You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you’re in your 30s, what do you do when you’ve, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you’re now ready to commit to something you’re passionate about, whether it’s a job, a city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we’re debuting a new series, Second Life. Each week, we’ll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes of their lives.
When Cat Chen discovered a gap in the beauty industry—namely clean fragrances made with consciously sourced ingredients—she decided to leave her job at The Honest Company and found Skylar, a self-care brand boasting a line of paraben-, sulfate-, phthalate-, allergen-free scents. While the transition from one brand specializing in nontoxic products to another may seem like a natural one, the move was far from easy.
"I was scared to start my own beauty brand," Chen told MyDomaine. "It was probably the worst possible time to do it: I had a 5-month-old at home and a great stable job I loved at Honest," she admitted. "But once I decided to go for it, I went all in, and I haven't looked back." Ahead, the entrepreneur looks back on her career, from studying math at MIT to scaling a hyper-growth business at The Honest Company to founding her own eco-conscious brand.
In this installment of Second Life, we ask Chen about her nontraditional career trajectory, including how she moved past the fear of change to pursue her passion, which of her biggest failures actually ended up being successes, and why she believes that going outside your comfort zone is when the magic happens.
Tell us about your first career path.
When I first started out, I was focused on taking a traditional path to a successful career. I didn't know that anything else was really an option. I was (and am) a self-proclaimed nerd and lived up to that title with the college I chose.
I studied management science at MIT for my undergraduate degree, and coming out of college, I felt like I needed to put those skills to use. I started my career in management consulting for Bain & Co. and quickly honed my analytical, problem-solving skillset to help companies solve their toughest business questions. It gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of companies and taught me how to apply analytical frameworks to solving issues.
I ended up going to business school at Wharton, and at that point, my world was opened up to the entrepreneurial business path. I knew I wanted to be part of the disruptive community of companies that were changing the industries that they entered. I stuck with analytical roles, but I switched industries to join the startup world.
Upon graduating business school, I worked at disruptors like Apple, Activision, and The Honest Company, where I headed up their operations from the beginning of their journey to when they reached five years of success.
How did you make the transition from studying mathematics at MIT to breaking ground in the beauty industry?
Switching from math at MIT to beauty isn't the expected path, but the transition was actually part of my evolution of finding my best self. Since I was a teenager, I've been a die-hard beauty fan specifically obsessed with scents. (I actually interned with Bath & Body Works while I was in business school because of my passion for scents.)
So when I got out of business school and started to watch my co-workers become founders of companies that allowed them to make their passions their jobs, it piqued my interest. I loved being part of something bigger than me and working at companies making the world a better place. I may have just continued building my career at startups, helping them grow and scale, if not for having my daughter.
The biggest trigger that made me transition from my expected MIT analytical career path to founding my own company in beauty was having my daughter. The realization that the scents I had worn previously were giving my daughter allergies gave me the drive and courage to start Skylar. It wasn't really a choice; it was something I knew I needed to do.
Can you tell us more about Skylar?
After finding out my daughter was allergic to my traditional perfumes, I went on a quest to find a safer alternative. When I couldn't find a brand that met my needs, I decided to create my own.
One of my pain points—besides being able to find a clean, hypoallergenic fragrance—was the sampling process. I would find myself going into retailers, smelling the perfume on a piece of paper, thinking it was great, buying it, and then getting home and spraying it on myself and no longer liking it.
Body chemistry is so important when choosing a perfume. That's why we created a unique in-home sampling model with Skylar, where you can try all five of our scents for $20, and then you get that $20 back in the form of a credit toward your first perfume bottle. We encourage women to wear the scents in their everyday life, mixing and matching to create their own signature so they can feel confident about the perfume they decide to buy.
It's been really rewarding to be able to serve and support women everywhere with our Skylar scents. And it has been amazing to see the reception we've received from customers across the country who were all looking for a better alternative.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career and why?
When I started working at Honest, that was definitely challenging. I was entering a field I didn't have experience in and needed to find a way to scale the hyper-growth business. Specifically, we were experiencing unexpected growth about a year into the job, and it almost caused us to stock out of our diapers, the top product at the company. I had to learn how to lead, problem-solve, and move quickly. I absolutely loved that experience, but it was definitely a case of me challenging myself to get to the next level.
After Honest, I faced another challenging time in my career because I was deciding what I wanted to do next. I had a young baby at home and had to make a call on whether to go the safe route at another company or to take a risk, follow my passion, and start Skylar. Ultimately my daughter gave me the drive to leap for the stars and create Skylar. Founding and running Skylar has been the most challenging, exciting, exhilarating, draining, and rewarding experience of my career thus far. Once I decided to go for it, I went all in, and I haven't looked back.
How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
I was afraid of failing, of letting my family down—of not being able to make it. But I was able to move past the fear by surrounding myself with a supportive community of incredible women and my family. When I had hard days, I had a support system to fall back on. They were constantly encouraging me to keep on pushing forward. Without that support, I don't think I would have been able to start Skylar. I really feel like we all did it together.
What are some mistakes you made along the way that ended up helping your success?
Initially, when I realized my daughter was allergic to traditional perfumes, I immediately thought I should go to perfumes with essential oils. So I purchased a couple indie brands with essential oils but noticed my daughter was still having an allergic reaction.
This mistake of assuming essential oil perfumes were the safest for my daughter caused me to dig deep into the fragrance industry and understand what makes perfumes allergenic. To my surprise, there were no hypoallergenic perfumes on the market. This discovery really shaped the positioning of Skylar and the type of product we would create—natural but always hypoallergenic. This differentiation is a big part of why Skylar has resonated so well with women.
Another mistake I made was initially thinking that I would be the best judge of the scents we create. I happened to have a friend over and had her smell some of the scents we were thinking about for Skylar. She disliked the ones that I liked and liked the ones I wasn't a fan of. Luckily I made this happy mistake early on, and the discovery led me to invite over groups of women regularly to test all of the scents we were developing.
We went through hundreds of iterations and finally landed on our first four scents. I think part of the reasons the scents resonate is because they were truly created by a community of women. At Skylar, we're constantly learning. Trying new things, realizing they don't work, and pivoting to create the best products possible.
What do you love most about your current role and why?
This is by far my favorite role. Building and growing Skylar with my team and with our community is my favorite part. I love seeing how our products are supporting women and the inclusive community we're creating. Being able to directly interact with our customers and to inspire even a small piece of happiness in our customers' lives is the highlight of the role and the highlight of Skylar as a whole.
When you look back and reflect on your previous career do you have any regrets? Or are you still really happy with your decision?
When I look back, I honestly have no regrets. Every step of the way, from consulting to Apple to Honest, got me to where I am today. I've taken lessons from each of my career ventures and applied them to Skylar. I think part of the reason Skylar is successful is because I've had so many experiences from my previous career paths.
I'm grateful to have been able to work for companies that were driven by passionate leaders and people who took risks to follow their passion. Without that, I probably never would have thought of creating my own company. I needed that experience of seeing how your passion can be your job. Sometimes you have to take a winding path to reach the place where you're meant to be. That's how I view my career path over time, and I now am confident I've found the place I'm meant to be.
What advice do you have for other women who want to take a leap but fear the change?
If you're passionate about it, if you're willing to work hard at it, and if you're not willing to take no for an answer, go for it. Change can be the impetus for great things in people's lives. Change is also scary. But to me, you experience fear in career paths when you're pushing outside your comfort zone. And that's when the magic happens. Build a support system around you,and go for it.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Changing career paths is scary, and sometimes the first change you make may not be the forever role you want, or you may not get the immediate success you expected. But by pushing yourself, you're making progress toward finding the place you want to be. It's a winding road, and it's not easy, but if you can find a way to roll with the punches and believe in the process, in my experience, change will eventually result in an amazing outcome.
For more inspiring stories from successful women who've made major career changes, tune into MyDomaine's Second Life podcast.