo, Norway 48 times. One of my clients was horrified to learn that of all the trips I had made to Oslo, I’d never seen the countryside, so he set up a 3-day hike of western Norway! I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m Chinese, and by nature don’t like to be outside, and I’m the most unathletic woman I know. But I went. Day 1 was a 13 hour hike up and down the mountains. Looking to get out of hiking on Day 2, I asked for a tour of the salmon hatchery at the bottom of one of the fjords. It turned out to be a very famous hatchery because it is the only one in the world that does synchronized hatching. Over 200,000 salmon eggs are hatched at same time!
While there, I made a monumental discovery. During the tour, I noticed the workers’ hands looked much younger and smoother than their faces, even though they spent much of their day with their hands in water.
I quickly learned that when salmon hatch, a natural enzyme allows them to emerge safely from their eggshells and is then released into the water. That enzyme exfoliates only dead skin cells, which, in turn, allows the living cells to flourish. Everyone’s hands looked so good because the enzyme cleaves only to the dead skin cells leaving the living cells untouched. They were getting continuous exfoliation but not the thinning of the skin, and irritation. I had my “Ah ha” moment.
I arranged to have the hatching water sent to my lab. Within a year, we had developed day and night creams . We packaged both products in ugly jars, with ugly labels, and sent them to major retailers. Within a month, we received our first orders. They thought we’d be the next La Mer and wanted in.
This is when things started to happen very quickly, and I learned Valuable Lesson #1; when someone gives you a shot, you take it and run as fast as you can. We secured exclusive rights for the patented enzyme extraction process and I found a partner who made a major financial investment.
We launched the Restorsea line at Bergdorf Goodman in 2012. This is when I learned Valuable Lesson #2; just because someone wants you doesn’t mean you have found the right partner. Despite having raised substantial funding, most of it went to the creation of the product, securing patents, and other expenses and left little for marketing. We would never get retail traction without spending a lot of money, which I didn’t have. At a certain point, I lost my nerve and for a while, we floundered. Money was going out the door. In the meantime, I was getting calls from dermatologists who were asking for a line of products, and one of my investors came up with the idea of changing the sales model.
In 2014, we announced that we were reformulating to create Restorsea Pro, which would be sold solely through doctors’ offices. In September 2015, we launched the line and by December, we realized the new approach would work. The Restorsea retail products are sold online. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but it took three years before people believed me. This year we broke even. We’re now at a point where we can license our technology to a company that can scale it into a billion-dollar business.
Today, Restorsea is, my husband, my child, my life! There were many challenges along the way and, sometimes, it took me years to understand the problems and solutions. Yet, I never gave up. I believe growing up with the great expectations of my parents and feeling so out of place at Harvard Business School, set me up to be resilient and to succeed.
Self-awareness is important, even when you find out things about yourself that aren’t positive. It’s taken me 20 years to realize I’m not a corporate person and I’m a terrible manager. I treat people well, but I also hold them accountable and sometimes that creates conflict. I know my strengths and weaknesses and in the foreseeable future, I’ll spend time executing several key deals, while also planning for my transition.
What I’d like to do in the future is to support the next generation of women in business. In my HBS class, all the men are rich, the women are not. Men invest in each other’s deals – they’re competitive but they support each other. Women don’t think that way and tend to be less supportive of each other. To get to the next level, we must change that, and I want to be a part of it.
I’m often asked for my advice for women in business, but I believe this applies to women in all walks of life. Don’t worry about being a late bloomer, it will come. I developed my sense of self late. I was always so impatient, but it did happen in its own time. You just have to keep at it, persevering through the tough times.