If you work with overseas vendors, PR, manufacturers etc. you have to understand their culture. — If you don’t, hire someone who does or you will experience costly errors and the process will be extremely inefficient. For example, working with China, you must understand how business is conducted or you will miss deadlines and get taken advantage of. You must also plan around Chinese New Year and understand the work ramifications for national holidays.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathy Chou. Kathy is the founder and CEO of Selfkaire and heads business strategy with many years managing large transactions and projects at major financial institutions (valued in the billions). She has worked in bulge bracket investment banking, financial consulting, and credit research at one of the largest and most prestigious asset management firms. She has a math & economics degree from UCSD and attended the University of Pennsylvania — Wharton for her MBA, with multiple scholarships and educational honors. Her career choices always landed her in extremely male dominated work environments but her passion has always been in the beauty/wellness sector and consumer behavior. After her MBA, she decided to axe the lucrative finance offers and take a chance to build a brand around a life-changing tool to disrupt the current beauty industry and create true value in the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
To be perfectly honest, it was never something as simple as an idea I came up with out of personal necessity. I am highly analytical by nature and graduated undergrad with Math and Economics and started working in investment banking, sitting for 80–100 hours each week. I’ve always (not quite, but starting somewhere in my early teens) had big calves. Doctors always told me it was genetic so I shrugged it off, but then when I began working and sitting for so many hours, I started developing severe lymphedema in my calves. Then came the monthly lung infections followed by a sudden inability to eat gluten, meat, sweets, or oil without severe pain. The suggestions from doctors I received: elevate your legs, take vitamin C, and keep a food diary to cut out everything that made me sick (which unfortunately eliminated almost everything at that point!). Most extreme suggestion: shoot $10,000 worth of botox in my calves every 3 months. My family had always suggested I try Eastern medicine, but I shrugged it off as “snake oil” for so long. However, after seeing what appeared to be a shockingly successful before and after picture, I caved.
I decided to see a famous Eastern medicine practitioner from Beijing to test out this alternative style of medicine. At the first visit she broke out a seemingly harmless looking large, hard plastic brush with bristles that are stiff and do not bend. She then proceeded to use all 200+ lbs of her body weight to scrape my entire body for 4–5 hours (I now affectionately refer to this process as medieval torture). After, she did wet cupping all over my body (you’re poked with a diabetic pen so the cups can extract toxins out of your body rather than just attracting it to the surface level of your tissue) and this was the life-changing moment I’ll never forget. From the cups on the back of my knees, where you have giant lymph nodes, she pulled out black blood clots with a sliver of silver liquid running down the middle. It looked like someone cracked a thermometer and leaked mercury into my cup except this substance had come out of my own body. She told me it was all the heavy metal toxins I’ve accumulated from eating fish, getting x-rays, cavities filled and so much more. I came to see her 4–5 times a week, each session 5 hours long over the course of a few months. Despite my original skepticism, I found myself making minor but noticeable steps towards feeling healthy again.
After this introduction to Eastern medicine practices, I started doing my own research, using all of my free time outside of work trying to figure out how to expedite the process and maybe even make it less painful. After a few years, I went to get my MBA at Wharton and before graduating, I finished a new concept. Upon developing the concept, I decided to test it out on only one leg so that I could measure any difference between the leg that I was using the tool on versus the leg I was not. The side I worked on was much smaller, tighter and smoother. I could believe that I had finally accomplished and created the tool I wanted!
After developing the tool, I originally only intended to use it for myself and had no plans of making it a business. It was only after many interviews within asset management and fintech did I finally realize how unhappy I was pursuing a career in finance. I chose to take my personal tool and develop it into a larger business concept to help others who might be suffering like myself, all while knowing nothing about retail, marketing or branding. Since the official brand launch in January 2019, Selfkaire has successfully launched in Urban Outfitters, Free People and Amazon with coverage in major publications like Marie Claire, New Beauty, Into The Gloss and US Weekly. Selfkaire is also backed by celebrity doctor Dr. Jame Heskett and medical estheticians nationwide.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
While I was meeting with investors overseas, I happened to meet someone who was romantically connected to an extremely successful, influential business woman in the makeup space who lives in my home town of Los Angeles (I will not name names, but there isn’t a single female who buys makeup who does not know of her brand and legacy). Rather than him investing, he connected me to her who would also be a much better fit as an investor. This connection was thousands of miles away and the coincidence is just astounding. It is the perfect example that you need to remain flexible and understand that the original goal of any encounter or meeting may not be achieved, but other (sometimes better) opportunities may present themselves as a result.
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?
There have been plenty of missteps given that I knew very little when I started about packaging, marketing and so much more. Probably the funniest one was asking a manufacturer to make me a high quality hard cardboard teardrop shaped box as packaging. They literally laughed at me and said 1. The cost would be egregious and 2. Unless my MOQ is over 10,000 boxes, they wouldn’t even consider it. That was a quick lesson to understand and research the intricacies of packaging to plan around costs while accommodating your creative designs.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The company was founded on the basis of “experts” giving me ludacris advice or telling me there was no solution. Now Selfkaire represents the mindset of me as the founder, if there isn’t a solution readily available it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You just have to go out there and find it! Be a problem solver, no matter how daunting the challenge. All the issues I was suffering through had no real solutions that fixed the core problem, yet I went to go find them. With enough perseverance, you can solve any problem. Research, create, test. Rinse and repeat until you have your solution. I will only launch products that have been severely researched and are imbued with efficacy and authenticity.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re researching not-for-profit causes to donate a portion of our sales to (specifically human trafficking). I’ve always wanted to help this cause and as I scale my business, I hope to make a bigger impact in this regard.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be confident, be aggressive and believe in your vision so your team feels cohesive. You have to make the decision to lead by fear or charisma. The most optimal is a blend of both. Most importantly, you need to execute so your team has a leader to believe in or your poorly executed vision will dissipate along with your team.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Spend some time analyzing each team member to single out their strengths, weaknesses, and how best to deliver feedback. Make sure what they work on is personally motivating. Never micro-manage, you want to ensure your team feels you trust them, that they feel personally responsible and have ownership over their scope of work. Of course, once your team grows even more, you will now have to groom managers you hire to embody the same leadership qualities that you value.
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 about that?
Not just one, but my family. I was able to go from design to rough prototype to full production in 3 months. I already had the manufacturing connections through my family and their wealth of knowledge about working with industrial materials (our tools are all precision cut surgical steel for the highest quality material possible) was crucial to the development of my tool. Working with China without relationships is nearly impossible (in Chinese, we call this guanxi) so the relationships my family has developed over years of work and introduced me to have been invaluable.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I completely dropped a career I felt was not contributing to the goodness of the world and plan to use the knowledge and skill set I’ve acquired to successfully scale my brand, which I believe will benefit countless people. I want women to know there are options outside of expensive/invasive treatments that achieve the same goal but also help you become healthier in the process at a much more affordable price point.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Never compromise timelines of critical projects — When you run a business yourself, no one is giving you hard deadlines, you need to give them to yourself. No one is telling me when I need to have things ready but I keep a close eye on my own internal deadlines because if they start slipping, my path to success is halted.
- Practice makes perfect — If you aren’t good at certain things (cold pitching, financials, graphics, etc.), keep working and trying new methods and strategies until you are. I learned graphic designing, coding, marketing, content creation, ad strategies, to keep costs low while I learn the retail landscape from scratch.
- Time and effort don’t necessarily produce results — Hard work is smart work: efficient and successful. You want to pat yourself on the back when you worked hard to achieve a result, but this is not the way life works. Saying you “worked hard” but produced poor results will not convince anyone of your idea and belief.
- Carefully analyze all failures to reduce chances of repeating. — At the same time, carefully analyze successes to weed out occurrences from luck so you can formulate a strategy going forward. I A/B test almost everything in every field to find out the most effective method to lower my burn rate and make my startup as efficient as possible.
- If you work with overseas vendors, PR, manufacturers etc. you have to understand their culture. — If you don’t, hire someone who does or you will experience costly errors and the process will be extremely inefficient. For example, working with China, you must understand how business is conducted or you will miss deadlines and get taken advantage of. You must also plan around Chinese New Year and understand the work ramifications for national holidays.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Don’t accept the current status of knowledge as the end all of knowledge. There are so many concepts and ideas that are still out there to be discovered and cure a problem current knowledge deems unsolvable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” — Aldous Huxley
This is relevant to both me and my startup. If you wait around for things to happen e.g. great PR coverage, buyers reaching out, executing an idea, you will achieve nothing. Selfkaire waits for no one. We focus on the things we can drive towards success: viral content creation, ad strategy, email strategy, etc. that are all within my control. If third parties reach out, great. If not, I will always pave my own path to success.
Some of the biggest 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 🙂
Kirstin Green from Forerunner Ventures. I believe, with her female perspective, she can understand my vision and see how much impact my brand’s concept (and it’s IP-protected inventions) can disrupt the beauty and plastic surgery market, helping women holistically address body image issues created by the society we live in.
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