One woman’s journey to becoming startup CEO
Cary Lin is the founder and CEO of Common Heir. She pivoted from finance and consulting to working with the beauty industry’s biggest female leaders — and finally, taking her place in line as founder and CEO. We talk about the pressure on female founders, biases in venture capital funding, and the power of seeing role models who look like you.
Before becoming CEO & Founder of Common Heir, you made a few career and industry pivots. Tell me about your journey to becoming CEO!
I graduated college during the last recession. I was very confused and mystified by the finance industry and I wanted to understand it more. So I started my career in management consulting working with finance clients. But after three years I thought, “I don’t care about what I’m doing at all. I’m just helping more banks make more money.”
I’ve always been interested in beauty and skincare. At the time a beauty blogger introduced me to Vicky Tsai, the CEO and founder of a small indie beauty brand called ‘Tatcha’ headquartered in San Francisco. I’m originally from Berkeley and I quickly got it in my head that I wanted to work for this woman.
Growing up in the Bay Area, the face of entrepreneurship looked a lot more like Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg — white and male. Vicky Tsai was the first female role model for me. She was not only a woman, she was Asian-American, she went to Harvard, she started her career in finance working on Wall Street before an aha moment to pivot to consumer and beauty. She was the first entrepreneur whose background I could relate to so deeply.
Working for her for just four months, I learned so much. I was a jack of all trades and at the end of the summer I didn’t know what I loved — should I do finance, should I do operations? I looked at Vicky and basically said, “I don’t know what I really love. I just want to be you. So how do I do that?” It was kind of a ridiculous thing to ask. But she gave me good advice: to go back and get my MBA and intern at Proctor & Gamble. And so, I did just that.
That was my biggest pivot. When I hated Wall Street, I knew I wanted to get into the consumer world, but I didn’t know how or where to begin. Then I met a role model in Vicky and that set me on my path. On a smaller scale, I compare it to the optimism I felt when Barack Obama became President. He lifted expectations for an entire generation. Vicky had that impact on me. When she started, Asian beauty entrepreneurs weren’t that visible. Today, there are many more female founders of Asian descent who have started their own beauty companies — but I think many were inspired by Vicky. Including myself.
You took advice to earn your MBA and intern at Proctor & Gamble, followed by the Honest Company led by Jessica Alba. What’s the biggest thing you learned during that stage of your career?
I went to MIT Sloan for business school and I did my internship at Proctor & Gamble over the summer. After that, I wanted to work for another female founder at a unicorn company based in California. With those constraints, there ended up being very few companies. I took an offer from the Honest Company led by Jessica Alba.
My objective was to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. The biggest thing I learned was the power of consumers to push for change in the industry. Before The Honest Company started, factories in the consumer supply chain were not transparent about sustainability. They wouldn’t give you information on sourcing of ingredients — they didn’t see the relevance.
The Honest Company proved that consumer demand was there for ingredients that are cleaner and more transparent. I saw the ability of Honest to make changes upstream to vendors and manufacturers and partners, who invested in R&D to make cleaner and more sustainable products. The impact is that today it is way easier to launch a clean product because now we have access to clean alternatives.
But what I realized is that only a brand like The Honest Company, who has a direct relationship with the consumer, could have done it. That was another aha moment.
After working with big female leaders, you moved to a high growth beverage startup where you led Marketing and Brand. What did you learn there?
After The Honest Company, I went to a smaller beverage company that at the time had gone viral for a hangover cure product. The brand had reached $1M in sales within just three months. There was a ton of potential. I learned how to scale. I joined as Head of Marketing and Brand and grew revenue from $1M to $10M within a year and a half. I prepared the company for retail expansion into stores like CVS, 7–11, and Total Wine.
I also learned what it means for a company to take venture capital funding — what that does to the expectations for growth as a company, and what it was like to work for a first-time CEO who had limited experience in the industry but was able to command significant venture investment.
And today, you’re your own boss as the CEO and founder of Common Heir. What inspired you to try to launch a plastic-free beauty brand?
Within consumer, beverage and beauty are two of the worst polluting industries. When I was growing the hangover beverage company, I led the transition from glass packaging to plastic packaging. We had to make this change because our retail partners wouldn’t accept glass shipments. Being interested in sustainability, I scoured the world for a plastic alternative that wasn’t derived from petroleum. It was really challenging and expensive, but we found a way to use a sugar-cane based plastic. Then — we did a huge event at Coachella — and all of the party goers threw the used bottles on the ground. What do we do about that? I realized that brands don’t consider what happens to something after it’s been used. I ignored the reality that 90% of plastic is never even recycled.
I wanted to find a way to design without relying on plastic. I wanted to deliver high impact skincare that has a low impact on the environment. Common Heir is that — luxury-level, high performance skincare that doesn’t use any plastic. It’s clean, it’s highly stable, and it’s easy to travel with. You don’t have to sacrifice effectiveness. And it’s a total joy to have on your vanity.
I’m drawing on my sustainability experience to understand the technical packaging formulation. And on my marketing experience to deliver a story to the consumer. Consumers deserve to ask producers to provide them with better alternatives, rather than forcing consumers to figure out sustainability and recycling on their own.
Among the founders I speak to, many say it’s scary to make the full-time jump to founder. When did you know you were ready?
Before I started Common Heir, I was regularly working weekends and crazy hours. When I went on my first vacation, a PR disaster hit and I was constantly on the phone and could not relax. My husband asked, “When are you going to feel like you’ve learned enough to do your own thing?” I went down that train of thought for the first time.
In business school I had read about “founder readiness.” There was a concept of a founder’s balance sheet, weighing your assets and liabilities pertaining to your readiness to start a company. The balance sheet contained things like: Do you have kids? Do you have debt? As I was thinking about the decision to start my own company, I realized my founder’s fitness would never be better. Personally, I had dual income, no kids, some savings in the bank, health insurance through my husband. And professionally, I had enough experience and relationships.
Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and take the risk. No amount of informational interviews on what it’s like to be a founder will prepare you. Other startup founders will give you the playbook for what they did — but the reality is that their playbook is only relevant for them and their specific circumstances and personality. No one can give you the right answer but you.
To me, your path to founder and CEO seems very deliberate and “bulletproof.” You have amazing educational degrees, a traditional business background, industry experience, scaling experience, the list goes on. Do you feel the same way?
I felt broadly intentional. Throughout my career, in the back of my mind, I was often thinking about how what I was doing could help me start my own company one day. I think women are intentional because we’re punished for not being intentional. Men can wake up one day and think, “I’ve been a growth manager at a tech company so I’m qualified to be the CEO of a beverage company. Women, even if they have a lot of experience, often can’t get away with that. The bar is higher.
I think intention and a proven track record of excellence becomes something that many of us respond with. It’s hard for women to think, “Let me wake up and do something that I’m totally unqualified to do.” In the back of my head I wanted to stand in front of an investor and be able to say that my background is ideal for the vision for Common Heir. I wanted to feel confident and totally unassailable. If an investor was going to pass on me, I wanted to trust that it wouldn’t be because of my background or my qualifications. (The truth is, they’ll find many, many other reasons to pass on you!)
When I reflect back on it, intentionality for me was not an option.
Thank you, Cary, for sharing your story! You can learn more about Cary Lin and Common Heir’s sustainable products here.
Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity. Note this interview was conducted in Spring 2020.