Suffering gives you the opportunity to find and own what you can control, and what you can’t. There are so many setbacks as an entrepreneur when you’re trying to create something literally out of nothing. There’s no rulebook. There’s no one telling you what’s wrong or right. So when we’re just doing our best and something crappy happens, it’s easy to cacoon up. That happened to be when I was fundraising, for sure, but you just wake up and through the 99 no’s, you find the one yes.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shizu Okusa.
Shizu Okusa is the Founder and CEO of Apothékary, an online herbal wellness company that offers 100% natural, sustainable and ethically-sourced products that treat modern day ailments using science, plant-based medicines like Kampo, and Ayurvedic practices. From growing up in Vancouver, to working on Wall Street, to trekking across Africa and Bali to reconnect and refocus, Okusa eventually became the founder of Jrink, a cold-press juicery which she sold in 2019. Now, with Apothékary, Okusa brings together her Japanese roots and her life in North America, to create what she calls “the pharmacy of the future.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Sure! First and foremost, my name is Shizu like she-went-to-the-zoo (..it’s even better when I say that in-person) and I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, in a super traditional Japanese family. My Dad is from a suburb outside of Tokyo and my Mom from Osaka. They met in Vancouver when they both separately immigrated from Japan, and I’m now the youngest of three sisters.
Now, when I say traditional..I mean, traditional. I think I speak for many Asian Americans with immigrant parents but they worked really hard to get me through school and they only wanted the best for me — get a stable job in finance, get married early, have kids, etc…but that turned out verrrry differently. More on that later!
My parents owned a sushi restaurant and that was also my first job (got paid in sushi) — dishwashing — where I saw firsthand how hard they worked to pay for my college tuition, swimming classes, tennis, and even Japanese sword fighting aka Kendo. I spent half of my time living in our house in Vancouver but also half of my time in Surrey, where my parents had a nursery and farm because my Dad was also a Japanese landscaper. I joke that I grew up as a tomboy driving tractors and swinging around a Kendo stick but in all seriousness, I think all of that made me the nature-loving woman I am today. My Mom was a stay-at-home mother who raised all three of us with everything she had. I sometimes look at my parents who devoted their entire lives to us, and am so grateful for that. Her cooking and ways of healing when we got sick (i.e. never Advil or Tylenol as the first point of medication but natural forms of medicine like Reishi or Chaga Mushrooms brewed in stone pots) has made a lifelong impact on how I approach both my life and work today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Things happen for you, not to you.”
Especially with COVID, where we’re all (mostly) indoors, it’s hard not to assume that when challenges arise in this new limited-input-life, that they’re life crushing. I’ve certainly felt that way multiple times, like when I was selling my first company, JRINK, and at the same time was raising + scaling Apothékary, I had a number of team members quit in that messy transition. I felt like I failed them and ultimately was on a sinking ship myself or something. I’m so glad I held on and kept a community of like-minded founders to help diffuse that moment and move onwards and upwards.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
One: Letting myself feel. I’ve learned how one feels =/= how one actually IS. It’s important to differentiate how you’re feeling in a moment vs. letting that own you as an actual trait of who you are as a person. As an example, I applied for the Sephora Accelerate program last year, which would help rapidly scale our product. Despite getting to the final rounds of interviews, I didn’t end up getting into the program. I felt distraught, unworthy, and that I was letting my team down. But feeling unworthy is far from the actual truth of being unworthy. Now I look back to say that it was all a blessing, and I made some amazing connections through that entire process.
It’s so important to grant yourself the space and permission to feel your feelings. It’s part of the grieving and healing process to become a better and stronger human being (we’re not human doings!).
Two: Resiliency without letting it harden you. I know, I know. People say that all the time but I truly believe that resiliency is what makes you stronger. However, one thing I don’t think is talked about enough is that sometimes too many hard moments (a byproduct of entrepreneurship, really) can make somebody jaded and guarded.
When my first business partner and best friend exited the first company I started (JRINK, which ultimately got acquired in 2019), I was devastated. Not only did I lose a thought partner, but a massive support system at the top who just “got it”. There were moments where I truly wanted to give up, and I would ugly cry on the floor for hours (not pretty!).
I let myself do that, and then cave to the reality that there are just “really good bad days” and it’s those moments which make us stronger, and feel really grateful about the “really good good days”. I don’t know if we can truly celebrate the highs without feeling the lows but it’s EXACTLY those heightened feelings that makes one more empathetic to life, people, and the small wins worth celebrating..
Three: Being patiently aggressive. This one is truly a work in progress. As a second-time founder, they say there are two main weaknesses — one is impatience, and the other is blind spots. I deal with the latter by surrounding myself with an amazing team and personal Board of Directors, where I encourage them to call me out or slow down if I’m going too fast for my own (and my company’s) good.
As an example, we grew rapidly (about 3,000% y/y) and in response, I want to literally do all. the. things…expand into retail, double down on our acquisition efforts, launch 10 new products in a quarter, etc. But that is just not sustainable — for my own personal wellbeing, for the company’s, and community as a whole. I have an innate desire to serve and give back, so when customers ask for X, I want to respond. But, unfortunately, there are limitations with how fast we can and should grow, and I know to look at it as a marathon not a sprint.
Another example is when things go wrong or haywire and sales drop more than expected. I want to jump in, change our budgets / channel mix, but that is very short-sighted. It’s a constant balance being patient, and being aggressive, which I now call being patiently aggressive.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
Phew! Not sure where to start with this one. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve fully closed the door on my First Chapter because there are so many lessons and work that I did with my first company that I want to reflect and truly move on from. It’s kind of like relationships, where it takes some time to get full closure and sometimes it takes the Second Chapter to help with that.
It all started when I left my “sexy” Wall Street prop trading job at Goldman Sachs and moved to Mozambique where I lived on a banana plantation for a year, then Bali for three months to get my Ayurveda herbal and yoga teacher training. I was deeply curious about the intersection of wellness, spirituality, and business — how does one do well, and do good, sustainably? I came back to the US, specifically Washington DC, where I originally got a job working at the World Bank but started juicing on the side, a habit I got from living in Bali with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Building my first company, JRINK, lasted seven years. I wanted to bring healthy unadulterated drinks, full of vitamins and nutrients that would nourish busy people on the go. I sold the company in 2019 to a strategic buyer, but that ethos and passion of bringing wellness to the mass has not changed at all. If anything, it’s gotten even stronger and larger with Apothékary.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
Rather than reinventing myself, I think I reinvested in myself. I raised a round of funding that gave me the ability to hire the best team (the A-team!) who invested their time, passion, and career into what we’re building. Seeing how far we’ve come thanks to their work and commitment, I feel like I’ve been able to reinvest a renewed sense of passion and power into Apothékary, just as fiery as I did for JRINK.
I’d be lying to say the entrepreneurship journey is glamorous…it’s actually really really messy with a lot of roller coaster highs and lows that you NEED literal fire to keep yours and the company’s lights on. It takes a lot of energy, but by investing in the right team, I was able to reinvest and reinvent myself to be a better person both personally and professionally.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
If I’m being honest, it wasn’t really a profound story but just a regular day I was catching up with a good friend, Tara Clever, and she basically convinced me to go all-in. I was very confused about how I was going to manage and run two high-growth businesses and was really concerned how I was going to be able to split my time. But I’m a big believer in taking small steps and just putting one foot forward ahead of the other.
For Apothékary, we put some Key Performance Indicators (“KPI’s”) together that would measure if, and how, I actually had a real business on my hands…and we did! We opened two pop up stores in Washington DC’s Union Market and Dupont Circle area (images below) to actually meet and engage with customers. It gave us real-time feedback on what products people wanted, didn’t want, and ultimately it became our go-to market strategy before I went to raise our first round of funding in Q4/2019.
I think this was a really good example of how your friends, or personal Board of Directors, can see your (and company!) potential sometimes more than yourself.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
New skill sets:
- Delegating, trusting the team, and hiring people better / smarter than I am
- I hired a coach and brought on a personal Board of Directors
- Dancing! Getting more into my body — I’m truly thankful to COVID for that. I was a bit insecure about dancing at a studio because I have zero choreography skills but at home…!
- Art: Painting, drawing, doing all the things that allow me to express my creative side without bounds
- Wearing more color: I know how corny this sounds but I think there was a part of me that thought I had to wear black or dark colors all the time as the CEO of a business. NOPE, not anymore. I wear pink, purple, bright yellow, all the colors that just spark my energy and are mainly a reflection of how I am feeling that day and what I want to rock in my wardrobe.
Quicker (and more decisive) decision making:
- One thing I’ve realized with Apothékary is how much more I trust myself and gut instincts. From new products to HR decisions, I’m much quicker on deciding how to move forward — I’m sure that just comes with experience and having “done it” with my first company, JRINK. I am mostly grateful for this because I know how frustrating this could be for the team and their productivity. Unwavering commitment to our vision, a close knit community and generally much more data-driven decisions with an e-commerce business vs retail one.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
I really did not expect to have the 2020 we did. I first hand was able to witness the effects COVID had on e-commerce (Apothékary) vs retail brick and mortar business (JRINK) and how different it was to run the two companies.
I think three few things really stick out:
- Scale: Everything we do, from product to community events, can scale to now over 23 countries worldwide.
- Surprises: 2020 was literally just full of them. On the plus, we had people like Chrissy Teigen giving us a huge shoutout in her Cravings’ Gift Guide (#notsponsored!) and on the other side, we had to do some massive changes around sourcing inventory given the inconsistent and long lead times of key ingredients due to COVID.
- Lessons: We’re a year in and just getting started, but how I originally THOUGHTthe business was going to be is completely different than how the business has actually turned out to be. The truth is that we’re not going to just an herb company, but rather a personalized wellness company (learned that through taking over 2000+ Consults. As a result, we’re also looking at opening the first “new world” post-COVID retail store later this year — more on that soon 😉
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am really grateful for the non-believers and those who doubted what we’d be able to do. As an Asian American who perpetually probably looks like she’s 16 years old (until 70), and female, I got so many “no”s when fundraising on non-sound reasons. I was really down and hard on myself then but, looking back, I am grateful for the suffering I went through.
David Brooks says it really well: “…The big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course. First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself….Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there.”
I now don’t fight “suffering”, or challenges broadly, and instead accept and focus on the things I CAN control, including building our A-team, ensuring we always have plenty of cash on hand, and showing up as my best self with what I know and have. I think this goes for the company too and how we serve our customers every single day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
There’s a few! One in particular unfortunately I can’t share (yet) but hopefully soon. But one of the most meaningful stories I think I’d have to share would be our unexpected growth. I actually started Apothékary, my Second Chapter, while still in my First Chapter of JRINK and was never able to fully dedicate my heart or head to the business. I still remember to this day when I used my hair curler to seal our first few orders of our sample packs to create the MVP of our product and now, it’s our best selling SKU. While it’s not the most sexy or interesting story out there, for me personally, it’s just such a reminder of how far we’ve come.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
All. The. Time. I honestly think this is a daily practice of believing and reminding yourself of the WHY we do the things we do. I love my parents but I think there was a huge element of “never being good enough” and the cultural desire to please within my Japanese upbringing. It’s a work in progress to manage that.
What I’ve done now, practically, is start a #kudos and #customer_love channel on our Slack where every morning we celebrate the small big wins of our customer reviews and team shout-outs. I never did that at JRINK and I think it’s so important to celebrate and start your day on a positive note.
There’s so much negativity in the world with every news outlet coming from a place of commerce and fear/scarcity — it’s an active practice to manifest your day from a place of love/abundance, in response.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
So I think about community and relationships like a pie. There’s a different size and flavor for each person in my life. When I want something sweet and not too bitter (haha), I may go to a childhood friend. When I know I need some toughness and day old pie, I go to my mentors who just KNOW I can handle what they’re going to say, whether I like it or not. And I hate wasting food, especially good pie, so I don’t take any feedback or advice without fully consuming it, even if it hurts.
Good relationships are extremely hard to come by, especially as we get older because there is only so much time as we move up in our careers and accumulate more and more things to juggle. Keep the good ones close — they are truly so important and often when we get in our own heads, they are the only ones that know how to pull you out of those negative cycles.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
I feel like I have to do this every quarter! As the founder of a rapidly growing startup, you’re often pushed to new limits of learning and sometimes even your own capacities as a human. I’ve dealt with my fair share of imposter syndrome in 2020 where I didn’t think I was good enough to lead the company because of my young age, limited connections outside of the DC area, and finite experience in the digital e-commerce world.
To deal with that, I moved from DC to Brooklyn NY at the start of 2020 thinking I’d live in NY for awhile and start yet another chapter: I’d hire the best talent, raise capital, and put myself into active growth mode with the smartest people. Then COVID happened and everything changed. My landlord sold the apartment I was living in, so I had to move again (third time in six months). I packed my bags and moved to San Francisco, where I knew about 3 people. I then had to travel again for a filming for work. So, I feel like I literally ran the company constantly on-the-go with not a lot of “grounding” or a place to call home.
2021 is looking MUCH more grounded, and thanks to the rollercoaster of 2020, I feel like sky’s the limit in terms of my comfort zone.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Suffering gives you the opportunity to find and own what you can control, and what you can’t. There are so many setbacks as an entrepreneur when you’re trying to create something literally out of nothing. There’s no rulebook. There’s no one telling you what’s wrong or right. So when we’re just doing our best and something crappy happens, it’s easy to cacoon up. That happened to be when I was fundraising, for sure, but you just wake up and through the 99 no’s, you find the one yes.
- Be a good example for the team. If I am working through the night, the team may feel pressure to do the same. I used to do that but now I just wake up really early (4am early!) and by 6pm, I think we’re all done. It’s so important, especially with COVID, not to burn out with work so we can show up better for ourselves and to others.
- It’s okay not to know everything. In my “First Chapter” I often found myself needing to find the perfect answer or solution but it’s so much better, and far less pressure, when you can rely on and openly discuss with a vested team about various big decisions for the company (e.g. whether to raise money, what new products to launch, what market to focus on, etc.).
- Humor helps. It sounds corny, but a good dose of laughter and dopamine can really do your mind good, and make your day better. I think it’s really just a mindset game but finding humor and being the one to manifest laughter is just such a good way to bring people together.
- SLEEP. At some point your 11th hour of work has diminishing marginal returns to your productivity. Get plenty of sleep, drink your 8 cups of water, and just do the damn thing.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I think it would be a “start small” movement. Sometimes we watch people’s Instagram stories / feeds and we think “Omg, how did she/he do that?!” but all big things start with small steps. I would love to see a community movement of people doing small acts of good and kindness to others (e.g. sending a kind voice note, a card, posting a photo of what they learned so they can share that with others, etc.), tagging their community, and letting that spread like wildfire. Even if you have 10 followers, those 10 also have another 10, and another 10…it goes on…it’s like a multiplier effect of good vibes.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Honestly, I would trade almost anything to spend a few private breakfasts AND lunches with my family. Due to COVID and strict travel restrictions back to Canada, and for safety reasons, I haven’t seen my parents who are more “at-risk” and my newborn niece, Aria, for now over a year. I usually go back 3–4 times a year but unfortunately with the pandemic it’s been difficult to do that. As a busy second time entrepreneur, I have a renowned sense of priorities and my family, especially older parents, is up there. A good old hug and no mask meal would be so lovely right about now, and can’t wait for the day to do that freely and safely.
And in a non-COVID world, I would love to have a private breakfast chat (I wake up at 4am everyday, so my lunch time would be another’s breakfast!) with a figure like Ray Dalio. I love his book called “Principles,” it really helped reshape some of my false beliefs, specifically around lifestyle and leadership.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Best way to follow along is on Apothékary’s website, social and my personal social or LinkedIn. We’re most active on our newsletter, which you can sign up on via our website and get regular weekly wellthy insights, recipes, and exclusive product launch updates!
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!