I Am Generation T: Charlotte Chen
The Singapore-based entrepreneur talks grit, frugality and the book that changed her life
Charlotte Chen has always had an entrepreneurial streak. Since she quit her day job as an investment banker in 2011, she’s tried her hand at everything from tech ventures to magazine publishing. Many know her for co-founding the Pinterest-like travel app Spottly and setting up a digital agency called empyr+co. “But I never found the right thing to do,” confesses Chen.
It wasn’t until she was pregnant and struggling to find a sunscreen that was safe to use that she stumbled upon an idea to start her new skincare label Everyday for Every Body. It’s only been a couple of months since she launched the Australia-made brand, but it’s already been making waves in the beauty industry.
Chen has just touched down from Minneapolis, where she participated in US retailer Target’s highly competitive beauty accelerator programme, Target Takeoff. Before she jets off again to London then Colombia, she talks grit, success and turtles with Gen.T.
Explain what you do in one sentence.
I’m the founder of Everyday for Every Body, a cruelty-free sunscreen and body care brand from Australia.
What was your biggest "A-ha moment" in life?
When I got out of finance. I was really bad at it actually but I tried really hard. I didn’t realise why I just kept switching departments. My "A-ha moment" was when I realised that I’m not the type of person who works well in a structured environment. I work best when I am doing my own thing. I’m just one of those people who works better when I can create a structure rather than follow one.
How do you deal with failure?
The thing is, I’ve failed so many times that failure is not actually failure. It’s teaching you. Every time, you learn something about yourself and you learn how to approach a problem. It actually makes you better and sharper in your next venture. I’ve been involved in so many businesses, but with each one I learned something from the problems I had. I don’t consider them to be failures because think I’ve grown to be much better entrepreneur because of them.
Name three things every young leader needs to be armed with.
Perseverance, grit and a willingness to be a lifelong learner. I think being a lifelong learner is a very important trait as an entrepreneur, and grit is because it’s not the person who is the smartest in the room that is going to succeed, it’s the person who keeps trying and persevering and having grit who is going to succeed. That’s the reason I am here, because of grit. It has nothing to do with me being lucky or smart or having the money. It’s just pure grit.
What does your daily routine look like?
I wake up early, even though I always used to think I was a night owl. After having [my daughter] Dalia, I thought I needed to wake up early because of her, but I realised I’ve actually become a morning person. It’s really changed my productivity and life. Starting early is amazing. I wake up at sixish. I get to spend a little time with Da then I kickstart my day, because I work with Australia which is three hours ahead of Singapore. Because of that I’ll be done by 7pm and I’ve already probably done a 12-hour day.
The second thing I do is work out. I do a half an hour HIIT class. It really helps me. Besides being healthy, it breaks up your day up so you feel refreshed to do hard stuff later on in the afternoon.
Other than deciding to work for yourself, what was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success?
I’m not successful yet, but it's the decision to know you won’t have a steady income, and to be comfortable with that. When you do your own thing and you don’t have any money, you have to be comfortable with not having very much. On the surface level I may look glamorous but I am actually cheap as f***. I’m really frugal. I genuinely don't spend money and I’ve come to learn to appreciate not buying, to pursue my dreams and all that fun stuff. I’m damn cheap and that’s how I do my business as well. I’m all about optimising!
Name a book that changed your life.
An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore. It’s about global warming and it really impacted me because when he started his book tour, one of the stops was Hong Kong. I was fortunate enough to see him present his case and it really affected me in terms of viewing the world and [thinking about] sustainability and green initiatives. I’ve always wanted to bake some part of that into my business. I’m finally able to do that. I wanted to go green as an example; when I chose packaging. I wanted to limit waste. We use FSC-certified paper to make sure it’s sustainably sourced. And our sunscreens are reef-friendly so we’ve taken out ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate so that it doesn’t pollute the ocean.
What’s something interesting that most people don’t know about you?
I have two turtles—people laugh about it. I picked them up a year and a half ago and they’ve grown to six times the size—it freaks me out. I got them because I went for a massage one day at a Chinese acupuncture place and I just found them. Now they’ve grown to the size where I need to find them a really big fish tank. I find them very soothing to look at, because they’re just hanging out, these terrapins. They have no names, they’re just turtle one and turtle two. I find them really amusing.
The most important thing in your life is…
Family. Without family I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today. My family are the people who drive me every day.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Don’t compare your start with someone’s middle, meaning it’s really easy for you to feel horrible about your growth, but you can’t compare apples with oranges. Some of the things you read online or that you benchmark yourself against—they’ve already done it for many years or many months or they have a different scenario, so don’t compare.
And the worst?
Follow your dreams. That is BS advice, because if you are following dreams and if you aren’t good at it and you don’t care about it, you’ll definitely fail. If you want to follow a dream, you should really only follow it if you are passionate about it and good at it. Not something like "I want to be the best rocket scientist in the whole wide world" or "I want to be the best tennis player in the world" but I don’t even know how to play tennis. Make sure you know your passion and you can actually do it.