Birchbox’s Katia Beauchamp wants to change the way we talk about working moms
In 2010, Katia Beauchamp and her Harvard Business School classmate Hayley Barna started Birchbox without ever having even managed another person before. Today, Birchbox is an enormous enterprise and a true, recognizable leader in the beauty business.
In addition to running her beauty empire, Katia is also the mother of four kids. And recently, Katia's sharing more about how she uses meditation and mindfulness as a way to put work and family life challenges in perspective.
She also has been vocal about changing the way that we talk about working motherhood, in her case, sharing why she thinks that becoming a mother has made her a much better CEO.
In this episode, Liz and Katia talk about why she passionately believes that moms—and all parents—are an asset to a company (rather than a liability), and how she stays centered as a CEO and mom of four.
Liz: Well hi Katia. Welcome to the Motherly podcast.
Katia Beauchamp: Thanks for having me.
Liz: So I'm always curious when I have a guest on about what your view of motherhood was before you became a mother for the first time.
Katia: I mean this is maybe a terrible thing to say but I don't think I had one. I really don't. I don't think I had thought about it so much. I think I obviously understood that the job was to you know care for a child and make sure that they lived but I really hadn't. I don't know. I don't think I spent so much time imagining what it would be like.
Liz: That's interesting. So then at what point in your own personal journey did that idea of having kids come into your mind?
Katia: Well I always thought I'd have kids. I mean the only toy I had growing up was like dolls. I didn't like Barbies or anything. I just liked baby dolls and I only just moved them to various places in house and cared for them all day. But that's like probably what I thought. You know it would be like a backyard baby and just like move them from highchair to playpen.
Liz: Sort of accurate.
Katia: Yeah. So I always thought I'd have kids but I think for me one; I had a moment when I you know asked people say you do where I just all of the sudden became consumed by the idea that I needed to meet my children, that I had to do it now and I was just like okay I want to start. And then it happened 'cause I'm really lucky. It just happened really fast so. I was thinking about it and then it was almost like here.
Liz: So I'm definitely curious about of course the sort of spark notes version of how Birchbox came to be in general but then also at what point in the growth of your company did you decide it was the right time to have children?
Katia: Sure. The short answer is it was never the right time. But eventually I just kind of managed to do it. So started Birchbox when I was in business school with my co-founder. Her and I were just good friends in business school and we came up with the idea right before we were going to graduate business school in two years. We saw this opportunity in beauty where we just noticed that with all of the things happening when it comes to women starting companies when it comes to instructive innovation, we noticed that the beauty industry wasn't really being discussed at all. We knew it was big. It was already huge. At the time, which was 2010, it was really not in any way participating in what was happening on the internet. So less than 2% of beauty sold online and we knew as consumers that the beauty industry was really based on new product launches this industry is trying to get people to try all the newest things all the time which is a ton of hard work and obviously that in and of itself is a challenge. But it's impossible when you take it on the internet. That's going to present itself with a problem in opportunity because people are going to shift more of their time and spending on the internet. So we were like "Oh, we will figure out how to sell people beauty on the internet." There were so many things to kind of get through and the other problem was that you had to try it before you purchased it. Everyone said I would not buy it unless I could try it. So we said well we have to make the choice as finite and very digestible and we have to give you a way to try it. That's how we came up with the business model Birchbox which we you know immediately landed on and in about 24 hours we're like, "Okay let's get a subscription and it'll be personalized." We'll make sure we have content on everything and we'll make sure we can also let you purchase the product directly from us so we said we have to do it all. We have to do try, learn and buy on Birchbox. And we just became consumed with it. We started running at it pretty quickly.
Liz: And you had massive growth in those early years and really over the last decade practically that you've been at Birchbox. So what stage was your company at when you became a mother for the first time?
Katia: Inconveniently fast growing always breaking rocket ship that needed more capital of course.
Liz: Sounds a lot like parenthood actually.
Katia: It is. Everyone said to me like oh my gosh you're not going to be ready for what hits you when you have a baby. When I had my first babies which were twins, I remember thinking like this is a lot like starting a company.
Liz: How so?
Katia: I mean totally insane. You know you don't know what you're doing at all but you are the one that's there to do it, you don't sleep. And this thing depends on you. You feel so in love with it and you feel so dedicated to it. I mean I'm sure some people would think that sounds really bad to compare bringing life to the world to starting a business that's completely discretionary, unnecessary to the world but I mean it felt very much like birthing something out of you that you really wanted to let flourish and you really wanted to realize its potential. I often refer to Birchbox as my firstborn.
Liz: So what changes did you find yourself making after becoming a mom for the first time to these twins who also were their own kind of startup project? How did that change you at work and how did that change you as a person?
Katia: I mean it was the best thing that ever happened to me at work. I was in this mode about four years into the business where I was just only working. I was doing nothing else for myself or my family and for anybody. And you know obviously there are parts of that that are difficult but I was also fulfilled by that and so that's why I kind of think you get into that mode it feeds you. You kind of get this little validation and keep going and so I was just 24/7 basically thinking about work, dreaming about work. And when I met my kids which obviously was a little traumatic at first because it is usually for your first time, but obviously that kind of calms down, I would describe it as the first time I'd had since starting the company of thinking about really anything else, at least for a long period of time. Something that could really capture your attention where you weren't kind of like multitasking. Just for the first time only thinking about handling and managing and loving and looking at them. You know you can't help but think they're just so amazing so you look at them a lot. And I remember just coming back to work and being more fresh and like having had time where my mind wasn't thinking about work. I found myself in a better headspace with more perspective, a little more chilled out, more creative and also just recognized. Like I just had a lot of clarity. I felt kind of enlightened.
Liz: Wow. It sounds so counterintuitive you know. Our culture often tells us that you know you can't have it all and everything will spin out of control when you have children or that you know you have to find this sort of elusive balance. But what you're saying is that having children refreshed you in a way. I think that's really fascinating and a story we don't hear enough about.
Katia: Absolutely. I mean that is an understatement. Having children gave me the stamina to go harder. I mean I think that it became very clear. I'm very lucky to have an amazing husband and an amazing relationship where I always felt like wow. I wouldn't be able to do this without that relationship. But meeting my kids kind of just solidified the thing that really matters is this family that you create, the people you are and how you help other people come into the world and hopefully decide to give more than they take. That just felt like; that gravity felt so important that everything else felt like well you know the rest is kind of the icing on the cake. And so if the biggest risk is kind of de-risked, then like you can go for it. You can slather it on. You can really you know go hard and try to see what you can do because it's not the end of the world if you fail. It's not this huge risk. It's actually a way of getting to know yourself, getting to see what you're capable of and get help other people doing that work. It's just reframed a lot for me.
Liz: That is so powerful. You know I've actually heard you describe new moms at Birchbox as your secret weapon. Why do you see it that way?
Katia: Well I mean for all the sad reasons which you know about which is that mothers are just instantly discounted in the workplace. You know this idea that you know you need balance as this handicap and that you have kids and other priorities is a handicap. It's a disadvantage that people treat others that way. You have this incredible talent out there that just wants to be treated like they are full, complete humans as ambitious or more ambitious than they've ever been. But who yeah need somebody that has perspective to help them manage the fact that they might have to you know run out of something to go be with their kids or handle something that could have happened. It doesn't change the fact that they are extremely effective, and like I said, even more effective. I found for myself personally but I definitely witnessed that prior to having kids that moms were just so effective at managing their time, having perspective, understanding what was an emergency. You know often like cultivating talent and motivating people and if you even; calling it a trade-off just even that seems ridiculous. It's just you know people who also have other priorities that are incredibly effective at you know leading and inspiring.
Liz: What is it that you actually do in your company to help both moms and dads thrive?
Katia: Caregivers most important work we do is obviously like celebrate it and we normalize it and we really treat people as though this is something that is a part of them that doesn't have to change their career trajectory if they don't want it to. I think that's really important. We also do the things that obviously help at a baseline which gives leave to primary care givers and secondary care givers in a way that you know we think helps support that initial kind of time getting reoriented. So primary caregivers get 16 weeks off of paid work and then secondary I forget exactly what it is. But they get I think 12. I think ten of them are paid so we try to do that kind of minimum level. But I do think the really most important work we do is help mothers come back to work. We think about it as onboarding. We talk about it when they're offboarding too but especially your first time you really don't know at that moment how different you're going to feel. It's just onboarding people back in and helping them feel like it's okay to feel confused at this moment, especially the first time. It's okay and what I talk about with people is that this is just not the moment to make any big career decisions. Like, don't decide right now that you're out, that you can't handle how challenging it is to be away because you know that might be a decision that is totally fair and right for you to come to. But the first few months coming back you are really just figuring things out in this whole new world in a very different kind of emotional state, having kind of lost the sense of who you were and redefining who you are now. It's a very challenging moment. Supporting parents through that and also treating them like they are whole people who can still have ambitions and having conversations that don't presuppose what they need but respect that they have needs.
Liz: As successful as you are, your business has had a lot of ups and downs. I know as a mother you've had twins; you were on bedrest and now you're raising four little kids. I'm sure you've had seasons in life where things just feel incredibly challenging. How do you stay calm and centered in the midst of all that you have on your plate on a given day?
Katia: I mean obviously some days are better than others but I think children just do a lot of that for you. You know I think having challenges at work and then coming home and kind of seeing this simple wonder of children as they learn something or as they, you know, just are experiencing life is so pure and so beautiful and this constant, steady reminder of just the incredible life that you have and how all of it is incredible. There isn't a good and a bad. There's just sometimes things are hard and those are the things that equip us for the next hard thing. You know like you said, I've gone through a lot at work. I think at first it feels really scary but every time you meet the next challenge that you're like this is it. This is the one that's going to take me out and then kind of get up after that and you recognize that you've got past it. You start to develop the sense that that's just what happens right. You develop a new tolerance for hard and that thing that was really insurmountable now you know how to navigate. So I think that perspective is just wonderful. I mean I don't know. Some of it has to be personality. I do feel so much gratitude for the opportunity to try. The gratitude for myself and for me being willing to try and for the learning of that experience and forgetting to understand that the hard is a part of it, but I also get scared and you know sometimes feel like it's going to be impossible to navigate the next challenge of course. It's just that I have some perspective which is just experiences all balled up together that are showing me that you know history has shown that this will, in fact, pass just like everyone said it will. You will be better on the other side of the hardest things.
Liz: It sounds like being mindful and practicing all sorts of different mindfulness practices is what really helps keep you centered at work and also at home. So what does that look like practically from a daily perspective? What does mindfulness or meditation look like in your daily life?
Katia: I have definitely learned to meditate and sometimes I do just like the apps like in Headspace or sometimes I just take a few minutes and close my eyes and breathe. I like to talk about it with people too. I've found that it's really joyful and invigorating for me to talk to more people and try to get them my experience and perspective to help them navigate things. I think that's cathartic in a way and also just really motivating for me to help other people get through things that feel really challenging and really insurmountable for them. I think talking about it whether it's my personal life with my friends and family or at work with team members and just talking about hard things. I think you know I've seen therapists at different times, various executive coaches and all of those experiences have been really life changing to try to get to know myself better. That was always the goal I had with entrepreneurship but I did not know what I was in for. I always said when I learned what entrepreneurship was in business school I was like oh my gosh this is going to be the opportunity to meet myself. This is the gift of knowing yourself and that's all I've ever wanted. I just want to know what I'm capable of and all well and good. You think that but then getting to know yourself is a hard reality and it is painful too. It is upsetting and maddening and disappointing and all of the things. Getting to a place where you can just be grateful for who you are and not dwell with who you're not. It's an ongoing journey but it is so wonderful to just feel even moments of being enough is a beautiful thing, and I think something that we all want at some subconscious level.
Liz: I love how you have talked about the journey of motherhood and also the journey at Birchbox as being hard and beautiful at the same time. I read an interview where you said that somewhere along the way in business you figured out that you had to try to enjoy the present moment that you were in even when it was hard because it wouldn't necessarily get better in the future, but would just be a different kind of challenge and that realization helped you just be more fully present and find the joy in what you're going through in that season. Frankly when I read that I really related to it as a mother with three little kids at the time, that when you have an infant it's really hard and you think oh it'll be better when they're a toddler and then they're a toddler and it's really hard. What lessons have you learned as a CEO of a startup that helped shape your approach to parenting?
Katia: I think that there is a reciprocity between the two things that you learn from them and bring into work and things that you learn from work and bring home. You know first I'd say you know the example you talked about. For me I realized I was just like most people constantly talking about this is there a light at the end of the tunnel or when I get to the light at the end of the tunnel. We all say that phrase. I had this epiphany one day that I was like, "Oh. Oh do I really want to be somebody who's trying to kind of create new things." You know be an entrepreneur, really reinvent. You have to be happy in the tunnel. That's just the game. Like you have to figure out how to be in that tunnel and make your own light or be cool with the darkness because that is just what keeps happening. There is absolutely no end. That is also a good sign. It means you're pushing yourself. It means you know you're really trying to have these exponential growth experiences or create exponentially new things. I remember being just like whoa. Am I going to be good at that because that's definitely what it takes? I mean the example that feels like the most salient thing for me after sleep training my twins for the first time, I remember you know all the things your head and you decide how you want to sleep train but I remember having this realization that going in and getting the babies when they were crying was so much more for me than for them. That it was like they're crying and so you think oh well I'm going to go make them feel better. I'm going to go get them and comfort them. But really it's a lot about making yourself feel better that like a) your baby's not crying anymore which is obviously sad but b) that you're needed and you have this magic touch to make them feel better. But honestly, it is a short term solution right because you are not going to be able to be there for every day forever and they need to figure out that they're okay right. And so realizing wow the gift for them is helping them figure out they're okay. That really was a big kind of epiphany for me at work when I recognized that people were coming to me with questions and I was giving them answers right. Again, like short term fix. You feel needed. You feel good. You feel smart but ultimately you're not helping people feel empowered and that dedication that they want to find that work, which comes from them having full absolute control over what's happening and the ability to watch it succeed and watch it fail. That is what empowerment means and when you are giving all these answers and kind of catching everything before it falls, you just remove that from the equation and you take away that ability for people to meet themselves, to figure out what they are great at, to figure out how to navigate challenges themselves and ultimately that makes them less engaged. That was a big lesson for me and something that I'd say was a big turning point for me in thinking about the kind of leader I wanted to be and the kind of culture I wanted to have.
Liz: That's amazing. I love that. I'm curious as this incredibly busy woman, where do you carve out those moments in your week, month, year to have that deliberate family time? How do you protect that?
Katia: I mean I try but I think I'm sure you can relate to a lot of working moms try which is having some protected time in the morning and some protected time in the evening to get to see them a couple hours a day but that doesn't always happen. You know I'm not. I don't have some lofty goal around this. I think the game is a long game, balance is not something to strive for on a weekly basis. I think that will make you feel crazy. I just try to do the things that seem kind of basic which is if I've had a few weeks or months that just have felt like I'm really being pulled in a lot of different directions and not able to not just be with family, it's engaged. It's like truly be present. You can be there but not be present. I mean I just try to fix that and like protect my calendar and see if there is a lull in work; be nice and generous to myself about that. Like amazing. I'm going to leave early. I'm going to spend more time with my kids. I'm going to put my phone down and just like recognize for me I can't accomplish balance on a weekly basis or necessarily even monthly so when the universe presents an opportunity I'm going to walk out the door, find my kids at the park in the middle of the day and swing with them for thirty minutes and then come back you know. Because that's not something I get to do every week or every month. So when it can happen I'm going to make it happen.
Liz: So Katia at Motherly we talk about how motherhood brings out our superpowers, these like hidden powers within us that we often discover after we become mothers. What do you see as your superpowers?
Katia: I mean superpowers can be aspirational. I'd say enlightenment is definitely my aspirational superpower, just continuing to feel the gratitude for the every day and being able to be present. I think resilience is one that I can say that I'm proud of. I'm proud that I don't stay down. I'm proud that I get back up and try hard again and put myself out there again and get to see what's possible with that. But I'd also love to fly. I mean how could you not right?
Liz: Totally. You're doing so many other things flight just seems superfluous at this point.
Katia: Maybe levitation I'll go for that as like a next step but I'll start working on that.
Liz: Katia thank you so much for joining us today on the Motherly podcast.
Katia: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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