“Glow Getter”: from Community College Student to $2.5B PublicCo CFO (Part I)

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This piece is the first of a two-part story. See link to Part II at the end.

This story is part of the Entrepreneurship of Life series, a collection of interviews with immigrant startup founders, venture capitalists, and tech business leaders.

INTRODUCTION

Born in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, she grew up as Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” policy was reshaping China. She moved to the US as a teenager who barely spoke English, and yet began earning her own bread within months. Fresh off the boat, she waitressed during the day and took language lessons at night; if someone had told her then that, in 20 years, she would be running a multi-billion-dollar US company as CFO, she would have laughed.

If the story of Liyuan Woo, CFO of BeautyHealth (NASDAQ: SKIN), isn’t one about transformation (or being a “glow getter”, to use a term coined by her company), then I don’t know what is.

(Source: BeautyHealth)

Wearing an energetic short bob and a warm, captivating smile, Liyuan greeted me on Zoom from her hotel room for a management offsite. For the next hour and a half that felt like minutes, we chatted about, among other things:

  • Liyuan’s unconventional formative years from China to the US
  • An explorative career journey leading to BeautyHealth
  • What is this thing called HydraFacial that BeautyHealth created? How did it grow 3.5x (~$120MM sales increase) in three years?
  • Why did BeautyHealth practice radical generosity within its ecosystem, and how?
  • What is a harder career challenge than leading a business under existential threats through bankruptcy?
  • How did Toastmasters and acting play a part in Liyuan’s “glowvolution”?

Throughout her career, Liyuan has provided leadership to both growth oriented and turnaround situations. Prior to joining The Beauty Health Company as CFO, EVP in September 2020, Liyuan was the COO & CFO of The VOID, a highly rated virtual reality brand. Prior to The VOID, she was the CFO, EVP at SharkNinja, a growth oriented multi-billion dollar consumer electronic brand. Previously, she served as a Director of Alix Partners and acted as CFO during Gymboree Group’s multi-billion dollar restructuring process. Prior to that, she spent 6 years at bebe as a public company CFO. Liyuan started her career with Deloitte, providing financial advisory services to public and private companies for M&As, IPOs and growth initiatives. Liyuan currently lives in Southern California with her husband, Nick, and son, Theo.

THE WAY SHE CAME

Q: Your life in the US had an interesting start. Tell us more about it?

To put things in context, let’s go back further. I was born in Beijing during the 70s to parents who worked cross-border jobs — a rare breed back then when China was still largely isolated from the world. My mom worked in the export-import industry, and my dad was an international news reporter, translator, and radio anchor. He was dispatched to Africa when my mom was expecting me, and I had never met him until five. I was named “Liyuan” (力援) — “aid with strength” in Chinese — to commemorate my dad’s work of supporting China’s “African brothers”. It also embodied my parents’ hope that I, too, would grow up to support others one day.

With two workaholic parents, I grew up in boarding schools since I was a toddler. Books and everyone around me were my earliest teachers. Perhaps due to a lack of traditional parenting, I was a rebellious kid and a “headache” for my teachers at school. Getting good grades or obeying authority was simply not my thing.

Over the years, my dad left journalism to become a turnaround specialist for Chinese exporters. He hopped from country to country for work, and after high school I visited him in the US.

After staying with him for just a month, though, I began to miss my freedom. So I packed up and moved three hours away to Boston, daring myself to make it on my own. Not speaking much English yet, I found a waitressing job to pay bills and enrolled at a community college to take language and other classes. I worked six days a week and took six courses in the meantime — it was busy, but my self-reliance was worth it. When the first transcript arrived, I couldn’t believe what it said — a 4.0/4.0 GPA. I had never cared about being a model student, but once hard work by choice and not by external pressure yielded results, it felt incredibly rewarding. I got into Bentley University after two years of community college, with a lifelong lesson learnt about intrinsic motivation and the value of hard work.

Q: You started your professional career as an auditor at Deloitte. Could you recap the professional journey that has brought you to the CFO role at BeautyHealth today?

When I graduated from Bentley with an accounting degree, auditing at Deloitte was a natural gateway to the world of business. I spent five years as an auditor, learning about businesses in various industries and stages. I later explored a few different roles internally and eventually landed in M&A consulting, which was fast-paced and mentally stimulating — exactly what I was looking for.

In 2008, when the market froze and M&As were on pause, my husband Nick and I saw it as a perfect time to welcome a new life into the family. I took six months off, which turned out to be yet the most redefining six months of my life. As someone who used to never sit still, I discovered unprecedented peace from being present with my newborn boy Theo, second by second. This tranquility went much deeper than what I had felt after a month-long yoga retreat in Bangalore a few years before — great as it was.

Liyuan, Theo and Nick

Motherhood also made me reflect on my career — I felt the urge to own something completely: “raise” a business as if it were my child, and answer for its success or failure. With this epiphany and a preference for less travel as a working mom, I decided it was time to leave consulting.

I joined bebe, a women’s fashion brand and began a tumultuous ride, initially as the Controller and Principal Accounting Officer and later taking over as CFO. Shuffling through two boards and three CEOs during my 6-year tenure there, the company fought for survival during the offline retail apocalypse. Sinking my teeth deep into a business for the first time, I was humbled to learn the complexity of a global retail operation like bebe. It was nothing like what it appears on surface (“How hard can it be to sell stuff?”– you’d be surprised).

I eventually departed after realizing the dynamics at bebe were no longer conducive to a successful business turnaround. I then dabbled at an early-stage startup but discovered it wasn’t a good fit for my experience managing finances for a scaled, complex business. In 2017, I joined children’s apparel brand Gymboree as interim CFO during its bankruptcy reorganization. To me, it was a fascinating crash course on corporate bankruptcy and a rewarding challenge.

After Gymboree, I joined SharkNinja, a fast-charging new home appliance brand that had scaled sales from zero to $2bn in just six years. It was a vastly different creature from anything I had known. Growing at all costs amid cutthroat competition, it steadfastly placed tangible outcomes over what was considered best practice. While to me this philosophy has its flaws, the exposure was invaluable and offered me fresh perspectives. The breakthrough growth mindset with a firm belief in progress over perfection rings true to all blue ocean growth companies.

After SharkNinja, I locked my eyes on fast-growing category creators — companies with similar momentum as SharkNinja but also a moat from pioneering something new. I joined the VOID, a VR experience creator; it was a fulfilling ride, but the business sadly had to shut its doors in 2020 during protracted pandemic closures.

In the summer of 2020, I got a call about the CFO role at HydraFacial — which is now BeautyHealth. The company was exactly what I had been searching for — a hyper-growth category creator, in the booming beauty health space. In my first call with Clint Carnell, then CEO, I was compelled by his vision to build not just a business, but a thriving whole ecosystem. More on this later, but the chemistry was mutual between me and the company, and I came onboard in September 2020.

THE BEAUTYHEALTH STORY

Q: A growing number of spas and dermatology clinics now have “HydraFacial treatment” on their menus. As the primary brand of BeautyHealth, what is HydraFacial exactly?

A HydraFacial® treatment is a quick, non-invasive, and approachable professional skincare procedure. It uses a unique delivery system to cleanse, extract, and hydrate with our patented hydradermabrasion technology and super serums, delivering an immediate outcome in just 30 minutes. It can be either standalone or a priming step before more involved skin treatment, done anywhere from once a year to once a month depending on personal preference. HydraFacial products are currently available in over 90 countries, with over 20,000 delivery systems globally and millions of treatments performed each year.

HydraFacial Delivery System and Treatment Process (Sources: BeautyHealth; Michelle Green, MD)

Q: Can you elaborate on why you joined BeautyHealth?

As I mentioned, I was looking to join a category-creating hyper-growth platform, and BeautyHealth is just that. It fills the void between retail beauty / personal care and aesthetic medical (e.g., a Botox) — by providing more instantaneous, notable results than the former while costing less money and hassle than the latter. It also serves as a gateway to many other potential treatments or products. The market appeal was clear in numbers: in the three years before the pandemic, HydraFacial product sales multiplied 3.5 times.

I was further sold by the ecosystem mindset of BeautyHealth’s leadership. Since BeautyHealth primarily sells its products to treatment service providers, its success ultimately hinges on theirs. Recognizing this, BeautyHealth makes providers its partners and invests heavily in supporting them. Case in point: the company offers extensive educational resources and business tools to estheticians and spa owners — not for a profit, but to help them better serve patrons and run businesses. Naturally, when they thrive, these partners place more HydraFacial orders and tell their friends about the brand.

Positioning itself as a platform, BeautyHealth also collaborates with a variety of physician beauty brands (e.g., Dr. Murad, Dr. Nassif, etc.) to offer booster serums as customizable treatment add-ons. Consumers love experiencing their favorite brands in a new format through HydraFacial. To me, openness and a platform vision differentiate the company and set it on a path to succeed, which makes a leadership role here highly rewarding.

Keyi (Author): Continue with Liyuan’s story in Part II here, where we talk about BeautyHealth’s $1.1BN SPAC deal, ecosystem strategy and radical generosity, investment priorities, leadership transition, as well as navigating the hardest challenge in Liyuan’s career, being a peace time vs. war time leader, parenthood, and her self-discovery journey through Toastmasters and acting.

If you enjoyed this story, check out my other interviews in the Entrepreneurship of Life series (catalog with links at the end), and follow me for new story alerts. You can also find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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A social science nerd by upbringing, business professional by training, and technology enthusiast by heart. Living in NYC.

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Keyi Wang

Keyi Wang

A social science nerd by upbringing, business professional by training, and technology enthusiast by heart. Living in NYC.

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