As told to Kate Sullivan
“So, you took your very first job at L’Oréal and you never left in almost 20 years?” People ask me this all the time.
But that doesn’t tell the story.
I grew up in central New Jersey, not too far from the Jersey Shore. My parents are Taiwanese immigrants, and in a way, I had what you might call a very traditional Asian background. At a young age, I started playing the piano. I have always been a super-avid reader; the summer when I was seven, I read 100 books. (This was before binge-watching TV shows was a thing.) By middle school, I’d picked up a second instrument and joined the theater and the choir. Through high school, I played piano competitively. I have always been a driven person, set on continuing to grow.
But early on, my parents understood that my upbringing would be very different from theirs. They started to give me freedom as they, themselves, were kind of finding it. My mother will always say, “We never pushed her; what she’s doing today, she’s done on her own.”
“I was probably around 10 when I started doing my nails. I literally changed my polish every day.”
My parents were supportive of my trying new things, including beauty products. I’ll never forget this story: I was probably around 10 when I started doing my nails. I literally changed my polish every day. And I would spend hours at home, polishing my nails, changing the colors to the point where my father came in and said, “You are going to pass out from the fumes of nail polish and nail-polish remover!”
In sixth grade, I always ended up in front of the 99-cent makeup area in the drugstore, which was about a foot long. I got very much into the trends of the day, including white eyeliner. It’s funny to think about that, given what I do now.
My interest in business came around high school. There were five high schools in my district that had specialized programs — I applied to the one focused on business.
“I’m convinced everything happens for a reason.”
We took regular classes, but also electives like Business Law and Entrepreneurship, which was a really great experience for me. Nearing my college application time, I knew I wanted to go to a business school. My first choice was Georgetown; I applied for early admission — and didn’t get in. I’m convinced everything happens for a reason.
I pursued my BS at Stern, NYU’s business school. There, I became a finance and marketing major. But after my first semester of finance, I thought: This is not what I want to do at all. All my classmates had these ideas of being an investment banker and that this was what success was… I knew it wasn’t for me. I changed my major to marketing and international business by the end of my freshman year and took a lot of marketing classes like Consumer Behavior. We had a concentration also in Entertainment Media, which I took as well.
All the internships available were very finance-focused. So, I set out to find my own internships that weren’t listed on the local career sites. I opened Seventeen magazine, went down the masthead, and wrote an email to the name under promotional marketing: “Hi, I’m a sophomore at NYU and I’m interested in an internship…” And I was lucky enough to land one!
“I’m glad I seized the moments and wasn’t afraid to speak up.”
Later, while working in a jewelry store in the West Village, I hit it off with a customer. When she paid for her purchase, I saw that her credit card said Universal. I asked, “Oh, do you work for Universal?” She said, “Yes, I work for Universal Music.” I told her I’d love to work there and about my Entertainment Media classes. She gave me a job and I spent a year working at Universal Music. I definitely had a non-traditional business school work experience. And I’m glad I seized the moments and wasn’t afraid to speak up.
In the early 2000s, the majority of the internships available to Stern students were in finance and consulting. There were very few companies who recruited for marketing internships — there was American Express and L’Oréal. I interviewed at both and took an offer at L’Oréal. And my third internship was at Lancôme, a L’Oréal brand.
From the start at L’Oréal, I felt like I had won the lottery. L’Oréal aims to give interns broad experiences across brands and different functions, so I actually started not in marketing, but on the education team. It was a great experience and integration into the organization because education is all about coaching and teaching. I had a great first experience with a manager invested in my success. And I wasn’t just working on mascara or a skin-care brand, but across everything. I got a holistic view of the brands very early on.
“If I hadn’t called and asked, that offer might have been lost forever. My life would have been totally different.”
After my internship, I was being considered for the management training program — this is a crazy story! Back then, they were still mailing offers [for jobs], and I was living in a dorm in New York City, literally just about to move out. I hadn’t received an offer — and I gathered my guts to call HR to say, “I was just wondering…” They said, “Oh, we sent your offer, it must have been lost in the mail.” If I hadn’t called and asked, that offer might have been lost forever. My life would have been totally different.
My journey at L’Oréal has been so diverse and interesting. I was always learning, developing. I’ve been in 13 roles ranging from intern, Director of Global Marketing, Vice President of Cosmetics, and General Manager across multiple brands — Lancôme, Kiehl’s, Shu Uemura, L’Oréal Paris, Maybelline, IT Cosmetics, and [now] I’m the President of Maybelline, Garnier, and Essie.
Over the course of my time at L’Oréal, marketing changed so much. In the early 2000s, it was all about the magazine publishing industry. There was no other way for consumers to get this content. You know, they were waiting for the September issue of Vogue, never imagining everything written there was first thought about six months before.
“This experience instilled the idea of ‘test-and-learn’ in my mind. There’s a lot of value in that today.”
In the early 2010s, there was a massive shift to digital and these new, immediate consumer touchpoints, like Instagram and Snapchat. At the time, I was on our Maybelline global team, and so many things were happening; consumers were consuming media so quickly. This experience instilled the idea of “test-and-learn” in my mind. There’s a lot of value in that today, where we may not be experts on new platforms. If the consumer is there, we must focus on understanding it and being relevant and authentic to them. What do we stand for?
In 2020, I was a part of building Maybelline’s partnership with Columbia University for Brave Together, a [social awareness and educational] platform promoting mental health [initiatives], a particular concern of Gen Z — but not only Gen Z. I’d been seeing this in my own Facebook moms’ group. People are overwhelmed.
At the beginning, honestly, [the program] was a question mark. Is this something that we want to be talking about? Is there a negative connotation? We were a brand that had always stood for empowerment; it felt a little bit scary to come out and say, “We want to talk about caring for ourselves and about the pressure we put on ourselves.”
Here, I must give credit to my global partner Trisha Ayyagari, my best friend — we interned together at L’Oréal — who is the Global Brand Director of Maybelline. She said, “If we don’t talk about it, there will always be a stigma around it.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity or someone doing their nine-to-five job. The challenges that we go through are the same.”
We’re very proud of what we did. We’ve brought in nonprofit partners and celebrities like Dove Cameron and Storm Reid who resonate with the consumers we’re speaking to, but who we learn from as well. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity or someone doing their nine-to-five job. The challenges that we all go through are the same.
I won’t list their names, but the many Asian Americans who in my mind “made it” helped me see myself succeeding. Throughout my time at L’Oréal, I’ve had mentors who have helped me build my confidence. There’s been an evolution in who I am. My personality has changed, and I don’t know when it happened. As I said, when I was young, I was in theater and very outgoing. Somehow in my adult life, I’ve become quite introverted. I’m not always the loudest in the room. I’m very much someone who wants to sit and listen — to think before I speak. I’m not always going to be the first person to voice my opinion. And these couple of mentors said, “You should speak up because people want to hear what you have to say. And you should know your business better than anybody else. Push for what you think is right.”
“Every piece of knowledge that you have, you put into your bank, and it will help you somewhere along the way.”
Today, I tell mentees what you’re doing doesn’t really matter because, in everything that you do, you’re learning something new. Every piece of knowledge that you have, you put into your bank, and it will help you somewhere along the way.
It has been a journey to find my voice as a leader. During the workday or outside of it, I reserve half an hour to catch up with someone. I want them to share how their day is going and their current challenges in their role. I want to help them navigate something, whether it’s a conversation or a situation.
When I’m at work, I’m 110 percent there. But the second I walk out of the door, I’m on my way home to focus on my family. I have a COVID baby. At L’Oréal, we closed our offices on March 11. I worked from home for two weeks and then went straight to the hospital to give birth to my son. We love spending time outside, enjoying parks and gardens.
“My job is to be a supportive leader who listens to challenges and breaks down any barriers.”
I am honored to be in my new role. We have very strong people within these three brands, who are running the teams at the forefront of innovation and driving strategic growth. My job is to be a supportive leader who listens to their challenges and breaks down any barriers between them and what they want to do. I want to empower and enable our employees to succeed.
Another thing that I want to focus on is the impact that we can have on the community and the planet. We should examine our CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiatives. Consumers don’t just look at brands today as destinations to buy products; they want to align themselves with brands that have the same values as they do. I want to continue moving towards having the products we put into the world being safe for the planet. And I think another thing for us to do is accelerate our digital and e-commerce footprint.
How I ended up where I am today involved hard work and ambition. No matter my role, I was always ready to roll up my sleeves — whether I was sitting on the floor Velcroing products to a board or doing large presentations.
But I was always doing something that I enjoyed. I never dreaded going to work because I knew that there were people I wanted to see, and at the end of the day, I was working on something fun. It’s beauty, right? So, we are here to provide inspiration and aspiration for consumers.
It’s a passion that keeps me going every single day. I have so much to look forward to.