Heela Yang, CEO Sol de Janeiro, discusses pioneering premium body care

Heela Yang was co-founder and chief executive of Sol de Janeiro. Her career included gigs at Lancome, Clinique, and other companies. The change was both jarring as well as empowering. She said, “It was an entirely new experience for me and it was exciting but very nerve-wracking to have everything that makes you feel comfortable stripped away.”

She was able to spend time in South America and be an inspiration for Sol de Janeiro. The Brazilian-inspired body cares brand Sol de Janeiro she co-founded with Marc Capra and Camila Pierotti, who she had known from her marketing days. Yang stated that she became pregnant the first month she was there. She was at her heaviest and wasn’t feeling great about herself. We had the idea of feeling great about your skin, confident about your body and loving all parts of your body.

The brand launched in 2016 with Bum Bum Cream and has seen a surge in body care sales. It has expanded to include fragrance and haircare. Industry sources predict that global retail sales will reach $200 million by 2021. Yang is the current CEO, with Capra leading the creative team, and Pierotti managing product development and training.

What was the first job you held?

Heela Yanga was employed in the investment banking section of Goldman Sachs. Although I didn’t know much about finance, I felt a strong desire to become financially independent. This was something that I found very important as a woman. I was determined to learn and learned a lot. It was a two-year-long intensive Bootcamp on finance. Everything I learned there is what I use every day at Sol de Janeiro. It helped me get accepted to Harvard Business School, where I discovered my passion for marketing.

How have Sol de Janeiro’s views changed since the launch of Sol de Janeiro?

H.Y. H.Y.The brand’s origin was to promote Brazilian confidence, that feeling of being comfortable in your skin, regardless of what size, color, or gender preference. This is what I experienced personally when I moved to Brazil. Brazil is a country where everyone does it. How has our perspective changed with the growth of the business? No. No.

Who are your core consumers and what attracts them to your line?

H.Y. H.Y.Marketers can dream of a consumer that spans all ages and gender identities. They are passionate about the brand and love our positive outlook. They love the way our fragrances make people feel and how they affect others. We encourage them to dream and even escape. Bum Bum Bum does more than just fix a problem. Caring for yourself is an everyday routine. It’s an enjoyable task, not a chore.

Bum Bum Cream is so beloved that it has a huge following. Who do you think this credit goes to? Is it possible to duplicate the same success with other products?

Heela Yang, CEO Sol de Janeiro, discusses pioneering premium body careH.Y. H.Y.This cream was created in my dining room. It was an intense passion. The product took on a life all its own when we paired it with our highly effective formulation. This phenomenon has been largely fueled by word-of-mouth. Although the Bum Bum Cream makes up a large portion of our total sales it isn’t the majority. We’ve expanded into shower and bath now. We launched our hair care product on sephora.com in 2016. It sold out within six hours.

Sol de Janeiro will be entering Sephora at Kohl’s How do you think about how to attract consumers from the mass market?

H.Y. H.Y.The mass-market consumers are either upgrading or trying to find new products. Body care is an easy category to grasp, and we can be found in Sephora by J.C. Penney. There, we’re doing amazing. This could be a sign that consumers are coming from the masses and we can attract them to the premium industry.

You’ve stated that you were a great success at Sephora and that your d–to-c business tripled in the last year. How do see Sol de Janeiro’s distribution changing?

H.Y. H.Y.Digital-first distribution will continue to be our focus. 70% of our sales today are done online. It’s a growing market with triple-digit growth. We also work with digitally capable wholesalers. Brick-and-mortar will be important to us as our greatest ambassadors because sales staff at retailers are our largest advocates. Our scents are discovered in-store by people who come to our store. It is an important part of our experience.

What have you learned from scaling your business so quickly?

H.Y. H.Y.Building the culture and team have always been my number one focus. Talent is essential as the company expands rapidly, your distribution expands, and your product lines change. Each year, we double the size of our team.

How will your latest body product, Bom Dia Bright Body Cream fit into your body care portfolio?

H.Y. H.Y.This cream is a moisturizing cream that offers many different benefits to Bum Bum Cream. This cream is gentle in exfoliation and contains fruit AHAs. Vitamin C provides a brightening boost. It also contains cupuacu butter (Amazon’s alternative to shea butter) and a new scent.

What are the best places to see opportunities?

H.Y. H.Y.I is just starting. We have only 25 products and haven’t touched face yet. This is a huge category with great potential. We are a lifestyle brand that can cross multiple categories.

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What are your top three priorities for the coming year?

H.Y. H.Y.My team. My team has been through so much together over the last 16 months. Our offices are currently being renovated to make them more flexible and open-minded. We also have an exciting pipeline of product innovation. We are now in hair and fragrance, but we’re only scratching the surface. We have seen almost every launch rise through the top five Sephora products. It is important to keep the momentum going. My last investment is in digital capabilities — 30% of our business is done on our website.

What did you not learn about becoming a founder in business school?

H.Y. H.Y.It is much more valuable to actually do things than to hypothesize or theorize. This is the only way to truly learn. I could have learned more about career development. It’s also the emotion involved in creating a brand. We are emotional creatures. While we may be rational about how this skincare product works for us, at the end of it all, emotions drive our decisions. My team is constantly reminded by me that creativity is more important than capital. Anything you create with your creativity will be much more powerful and meaningful than money.