Women in Business Q&A: Jessica Iclisoy CEO & Founder, California Baby

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More than 20 years ago, Jessica Iclisoy embarked on a journey to create a non-toxic environment for her family. Launching in her kitchen with ingredients she had sourced, Jessica began to create the beloved formulas for what is today, the industry standard in natural skincare, California Baby. Since then, Jessica has built California Baby into a globally recognized brand, with more than 90 products available at major retailers nationwide and through a global distribution network. California Baby is a certified Women Owned Business, with its own certified organic and FDA registered manufacturing operation and a certified organic farm.

A nationally-recognized business leader and entrepreneur, Jessica has been featured in Forbes, Fortune, the New York Times, Fast Company, Inc., and Entrepreneur, among many others. Recognized by Forbes magazine for her achievements in building California Baby, Jessica debuted as a highlighted newcomer on the magazine’s annual Richest Self-Made Women list in 2017.

Jessica believes that her mission extends far beyond creating products that are safe for children and healthy for the environment. In 2016, she launched The Natural Advisory Council (NAC) to form a coalition of natural, organic and “green”product manufacturers,retailers,and non-profit consumer protection organizations to advocate, collaborate and educate (ACE) on the definition and use of the term, “natural” in all consumer products. She also collaborates with leading groups and companies to initiate congressional action to establish federal legislation demanding safe cosmetics, and has participated in lobbying activities to help shape the Toxic Substances Control Act and Personal Care Product Safety reform.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

As a young girl, my father took to me to office meetings and business lunches with him, where I observed different personality types and business styles. I understood early on that doing business is about communicating and seeing people as people and not as adversaries to be bullied and won over. My leadership style is collaborative, and I try to make it a win-win for all involved. Growing up I was a competitive gymnast, which gave me the ability to understand that for decisions to be made, one can’t simply talk about what they want to do. They need to practice (do your homework), take ownership and make the decision. When you’ve committed to doing a flip on a four inch beam, there is no time for second guessing.

Being an observant person, I am constantly adding experiences and lessons learned to an ongoing know-how list I have stored in my brain. This is where experience gains over youthful exuberance: a treasure chest of dos & don’ts. I’m an explorer and I always want to know what is on the other side of any situation. This comes from a love of trying new things and I’ll try anything once. This adds to my knowledge base, as I feel I have a greater understanding of the world around me. This experience in life has made me a leader who is open to new situations and people.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at California Baby?

Before launching California Baby, I was a fashion buyer and store manager for luxury fashion designer Azzedine Alaia. The most important thing I learned from him is that the product is king. If it isn’t perfect, don’t rush to get it out on the market. I saw that customers appreciated the care he put into his products, even when he didn’t ship on time or when the production details weren’t perfect and needed adjustments. His customers seemed to understand and supported him and were even willing to pay more for product.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at California Baby?

As a young mother, I had a youthful voice and it could be challenging to make sales pitches via the phone. I realized that I needed to find my own voice, literally and figuratively. I needed to become confident in my presenting voice while finding my company’s voice which would help steer California Baby’s ultimate mission. Once my business ‘voice’ was clear, it made many decisions easier. Early on I searched for a manufacturer that could produce my formulas and many didn’t want to do it because my formulas were too complicated. Ultimately, I decided to be true to the voice of the brand and built my own manufacturing facility where I have complete control over the formulas and production.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

My advice to aspiring female entrepreneurs is to not be afraid to jump in and get started. Your job as an entrepreneur is to figure situations out and to trust that you have the innate knowledge to do so. If you love what you do, your curiosity will drive you and lead you to answers. Also, don’t be afraid to fail, because every decision is a learning moment—just put it within your knowledge box—and learn from your hits and as well as your misses.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

Be the captain of your ship and don’t give up control. Early on, I made the decision to not take any equity from outside investors and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. Sometimes we get pressured by a competitor’s timetable – don’t let that spook you. Slow down, evaluate the situation, and find the answer. Don’t ever underestimate slow, healthy growth.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I try to incorporate the two as much as possible. I will sometimes cut out work and just focus on life. I’m lucky that my business involves working with beautiful essential oils and flowers, as I am testing them all the time—even when I’m on vacation. But when I find that work is taking over, I stop for a few days (or weeks) to recharge. I like to tell my team that “My brain is currently offline and I’m going to let it be there.” When I’m energized to work, I can complete days’ worth of work in hours. Work will always be there and will never be finished (nor do I want it to be), so I always respect my mind and body’s health.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

Issues in the workplace have not changed that much for women as we (they) still confront the same issues, such as gender discrimination, pay inequality, and subtle status intimidation… The good news is that we can now speak openly about this, which will lead to change. I think women need to work in a more organized and unified way in order to push for the change they want. We need more examples of women in top positions, whether it is starting a company or with Chief in their title. As women, we learn from observing other women in action. I always like to make a point to model how women in business can be strong and accomplish their goals with grace, finesse and fun!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I did not have a formal mentor in my professional or personal life, but I have had people in my life who have supported me immensely along the way. The main benefit for me was the confidence which was instilled in me. I felt that if someone was taking the time to explain something to me, help me facilitate a connection, or confirm what I was already thinking; I should listen and pay attention. Even though it isn’t a formal setting, they are still being generous with their time and with their wisdom.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I admire Anna Wintour because she’s tough as nails and that isn’t easy, yet she has set an example in order to achieve excellence and success. I admire Miuccia Prada because of her ability to mix art with commerce. I also admire Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany because she plays on a world stage and doesn’t seem to be intimated. She has retained her femininity and is not trying to do business like a man—she understands them, but doesn’t try to be them. I like that in a woman!

What do you want California Baby to accomplish in the next year?

I’m looking forward to working closely with my new nonprofit, the Natural Advisory Council, as we continue to advocate, collaborate and educate consumers on the definition of the term “natural” in consumer products. We are always innovating at California Baby and we look forward to further expand into categories beyond baby skincare.

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