Life slapped Soyoung Kang in the face pretty early on, when her father’s sudden death meant she’d have to give up her lifelong dream of becoming an architect and choose a more financially stable path. How she faced her disappointment and found a new road that landed her (happily) in the beauty C suite are central themes of this moving episode.
|Announcer||Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®, hosted by Jodi Katz, Founder and Creative Director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.|
|Jodi Katz||Hey everybody, it's Jodi Katz, your host of Where Brains Meet Beauty Podcast®. Thanks so much for tuning in. This week's episode features Soyoung Kang, she's the Chief Marketing Officer of eos Products. And if you missed last week's episode, it featured Michael Bumgarner, he's the founder of Cannuka. Thanks for listening. Hey, everybody, welcome back to the show. I'm so excited to be here with Soyoung Kang, she is the Chief Marketing Officer of eos Products. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty.®|
|Soyoung Kang||Thanks so much. I'm so excited to be here.|
|Jodi Katz||Well, before we jump into your backstory, I want to go way, way, way back in time with you. It's my favorite question to ask, since we're a career journey focused show, to ask about when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grow up? So can you go back in time to that 11-year-old you and think about what you saw your future like as a career?|
|Soyoung Kang||Oh God, 11-year-old me, I think wanted, this is a very odd dream for an 11 year old to have, but 11-year-old me wanted to be an architect of all things. I actually grew up a big fan of both art and design as well as math and science. And I think I had it in my brain, as a young child, that architecture was the perfect marriage between these two halves of my brain and these two disciplines that otherwise wouldn't come together in any other normal job. And so, from the time I was little, I was fascinated with architecture.|
|Jodi Katz||How did you even know that that was a career? Did somebody introduce that idea to you?|
|Soyoung Kang||I Wish I had a really fancy story about how my parents took me on these whirlwind tours across Europe, but actually it's nothing as sophisticated as that. I'm pretty sure that my introduction to architecture was Mr. Brady on The Brady Bunch. And that was my first intro into what it meant to be an architect. And I thought, I mean, it was like, that was my favorite show of all time. And so, to me, there could be nothing more glamorous than being one of the Brady parents when I grew up.|
|Jodi Katz||Well, I was a very big fan of The Brady Bunch and there are people who watch the show in repeats like we did. And then there are people who never watched the show, like two camps, there's no really in-between. So it's very cool for me to meet someone who actually really enjoyed all those old episodes.|
|Soyoung Kang||Loved it.|
|Jodi Katz||So did you get to fulfill that dream? Are you an architect?|
|Soyoung Kang||A sort of an architect, I suppose, but when I think specifically about architecture is like a legit field, I fulfilled the dream in some ways, because I actually went to school for architecture. So, for my undergrad, I chose to go to MIT, because they have one of the longest standing architecture programs in the country and I majored in architecture. And during my summers, I actually interned at a couple of different firms to understand what the career was like.
And I really love the discipline and the education. It's a discipline that actually forces you to truly marry the two halves of your brain, between things that are conceptual, design-oriented, inspirational and emotional. And then the other side, which is much more analytical, engineering, problem solving and data-driven. And basically take those two halves and force you to create a solution that satisfies both. And I loved it. I loved the study of architecture.
I would say that I was really torn when I left undergrad about whether or not I wanted to continue my career. And one of the things that I did was I continued to explore a number of different career paths, including where I ultimately ended up in consulting. But one of the things that I did to hold onto the magic a little bit longer was that I applied to a Fulbright Fellowship and I was able to actually travel across the world, to Korea, and study architectural theory and history as part of a graduate program in Seoul. And that was my one year, I guess, break before I had to come back and have a real job.
|Jodi Katz||Okay. So, let's talk about the process of having an internship in the field that you have your heart set on, because a lot of our listeners are actually students and they might have expectations, some reasonable, some not, of what they're going to learn at that internship and how it's going to set them up for success later. When you were at your internships at those firms, were you actually doing architecture jobs, or were you filing papers?|
|Soyoung Kang||It was probably a little bit of both. I'm not going to lie. And I think that today's internships are much more... I think today's approach to internships that companies take can be a lot more progressive in terms of really giving students a shot at really creating tremendous value. We've had some interns within eos Products, where I am now, who have really contributed tremendously to the work content and what we do as a marketing team overall.
I think, in architecture, because it's a very specific discipline and to be totally honest, you actually have to be certified and pass a number of tests and make sure you're not going to create something that's problematic in the real world, that there you're really doing some degree of administrative support and a little bit of learning the design process versus doing the design process yourself.
So, I think when you're approaching an internship, I think really understanding and teasing apart the difference between this is what the career is versus this is what my job is today is an important factor so that you can better assess whether you want to build a career in that path, ultimately, even if it's just going to take you more training and learning before you can do the job that you want to do further down the journey.
|Jodi Katz||So, you mentioned, just before, that you had this opportunity to do this Fulbright Fellowship before you got this other job, why did there have to be another career? Why couldn't it be architecture?|
|Soyoung Kang||So, just on a personal level, I had been going through some personal changes. My dad passed away my last year of college. I knew that I really wanted to be able to stand up on my own two feet. And a career in architecture does require you to get an advanced degree. And unfortunately, it also requires you to scrimp and save for a while before you can really make your imprint on the rest of the world. And so, I wanted to be financially independent from the time that I graduated from school. I didn't want to create any sort of additional stress for my mom, as she was journeying into this next phase for her in her life.
And so, that was a big moment for me, personally, to be able to be independent. And I was able to do that by finding a career in management consulting, which is, for somebody who's fresh out of school, a really solid career path to start on. It ended up being an unexpected gift. I would say I started off going into the career wanting to be responsible, accountable and financially independent. What I actually got out of my career in management consulting, which in varying ways span the first decade of my career, ended up being a way of looking at everything that I do today, thinking about things strategically, in structured ways, applying big picture frameworks, thinking about things at a high level, like 30,000 feet before I zoomed down into the details.
All of these disciplines were things that were instilled in me as a young management consultant. And so, I'm really grateful that what I took away from the career was much more than just the job that paid the bills. But what I really took away were principles and a way of thinking for the rest of my career.
|Jodi Katz||You mentioned this idea of feeling stable, financially secure. I guess there's a sense of responsibility, to be able to help your mom if she needed. Was this sense of responsibility something that's always been with you? Or was that something that this sad, tragic event in your family kind of pushed you into?|
|Soyoung Kang||It's always been with me. I often talk about it as being a factor, just two specific factors of who I am. Number one, I'm the eldest child. And you often hear the older child inherits all of the responsibility and that approach to life in general. And then, the second thing is, I think growing up as an immigrant in a family where I was the oldest family member who spoke English fluently.
So, there was a lot of responsibility that fell on my shoulders. I remember, from a very young age, helping my parents out with their business. I remember from a very young age, helping my parents navigate things like picking an HMO plan for our health insurance and being the person who had to go through, at the age of, I think I was 13, I had to go through all of the insurance documentation and be able to recommend what I thought would be the appropriate plan for our entire family.
These are things that are really formative for a young person and really teach you to be just reliable, accountable, responsible. All of these things that I think really shaped who I was, even as a 21 year old, graduating from college, it was something that I took very seriously.
|Jodi Katz||Soyoung, the task of picking the right plan for adults is really challenging. So, I can imagine it felt like a big task at the time you were 13.|
|Soyoung Kang||It was. But I think that there's something to be said for triumph through challenge. I think that all of us, we all grew up with our own challenges, they don't all look like my challenges, but the fact is that to be able to look back at things that challenged you through your life and be able to turn them into superpowers, I think is really a good outlook on life.|
|Jodi Katz||I think of those moments as dignity building, I really love talking to my kids about that when they have to sort of suffer through something or do something that they're super uncomfortable with. You know that feeling you get when you're nervous and you feel like your whole body is radiating a type of heat, that's going from your head to your toes, and your chest gets tight. Moving through those and actually doing whatever it is, even if it's for my kids, when they were younger, it was like ordering their own food at a restaurant.|
|Soyoung Kang||That's right.|
|Jodi Katz||Talk to the waiter, make eye contact with, these are all dignity building moments. And I think that they really do shape your ability to navigate the world on a daily basis.|
|Soyoung Kang||That's fantastic. I love that. And it reminds me of a comment. I spoke on a panel about a year ago and the question that was asked, that was posed, was like, "What is your superpower?" And at first I was going to say, "My superpower is that I take on challenges and I'm not afraid." And then I realized that that was completely wrong. It's not that I take on challenges and I'm not afraid, I take on challenges and act despite being afraid. And I love thinking of that as being a dignity building moment.|
|Jodi Katz||Yeah. Because when, I mean, I think about it in kids, because my kids are so different from each other. One is really needy and wants me to do everything for him, he's the oldest one, I wouldn't say he's focused on responsibility the way you were as the oldest child. And then my daughter is more independent and headstrong. And so, I navigate them both very differently. But what I'm trying to create for them is all these dignity building moments, because that's when the challenges in life happen, your soul is going to reattach to those things. I did that by myself. I was able to move through that. And when people do things for you, you lose the chance to build dignity.|
|Soyoung Kang||That's right.|
|Jodi Katz||It's like fighting through the hard stuff I think is so much more important than just getting things done.|
|Soyoung Kang||That's so great. I completely agree with you.|
|Jodi Katz||Okay. So, well, congratulations, kudos to you for picking the right health insurance plan for your family at the age of 13, because we know adults listening are smiling and laughing right now, because they just never want to do that job for themselves and their own family. So let's talk about how you moved from management consulting into the beauty business. Is it right that you went to business school in between?|
|Soyoung Kang||I did. I did. Yeah. So, I would probably characterize the first decade of my career as being all forms of management consulting/internal strategy. So, I spent time on the consulting firm side of things, I worked internally at brands. Ultimately, I think that the next big pivotal moment in my career was when I went back to business school, I went to Wharton, I studied marketing and finance, and I actually graduated and took an offer to join the Boston Consulting Group, because I had worked in my summer internship with BCG and specifically had worked with Bath & Body Works as my main client.
I loved the experience. I loved the BCG culture. I loved the big picture thinking. And I came back full time and the entire team from BCG had moved over to the client side. So, they had all taken jobs at L Brands because they all loved it as well. And so, I came back and spent a couple of years at BCG doing a variety of different industry projects. And then, the woman who had been my manager during my summer, who at this point had now been at L Brands for two years, came calling and she said, "We'd love you to join the team over here at L Brands. And you would get to basically do what you love to do all the time instead of being on a project by project basis."
And I thought, "What an amazing opportunity to do what I love every single day." And so I went over to L Brands and joined a group that was essentially an internal strategy group that reported into the enterprise center, into the office of the vice chairman. And I spent a year there, it was a rotational program, and the intention was really to bring in people who were coming from X consulting, X finance, and then seed them into operating roles. So I spent a year in this central role and then was asked to join in my first operating role, Victoria's Secret side, as a beauty merchant. And that was my first job in beauty.
|Jodi Katz||So, I guess at that time, because the selling beauty brands outside of their own brand was a new initiative for the company?|
|Soyoung Kang||Yeah. Yeah. They had a mix. So, I would say they had their own brand, which I think a lot of us who grew up as... Every weekend mall going folks, you remember Love Spell and Pure Seduction and the Dream Angels fragrances and things like that. So, really wonderful owned fragrance and body care lines. They also, at the time, were undergoing an expansion to bring in certain third-party brands to really diversify the assortment in the portfolio.
I actually worked on both sides. So I spent some time managing both third-party brands, as well as owning certain portions of the internal private label brands as well, which is a great experience for anybody to understand the difference between a true vertically integrated specialty retailer that does private label versus understanding what it's like to also be a buyer managing third-party brands. It's a very different kind of dynamic.
|Jodi Katz||It's two businesses in one for sure.|
|Soyoung Kang||It really is, yeah. It's two different businesses. So learned a lot in both roles.|
|Jodi Katz||Soyoung, I'm giggling inside because anyone listening to this who's in their 40s is having a walk down memory lane, because it'd be like afterschool watching Brady Bunch reunions as a kid, and then hanging out in the mall as a teenager. That's what we did.|
|Soyoung Kang||I know. Totally. I feel like I've given away so much, pretty soon you're going to know exactly my birth date, because I've given away so much of the era in which I grew up.|
|Jodi Katz||I mean, it's really fascinating and it's not just because of COVID. Because pre-COVID hanging out in the mall is less enticing, I think, to teenagers. But that's how we spent our time. We went to the movies, we went to the mall and we went to the diner and ate cheese fries. That's how I spent my time.|
|Soyoung Kang||Cheese fries. Oh man.|
|Jodi Katz||So, this is amazing. Yeah. So, this whole mall culture thing, we could probably spend hours talking about what mall culture used to be. But okay, Bath & Body Works, I think is such an interesting company. I mentioned to you that probably at the time you were at Limited Brands, I was at L'Occitane en Provence. So, we were always looking to see what was going on there and then we did a partnership with Couvent des Minimes. So, I was definitely in your stores all the time doing field research, and that's one of the most fun things I think about being in our business is doing field research and exploring what's happening in the marketplace. And people who tell me that they don't look at competitors. I'm like, "But that's the fun thing to do."|
|Soyoung Kang||It really is.|
|Jodi Katz||"How do you spend your time?"|
|Soyoung Kang||Yeah. Yeah. I mean, if nothing else, I think being in beauty, you just have to have a personal passion for the category and the product. I mean, if you have a personal passion for beauty, you're always out there looking at competitors, even just as a consumer. So, I spent two years at Victoria's Secret on the beauty side, and then I had the great fortune to be asked to move over to the Bath & Body Works side of things and really started the beginning of a decade long career at Bath & Body Works, starting from working on a portion of the portfolio, I was the Director working with the C. O. Bigelow brand.
And then ultimately, by the time my, at the end of my decade, I was the Senior Vice-President for all of personal care, which included fragrance and body care brands, all of it, basically anything that touched your body was an area that I was accountable for.
|Jodi Katz||That's so awesome. So, from when you were at Victoria's Secret working with third-party brands, my guess is you met a lot of founders and interesting brand owners and C-suite from those brands.|
|Soyoung Kang||We did. And we I met a lot of really interesting folks. We did a lot of, to your point about keeping an eye on the competition, we spent a lot of time out in the competitive landscape. So, L Brands has a philosophy around always keeping an eye on what's happening in the outside world. And that means both outside, walk in the mall for sure. But it also means things like flying to Tokyo and seeing what's happening in the world of J beauty or flying to Paris and seeing what's happening in the department stores and in Paris. And going to Selfridges in London.
And so, there's such a view that you have to know what's going on in the outside in order to make the right choices for what you're doing internally. So, it was just a really fascinating learning experience, started at Bath & Body Works and then continue through the tenure that I had at that... Sorry, started at Victoria's Secret and then continue through the tenure that I had at Bath & Body Works.
|Jodi Katz||And how did you end up at eos?|
|Soyoung Kang||So, when I left Bath & Body Works, I really wanted to take my time to figure out what I wanted. I really wanted to do something more entrepreneurial and leaner. And thought that it would take me quite some time to find the right thing. In my history, if I look back at my career, my history isn't really a typical CMO type of profile.
The first decade of my career was as a consultant/finance business person. And then, I moved from there and worked in specialty retail. And there, the role was really a mix between marketer and merchant, which is a little bit different than working as a true CMO. And so, when the opportunity came up much faster than I had anticipated to join and lead this iconic brand and be their first ever global CMO, I just thought like, "I can't pass this up. This is such a great opportunity. It's exactly what I'm looking for." I wanted to be able to deepen my marketing skills and lead a true world-class brand, but on a scale that was a little more manageable and leaner, because I was really itching to get more entrepreneurial experience under my belt. And so, this basically checked every box for me.
|Jodi Katz||And was it a hard decision to make, to leave?|
|Soyoung Kang||It wasn't. I mean, I will say, I think once you've spent, at that point I had spent 10 years at Bath & Body Works, and all in, I had spent about 14 years at L Brands overall, and that's a really respectable amount of time to spend in any enterprise. I will forever be grateful for the lessons that I learned and the fact that I really grew up in that company. And I think that what I took away from it was truly best-in-class principles around retail, merchandising, brand building, consumer insights. But I was really ready for what was next for me in my career. And so eos was the perfect place for me to move on to.|
|Jodi Katz||I haven't spent a lot of time studying eos other than just being a customer and seeing the brand. What astounds me is how some companies can start with a lip balm. So you start with a lip balm and a fascinating shape, and then you can grow into a massive organization global brands. How does that happen? Because some companies start with a product and they fizzle away or they stay small or whatever, how do you take one thing and turn it into something huge?|
|Soyoung Kang||Well, I mean, I honestly wish I could answer that question because I could bottle that and sell it. Because the reality is that a lot of the momentum happened before I joined the company and I'm really so inspired by and impressed by what the team did before I even arrived here. So, the company's been around, by the time I took it over, the brand was about nine years old. And it had really just exploded across in personal care, but also across social media.
So for a lip balm brand, it's amazing when you have almost 2 million followers on Instagram as a lip balm brand. So, who else can say that? And so, I think it's really incredible with the team accomplished by turning what was essentially a pretty functional and not particularly exciting product category and making it a desirable, must have social movement, really, like a moment.
And so, really, my job was to basically take that and figure out how we could grow for the future and take what had been that first phase of explosive growth and understandably was just leveling off into maturity and then figure out where our next phase of growth is going to come from.
And so, when I came in, that was really my mandate, was to say, "Let's assess the brand, let's figure out how do we maintain the health of what we've already built, but also position this brand for the future," which would mean diversification of the portfolio, it would mean expansion of the marketing tactics and strategies, it would mean growing out the team to be able to be a team that could scale with future growth. So those were all the things that I tackled in the first year of my joining eos.
|Jodi Katz||So, I'm creating parallels in my mind between Bath & Body Works and eos on this basis. So, eos is a lip balm that people love and covet, and they have different colors and flavors and they just have a whole arsenal. They probably have buckets of them in their bathroom, and many toss in their person, gym bag. And then you had at Bath & Body Works, this cultish following on collecting many hand sanitizers, that is such odd and strange path of growth that I don't know that anyone can explain the psychology here why teenagers are obsessed with this. But they're kind of similar. There's young people obsessed with collecting these items that, yeah, you can get hand sanitizer anywhere, you can get lip balm anywhere, but there's this excitement and energy around these two products that are next level energies.|
|Soyoung Kang||No, I think that's exactly right. I honestly think that that's what maybe the team at eos saw in me, was that despite the fact that they're totally different product categories, a lot of the underlying connection points with consumers were very similar. So, this idea of taking a not particularly exciting product category and turning it into a desirable category, the idea of creating collectable behavior, the idea of creating a fashion pulse of newness in something that isn't typically what you would consider a fast fashion category. And then, doing it in a way that feels delightful and happy and fun. I think these are all things that are very similar between my prior experience and what I'm doing today, even if the product categories are different.|
|Jodi Katz||Yeah. This idea of collecting makes me think of gaming. I don't know if you have people in your life who are big gamers, but on Fortnite, my kids, they buy and collect these skins, these outfits for these players. And they don't use them all. But the idea of collecting them is super exciting. My son collects Funko Pops, these little plastic sculptures. He doesn't do anything with them. This collector mindset, the same, I guess, with stamp collectors. I mean, coin collectors. I guess they don't really do anything except know that they're together and it's like a passion project.
So I've never really thought of this collectibles mindset as part of beauty. I just watched my friend's daughter collect hand sanitizers from Bath & Body Works. And my friend would be going to Bath & Body Works on the first day that the new pumpkin one was available. I'm like, "How are you spending your time this way?" It's what her daughter wanted. So, it's what she did. It was like the Cabbage Patch Kids for, I guess, you and I. But yeah, this idea of collectible behavior is really fascinating for beauty, because I do think that it's... I guess, I hadn't seen it in the same way that I see it with other categories, but now that you draw that connection for me, I think it's really fascinating.
|Soyoung Kang||Yeah. And I think that if you think about it on the opposite end of the spectrum, and you think about even things like fashion drops, limited edition fashion drops, and how so much of that is about kind of you have to have the scarce and limited edition item. A lot of that actually drove our thinking around, when we created at eos within my first six months of joining eos, we created the strategy around micro batches.
So, these are limited run items that launch a few times a year, and once they're done, they're done. They don't come back. We don't stock them to sell them 365. And it's really a way of, number one, rewarding our super fans who come along on this journey with us. But number two, of really leaning into the collectible, rare, scarcity type driven behavior that we love. We love the fact that our consumers are delighted when they can have something like that, that nobody else has.
|Jodi Katz||Yeah. I guess, the next phase of this for our industry is how do you create that community of collectors and do it with less waste, right?|
|Jodi Katz||I don't know what those answers are, we'll figure that out. But give them that sense of excitement and indulgence and special qualities without like, I don't need more shampoo bottles in my life. I have so many of them, these hard plastic bottles. So, I'm curious to see. Well, you will solve that problem for us, Soyoung, I'm sure, in the next few years.|
|Soyoung Kang||Well, I mean, there are a lot of us in the industry who are trying to unlock this and it is a big area. And thinking about sustainability and how do we not add more waste into our world is a big thing. For us right now, like many beauty brands, we are partners with TerraCycle. And so, we have a way for, as our consumers use up our products, which typically, in the beauty industry, a lot of the packaging is hard to recycle. We have this partnership where we pay for consumers to be able to send their product, their empties, to TerraCycle, where they can be upcycled into things like park benches and playground equipment. And so, by doing that, we can create a second life for all of these products that create a delight in their first life. They can create delight for a second life.|
|Jodi Katz||Oh, I love that. Okay. Now you have a new customer, because I can do something with my empties.|
|Soyoung Kang||There you go.|
|Jodi Katz||Okay. My last question for you, because we talked about it before, is to be successful in beauty, you really have to be a consumer of beauty first and love it. My challenge though, Soyoung, is when I try to have recreational time, my body goes to beauty, but that's not a break from work. Going to the spa is actually worked for me, I'm paying attention to protocols and training. What products are they using? What ingredients are they talking about? So, how do you actually take a break from beauty and clear your head for a little while?|
|Soyoung Kang||Well, it's a really good question. I personally happen to love beauty. And so, it doesn't feel stressful for me at all to indulge in whether it's shopping or services or anything like that. So, I love to engage in the category, but overall, I mean, I also love to just spend some time with my family. And I love to spend time... This past year has been such a gift for me, because while certainly there have been a lot of things that have been very challenging and difficult over the past year, I never expected to be able to spend this much time as a family together. We eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together as a family. That never happened before. And so, by its very nature, the fact that I'm spending this much time together with my kids and with my husband, it has been just sort of the glass half full on what has been a very challenging year. And I would say that that's probably my best way of getting real about just life and what's important in life.|
|Jodi Katz||Well, that is such a beautiful way to end our conversation. Soyoung, this has been so fun to chat with you, to walk down memory lane and learn from you. And thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with our listeners.|
|Soyoung Kang||Thank you so much, Jodi.|
|Jodi Katz||And for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Soyoung. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes. And for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram, @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.|
|Announcer||Thanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.|