Tokki’s Founder and CEO, Jane Park, was recently featured on the Podcast Better For It by ADP. She had the opportunity to openly discuss some of her greatest mistakes as a business owner and leader, and how she continues to learn from them to this day.
The importance of connection is a theme that has run deep for Jane since the very beginning. Her companies have been built on connecting people and building relationships. Connection has also been a central theme in her leadership and where she feels some of her greatest mistakes were made. You can hear the full interview here or read through the Q&A below.
We believe that vulnerability and honesty, of our mistakes, failures, and fears, can be one of the greatest ways to learn, grow, and evolve.
As Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Thank you to Franchesca Ramsey for this opportunity to speak and share so openly.
FRANCHESCA: Today, my guest is Jane Park. And yes, we will get into the failure she just mentioned. Because like all my guests, her mistakes inspire what she’s working for today.
Jane had to be a little bit of a badass to become a successful entrepreneur. In 2007, she left a brilliant corporate career to found a beauty company called Julep. It started with one beauty parlor and became an online sensation. Julep was one of Oprah’s Favorite Things three different times. I haven’t been on that list once.
Jane ran Julep for ten years, and then she sold it. Now she’s moved on to a new venture.
FRANCHESCA: Alright, so I'm going to jump right in. You recently launched a second company. It's very cool. It's brand new. Please tell me about it.
JANE: I would love to. So my new company is Tokki. And it's all about helping people to gift more sustainably. So it is reusable fabric gift wrap. It's 100% cotton. But what's really cool is that there's this great magnetic band. And there's a code on it, a QR code, that you can scan just with your phone. So you can add a video or photo. And then you can also save that and have a record as it’s re-gifted. Part of the reason we wanted to do this is to make it really fun to re-gift. And it's like Sisterhood of the Traveling Gift Wrap.
FRANCHESCA: I love that.
JANE: Isn't that cool? And then you can see that it's been re-gifted 7, 8, 9 times before and hopefully, at some point, all of these end up at Michelle Obama's doorstep.
FRANCHESCA: I love that you have priorities, you know, sending that out into the universe. I'm going to co-sign and say that Michelle Obama is probably listening to this podcast right now. And now she's very excited to get this gift wrapped.
JANE: Hey, Michelle, we miss you.
FRANCHESCA: And I have to tell you, this gift wrap is really cute. I'm a very colorful pattern oriented girl, and you've got stuff that's funky and kind of vintagey but also holiday inspired. Can you talk to me about launching this product and what it's been like?
JANE: It's been really exciting to launch this new company because I've been able to bring in all the lessons that I've learned from launching my first company, Julep, which was an online first beauty company.
FRANCHESCA: Now, before Jane could set out to transform the beauty industry, she had to learn how to work through a whole lot of expectations.
FRANCHESCA: So let's go back to the beginning. Your family are immigrants, right?
JANE: Yeah, we moved from Korea to Toronto, Canada when I was four years old. And I remember one of my earliest memories is that I didn't speak English when I first went to kindergarten. And so a lot of the things that happened in the classroom that were bad were blamed on me.
FRANCHESCA: Oh no.
JANE: Which is kind of ridiculous. I know, it's like there's this tiny little shy Asian girl, and I'm clearly not running around breaking things.
FRANCHESCA: Oh my goodness.
JANE: Anyway, I learned to speak English really quickly. But I do remember being there and not being able to explain myself.
FRANCHESCA: I'm interested to hear how that kind of shaped your education going forward because you actually went to law school, you went to Yale, which is kind of a big deal. Your parents must have been really proud of you.
JANE: So my parents had a convenience store growing up. And one thing I learned is that what's convenient for the shopper takes a lot of effort on the storekeepers part, right? So they only had Christmas day off. They were open seven days a week, morning to night. And they always emphasize education, actually, being a doctor or a lawyer were really the only two acceptable alternatives.
FRANCHESCA: Why were those the two things that your parents really focused on?
JANE: I think they always said it was about being a professional. And I know that they really did not want me to be an entrepreneur. They didn't want me to have to deal with all of the pressures of running a company or a business. They thought that there was prestige, I think, in being what is called a professional, it was like, you have to be a professional. It's a doctor, a lawyer, maybe a dentist. So I was going to go to do this work at a Women's Cooperative in India. And I applied to law school not really to go but like a ruse, to say, “Hey, I’m coming back to go to law school.” I had no intention of actually going to law school but I wanted them to feel okay about me going to India. And I told them and it was one of the first times I saw them cry. So, they are...
FRANCHESCA: Oh...Why? Because just the thought of you leaving was what was heartbreaking to them or...
JANE: The thought of me not continuing my education. So, they really wanted me to go to law school and, you know, somehow in this conversation being so confused about seeing my parents cry, I agreed to do this thing that was never the plan anyway. It was just the ruse.
FRANCHESCA: So you went to law school and then what did you do?
JANE: So I worked as a corporate attorney for about nine months and one day, I woke up and said, “I would rather cut off my toe than go to work.” And my husband...
FRANCHESCA: Oh, wow. That's very specific.
JANE: I know, right? My husband was like, “Ew, gross. Who even thinks of something like that?”
FRANCHESCA: You're like, “I don't want to lose a full limb... Let's just do a toe.”
JANE: Right, like the baby toe. Not the big one.
FRANCHESCA: Yes, you could still wear a sandal.
JANE: I thought this all through. And you know, it's amazing that I could have felt so stuck. I was young, I had nothing to lose, I had two Ivy League degrees, and I still felt so stuck. So I have a lot of empathy for especially young women who feel stuck with expectations. Because I felt that way. I mean, so much so that I was thinking about cutting off a limb.
FRANCHESCA: So then you went into corporate consulting, correct me if I'm wrong, at Boston Consulting Group.
JANE: I was. I was at BCG.
FRANCHESCA: So you ended up doing really well, um, becoming a leader, people are taking you seriously. Were there any big lessons that you learned there?
JANE: You know, I always think that the biggest mistakes that stay with me have to do with failures of character, not any sort of business result that you are going for that didn't happen. And one of the things I think about probably at least once a week, if not once a day, is the fact that after 9/11, I was leading a team, and I had one project to finish before I left on maternity leave. So I am basically 9 months pregnant, and then 9/11 happens. My husband calls me and says that he can see the smoke coming off of the Pentagon cause he's in DC. And I was in Pennsylvania at the time. And, you know, we're all trying to figure out what is going on. And then the next day, we convened for work and one of my consultants on my team asked me if he can go home and be with his wife, and I asked, “Did you have anybody who was impacted?” I didn't make it easy for this guy, and I always regretted that. And ultimately, I did let him take time off and he did go. But I come back to sort of, how much I was in my own bubble of trying to get this one project done before I went on maternity leave, and I could have just paused for 24 hours to be a human being and to let people process this huge national tragedy that had happened. So I think about that a lot, I think, is this another 9/11 moment that I'm going to regret? And I try to act accordingly.
FRANCHESCA: I mean, I think it's really vulnerable to admit that type of mistake, but also says a lot about your character that you look at it and say: How can I make sure I don't make this mistake again?
JANE: Yeah and I think that you have to take your failure or your mistake and really think about it and contextualize it in order to turn it into a lesson. That doesn't happen just by itself. You know, if you have a failure of character, it turns into a lesson only because you reflect on it and you decide to do something differently the next time.
FRANCHESCA: Jane’s career continued to grow, and she moved to a new company, where she directed new business ventures.
But she says she still wasn’t happy. And when she thought about what really fulfilled her — it was motherhood. And so she decided she wanted her work life to be just as engaging, creative, and fun as she found being a mom. The best way to do that, she thought, was starting her own business.
FRANCHESCA: How did you actually come up with the idea for Julep?
JANE: The idea for Julep came to me because I was trying to throw a bridal shower for one of my best friends and we met at a spa and we were super excited like, “Oh my gosh, you're getting married.” And we, you know, we weren't even drinking or anything. We were just being enthusiastic. And the spa manager came over and said, “Hey, uh, can you guys keep it down? It's a spa in here.”
JANE: Yeah. And I realized that there wasn't anywhere that women could go that is like a sporting event or like a golf course how that's been for men. And so I wanted to create a social third place kind of spa environment.
FRANCHESCA: So Jane took a leap of faith and quit her job, determined to create that unique spa space AND a line of products.
But it didn’t take long for her to hit some roadblocks…
JANE: Sometimes you don't really see the obvious stereotype until it hits you in the face.
FRANCHESCA: Jane was starting to raise money for her new business idea - a beauty company called Julep. She felt great about the pitch: an innovative spa experience with non-toxic beauty products.
But when some people looked at Jane and her business plan, they saw something else.
JANE: One of the things that happens when you go to pitch a business that is about cosmetics, and in the beginning it was a spa experience, so there were nails and waxing and facial appointments. But anyway, some of the investors were like, “Hey, do you do nails?”
JANE: Yeah, because I'm a Korean, right? Actually, my parents pointed this out. The second time I saw them cry was when I told them I was starting Julep and they were like, “We never wanted you to be in business,” and “What will we tell our friends, another Korean starting a nail business?”
FRANCHESCA: Oh, no!
JANE: They came around.
FRANCHESCA: So you’re having it in the professional sense that people are putting you in a box and then with your own parents. How do you overcome that?
JANE: Well, I think that was a situation where I got to look back on the conversation we had that led me to go to law school, you know, one of the only other times I saw them cry and I thought, you know what? Like, fool me once, shame on you, it's not going to happen again. So I thought, you know, the world isn't going to end if I pursue this thing.
FRANCHESCA: And so you started Julep and opened your first location. Can you describe what a Julep store looked like?
JANE: It was beautiful! It, you know, was warm. It had these wooden floors, there was a fireplace, I insisted on that. So you could kind of, you know, have that feeling. All of the chairs and tables were movable. So if you came in with a group of four, a group of two or a group of twelve, you could all sit together. Everything was about enabling women to connect.
FRANCHESCA: And Julep wasn’t only this amazing beauty parlor. From the very beginning, they were creating beauty products. And as the company grew, Jane started to focus on product innovation and subscriptions, growing Julep into a full-fledged online beauty company. It was a pretty big deal. I mean, by 2014, Jane says she had raised 56 million dollars in venture capital.
FRANCHESCA: So now you’re the CEO of a fast growing beauty company. That’s a lot of pressure. Were there any mistakes that you made that stand out to you?
JANE: There are so many, there are like hundreds a day, I feel like, but I do remember one incident where I walked in on a meeting where my team was presenting the holiday merchandise to me. And they had worked really hard on putting the collections together, and there was something missing. I said, “Where's the eyeliners that we talked about?” And I could see immediately that their faces fell. I hadn't given them a chance to sort of show off all of the things that they had done or to thank them for all the hard work that led to that moment. So I stood there and I thought, “Oh, I know I did not do this right.” I said, “Can you just give me a second? Let's pretend this never happened.” I walked out of the glass door. I come back in, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is so amazing. This work is beautiful. I really love the artist you found, this collection is incredible.” And then I could say, “Hey, there was just one thing, I was wondering if it could be stronger if we added this.”
FRANCHESCA: So what was the reaction? How did everyone respond?
JANE: They laughed. They did. Uh, I give them a lot of credit. And also I was the CEO and founder so I think that, they probably, you know, I'd like to think that they would give that leeway to everybody, but I hope that they walked away from that thinking, when you know in the moment that you didn't say the right thing that you can correct it immediately. Like, Do what you can to make it better in the moment and sometimes that can go a long way.
FRANCHESCA: With a growing company, came some growing pains - for Julep and Jane.
FRANCHESCA: So one of the interesting things that I learned about the culture at Julep was that you would switch desks every six months. I am so curious to know where that came from.
JANE: Well, we had an open desk concept and, you know, just tons of IKEA desks lined up in rows. And I loved the ability to eavesdrop on conversations of people who I didn't work with regularly, and also for them to eavesdrop into my conversations, you know, I had a cubicle too.
FRANCHESCA: But I gotta be honest with you. I’m someone that's such a creature of habit, that would give me a lot of anxiety. Did everybody love this culture of switching desks?
JANE: No everybody hated it. Not everybody.
JANE: People do get really attached to where they sit. And so, one situation that I always think about, you know, I had this one VP who I knew she was a creature of habit, and she really loved where she sat. And I needed her to move and I pulled her in, and I said, “Look, I need you to move, and I know that you're not going to like it.” I kind of did the whole conversation like, “I know you're going to say this. So I'm going to tell you this now and I know you're going to react this way, so here it is.” And then I said, “Okay, like, I just need you to do this.” And we ended the conversation. And I thought, well, that actually was super fast and it worked really well. Only the next day I realized she was in tears, she was unable to focus.
FRANCHESCA: Oh no!
JANE: Yeah. Because actually in the conversation what she heard was my CEO doesn't care about me. She doesn't value my opinion. She won't even give me ten seconds to say what I want to express.
FRANCHESCA: So did she come and tell you this the next day, or is this something that you kind of had to hear through the grapevine?
JANE: Well, the thing about open office seating...
FRANCHESCA: Oh, so that probably worked in your favor...
JANE: It’s an open office, and so it was pretty visible, the unhappiness and the tears. And so I knew I had not approached this the right way and I had to fix it and I had to sit down and cancel various meetings so I could ask for the do over. I said, “Hey, can we do this conversation again?” And I apologized for not listening. And I just sat there and I listened to her. And it made all the difference.
FRANCHESCA: So what did you learn in that moment?
JANE: The lesson that I keep learning over and over again, is that you can't short circuit having people feel valued. You know, why am I having this conversation on both sides? Like why can't I just let people speak for themselves instead of speaking for them in my head. And the enemy is time. It's never that you are actually planning to be mean or to burst people's bubble or to make them feel unappreciated. It was because of the need for speed. It was trying to get to the punch line faster and trying to you know, Oh, this is a 30 minute meeting, I gotta run through it fast. And if I do it even faster, maybe I'll have time for a phone call before I do this other thing. And I really wasn't giving people the space they needed to show up and be recognized as their best selves.
FRANCHESCA: And if you’re wondering, Jane says the VP did end up moving desks. As for Jane? Owning her mistake, while sticking by her decision, became another building block in her CEO education.
Jane says by 2016, she was managing over 100 employees, and Julep was making just under 100 million dollars in revenue. But she wanted to keep growing even bigger and needed more resources. After a lot of thought, she came to what she says was a tough decision: she sold the company, so Julep could really grow.
After the sale, Jane moved into an advisory role and was no longer part of Julep’s day-to-day operations. Within two years, Julep was sold again. This time, Jane left the company completely. And even though it’s changed hands a few times, you can still buy Julep’s products today.
At first, Jane took her time away from the company as an opportunity to reconnect with friends and mentor other women entrepreneurs. And she’s now in a place where she can really reflect on her time at Julep.
JANE: What it turns out that I'm most proud of in terms of my Julep experience and all of my leadership experience to date: It's when somebody remembers that I, in a good moment, was appreciative. One time I came into work, and I just said to the people around me like, “Thank you for showing up to work today.” Because I really felt that, it was like, you have a choice. This is not jail, and thank you for making the choice to show up. And they just all laughed. But somebody brought that up to me later as a thing that was both sort of making them feel appreciated in a moment when it was hard at work, but also that they got to feel seen.
JANE: Who you are is somebody who can value them and see them, and I think that —owning that — realizing that I did have that power and deciding to use it for good. I think that was a really, you know, a turning point that happened not at a point. What do you, we should change that phrase, it's not like a turning point.
FRANCHESCA: It's like a recalibration.
JANE: A turning trip.
FRANCHESCA: So right now you’re in the middle of starting over with another business, Tokki. Based on everything you’ve experienced, what is your advice to women in the business world?
JANE: Keep your eyes open for the moments of power that you do have. So maybe that's the central theme in a lot of my life lessons too is: sometimes there's power that you have to change your trajectory. So it's over yourself. And sometimes actually it is over other people. So, whenever I have a chance, I always ask: “How many women are part of your senior leadership team?” As I hire a law firm, right, I'm like, “How many women partners are there?” The last time I asked this question, it caused a huge kerfuffle.
FRANCHESCA: Ooh, cause they weren't ready.
JANE: Right. But then, actually, they came back with a great answer. They got to show off the fact that their numbers are improving. And, you know, the HR person said thank you, like no client has ever asked this. So I think a lot of times we forget or we don't see the moment that you have power. A great moment where everybody has power is the five minutes where you are given an offer and before you accept. That's when you have all the power for that split second in time. So this is where women can ask questions about promotion paths, and how many women have been promoted from my position to the one above and how many above that, and how does that compare? How many women come back from maternity leave? How many cases of sexual harassment have been brought against your company? There are lots of questions that you can ask and have big impact and the fact that anyone at all is asking it will have huge reverberations around the company.
FRANCHESCA: I really love that. It takes so much courage to ask those questions, but you’re right, they can make such a big impact. So, tell me, what's most important to you today as the CEO of Tokki?
JANE: I think that as an entrepreneur and as a CEO, I have such a bias to action. I just want to do stuff. But as I've evolved — hopefully I'm evolving. But one of the things that I'm thinking about a lot these days is: what is the power of witnessing? The ability to sit and witness somebody and their joys or their pain or their achievements, that is a superpower too. And I think I have undervalued the impact I can have by focusing on doing that part of my job well.
FRANCHESCA: I want to put that on a little journal.
JANE: You know, I literally would go back and add that to my wedding vows if I could. I think it's such an important thing to commit to giving somebody the space to be themselves and to commit to witnessing that actively for them. My job right now is to be engaged in what is important to you.
FRANCHESCA: Jane says that what she is working for now is to be fully engaged in every aspect of her life, all while trying to make sustainable gift wrap as big as her favorite beauty products.
Better for It is a podcast from ADP. You can find us on Spotify, Apple, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.