In Bustle’s Q&A series 28, successful women describe exactly what their lives looked like when they were 28 — what they wore, where they worked, what stressed them out most, and what, if anything, they would do differently. Skin Inc founder Sabrina Tan opens up about why she decided to change career paths, what it was like starting a company with two young kids, and what advice she'd give her 28-year-old self.
When Sabrina Tan decided to launch her own skin care company 10 years ago in Singapore, she could not have imagined it would become one of the best-selling Asian skin care brands at Sephora worldwide. Tan hoped that Skin Inc would be a success, of course, but what she really wanted was to disrupt the industry and "create the Apple of skin care" through tech-driven, customizable serums and masks that were beautifully packaged and catered to everyone's specific needs. This desire to create products that weren't one-size-fits-all and instead "one-size-fits-you" stemmed from her years working tirelessly in the tech industry, traveling across Asia on a weekly basis.
Before Tan became the founder of Skin Inc, she was just a skin care newbie, desperate to find products that were easy to incorporate into her chaotic schedule and most importantly, made with ingredients that wouldn't irritate the eczema she says she had developed from all the travel and stress. While she would eventually go on to create the skin care products she needed, Tan's goals remain pretty much the same today as they were when she was 28 — to continue to push the boundaries in her industry and to achieve a well-balanced, meaningful life.
Below, Tan opens up about her biggest stressors when she was 28, what her work life used to look like, and why she wouldn't offer any advice to her younger self.
What were you doing at 28?
I was fresh out of school and it was the year 2000 when the internet exploded. Everybody was so amazed and intrigued about what was going to happen. Was the world going to end? It didn’t. The internet was just going to change the way you lived and the way you knew about things. I had just finished my honors in Economy, fresh out of business school. I thought, what industry would be interesting to join? I wanted something very forward, something that was unknown, because I’ve always had an inquisitive nature since I was young.
IBM was like the Google or Facebook back then, and they asked me to interview for a job. We had to do Mensa tests — they literally put a clock in front of you to test how quickly you could think on your feet. I was selected for a job as a Channel Marketing Manager for Asia, and that started my whole career. I looked at business from end to end: how to create demand and how to ensure the backend will fulfill that demand. But for the first six months, they trained me in the seven habits of effective people. It was a lot of very interesting soft skills before the real job skills came in. That really framed my strategic and critical thinking skills, and taught me how to execute excellence.
It was a really male-dominated industry, but I was very comfortable with that because I grew up with three older brothers. I was the only girl in my family, so I was used to it.
You were making good money in tech. Was it hard to leave?
I think after a while, you realize that money doesn’t buy you happiness. You reach a place where you realize there’s more to life than money. Everybody has a different calling and if you find your calling, even though it's a lot of hard work, you find strength from that. It’s not that you wont have a bad day. Truth be told, you’re going to have a lot of bad days, but it really refines your character and your outlook on life. It gives you dimension about people, about life. Most importantly, you can't feel bitter about the setbacks and challenges. You need to constantly have a grateful heart. It is just not work. It’s about community and relationships that keep it meaningful, but together we can do something great.
What were you most anxious about at 28?
I have always asked myself the question, what if and why not? I was always looking. When you’re still that young, you learn first. You have to soak up like a sponge. I was a very old soul since I was young. At 13, I started to question the purpose of life. I would go out on my own in the middle of the night just to really find myself. And mortality has always been real to me since I was young. I always begin with the end in mind. If we’re all going to die, I want to finish well. I want to start strong and finish well.
What did you do for fun at 28?
Scuba diving! I actually did and still do a lot of extreme sports. A lot of people don’t know about this side of me. With my husband, then boyfriend, we did many dives in the Bahamas, in Korea, in Thailand, in Malaysia, in the Maldives. I still dive whenever we go to a place where there’s a diving opportunity. Now, we’re trying to teach our kids to be very comfortable with snorkeling first and then we'll see if they want to scuba dive. Both my kids are quite adventurous actually. I also bungee jump, skydive, many sports. Roller coaster rides, too — I always want the front seat.
What was your style like back then? Were you always as fashionable as you are right now?
No! We were just laughing at my 10 year challenge. My throwback photo was so corporate because I worked in tech. I had bangs. I liked makeup and beauty, but I didn’t spend a lot of time on it because I really wanted to make better use of my time, which is actually why I wanted to make efficient skin care products. I was very natural. I always skewed towards the Japanese outlook — minimalism. Zen. Natural. Less is more.
What was something you and your friends talked about when you were 28?
First, aging, because after 25, you start to see a lot more uneven skin tone and texture. Back then, I was traveling a lot, like every week. One moment, I woke up in Vietnam and I didn’t know what hotel I was in. I couldn’t remember my room number. I was in Thailand and Vietnam and then India. I realized, this is too much. And then, because I had eczema, I would spend $10,000 on skin care because I was so desperate. I’m not kidding, I tried everything and I just couldn’t find anything that worked. My best friend is actually a skin care fanatic. She’s the one who inspired me [to start Skin Inc]. It's funny that she didn’t start the skin care company — I did.
What would you tell your 28 year old self to do differently?
Actually nothing. I live each day and each year like it’s the last. I do love people really wholeheartedly. Every day, I hug and I kiss my children. That’s how my mom brought me up. My love language is affection. I like to see the strength in everyone, not their weakness. I feel that the positive outlook is that nobody wants to be bitter and evil.
What are your goals now?
The last three or four years, I've been pushing the boundaries of my core team. To grow themselves, age gracefully. I take a very personal interest in the way they live their lives and their health, because I told them, success is not measured by how much you make or what your role is. Success is when you have overall balance and a beautiful, blessed life. I’ve lived my life and the way I want it is on my own terms. I chase my dreams, I take risks — it doesn't mean I don't experience pain or have a price to pay, but it means that I am unafraid to go after what I believe in.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.