Dr. Beau Wangtrakuldee of AmorSui: “Mistakes make great businesses”

Mistakes make great businesses. During AmorSui’s first production run, there was a defect in our protective fabric that made it easy to tear. We found out about this defect after products were already sent to our ambassadors and first group of customers, so we had to do a recall of our products and provide refunds. […]

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Mistakes make great businesses. During AmorSui’s first production run, there was a defect in our protective fabric that made it easy to tear. We found out about this defect after products were already sent to our ambassadors and first group of customers, so we had to do a recall of our products and provide refunds. Although the first production was small, the mistake caused us to lose credibility with some early ambassadors and customers that I could never get back.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beau Wangtrakuldee.

Beau Wangtrakuldee is a PhD chemist-turned entrepreneur who is the co-founder/CEO of AmorSui, a company that provides size-inclusive personal protective equipment (PPE) that is chemical/fire-resistant, antimicrobial and properly fitted for women in STEM fields. But amidst the current pandemic, Beau shifted her business model to support the frontline as well as society and has introduced mobile managed, gender-inclusive medical PPE.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

At a young age, I was fascinated with how science could create innovations that impact society on a large scale. It is the main reason why I pursued a career as a drug discovery chemist — to contribute towards development of new treatments for unmet needs. It was the summer of 2014 when I was conducting an experiment with highly reactive and toxic chemicals, where I faced a potentially fatal chemical spill accident. At the time, I was wearing a lab coat and following standard lab safety protocols. However, the toxic chemicals penetrated through my lab coat, soaked through my pants, and burned my legs. After recovering from this accident, I looked for additional protective clothing that are fire- and chemical-resistant in an effort to make myself feel safer to go back to work again. To my surprise, I found that such products for women do not exist. At the time, I recognized the importance of making PPE made for women available, but I didn’t know how I could do something about it. It was not until four years later when I gained more experience in entrepreneurship interacting with startup leaders on a regular basis as a management consultant that I thought this idea could turn into a business.

Before I pursued the idea of size-inclusive PPE as a business, I did market research by talking to 100 women scientists and trying to understand not only if they noticed the same gap of PPE that I did, but also to collect feedback regarding the best functional and safe work apparel they would be willing to buy for themselves. The results were unanimous that women in STEM prefer a protective and classic wardrobe that would allow them to transition between different work functions, from workstations to meetings and beyond. As I tried to better understand my customers, I also discovered another larger issue around gender disparity in the STEM workforce. From a PPE perspective, a survey of women in multiple STEM fields showed that only 29% of them are wearing safety products designed to fit their bodies. We, as women, have not been provided tools to protect ourselves properly while at work. This self-discovery pushed me to found AmorSui with a mission to make safety accessible for everyone. In 2018, I recruited a small team of fashion designers and scientists to execute on our initial vision of an R&D safety line of apparel. We presold our products as a proof of concept on a crowdfunding campaign and were able to raise 15,000 dollars to fund our first production. Two years later, we have expanded our market access to B2B, aligned global supplier partners, expand our line to include a medical line, and products to offer PPE management via a mobile application.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

During an earlier phase of our crowdfunding campaign, we weren’t getting a lot of traction yet so I relied heavily on my network to either provide some funding support or referred to other connections that may want to buy our products. I reached out to one of my male scientist colleagues to share my story and asked for help. His sentiment was that if a woman can’t be careful enough to not harm herself in the lab, the maybe she should stay at home. I was shocked and angry at first when I received his message. After some reflection, I decided to describe this encounter to my community and outline why it is so essential that AmorSui exists as a brand, so women are provided with tools and support that allow them to reach their highest potential. This occurred as the #MeToo movement made national news, highlighted by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual harassment cases against US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. AmorSui social media posts went viral and raised significant awareness for our crowdfunding campaign because of that. It was a silver lining, but I am forever grateful to this former colleague for making me realize how important it is that AmorSui exists. He also allowed me to find my tribe, in a community that believes inclusivity and diversity are needed in the workforce.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

The surge in demand for PPE during the coronavirus pandemic has served AmorSui well as a healthtech company that provides size-inclusive reusable PPE products and management platforms for hospitals and companies to properly implement reusable PPE. AmorSui was already growing steadily prior to COVID-19. Now, you can say that we are on the verge of growing our company by 39x by the end of this year. What sets us apart from our competitors is our focus on inclusivity and sustainability enabled by innovation. As a CEO of a startup, I have always struggled with priorities and deadlines. I am a research scientist by training, and I want to experiment with everything! However, due to our lack of resources as a startup, I learned to get focused on things that would provide the greatest payoff to AmorSui as a brand even though they might take more time. I learned this concept from Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She said people who follow this method would achieve more in the long run as you are getting the right things done and not just staying busy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started out, I wanted to gain feedback on my idea but was not comfortable enough to share it with anyone close to me just yet (only my husband knew about AmorSui at that time). To get my pitch out, I went to a local young professionals meetup once a month and strike up conversations about AmorSui with strangers. Some of them were supportive of AmorSui, some of them not so much. That experience provided ample opportunities for me to practice my pitch and learn how to adapt it to broader audiences, but there were a lot of awkward moments and people literally tried to run away from me as soon as I started talking to them. The lesson I learned from that? Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with strangers. You don’t know what it could lead to!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! Amid the current coronavirus pandemic, we have pivoted our resources and capability to provide safety-certified washable PPE in extended sizes, with a mobile application that makes it easy for hospitals and companies to track washes and manage life cycle of our products. US hospitals are continuously experiencing shortages of PPE and surges in the cost of medical PPE products while this pandemic continues to persist. Hospitals are reusing disposable products that are meant for single-use which may lead to a higher chance of exposure to COVID-19 and transmission to patients. Disposable PPE also generates a lot of waste, 240 tons daily to be exact. AmorSui is making safety accessible for all without sacrificing the environment. We are doing this by collaborating with US businesses led by women and minority founders to create durable PPE products, and using data and analytics to let our high-quality products perform at their best.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Mistakes make great businesses. During AmorSui’s first production run, there was a defect in our protective fabric that made it easy to tear. We found out about this defect after products were already sent to our ambassadors and first group of customers, so we had to do a recall of our products and provide refunds. Although the first production was small, the mistake caused us to lose credibility with some early ambassadors and customers that I could never get back. After the incident, I learned my lesson to be more vocal with fabric suppliers and ask for detailed quality testing of products. We also hire a production manager in-house who performs quality checks in all steps of production, including textile inspection, garment construction, and packaging. Our improved production capability to make high-quality PPE has led us to pass safety certification, which qualifies us to supply for businesses and expand our production in a larger scale.
  2. You cannot work alone. In the initial phase of leading AmorSui as a CEO, I felt like I always had to know and do everything myself. This assumption made the company’s progress in the beginning really slow. It was not until I started asking questions and relying on other experts around me to think through challenges that we truly sped up our product development process. We used to take four months to design a product, now it takes us two weeks from initial design to product. We even engage customers earlier by having them be a part of product design process, allowing us to create products customers would buy and love.
  3. Build the product that 100 people love and not try to be everything. At the initial inception of our brand, AmorSui’s core business focused on providing size-inclusive PPE for women in STEM. In conversations with investors, they would frequently say that the market is too small. However, our initial focus on providing inclusive sizing for women has gained us loyal customers who recommended our products to their friends, colleagues, and even companies. It was also easy for us to identify press outlets who aligned with women empowerment to tell our stories. Traffic from referrals of brand ambassadors and press benefited us in the long run to generate sales without having to spend on advertising. In addition, our ability to create products for women make us unique from other PPE brands even though we now expand to offer products for male customers as well.
  4. Building a startup is a marathon, not a sprint. Becoming a preferred vendor with Thermo Fisher Scientific, one of the largest global providers of lab and safety supplies, was a big milestone for AmorSui to increase market access and sell our products to corporations in a B2B manner. It took countless conversations, meetings, and constant follow-ups for eight months for this deal to come through. Without constant tenacity and patience, we wouldn’t be able to secure this partnership that is essential to our growth.
  5. Great businesses grow and evolve. When I first started AmorSui, our focus was to promote inclusivity and diversity in the workforce by protecting and empowering women in STEM. We originally only provided fire-resistant, chemical-durable, and antimicrobial workwear for women scientists. Since March, we have now pivoted our business to also offer gender-inclusive sustainable medical PPE products that can be used effectively with AmorSui’s PPE management app. These newly developed products are currently in high demand, allowing us to obtain large purchase orders with high scalability. Our business model is ultimately stronger because of our more comprehensive product portfolio, which allows AmorSui to grow quickly. It is our willingness to innovate on new lines of product that enables this growth.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I block my calendar off for breaks and time to spend with my husband and my corgi, Butters. We go on hikes or long walks where I will not look at a phone or any other electronics for hours. Although I know taking a break allows me to do better work and to think more clearly, it is still hard stop when there are always so much I could do to grow AmorSui. Holding myself accountable for scheduled breaks allows me to clear my head when needed. In addition, I don’t set my alarm on weekends, and allow myself to sleep and wake up when my body wants to. I am a night owl and never get enough sleep during the week. I know it is not ideal, but this routine provides flexibility on my weekend schedule and really helps me recharge.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Deborah Spranger, who is a partner lawyer at Troutman Pepper, played a crucial role in how AmorSui came into being. She was kind enough to provide pro bono insights on how to set up AmorSui as a business and how we could set up a board of advisors. It was the act of having a legal paper to show that AmorSui is a real company and the experienced executives guiding us to hit appropriate milestones that lead us to where we are as a company today. I am forever grateful for Deb’s help!

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

AmorSui is my dream passion project which is making safety accessible to everyone. Our recent launches were the first fire-resistant Rufaida Al-Aslamia hijab named after the first Muslim nurse to protect and inspire hijabi women in STEM and healthcare, and the Rebecca Crumpler Washable Level 3 surgical gown offered in smaller sizes for women. I am also working on starting a venture fund to support development of drugs designed for women. Studies have shown that women respond differently than men to many drugs. However, because so many drugs are tested primarily or exclusively in men prior to market, their efficacy and outcomes on women may not work as well or negatively affect their health. I would like to make funds accessible for technology that will close this gender disparity to promote better treatment for women’s health.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on AmorSui’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn @amorsuiclothing, or my personal LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/beauwangtrakuldee/

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