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Women in Business: Q&A with Hayley Barna & Katia Beauchamp, Birchbox Co-Founders and Co-CEOs

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HAYLEY BARNA: After graduating from Harvard Business School in 2010, Hayley began her career as an entrepreneur with classmate and Birchbox Co-founder Katia Beauchamp. Their connection grew into a friendship that inspired the pair's collaborative idea for Birchbox, which debuted in September 2010. Hayley learned the foundation of strategy and psychology behind successful consumer businesses through her previous roles with Bain & Company, Christie's and Appling this experience to her current role at Birchbox, Hayley spends her days weighing a mix of analytical and creative, strategy and execution, keeping close to Birchbox customers and products.

KATIA BEAUCHAMP: Katia began her career as an entrepreneur after graduating from Harvard Business School in 2010, where she met Hayley Barna, her Birchbox Co-founder. Their connection grew into friendship and the pair's collaborative idea for Birchbox inspired the company's debut in September 2010. Prior to founding Birchbox, Katia worked in structured finance and commercial real estate for three years. Katia's love for all things beauty and style combined with her skills from a deal-focused and finance background are instrumental in forming partnerships with brands as well as in growing and scaling the Birchbox business.

How has your life experience made you the leaders you are today?
K: I was really raised by my mother. She always encouraged me to talk about how I felt, and to realize it's not about what other people do to you; it's how you interpret things. Both as a leader and on a personal level, I learned how to take ownership of my emotions; it was in my control to be happy and to own my career path.

H: I was a science geek in high school and doing independent science research was a helpful skill. It gave me the confidence to know that I could not only ask questions but I could also test things and find answers. It gave me confidence that I could be 17-years-old and contribute to science. My family was also an influence. My family has a family business and I was exposed to business conversations at the dinner table my whole life.

How has your previous employment experience aided your positions at Birchbox?
K: Prior to creating Birchbox, I worked in structured finance and commercial real estate for three years. Through this experience I gained valuable skills related to deal-making and handling finances; these new skills combined with an internship at Estée Lauder were instrumental in forming partnerships with brands as well as helping to grow and scale the Birchbox business.

H: Before Birchbox I had no experience in the beauty industry and didn't engage much in the category as a consumer. The fact that I was a beauty novice helped shape how much content we provide our customers. I often provide the 'what is this' and 'where do you use this' questions that push our editorial team to remember not all our customers are experts!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenures at Birchbox?
K: One of our biggest milestones happened just recently with the announcement of the opening of the first physical Birchbox retail store. It is such an exciting time as we are breaking away from the traditional brick-and-mortar-lite formula of developing a showroom for our online platform and instead creating a full-blown shopping and lifestyle "experience." On the other end, hiring and building a great team is the most challenging aspect but also the most rewarding. Looking up every day and seeing the incredible group at Birchbox inspires me to work harder and do justice to the idea and the team.

H: One of the biggest challenges we faced early on was being able to see the bigger picture; it took us quite a while to realize that building a business is a marathon and not a sprint. In the early days, the intensity and stress level of our work was through the roof -- very little sleep, not much personal time. By building a team of talented people we have been able to find more balance and focus on the issues that matter most. Katia and I both agree that one of the greatest rewards in this journey has been building the Birchbox team and providing them a challenging and exciting environment to put their skills to work.

How has Birchbox shook up the beauty industry?
K: Birchbox has changed the way women and men shop for beauty, grooming and lifestyle products. We inspire new demand for products by making the shopping process both delightful and efficient. We do this by sending consumers customized boxes of samples while pairing it with personalized information on the site.

H: Birchbox's discovery retail model introduced a new way for consumers to shop and discover new products online. This has enabled less-confident consumers to learn about products on their own time in the privacy of their own home. It has also allowed brands, both big and small, to connect with engaged and interested customers. We're growing the size of the beauty market by creating these connections.

What advice can you offer women who want to start their own business?
K: If you work hard, ask questions, and learn from every opportunity, you are going to have a fulfilling journey in your career. Be thoughtful of the people you work for including your manger. Find someone who is open and respects you. It makes work more enjoyable and gives you the opportunity to learn. Choose your manager over your industry. It is also highly important to remember to enjoy building your career. And yes, go to happy hour!

H: In an early stage business, the most valuable thing you can do is learn. Always know what your top three priorities are and focus your limited resources on making progress in those areas. Any investment of time or money that doesn't help you get closer to an answer for your top questions or focus areas shouldn't be made. Do things yourself, whenever possible, and that way you'll learn more. Focus is key, and it should be directed at your customers and the product you're building to serve them.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
K: I don't believe in it - I think that having the opportunity to have a job you like doesn't mean you have to look for the 50/50 split. When you get to work with people who are your friends, spending time with them makes work that much more enjoyable.

H: First of all, it doesn't hurt that I work with some of my closest friends. But in general, I set myself boundaries. For example, I eat dinner with my husband almost every week day, even if I have to log back in afterwards. It is important to have a support network of friends and family outside of your business life that can provide feedback and a safe haven when you really need it.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
K: In many businesses there aren't as many women leading the way. The flipside is that you can stand out and have the opportunity to really bring something different to the table. As much as it seems challenging it also means that your point of view and ideas can take center stage.

H: While I can't speak for all women, I personally feel that confidence is the biggest factor that held me back in my early career and is something that I continue to work on. Asking the big hairy questions, requesting more responsibility and going out on a limb can all be scary and daunting. But when I remember to focus on my strengths, instead of my weaknesses I'm able to build up the confidence I need to take the plunge.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?
K: I am always looking for a mentor. I don't think you just have one mentor; there are so many people we have the chance to meet, so I am constantly looking for new perspectives. There are definitely people I go to for the big questions, but mentors are there to be helpful. They aren't there to give you the answers but to help you see that your perspective can answer the question.

H: We had a professor in school who gave us excellent advice as we were able to take off with Birchbox. He said "What is the worst thing that is going to happen? Even if you fail miserably, you are going to have learned so much." We both looked at each other and said OK, let's do this! It really helped push us over the edge.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
H: I'm inspired every day by women in my life, including my co-founder Katia and our amazingly wise and butt-kicking female investors Theresia Gouw and Kirsten Green. They are smart and determined as well as kind and generous and inspire me to be a better business woman.

In the celebrity realm, a few personal heroes include Beyoncé, Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton, and Estée Lauder who all found a way to combine their passions and their skills to create authentic careers and significantly and positively impact the world.

K: I have to agree with Hayley but have to include Alexa Von Tovel, who listened to us when we had the first idea of Birchbox. Hayley and I would visit her in her first office, throw out ideas and get her feedback. Seeing her work was very inspiring.

What do you want Birchbox to accomplish in the next five years?
K: We want Birchbox to become a household name in the beauty industry and a household name as one of the best companies to work for. Then we can take over the world.

H: In the next five years, we hope to have advanced in our mission to build the best place to shop for beauty online, helping customers find the right products for them in a fun and effective way. Our aim is to listen to our customers and learn from data to push the envelope of product discovery online. If we succeed at that, then the growth and increased awareness will follow. I also hope that we continue to scale the culture at Birchbox to provide a challenging and rewarding long-term career for our fantastic team.

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