The alternative, as she told Anna Palmer, was entrepreneurship, which afforded her the chance to make her ideas tangible. She co-founded a startup — “When we shared our idea for Birchbox, almost everybody was like, ‘That’s a bad idea,’” she laughs — and grew it into one of the largest subscription e-commerce companies in the world. And that, in turn, amounted to something tangible in the lives of the millions of paying subscribers.
Beauchamp spoke with Palmer at the 10th annual International Women’s Day Forum in New York City. What follows are excerpts of their conversation, edited for length and readability. For more, listen to the interview on the newest episode of Women Rule.
Anna Palmer, POLITICO: Where did you grow up?
Katia Beauchamp, Birchbox: I am from Texas. I was born in Austin, but I really grew up in El Paso with my single mom and my brother. And I grew up kind of in the desert, and then going in the summers to where my dad lived, which was Germany, and then to where his parents lived, which was Greece. So, the only parts of the world I saw growing up were the desert, El Paso, predominantly Hispanic — my mom is Mexican — and then going to Germany and Greece and seeing a totally different way of existing. Those were my two touchpoints until I went to college up in the Northeast — it was just a whole very different experience.
Palmer: Did you always know you wanted to leave? I’m from a small town in North Dakota, so I resonate with your story a bit — I was always ready to explore the world.
Beauchamp: Yeah. I wanted something very ambitious, and I didn’t know what that was when I was really little. I just said, “I want to be President of the United States.” That seems like the top, right? I was hungry to try hard things. I was hungry to know what I was capable of.
As an 18-year-old, as a 20-year-old, I started to put myself into those situations. And frankly, when I had my first job in finance — I was in commercial real estate investment banking — I felt like I was progressing in my career, but it wasn’t so hard to do well. And I was like, “I don’t want to just be in a job where I put my head down, no one wants to hear any of my ideas or thoughts for five years to 10 years, and then someone will let me have an idea.”
So then I applied to business school. And then I found entrepreneurship and it was this moment of realizing that all I wanted to do was meet myself, and just know what I was capable of, and that this would force me to meet myself.
Palmer: You were in commercial real estate investing, [which is] very male dominated. How did you navigate that?
Beauchamp: Poorly. I navigated it poorly. I tried to speak up, and was told it really wasn’t my place to have a perspective. I was frustrated and unhappy. And I don’t think that I noticed it as being necessarily a problem of being a female at the time because I was in denial. I went to Vassar undergrad, right? “We did it!” That’s how it felt. “Great! More women are in college!” There are these milestones people have been touting for decades: “Great! We got to vote, and most of us are getting educated. Woohoo!” And I was young and naïve and thought that that must be it. And reflecting on it, I realized it is really hard to navigate your career when you don’t have anyone you’re looking to that has anything to do with you.
Palmer: Women often feel like we can get kind of pigeonholed in different categories, right? I mean, you chose to kind of go into the beauty space. Did you ever worry about that?
Beauchamp: Yeah. Totally. I remember sitting in meetings in the early days of Birchbox and everything from a business and metric perspective was just so going in the right direction, and feeling like no matter what I said about like LTV or growth margin or TAM, all anyone heard was, “I love lip gloss and I love mascara.” I’m talking about this industry, [and potential investors] would be like, “Well, my wife doesn’t use beauty.”
First of all, you might want to check in, because she’s certainly using something, right? Second, what a strange way to talk about disruption and about changing a pattern or a behavior or the way marketing dollars are flowing in a $500 billion industry that is the fastest growing mature category in this world, where two percent of sales are on the internet.
Palmer: When you started, 10 years ago, the market, what was happening in the internet was so small compared to what it is today. So this was a super-novel concept. But over time, you’ve also had to adapt, right? I mean, the marketplace has shifted so much, and the company has endured layoffs and tougher times. Talk about kind of how you navigated that.
Beauchamp: I think, just like everything, this has all been a learning experience. The first time you think something’s going to be really insurmountable, you expect the worst, your mindset immediately goes to a place of fear, and also a place of defeat. But then you get on the other side and you realize that there’s not an inevitability. There is much more of a chance that you just got stronger and that you’re going to be able to face something in a different way.
And once you can recognize that, it becomes a lot easier. It’s shifting the mindset: instead of seeing the hard thing as conquering you, recognizing that it doesn’t. You always get on the other side. And starting to feel that in the moment makes it feel less dramatic, and makes it feel very navigable.
I like to say it allows you to stay present in your body. I know that sounds so cheesy. But when you are present and not thinking of the inevitability of the future or your fear of the future, you have so much to work with. When you’re there fully to think about a challenge you’re facing, you’d be shocked how many ideas you have. But when you’re constantly afraid of the future, or reliving something terrible from the past, you’re not totally present to even think about it. Of course you feel frazzled. Of course you feel like it won’t be okay. You don’t have all of you to face it.
Palmer: It feels very brave. You’re really facing these issues kind of head-on.
Beauchamp: I mean, it feels like a life worth living. It feels exciting and engaging to try to push the boundaries of what you thought you could weather. And it feels so much better to not let yourself go to despair, but to feel in the moment how okay things are.
The worst-case scenario for me — with Birchbox, if Birchbox goes away, like, everything’s ok. You know? We’ll all be fine. I will miss it. I am sure consumers would miss it. But knowing that everything is really ok and that you are ok is very powerful. And eventually, it doesn’t end up feeling so brave, it just feels logical.
Palmer: Talk a little bit about personal life, work life — you have children.
Beauchamp: So many. [LAUGHTER] I love them. I have four kids. It’s the best thing I ever did. I am exploring this weird moment as a human, as a woman, where I just realized that I have been pregnant or nursing for half of my career, and right now I’m not. And I am like, “Wait. What? I don’t have to hook myself up to something in between these talks? Or on this airplane?” And it’s very freeing and bizarre, as just an experience, to be living right now.
I think the most important thing that I care about for my team and for the world is that when we spend our days at work, we have high expectations for that. We deserve to spend our days surrounded by things that inspire us, surrounded by humans who care about our development so that it doesn’t feel like you’re so depleted because it’s such a one-sided agreement that you need to escape it.
The idea that you’re only working right now during the hours when you’re in the office is done. I need people to be inspired on their weekends when they have amazing customer experiences that are discretionary, and bring those ideas to work. That’s work: Being open to thinking about this and being inspired. It’s very difficult to expect that you can turn it off.
Palmer: I mean, when you get out of the bad job, then you realize how it infected all the rest of the other parts of your life, right?
Beauchamp: Yeah. Just like all of you, I source my value externally in my worst moments, but I know that that’s a fallacy. I know it’s a fallacy when I catch myself needing someone else’s validation and needing someone else to tell me what I’m capable of. I’m human; of course I go there. Of course I worry about what all of you think about me and what the press will write about me. We’re so hardwired to source our value that way. And, you know, if you notice it and you pay attention, you’re like, “Wow. I’m just giving all of this power to someone else.”
One thing that really has helped me do this is meeting someone I really respect, having a conversation, and then thinking, like, “Do they know everything? Are they exactly sure how to navigate all of the questions that are in front of them for their companies, for their lives?” Absolutely not. And the ones that I end up being so impressed by, the ones that I walk away feeling “I’m so inspired,” are the ones who have the humility to own it. None of us know! The only difference is some of us are willing to stay in the game and face that we don’t know and make hard decisions that we don’t know exactly what they’re going to lead to, and some of us don’t want that.
Palmer: Before we leave, I’m going to ask you a really quick question: Can you give us one thing the people in this audience who are interested in entrepreneurship can do in the coming days that has helped you when you look back?
Beauchamp: I’d say, if you’re interested — especially if you have a specific idea — one of the things that I really, firmly believe is: Start. And the way to start is share your idea. When we shared our idea for Birchbox, almost everybody was like, “That’s a bad idea.” [Laughter] Frankly, there’s a lot of really good ideas out there. Execution is the hardest thing, and you have to put one foot in front of the other to start. If you keep your idea confidential because you’re worried someone’s going to copy it, that is going to not serve you. Execution is really hard.
To hear more from Katia Beauchamp, listen to the full podcast episode here. Women Rule takes listeners backstage with female bosses for real talk on how they made it and what advice they have for women looking to lead.