Xiaolan is the Vice President of Coty Research & Development Asia. She joined Coty in June 2018 and oversees R&D activities across Asia, covering all divisions, categories, and products. She leads a team of highly competent formulators, packaging designers and engineers, as well as consumer, product and claims researchers to fuel innovation and growth in Asia.
Xiaolan has a solid track record in the beauty industry, especially in innovations and change management. A chemist by training, Xiaolan has served in multiple capacities throughout her career, as an award-winning product designer, pioneer in beauty trends and innovation, visionary business leader, and mergers and acquisitions specialist.
Prior to joining Coty, Xiaolan led the innovation and development advisory services for PricewaterhouseCoopers in North America, focusing on consumer markets. Prior to that, she held roles of increasing responsibility in the consumer goods industry (GE, Avon, SC Johnson).
Xiaolan holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA concentrating on Finance and Strategy from New York University. She has invented more than 50 patents and authored more than 20 peer reviewed publications.
Tell us about your career progression and the role you're in now?
I’m currently the VP for R&D for Asia for Coty and I’ve been here for about 7 months. My career has been between China and the US across a couple of different industries. Personally, I grew up in China and studied Chemistry, then I got my PhD in the States which shaped the scientist side of me and developed my critical thinking.
Career-wise, I started at General Electric, where I was one of the first Chinese female engineers working on aircraft engines along with thousands of male engineers. Later, I made a career change to Avon and got into Beauty, to be closer to NYC where simultaneously pursing MBA. Completely different from hard-core engineering, the Beauty sector was fascinating, allowing me to design products from the ground up. It was a completely different environment too, primarily serving female customers, working with a lot of female scientists and engineers.
After Avon and my MBA, I switched and went to PwC as a Management Consultant in New York. In terms of diversity, I was still working in Consumer Products industry, which was mainly female driven, however within the historically male dominated consulting industry. Within this setting, I was able to carve out a niche for myself.
Are you noticing greater diversity in the consulting world?
Yes and no. Consulting is very demanding in terms of time commitment and pressure – the stakes are high, and decisions have consequences. Even junior consultants are making decisions that can impact thousands of people. To me, there is a “numbers” side to it and also a “soft” side, so having women in those positions is great because in addition to finance, we consider diversity, social responsibility, and the people side. When I was recruiting at PwC, I did see the balance shifting more towards women.
In terms of diversity what are the main differences you are seeing between working in the US and China?
When I came to China, I switched back entirely to the Beauty industry from Consulting, which is more female led anyway, but we have a different culture in China when it comes to opportunities or attaining success. In the West, you follow a certain path to get to a certain position especially in Consulting. Here in China, as long as there is passion and integrity and an innovative spirit to get things done, you can succeed in your own way, regardless of gender, age or background because there is more opportunity and starting social status.
Looking back at your career, can you pinpoint when you first noticed an emphasis on diversity?
Every company has emphasised diversity, but I think the difference I’ve noticed is that there is now more emphasis on the integration of diversity with the core strategy. Diversity isn’t an afterthought any more that is added onto strategy: it becomes the foundation of strategy. At Coty, our core values including diversity underpin the strategy and how we build our teams.
Were you actively looking to move back into Beauty from Strategy, or back to China?
Coty is unique – its acquisitional heritage means it is diverse by nature which intrigues me. Acquisitions bring a different set of consumers, employees, and culture, so at Coty diversity is a given. What interested me most is how to integrate culture into operations or strategy and how to manage such complexity into something unique yet powerful. When presented with the opportunity to lead innovation for Coty in Asia, I was thrilled to join.
You were away for a long time. Did you see the hiring culture for females change in that time?
I was away for 18 years and it absolutely changed. When I left, MNC’s were still new here. The more common approaches were working in government-owned enterprises: jobs were for life and the leadership was male dominated. Now, I see a lot of strong talents with impressive backgrounds among female executives. It took a long time to reach today’s point, where education, experience, and credentials for women improved a lot, while at the same time, more and more women are brave and take those senior executive positions in MNCs.
Have you had a mentor or role model you have worked with in your career?
I’ve had multiple. At the moment I have a Senior VP at Coty, Lise Jorgensen from whom I am learning so much. Lise is American, has worked across a couple of companies, and she used to run Unilever Innovation for Asia. We have been discussing the cultural differences to combine the best of both American and Chinese ways. In a nutshell, the straightforward American way of highlighting strengths and weaknesses doesn’t exactly work here: sometimes we have to be less assertive and more collaborative, taking more time and patience to deliver the message rather than being brutally honest.
Do you feel there is value in having a mentor?
Absolutely. It’s always good to know someone who knows the ropes and who you can bounce ideas off and get feedback before and after from. That is diversity at its core.
Throughout your career, would you say you have gravitated more towards female leaders or male leaders?
I think there is so much to learn from everyone. It’s not about gender, it’s more about individual styles and which person, regardless of gender, is more suitable at the moment in your career.
Is there anyone you have been inspired by, or you model your own style on?
Coty’s global Chief Scientific Officer, Daniel Ramos. He is young, energetic, fascinated about technology but absolutely a business person at heart. He wants to break all barriers and do things fast yet effectively. It’s the passion in everything he does that I find inspiring, which I always model my own style on.
Do you feel your gender has ever hindered your career growth?
No. It all depends on the person and what they’re capable of. I think this has been true for me everywhere, as an engineer in the male dominated world of GE Aviation, and definitely true in Beauty.
I think you've also worked for forward thinking businesses and sectors.
Yes, maybe I’m lucky that most of these business and sectors treat us as individuals rather than male or female. In the coaching I do, I stress that it’s easy sometimes to think that maybe I didn’t get something because of age discrimination or gender discrimination or education discrimination or whatever, but it’s not helpful. What we can do is try to align our values with the company values if they’re things we subscribe to and get a fair chance, especially in a forward-thinking environment.
What are the benefits of having diverse teams in diverse organisations?
Innovation. As ideas clash and thoughts cross, we get sparks and magic, especially in R&D. In my teams I have packaging people doing aesthetics, formula experts looking at texture, testing people looking at safety and benefits, and they all have different perspectives, but when they come together it works. If a formula works great, but isn’t in eye-catching packaging, no one will buy it, and vice versa. And when the diversity of this scientific community extends into other areas of the business and operations, it becomes exponentially more powerful. As leaders, it’s our job to put that setup together. No matter where the diversity comes from, it is always good, better than a single point of view or group thinking.
Have you ever seen any cases of where diversity didn't work?
Rarely. If I had to name something, it might be in Consulting where there are huge decisions to be made, potentially life and death decisions, then experience is more important than diverse opinions. Even then, more perspectives and thoughts can also help.
Are there any initiatives that COty are doing around diversity that you haven't seen before?
We have a lot of diversity programmes, as you know. A unique thing I’m championing right now is we go into universities and recruit MBA students to get their perspective on some fundamental questions about R&D because of the diversity value. They don’t know R&D or Coty as deep as we do, but I value their perspectives because they bring outside views as consumers and business students. I have high hopes for this programme, bringing diverse people together on a topic.
Is there any advice you would give those graduates on how to realise their potential?
My advice is to take the opportunity of these programmes to see how businesses like Coty operate and how the corporate world operates, but secondly not to be tainted by it. Bring your fresh point of view without hesitation and let it play out.
What about advice to other leaders, who maybe haven't had your background of cultures and companies, on how to create a diverse culture?
Try to be diverse yourself. It doesn’t have to involve changing jobs or industries or continents, but by talking to other people and keeping an open mind. As leaders it’s our job to create an environment for people to achieve their full potential even though we might not know what the immediate outcome might look like. Most Chemistry graduates wouldn’t end up in Beauty via Consulting like me, but I tried different things. And also remember that diversity is global – at Coty we have R&D collaborations with different international locations of different cultures and people, it’s at the heart of our culture, and allows us to consider different styles and sets of consumers, which is important.