Carefully consider other people’s advice, but YOU get to choose whether or not you accept it. Everyone has their own opinion about how to do things, and it takes time to ask enough people with different perspectives to gain a solid grasp of what’s going on, but at the end of the day, YOU are in charge of running YOUR business the best way YOU see fit. Don’t get confused by all the contradictory opinions out there — they’re just opinions.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Lee.
Karen Lee is the founder and CEO of Glou Beauty — a marketplace for beauty lovers to rehome their under-loved products. Her start-up journey has been inspired by her experiences studying and working in high-end retail, and desire to change consumer culture from one of hyper-consumption to one of mindful consumption.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in an unusually super-feminist bubble, which I didn’t realize or appreciate fully until my early twenties. It never occurred to me that there might be barriers in the outside world that would hold me back because of who I am or what I look like, so I was always encouraged and empowered to pursue anything I set my mind on. A big factor in this was that I was always treated as an equal by adults around me and given the freedom to figure things out on my own.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I would not be who I am today without my involvement in the FIRST Robotics Competition. When I was 12 years old, I joined my school’s FIRST Robotics team — we were… let’s say, less than competitive. For some reason, instead of being like so bummed about coming dead last and thinking “we’ll never be as good as that team”, I had this unrelenting optimism that we could be just as good if I could just crack the code to their success. I had no fear in reaching out to the adults who helped run those teams to learn directly from them and spent all my free time reverse engineering how top teams operated. I didn’t just want to be competitive I wanted to win. It became an obsession that eventually paid-off. It took 4 years of non-stop hard work to bring my team to the world championships (we won awards that not only got the team thousands in grant money, but tickets to the front row of a private Black Eyed Peas concert). In those years I learned how to build an organization for sustainable success, effective management skills, raised tens of thousands of dollars (to be build better robots and fund team travel), and pretty much every single skill that’s been most useful to my start-up journey were developed during those years. I graduated with an invaluable superpower of creative resourcefulness — years of having to figure out scrappy solutions for pretty much everything will do that.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
This is so hard! For me change starts when you listen to others with an open mind and engage with new perspectives. A difference is made when the other party feels heard or seen because of your action. And impact is measured in whether or not you have reduced some kind of pain and replaced it with a level of joy.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
My end goal and the mission of Glou is to ultimately change consumer culture from one of hyper-consumption to that of conscious-consumption. The fantasy of being able to be transformed by a thing you’ve purchased is both a fascinating phenomenon to me and a pastime I have engaged in (or fallen victim to?). I am a successful byproduct of capitalism in this way, but I still really enjoy shopping. However, this kind of behavior is at odds with sustainability. Quitting anything cold turkey is generally a bad idea and leads to relapse. So, if we can’t flip a switch to get people off their shopping addictions, maybe we can help them shop better.
What does that mean? It means disrupting the feedback loop of supply and demand. If we focus on rehoming what we already own, as consumers, we generate less market demand and in turn signals manufacturers to produce less for next season.
Reduce comes before reuse which comes before recycle.
As far as sustainable beauty companies go, we’re the only ones focused on the first two.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
The climate anxiety I faced while working in retail really pushed me to think about what change in the industry means and where it comes from.
I went home on countless occasions feeling helpless, angry, and deeply unsettled about the sheer amount of garbage that I threw out during my shifts. Like every item comes wrapped in plastic, cushioned by Styrofoam, inside a cardboard box which is inside a bigger cardboard box. Literally everything.
I realized that consumers don’t know about the extent of how much landfill is generated through retail stores when I heard a customer say, “I prefer to shop instore because I hate how everything online comes individually wrapped in plastic bags.” Well, the stores get the same product, we just take it out of the plastic wrap for you, hang it up, and make it look pretty. The end consumer doesn’t see all the stuff that gets thrown out during daily operations.
Not to mention there are truly unethical practices surrounding destroying perfectly good merchandise if it’s not selling, or a brand recalls a product and decides it’s cheaper to take the financial loss of that product than to redistribute it. And the people at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy are pretty much helpless to do anything but comply with “company policy”, lest we lose our minimum wage jobs. So, it comes back to the end-consumer doing the one thing that speaks loudest to the people at the top, impacting their bottom-line.
I had always wanted to work in fashion or retail in some capacity but what I learned is that change is near impossible with the endless bureaucracy in big companies. I don’t have the time or patience to work my way up the ladder to be heard. The most efficient way to affect change is to do it yourself.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I couldn’t stop thinking about how there were millions of women wanting to do something with all the beauty products they’ve accumulated and don’t have a chance of actually using up within its useful life. All the existing alternatives were failing them in a major way. There was this ginormous industry that didn’t have a marketplace to facilitate these transactions.
Throughout the eight months I was actively looking for a job, I couldn’t get over how inefficient the existing processes for buying/selling beauty products were and wouldn’t shut up about it at home. My mom finally gave me the shove to pursue Glou by basically telling me, “hey, if you need to live at home and you truly believe this is a real opportunity, I’ll support you.”
And it was only then that I really gave myself permission to pursue this very different career path from my peers who went for roles that are more typical of business school grads. I knew that I would be able to persevere through this journey because I just knew I could let myself become obsessed with this project for a very, very long time, and the last time that happened was with robotics (which was a six year long project).
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Set up a landing page to see if people were even searching for a solution. But at the end of the day, you just have to DO something. Make something happen. You can’t plan for the future, so don’t bother. I think people get really attached to their work and get their identity muddled up with what they produce, and that just can’t happen in a start-up. Plans fly out the window before you’ve even lifted your pen from the paper. You just have to accept that you’ll figure things out as they go. If I went back in time and told myself all the stuff I’ve had to go through to get to this point, there is no way I would have gone through with this. I just take things one step at a time. There’s almost no other way to stay sane.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of my side hustles I did while bootstrapping the VERY early days was working in the tv/film industry as a background actor. That’s right, being an “extra” funded the very early days of Glou! Most of the whole filming process is sitting around until you’re called to set (where you’ll sit some more, but in silence), so I did a lot of work from my phone. Most founders probably don’t have their start as a Handmaid. As a kid I loved the behind-the-scenes featurettes in the “bonus features” of a DVD, and wanted to work in the film industry, so I kind of got to fulfill my dream of seeing all the behind-the-scenes stuff happen in real life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
This might not even be remotely funny, it’s very embarrassing to admit actually. So Glou started out as “subswaps” because I originally wanted to figure out a way to alleviate the consumer dissatisfaction of people never getting what they wanted in their subscription boxes. I kept this name even as I focused on beauty, and several users told me that the name was misleading. I could not think of a better name so I just changed it to S//S Beauty Market. The double slashes is actually a holdover habit from writing computer code — it’s the syntax for leaving comments within your work — and I frequently use it when making notes in lieu of a dash or bullet point. Anyways, there’s no way to pronounce the double slashes, and a history major friend mentioned to me that they have a strong association with the double letter ‘S’ as the shorthand name for the Nazi police force. I felt nauseous because that is the furthest thing I want to be associated with, and immediately started brainstorming for a new name. I settled with Glou because when it’s written in cursive it looks like “glow” which is a word associated with beauty. My friend has a company called Rainbou so I stole the substitution of the ‘w’ for a ‘u’. Of course, this time I Googled to avoid another embarrassing realization and found that “glou glou” is the French equivalent for “glug glug”, and if people make the connection to chugging wine, that’s fine by me. Now, some people do ask if it’s pronounced “gloo” or “glow” and I’m pretty chill with whatever. The idea was for the URL to rhyme: “glow dot co”.
Lesson learned: Google whatever you plan on naming you kid, pet, business.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
This could easily end up as an awards show moment where they start playing music over the recipient to get them off the stage.
I would not be where I am today or who I am today if it weren’t for my best friends who inspire me to be a better version of myself and make them proud, and my parents who have given me the best of everything.
I have such a strong community of support around me, there’s no single story or any one person I would feel comfortable calling out. From fellow founder friends, strangers who answered a cold email, to all the colleagues from my time in retail who made our store my home away from home, and everyone who has ever asked me about how I’m doing, what I’m working on, or even just shown interest in what I’m doing — It’s all those little moments of encouragement that mean the most overtime. It’s been a sustained, community effort that has allowed me to keep going and want to keep going.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I think this is a story that has yet to happen.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Think twice before you buy something even if there’s the assurance of “free returns”. So many things that are returned are thrown out.
- Consider the entire life-cycle of stuff you buy.
- Plastic isn’t always the enemy. Glass is heavier, therefore uses more fuel to ship. Cotton requires a ton of water to grow and one “reusable bag” is only better for the environment after 7100 uses (organic cotton: 20,000 uses). Reusing what you already have is ALWAYS the more sustainable option than buying something new. (Source: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/579437/cotton-canvas-tote-bad-for-environment)
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
1 — Carefully consider other people’s advice, but YOU get to choose whether or not you accept it. Everyone has their own opinion about how to do things, and it takes time to ask enough people with different perspectives to gain a solid grasp of what’s going on, but at the end of the day, YOU are in charge of running YOUR business the best way YOU see fit. Don’t get confused by all the contradictory opinions out there — they’re just opinions.
2 — Be self-aware. Know your weaknesses (not just skills-wise, but emotionally — perhaps there’s a topic that sets you off), your superpowers, your motivations, and how you react in different situations. It is almost impossible to do this without the input of a professional, so investing time into finding a great therapist is super undervalued.
3 — Productivity doesn’t always mean your output. There will be days where the most productive thing you can do is take the day off, rest, go for a walk, and just get yourself out of your thought bubble. Inspiration doesn’t come from endlessly coming from a screen — those “aha!” moments usually come from just living your life. Don’t feel guilty for taking time off.
4 — The whole journey is hard and it’s supposed to be hard! If what you’re doing is easy, someone would have done it already. However, there are people who have had a similar experience as you — other founders! Connect with founders who are just a step ahead of you, at the same stage as you, and when you’re a little further down the road, help someone else who is a step behind you.
5 — Don’t let people tell you a cofounder is a prerequisite to get started or to take on at any time. I’ve had so many people tell me to get a cofounder but also tell me that your cofounder is like your spouse — a partner in crime that you’re going to be legally attached to for at least five years. Who you work with is so important and if things don’t work out, it will end in an expensive, messy divorce. I kept building my business and spent months looking for a cofounder, but at the end of the day I decided to proudly proclaim myself a solo founder. I felt an enormous pressure to have a cofounder because there’s this subtext out there that as a non-technical founder, aka not an engineer, no one was going to take me seriously unless I could convince a man to be at my side. It didn’t feel right for me to take on a business partner when I had gone two years without one and essentially trade equity for a free development, when that’s something I could hire for instead. In most cases you don’t need a CTO at the start, you need someone to write code. A developer and a CTO are functionally very different and come in at different stages of your business. So long story short, if you are going in with a partner, awesome, you have someone to share the journey with but it is not a requisite for success.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Just do it! Ruminating on a great idea that could be a force for change is just as good as doing nothing at all.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Sara Blakely! Whenever I need some inspiration, I listen to her episode of “How I Built This” podcast.
How can our readers follow you online?
Best place to hear from me directly is either by following me on LinkedIn (it’s the new Facebook), or subscribing to Glou’s Youtube channel. https://linkedin.com/in/karenleeza https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8toiAmIb-U709sxelT93GA?sub_confirmation=1
Best place to keep up with Glou: https://instagram.com/gloubeauty
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!