46 - JuE Wong, Olaplex
Conor Begley: I had an awesome time with JuE today. I've gotten to know her over the years and she is full of both knowledge and just fun energy. We learned about her time as a CEO at five different companies, including Olaplex, where they are now a public company valued at close to$ 12 billion, as well as what it was like to be Troy Aikman's tutor, and how she transitioned from being born in Singapore to being an executive in the US. Remember to be a friend, tell a friend and subscribe if you enjoy the show today. Thanks everyone.
Intro: Influencers, inspiration, and Instagram, Instagram, Instagram. This is Earned by Tribe Dynamics. Here's Conor Begley.
Conor Begley: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Earned. Today, we have the esteemed, JuE Wong. Welcome to the show. Thanks for coming.
JuE Wong: Well, thanks so much for having me. I feel like we've been friends for a while and now seeing you grow is exceptionally gratifying for somebody like myself who spend years in this industry.
Conor Begley: They say one of the best parts of growing older is watching your friends become bad asses over time, right? I think that's just such a cool thing to see like," Wow, wait, they're doing that?" It's pretty cool.
JuE Wong: Exactly. I mean, I feel like with technology and digital, and also the ability to just connect with people has really given me an insight into opportunities that I would never have thought of when I was starting out in the beauty space.
Conor Begley: No, I can only imagine. Well, let's give people kind of a quick background, right? So you grew up in Singapore. So you're born in Singapore, then worked at Pepsi. A variety of other companies, have taken on a bunch of different leadership roles at StriVectin, CEO/ president roles at StriVectin, Elizabeth Arden, Astral Brands, Moroccanoil. Now Olaplex as CEO. You took Olaplex public, which is now worth, I believe, around 12 billion. And is the number one brand we track in all of hair care when it comes to EMV. There's going to be a lot to learn from today. I feel like I don't know anybody that's had five different CEO roles. I don't think I've ever had a conversation with anybody else. And you still look like you've got another five in you, so I don't know how that works, but congrats on all the success.
JuE Wong: Well, thank you. Thank you. Obviously you don't get here by yourself, none of us do. I have to be very honest in that there's always a team, the right moment, the right time in history and when all things comes together, magic happens.
Conor Begley: Yeah. It's really funny, you talk about that kind of... And what's really interesting for me is to think about how your network and your knowledge and all of that has grown over time. If you look at the data, everybody always pays attention to the 20- year- old start up founder, the Mark Zuckerberg or whatever. But actually, if you look at the data, each decade that you get older, you are more successful as an entrepreneur. And it's like, if I started a new software company, it's like I have all of these friends and these relationships and this knowledge, and I know the vendors and I know the customers and I know all this stuff, I can only imagine now where you're at after five of these in terms of that, it's just that pool of resources to pull on is got to be so valuable.
JuE Wong: Well, what actually is exciting for me is when I started with Dr. Murad, which was my first kind of real entry into prestige beauty, I realized that when he started Murad, he was around 55 years old. Then I joined Dr. Perricone, and he was 55 years old when he started his brand. Even though he was a renowned dermatologist. Same thing with Dr. Obagi, while I never worked for [Dr. Brand 00:03:33], that was the same thing too. At that time, I was way before 55, now I'm well over 55 and I'm telling myself," Oh, my God, I got so much time to get there. Look at these people, they're successful, they started their brand." So really, you're absolutely right. I think as we mature, whether it's in the business that we are in, or as individual, we bring a lot to the table, but where the difference between somebody starting something and somebody thinking about something is the ability to take decisive action and make that action a reality. And I think you know that so well yourself. I mean, when you started this company in 20, what? 2014, 2013.
Conor Begley: Yeah.
JuE Wong: A lot of people will have told you that you were kind of crazy." What is that word again? Is it influencer?" They probably were asking you. It's just inaudible influencer, influencers too.
Conor Begley: Yeah. It was definitely a time before most people thought it was a real thing. I mean, we had a debate when we were first starting about," Should we integrate with this new Instagram company? I don't know. Is this going to stick around?" And then crosstalk obviously, it became the number one thing in the industry. It's funny on the 55 side, so I found out that data maybe three years ago, right? And if you were to go back, I think, maybe five years ago, we met David, the founder and CEO of Fharmacy, David Chung.
JuE Wong: Mm- hmm(affirmative). Yes.
Conor Begley: I think he was half joking, but mostly serious, he's like," Let's exchange some equity." He's like," I'll give you two percentage points. You each give me 1% of your company." And we're like," No, we're really confident in our company." He sold Farmacy for 400 million and we only sold for 70 million and we feel great about it, but it's like, we found out that data later, we're like," Ooh, David had a big leg up on us. He's been doing this for a while. He knows what he's doing." So talk to me about kind of how your leadership style and philosophies have changed from that kind of first executive role, which I think was Astral, right? That was the crosstalk first kind of CEO role. How have you changed? What have you learned during these last kind of four or five companies?
JuE Wong: Yeah. I think, go back a little bit before even my CEO role, I would have to say I needed to go back to everyone that interfaced with me before I turned 35 and apologize to them because I literally thought I knew everything. Then when you start on your first CEO role, you kind of think you know enough to be effective. And then you very quickly realize you don't know a lot. And so, I think over the years, each CEO role that I have taken up and because most of them are turnaround other than Moroccanoil and Olaplex, I realized that it is much better for me to work with the existing team than to try to helicopter in or bring people that I know into the mix because the acclimation and the ability for them to really get acquainted with the brand will take so much more time than if I work with the existing brand. And I think what I very quickly realized when I was at StriVectin, that the best thing for me to do was to really re- engage and reignite the further that the team has, because I do realize that nobody starts a job and kind of say that," Oh, I just want to be mediocre. As long as I don't get fired, I'll be happy." Nobody starts like that. Everyone starts and they're excited about their job, right?
Conor Begley: Yeah.
JuE Wong: And I wanted to see whether that can be turned on. And if you can turn that on, magic happens, and it becomes so much more rewarding as a leader too, that you can actually help people see more of what they could be in themselves.
Conor Begley: Yeah. I didn't really think about that, but you've now had... Because you've come in as the outside CEO five times, so you've had the opportunity to kind of go through that process a lot more than other people have. So one of the thing just coming in and trying to reignite people versus bringing your team with you. How do you identify when it's just not working? How often do you say," Hey, it's just not the right fit, this person and crosstalk this role is not the right thing." How do you kind of make that call?
JuE Wong: So in the first 90 days, that's very crucial. I mean, there's a reason why everybody kind of ask for your 90 days plan because in the first 90 days, you can still be very impartial and you can kind of look at the business, look at the people and look at the opportunities in a lens that is not emotional. And while emotions and empathy is a very good qualities to have in a business because especially in today's world, but at the same time, when you need to make that hot and fast decision on where you want to relocate, restructure and reorganize a business, you really need to take that 90 days and be very impartial in doing so. And what I find is that when I do that, I also have a plan in mind for the people that will be restructured out of the business, as to what they're good in and how I can be helpful to them, whether it's in writing them a reference unsolicited, or offer up an opportunity to speak to somebody on their behalf, if they wanted or needed me as a reference. And I think when you do that and you start telling people the reason why this is happening, you get them to want to partner with you. And I know it's very counterintuitive. Why would anyone want to partner with you when you are restructuring them out? Because my conversation with them is not that they are not good, it's just the fit with the organization is not quite there. They could be brand builders versus just brand turnaround people. And to be very honest, most people love to build brands, very few like to turnaround brands because you do have to make those decisions to restructure. And I think that when you are given that task and that opportunity, you as the restructurer and the turnaround executive, need to be responsible to the people that you are going to be motivating to continue in the business or exiting out of the business. And either ways, it will still be very... There will be a lot for them to take in, right? Those who stay are going to say... They may have survivor syndrome, or guilt survivor syndrome and say," Why me?" And," Why do I get to stay and my best friend in the company got to leave?" The ones who left will say," Why me? What have I done wrong?" So I think to handle that, and to be able to share with them your vision and your thinking is very helpful. And that 90 days is actually key because you are going to be relatively fair and you're going to be data- driven and not emotionally charged.
Conor Begley: Yeah. It's funny, I hadn't really ever thought about it that way, but we went through our own kind of turnaround, where we had been growing, doubling, double, double, double, year after year, after year, and then 2018, we looked at it and realized we had signed up a bunch of small brands. It didn't really work well for us. And a couple other things that were kind of hurting gross margins, whatever. So we ended up cutting out 50% of our revenue and going from a company that's doubling every year to a company that's flat for two years, while you kind of rechange the entire mix of the revenue, you had people that were like," This is not my journey. This is not what I want to go on." And they kind of self- selected out. But then as you came out of that, and then we started growing rapidly the last two to three years or the last two years or so, the bonds that you forge with those people that go on that mission, that recovery mission, are actually I think stronger than those of the people that have just been on the growth path, because that's easy in a lot of ways. Did you see the same thing? Have you seen that kind of same dynamic?
JuE Wong: Yeah. I mean, I do realize that even now, some of the people who continue to support me and who continue to send me notes ever so often, more of those people are the ones that I have restructured out, than people that have continued to stay in the business with me. And I think the reason why is that they saw themselves going for bigger and better. And the reason why they're able to see themselves in that way is because of the conversation that we continue to have. I mean, I had somebody told me once," You actually recommended me for this senior leadership position in this XYZ company, but you let me go." And I said," Look, remember when I had the conversation with you? I told you that you're an outstanding XYZ executive, but it is not the timing of this turnaround. It's very truncated. It is going to be very cutthroat. And I'm just not sure whether you want to do this, that you want your imprint to be on something like this." And I think when you have that kind of the discussion and conversation, people realize what you're asking of them. And they may actually tell you," I don't want to do that. And if you're going to do that, then by all means, go ahead." So I think by being honest, by being transparent and also letting people know when they're not very good at something, I mean, I've done this before, too. When somebody keeps saying," Look, I want to take that next step." And I always ask them," Ask yourself, if you take that next step and you're going to be more of a delegator rather than a doer, are you excited about it?" I can tell you a CEO is the worst job on some level, right? You have no budget. You can't make a decision without going to one of your team members who actually has the budget, who can actually make the decision on your behalf. You can only influence and try to get them inspired to see where you want to take the company. And to me, some people enjoy that and others find that very tedious. Look, I don't want to keep having conversation, just do it, inaudible level. I mean, you know you can do it yourself, so you need to get people to be your partners rather than your followers.
Conor Begley: Yeah. We had one of our earliest hires who reported to me, kind of wanted to take over a pretty significant chunk. And I was like," Is this actually what you want? Are you sure?" I was like," I don't think this is actually what you're good at or what you enjoy." But it was inaudible, it looked appealing, right? Because it was more responsibility and in title and whatever. And then I ended up getting into it. Then now, she brings it up constantly. She's like," I just always think about that conversation. And then I took it on and it wasn't what I like doing." So it's hard to have those honest conversations, but it's important. If you were to boil down your kind of general leadership philosophies as a CEO into kind of two or three things, what would they be?
JuE Wong: I think first and foremost, recognize that when you hire talent, let them do their job. I think I had made the mistake very early on thinking that... First of all, being Asian doesn't help, right? Asian are helicopter parent, and so I treat everything like," Oh, my God, I need to keep hovering." And I realized very quickly, when you hire the talent, let them do what they do best, but be there to provide a net for them, should they fall and let them know that. Let them know," Look, I'm not going to throw you under the bus, but I need you to stretch yourself. I need you to deliver on the goals that we have set together. But at the same time, know that if you stretch yourself and you find that you are failing, good news travel fast, but bad news better travel faster." So those are the kind of key tenants that I tell my team members, because at the end of the day, I will go after a problem to find a solution and not find the person to get rid of because to kind of blame someone... Because at the end, it all stops with me, right? Somebody once told me," You point a finger at one person, five are pointing back at you, basically." You are inaudible.
Conor Begley: Yeah. Well, let's talk about a fast growing company, right? So we've talked a little bit about turnaround projects, but when you joined Olaplex, I think they were going around 70% year over year. Now the business is growing well over a 100% year over year, almost doubled in terms of growth rate. And it's still maintained that pretty... It seems almost like you're cooking the books profitability. So, what was it? When you came in, what were some of the investments that you made that kind of accelerated that growth profile?
JuE Wong: Well, I was very fortunate, by this time, joining Olaplex, at that international was my fifth private equity back kind of company that I work with. And they were very clear with me. They really wanted to invest behind the brand. It wasn't one of those companies where they kind of say," Look, let's milk it for what it's worth." It was never that directive. And I would never have joined a private equity if that was the directive. In fact, none of the private equity I've worked with had that kind of a directive, and that makes it much more appealing for somebody who's coming in, whether to turnaround or to grow. And it was very clear to me that Olaplex had a couple of great things going for it because I was already at Moroccanoil, really monitoring their success. First and foremost, their social media digital platform was really very organic and very authentic, before the word authentic was being thrown around. That was one thing that came across loud and clear. Secondly, it was their patents, right? The fact that I remember when I heard that they beat L'Oreal in that first sort of lawsuit, it was a collective cheer in the business, inaudible small businesses. And it was very rare for a competitor like Moroccanoil to be cheering Olaplex on, but that was that comradery, right? That was the second thing. They kind of united the category, so to speak, with the hair prestige category or the hair category. And then the third thing about them was that they were a remote working culture. And I have always wondered if I were to restart a company, what would be the differentiator? And to be able to get talent from across the globe. And so those three things were very clear to me as I was walking in. And then the one thing that brought it all together was that they had both critical acclaim. So they win all this awards that you can think of, but they also have box office success. I mean, they inaudible a boatload of revenue and I'm like," Hey, no movie gets that kind of credit. You either win an Oscar and become a inaudible at the box office. Or you make a lot of money in the box office and you win no Oscars, right?" And they have both. So walking in, I realized I have a very special team of people, but I also know that we have to have structure and discipline and investment. So I kind of lean on what I know best, which is the e- commerce, the direct- to- consumer, the digital space, because those things, you can jettison something when it doesn't work. And when something works, you can double click, double down and you can prove it with data that it works because there's call to action, there's KPIs, there's return on investment. But unbeknownst to me, I joined in January 8 of 2020. Now in hindsight, I always tell people, people must have thought I was a genius by doing that, I wasn't, I was just... Sometimes you default to what you know best. So we updated the website. I mean, the website was really... When you went in, it was too similar picture, underneath say," Professional," and the other ones say," Consumer." So we quickly updated the website, make it an e- commerce website. And the other thing was, they were already so strong on Instagram and I'm like," What's the next big thing?" Instagram is great. They were just dabbling on TikTok. And I remember they had 12 million views. I'm like," That's nothing, we need to do more." And so, when I started in April of 2020, there were 24 million views, and today, if you look at it, we are pushing close to 700 million views on our #Olaplex. So crosstalk that is the power of recognizing the good that they do, the momentum that they have and giving them even more to do. So those were some of the investment we made. And then finally, in people, I was employee number 36 and today we have 125 people, in two years and a little bit over, so crosstalk if you think about it, those were the things that we were willing to invest in. And then the final thing was we really built out an R& D team. I mean, R& D used to be outsourced. And today, we have a team of 12 people with our own R& D facility on the Pfizer Campus, which a 7, 000 square foot inaudible laboratory to really test and look at innovation. And we now have innovation right through in a 36, 48 months, when we know we can lean in on those innovation and still be very relevant in the marketplace. So if you think about it, there was nothing really specific, but it was everything that Olaplex did well. And I kind of gave it that ability to do even more of it. And that's why I'm so excited because to me, leadership is not about doing everything yourself, leadership is to allow people to do bigger and better.
Conor Begley: It's funny, obviously the team got bigger and I want to talk about that. I'm really interested in the kind of recruiting side of things and how you think about recruiting and how you think about the people that you bring in. But I was just doing some quick math in my head. So the market cap per employee is a$ 100 million. What? That is such a wild-
JuE Wong: And I used to think I dream big because when I walk into the inaudible, I used to tell them," Every one of you need to be about a$ 5 million employee." And they're like," Okay." Because I was looking at where we were and kind of getting up a little bit. And then when we went public, my head of finance came to me and said," Well, JuE, you have to dream bigger now because each one of them is much more than 5 million." I say," Yeah, I just realized that too.
Conor Begley: crosstalk It's over a 100 million or it's almost a 100 million. That's crazy.
JuE Wong: It is crazy.
Conor Begley: Let's get back to the team size, you kind of 4X'd the team or three to four X'd the team in a couple of years. What were the challenges in kind of maintaining that culture, right? That culture of scrappiness that got you guys where you were, and then how do you think about recruiting? What types of people do you look for? How do you approach that part of the process?
JuE Wong: Very great questions, because these are questions that we need to address ourselves on a constant basis. So, first and foremost, because it has always been a remote culture, we have been very fortunate. So, our core team is so embracing that work from home culture, and they want to maintain that, that anytime we bring a person in, it's never like," Oh, we are the OGs, and you are the newbies." It was never that, it was more about," How do I help you acclimate?" So our HR has done a fantastic job where everyone has what we call a bond buddy. So it's somebody that started with the company. They have two, three, four, five years, depending on when they were hired. And then on top of that, by the time I started, I was the second C- suite, we brought in our CFO, so the third C- suite. All three of us are what we call working C- suite. So we don't have the luxury of sitting around and delegate traffic and kind of like," Oh, you do this, and you do that." My CFO manages supply chain, IT, and finance. So he understands all the inner workings. He is working closely with the team. The team has a leadership, a C- suite leadership that they can talk to and really interact with. And it feels empowering, right? My COO is also the chief legal officer who handles all of sales, professional as well as retail sales and education. So she's a working C- suite person and myself, as a CEO, until I brought on the CMO, I was essentially marketing, digital, e- commerce, which is direct- to- consumer, R& D. So, all of that, when we are working, all these different... Even though they are separate groups, but each one of them has someone to be accountable for. And they know that you are as powerful because remember the C- suite is actually a body, a collection of thought leaders. It's not a hierarchy, like the CEO is here and then the CFO is here. It's not that way. And when you have people realizing that they're reporting to somebody who can make critical decisions and who can empower them and who can promote them, you find that they give their best. And so, when we are hiring people, we hire people who really want to be more than what they think they could be on their own, and that they enjoy the camaraderie and the team spirit. And the understanding that there's not one path to success, because if we were a more traditional company, guess what? All our job openings would be preferably an MBA. We don't do that. We talk about experience. We talk about people wanting to be part of this culture that we have. And I think you get people who apply to you that ordinarily, you may not consider if you are more traditional, big company type, and then you realize," Oh, my gosh, there's so much talent out there that have great ideas and they really can bring a different perspective to the organization." I mean, a great example is my social media team. I have not added to that team other than the original team. But if anybody was to do a study on my social media team, they would never quite figure out why does this team work and other teams don't work? And the reason why is virtually everyone on my social media team had been a hairdresser before. They understand how the hairdresser think and take. And when we have an issue with anything, they are our voice and they believe us. My QVC host is a former hairdresser. So when she's on TV talking about Olaplex, the professional community is engaged. They listen to her, they are not saying," Why is Olaplex on QVC?" Right? I mean, those are the channel conflict that I don't have to spend too much time on, but rather focus on channel synergies.
Conor Begley: Yeah. The management of channels in the professional space over the last couple of years, feels like it had to have been pretty difficult given the pandemic and everything. Actually, well, let's ask about that for a second. So, how have you guys managed through and how have you historically managed through kind of too much distribution versus kind of focus? Because obviously, if you're only in one retailer, that retailer is going to do very well, the more you spread yourself out, theoretically, the lower the impact, right?
JuE Wong: Right. So, like I mentioned earlier, most brands, when they say they're omnichannel, what they're really telling you is that," I'm multichannel and I'm managing channel conflict."
Conor Begley: Mm- hmm( affirmative).
JuE Wong: When I walked into Olaplex, it was very clear, they didn't use the term omnichannel. They kind of say," We are in direct- to- consumer. We are in pro and we are in retail." And at that time, retail was really new. They only went into Sephora in 2018, but what was very critical was the understanding that each of the channel kind of feeds off each other. The professional channel is our credibility, our authority built, because when your hairstylist or your dermatologist or your medical professional tells you to do something as a patient, you're not going to second guess that. Maybe today they will, because they have this little thing and then they say,"No, but this ingredient is X, Y, and Z." But by and large, they listen to their pros. And then retail is where you build brand awareness. As soon as you are at retail, you find that your brand equity grows because more people they hear about you. And in our case, 35% of our customers are actually recommended by the professional to buy at retail. So crosstalk you can see the synergy already.
Conor Begley: Yeah. crosstalk.
JuE Wong: And then the direct- to- consumer is where we gain a lot of consumer insights and we are able to give convenience to our consumers. So when you look at those three channels as synergistic, and it feeds off each other and access a flywheel for you to really promote the brand, you actually manage it very differently. You don't manage it by saying," This channel has to be subservient to this channel." The only time I tell my team that if all things being equal and they cannot make a decision, which channel to really promote and to really support the professional channel is the channel that we will never compromise, because that is our authority. So I think by doing all this, what we have found is that even during the worst of times, about 50% of our business is with professional. So when COVID hit, basically 50% of our business could have been shut down. But because we had DTC and we had retail and retail had their DTC, we were able to capitalize on that. And we also did one thing that was very natural to us. I'm mean, I could not have done that, say, in another company, but with Olaplex, I saw the love that the professionals had for the brand. So we actually started an affiliate program. And basically, we told the professionals," Look, I know you don't like to sell, but you need to sell because this is your revenue channel, your revenue income inaudible."
Conor Begley: inaudible.
JuE Wong: And so they could make money, but they needed to trust us, because why? They're telling their own customers to come to our website and we have their name, their information, their shipping address, everything. But they trusted us to know that when the market opened up, the first thing we did was we emailed all these people and tell them," Your stylists are open. They are open for business, go back to them." And this is the reason... I think you need to be authentic with your relationship. You cannot say you value them and then the first thing you do is steal their customers.
Conor Begley: Yeah. 100%. It's really interesting for me being... So I'm on the board of NEST, which is the... They do candles and fragrances and business is doing really well. But when I joined, I joined in March or February of 2020, so I joined right before the pandemic. And then I walked into just an absolute disaster because they have real retail distribution. I was like," Oh, my God, what are we going to do?" And then I got to watch how it progressed. And the thing that was most interesting for me in terms of their distribution was they have a really big boutiques business, which are a lot like these salons or a professionals business. So you saw all the major retailers' sales just tank and the boutiques were up, year every year. inaudible What? Even though they couldn't close their shop, they were like, they knew all their customers by name, so they're hand delivering product and they were crosstalk doing all these things to make money and be scrappy and make it work. And we didn't do an affiliate program with them. I mean, they kind of get one anyways, right?
JuE Wong: Yeah.
Conor Begley: But it was fascinating to watch the resiliency of these kind of mostly solo entrepreneurs in the middle of all that. It was really, really cool.
JuE Wong: And I think relationship matters too, right? If you think about it, when you have that client book and you are the hairdresser, think about it, we tell our hairdressers more than... I mean, for me, I don't have a psychiatrist, so my hairdresser is my default psychiatrist, you tell them everything. And when time becomes tough, it was very clear they were the first one that a lot of us wanted to help. And so, when we suggested this affiliate program, not one client that participated in this program ask us," Can I get a discount?" Nobody, they all wanted to pay full price because they knew a commission of what they bought was going to go to their hairdressers.
Conor Begley: Yeah, crosstalk.
JuE Wong: And to me, I think if you know how to make that connection... That's why I always say, hairdressers are not emotionally charged. They are emotionally intelligent and that intelligence has served them really, really well.
Conor Begley: No, that's awesome. That is such a good idea. So when I think about this podcast, I think of it as being both for kind of the C- level, right? So people that want to know kind of how to operate at that level, but also for people that are just getting started in their careers and want to know how to get to where you were or where you are today. So let's take a step back in your life. You were born in Singapore and I think if I'm quoting the article correctly, you told your mom that you are going to work in The Big Apple one day. So tell me, one, what attracted you to come to the US in the first place? And then two, what was that journey like? So what did you learn during that time? What were some of the things that you didn't expect? For anybody that might want to go work in another culture, but didn't necessarily grow up in that culture.
JuE Wong: I think coming from Singapore was easy, right? If you look at Singapore, it's a full stop on the map. I mean, sometimes you don't even see it. It's inaudible Malaysia takes over from Singapore. So when you come from such a small country, leaving that country is not too far, sort of crosstalk an expectation. Not like in America, I mean, you are a continent and everybody wants to be here. And I think, like anybody, as a child growing up in Asia, America was like in American Tail, the little mouse, right? It's the road paved with inaudible and cheese, whatever you call it. And to me, it was really interesting to see in movies and on television the opportunities there are. Not that I knew what opportunities were at 12 years old. I mean, my mom and dad gave me everything that I wanted, but I knew in my hearts of heart, that there was more than just going to school, being a good student and then going to the local university. And I actually made a bargain with my mom. I basically told her," Look, you let me go to university in Australia." And the reason why I chose Australia was because Australia's school term started in March and the US school term started in September. I didn't want to waste that six months and not doing anything. I wanted to graduate in December at home and then go to Australia in March and start my school year. So I negotiated for that. And I told her," Look, once I go there, once I sold my seats in Australia, I was come back and stay in Singapore." And my mom said," What about US?" I said," Don't worry. In between, I'll find a way to get to the US." So I did it, inaudible I did, I was in Australia and I did an exchange scholarship to go to UCLA. So I had that. And then I applied to go to the London School of Economics for my masters and I got accepted and I told my mom," Okay, I'm going to go. And I won't leave Singapore anymore." And she said," No, you're not." And I got a job at that time with Cargill, which allowed me to travel. Obviously I wanted to go to the US and Cargill told me," Look, we are a US based company. If that is what you want, we can make that happen." So, one thing led to another and I've always joined an industry, not because of the industry, but because of what the industry's opportunities could be. So if you think about it, I was a graduate in political science and international economics, why would I join a trading company? I mean, which makes no sense, but because the trading company promised me travel and an opportunity to be eventually in the US, I kind of say," Aha, I'll take that. And how I do my job, I'll figure it out."
Conor Begley: Yeah. That's cool. And then obviously, you made it over here. I don't know. For me, it just feels really daunting. I guess, I went and lived in Australia, but I mean that's hardly worth noting. It's just really impressive. We'll fast forward a little bit. So your husband passed away in 2009, so sorry, heart attack.
JuE Wong: Thank you.
Conor Begley: I can only imagine the impact, if I were to imagine myself in that situation, it's feels just kind of ground shaking. How did your perspective on work change and how did your habits change kind of after that? Or did it change? Was it kind of not too much?
JuE Wong: Yeah. I mean, it did change in giving me a perspective that I never thought I could appreciate. I've always deferred family in the back burner. I always think that they will be there for me. And I realized that that wasn't further from the truth, something bad could happen and then everything can be taken away from you. It allowed me to be more empathetic to my team as well. And I think that was the beginning. It was my first CEO role. It really made me a better person at helping people and managing people because in the past, I used to think," Why do you have to go to a baseball game?" I mean, I don't say it, but I'm thinking it." This job is really important, you need to stay here and do the job," but I'm like,"If you have to go, okay, go, but I wish you didn't have to go." But when this happened to me, I realized," My God, you stupid fool. That is more important because your child is only going to be eight years old once, but you are going to work for the rest of life. And crosstalk that eight- year- old will remember that you were not at his or her softball or baseball game." And it really changed my perspective. And till today, I'm that way. When one of my team members is on vacation, I try not to connect with them. I try not to write them even an email unless something really needs to be done. And I find that by doing that, I'm giving myself space to actually allow myself to think differently and think in their shoes. And I just recently spent a week where I did get in touch with the office, but very nominally. And I think everybody felt good. They realized that I could take time off and that they could be away from me and things can still happen because the hallmark of a good leader is not that when you leave, things fall apart, it's that when you do leave, things continue and they should flourish because haven't you heard, some people will tell you," Oh, my God, when I left, the company has gone to pieces." But that's the bad reflection of you as a leader. And to me, it's not a compliment, it's an indictment. So I would never want that to happen.
Conor Begley: Yeah. You didn't help set the company up for success, right?
JuE Wong: Exactly.
Conor Begley: Yeah. So one of the things I like to think about, and I'm curious actually to hear what your answer is, is whenever... One of the things I've observed about working with people is there are things that people are really, really good at, right? We had a developer, he could get things done super fast, but then, underneath, it wasn't perfect, right? So it was like, there would be mess that'd be created later. And frankly, I'm kind of similar in that way. Things done very quickly, but sometimes you'll miss a detail here and there. So, whatever superpower somebody has is often reflected in some kind of weakness they have as well. So for you, what would you say has been your superpower within your career? And then what is the kind of accompanying weakness?
JuE Wong: And that's such a great question because it's always a double- edged sword. So, to me, I think my superpower is future hunting. I tell my transformation team that all the time, not that that's my superpower, but they are my future hunters. And that's what I would love to do if I wasn't doing this job. And I think what I do is I look at the future and I always feel like there's a better way. I would reinvent television if I could. And probably the fact that television no longer exists, obviously shows that television can actually be reinvented. And to me, I always look at things and feel like it can be done differently, it can be done more efficiently. And I remember way back, in 1999, I was at the Dow corporation, they didn't even have a website. So they put me on this task force to set up a website. And I remember talking to the developer and said," Why does it have to be goods on a page and then you have to check out? Why can't I have a moving individual walking down the aisle, picking it off the aisle, putting in the basket and going out to the checkout basket, and that person is me?"
Conor Begley: Yeah.
JuE Wong: And they look at me like," What the hell are you talking about?" And fast forward today, it can happen. It actually is happening with gamification and with all the avatars of yourself. So I feel like that's my superpower. But unfortunately, when you are always future hunting and thinking, you can kind of get lost in a lot of ideas. And you've got to be very careful in how you communicate those ideas, because some people will take you literally and try to figure it out. And others will throw their hands up on their head and say," I can't believe you'd come up with another hair brain idea again." So you just have to really manage yourself, but I enjoy it. Over the weekend, I wrote several emails about NFTs and how crypto now is illegal in China. So what does that mean? And I'm thinking to myself and my partner will ask me," Can't you just give it a rest and not think about..." But I say," It's so exciting. This is not work to me, I love thinking about it because ultimately..." But I need to temperate myself. I mean, I can think that myself, I can have that communication with friends and colleagues, but I need to make sure that they don't think," Okay, go out and make it happen," because I'm at a level now where people actually think that when I say something, it better happen, but I need to kind of pull back on that as well.
Conor Begley: Yeah. It's all about the communication there. I had the exact same problem, where we're always coming up with new ideas and you talk to them like you talk to a peer because that's how I view them, right?
JuE Wong: Yeah.
Conor Begley: But when you control their salary and whether they're employed and all these things, that power dynamic just changes the way that things are perceived, no matter who the person is and how collegial you are, et cetera. I'm not great at that, I'm better than I used to be. You got to be really careful about what you throwing out. I can do it to John. So John and I do it to each other all the time crosstalk because we know I'm not going to go do what this random idea that John had and vice versa, but that's a good one. I like that one. One more question. And then we're going to do a fun end of show question.
JuE Wong: Okay.
Conor Begley: So you've also been quoted as saying," Do what scares you." And I can imagine that today, you've got a hypergrowth public company where you're the CEO, you're doubling, tripling headcount. That sounds pretty scary. A lot one on there, but what is the next thing, if there was a next thing that scares you, what would be the next thing that you'd go after?
JuE Wong: But when I was thinking about this question, one of the things that I ask myself is I always tell myself that I need to be more present and that I need to use my influence, the little that I have, for good, rather than just kind of perpetuating what I think I should be doing, act on it. And I think what scares me is that the more I feel like I have the reach and influence, the more I feel compelled that I need to stand up and be more empowering to others. And that scares me because there's no right or wrong, right? When you do business, there's a right or wrong in that if you make money, obviously not at the expense of killing someone, but if you make money fairly and equitably, everyone rises. But when you have to stand for something, not everyone will agree with you. It's like being a politician. You can't have everyone liking you. And I think that scares me because I feel like I don't have the luxury of saying that I want to do good and empower people and help others where there is no stake in the ground and I need to stand up for that. And to me, that is going to be more of what I do rather than somebody throwing it at me, because I can either push myself to do more of that and to really stand up or I can actually not do anything and talk a mean game. Right? Great dinner table conversation. What I think I could do, how I could be different, but if you don't act on it, it's going to be tough. So one of the things that I do, I have a dream about is what if every company in the world one day pledge one day of their net revenue to charity, and then we don't have to worry about every day, somebody soliciting like," Can you donate to this X, Y, and Z charity?" If we can all do that, can it really happen? And I always talk about this, but I don't make an effort to pull people together or talk about it, but I probably should. And that is something that I feel like I need to do it and I need to do it soon, but while I still have some influence, because I always remember, I think John Lithgow, the actor, used to say," When you first start up as an actor, people will say,'Who is this, John Lithgow?' And then you get famous. And then,'We want that John to be in our movie.' And then, after a certain period of time, they will say,'Who is this John again?'" I feel like we all have a moment in time to do the best that we can for society or for the community that we are in, if we squander that time, it will be gone.
Conor Begley: Yeah, you're right. You've got that kind of moment at the podium, so to speak.
JuE Wong: Yeah.
Conor Begley: I think particularly now, right? It's one of those things where you have this same kind of balance/ fear of you got a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to do what's in their best interest. So how do you balance those two things, right? I can say, on a personal level, of any person I've worked with, I think you're the most generous when it comes to mentorship that I've found. So you're certainly doing it on a one on one level, but I'm excited to see what you can do at the platform. I think it could be pretty special.
JuE Wong: Yeah. I need to push myself because I need to follow my own advice, right? So that's inaudible.
Conor Begley: Well, I think you've pushed yourself pretty hard in terms of the scary department. So one fun end of show question. So, as you mentioned, you did a kind of study abroad program at UCLA. And one of the fun facts that I know was that you were Troy Aikman's tutor.
JuE Wong: Yes.
Conor Begley: So what I want to know and what I want the rest of the world to know was what did Troy Aikman need to be tutored in? What subject was he not good at?
JuE Wong: So, all football stars... I'm not sure whether it's today, they need to keep an GPA of 2. 8 to three to continue to play. So that was what I needed to make sure that not only he maintains that GPA, but also does all of his homework. So it was really like a glorified babysitter. And I was chosen for that role only because I knew nothing about football and I didn't even know who he was, as a transfer student. So it was very easy to give me that job. And so, sometimes ignorance is bliss. Let's just give it that.
Conor Begley: Oh, for sure. And for those that don't know, the reason why that matters is Troy Aikman ended up being the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft. And then he won multiple Super Bowls. He's in the crosstalk Hall of Fame.
JuE Wong: And in fact, in the news again, because crosstalk he is leaving... Yep. Mm-hmm(affirmative).
Conor Begley: He's going to... Is it Amazon? He's leaving too. He's leaving Fox?
JuE Wong: Yeah. Because Amazon is going to put up a sports channel or some sort and would like him to lead it. So he's back in the news again.
Conor Begley: Yeah. I guess that makes sense, because they don't want somebody that is going to worship the ground he walks on. They want somebody that's actually going to keep them in line a little bit.
JuE Wong: It always makes better sense. I mean, when you do not know some... Again, on some level, it's like, do what scares you. When you don't know anything, all you're going to do is you're going to treat that person like a normal person, right? But when you know this person is somebody, guess what? You tend to watch your Ps and Qs. And when you don't know, you treat them exactly what you would with your own friends. I mean, obviously, over time I realized who he was, but by that time, I was already deep in the job and it was easy for me to continue to do so.
Conor Begley: Yeah. For sure. Well, I really appreciate you taking out the time, you've got a packed schedule and you're always so generous with your time. I don't know how you fit it all into the day. But I know I learned a lot today and I'm sure a lot of other people will too. So thanks, JuE, for joining.
JuE Wong: No, thank you so much for having me. You have a good day. Take care.
Conor Begley: Awesome. All right. Bye, JuE.
JuE Wong: Bye.
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In Episode 46 of Earned, we sit down with a true industry leader: JuE Wong, CEO of Olaplex, a top-ranking haircare brand valued at $15 billion. We start the episode with JuE sharing her general leadership philosophies, as well as how her leadership style has evolved since her first executive role. We then explore the investments that JuE made when she joined Olaplex in January of 2020 that helped accelerate the brand’s growth, before hearing how the company maintained its culture after quadrupling in size over the following two years. Next, JuE emphasizes the importance of omnichannel synergy between retail, professional, and DTC, and we learn how Olaplex supported its professional hairstylist community during the COVID shutdowns. Switching gears, we hear why JuE, who grew up in Singapore, wanted to move to the US, before JuE opens up about how the passing of her husband made her a more empathetic leader. To close the show, JuE shares how she wants to use her professional influence in the industry for good.