Women in Business Q&A: Aileen Chen, Co-founder & CEO of Belly Armor

Women in Business Q&A: Aileen Chen, Co-founder & CEO of Belly Armor

Aileen Chen is the co-founder and CEO of Belly Armor. When she was pregnant with her first child, she researched into the potential health impact of radiation exposure from everyday devices like cell phones and realized this was an emerging health issue, particularly for pregnant women and children. In light of the evidence and advice from health experts worldwide, and the significant gap between scientific research and public awareness, Aileen and her co-founders launched Belly Armor with a two-fold mission: To increase awareness of this health issue so people can make more informed decisions for themselves and their families, and to provide safe and effective solutions for those looking to reduce their exposure.

Belly Armor has gained strong momentum globally since launching, with significant media attention with features in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, CBS and NBC News, The Doctors Show, Mother & Baby, and more. Today, Belly Armor's website is viewed by people all over the world, and its products are sold in more than 30 countries - a testament that many expecting and current parents worldwide have similar concerns about everyday radiation. Headquartered in the US, Belly Armor is a Trusted Partner of Healthy Child Healthy World, the leading non-profit organization in the U.S. addressing harmful environmental hazards affecting children. In the niche product category of anti-radiation apparel, Belly Armor is the leading global brand.

Prior to starting Belly Armor, Aileen worked for more than a decade in financial services and strategy consulting between New York and Asia, while helping with various start-ups on the side. Aileen was named one of the Top 50 Mompreneurs in 2011 by Babble, and frequently mentors early-stage entrepreneurs. Aileen currently resides in the Bay Area with her husband, two daughters and an uber- friendly golden retriever.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

My dad has been the biggest influence, instilling in me a strong work ethic and setting an ideal example of a leader. I learned from him the importance of working hard for something meaningful and of always choosing to do the right thing. Through his actions, he has also taught me his philosophy that "you can be a firm leader while always being a gentleman." His leadership style of high standards and decisiveness combined with humility and compassion has been a guiding light for me.

In my previous jobs in banking and consulting, I was fortunate to work under some incredible managers. I also worked under some who, while being highly intelligent and capable, talked more than they listened and were dismissive of others' opinions and priorities. I saw them miss good ideas and opportunities, and fail to motivate team members or gain their respect and loyalty. Over time, I learned to listen more, ask more questions, and shed the desire of my young self to have an answer to everything and to appear that I could do everything when I couldn't. Being honest with myself and others about what I do or do not know has made me more receptive to feedback, gain more knowledge, receive more ideas and help from others, enjoy even stronger personal and professional relationships, and as a result, become a better leader.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Belly Armor?

Many diverse skills are needed as an entrepreneur. I think the range of my past experiences were instrumental in giving me perspective on different aspects of businesses, and every experience has contributed to the founding and management of Belly Armor. My consulting days taught me how to assess the market and a product's potential, as well as devise the company's strategy and execution plan. My banking days gave me a strong foundation in finance which is helpful with the ongoing management of the company, as well as with capital fundraising. My gigs helping various start-ups during my banking and business school days got my hands deep in small businesses' operations to understand first-hand their challenges. I met my co-founder Michael at a previous job; because we had worked together very closely, we trusted each other and understood each other's workstyle, strengths and weaknesses. This helped us hit the ground running in the strategic planning and launch of Belly Armor, and still with our joint management of all aspects of the company.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenures at Belly Armor?

There have been so many highlights; the achievements of your own company is immensely rewarding! Big moments earlier on were Belly Armor being featured by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and Belly Armor products receiving awards like "Best of Baby Products" by leading media platforms in the baby/kids industry like The Bump and Pregnancy and Newborn. Another highlight is having one of the most renowned epidemiologist and cancer experts worldwide and a former health advisor to President Clinton recommend (completely unsolicited) Belly Armor products as a way to reduce one's exposure to everyday radiation. The most rewarding feeling though is when I see a customer buying a Belly Armor product at a store, and receiving positive feedback from customers, knowing that we are making an impact in educating more people about the health issue of everyday radiation. From a little known start-up to our products now selling in 30 countries is evidence that many parents around the world are concerned about the issue and Belly Armor has the ability to provide solutions for those wanting to take measures against it.

There have definitely been plenty of challenges in starting and growing Belly Armor. The start-up phase has a unique set of challenges which are different from the growth-stage, when the brand and its distribution are more established but the company must continue being top-of-mind and innovative. I think the biggest challenge for me has been striking a healthy work/life balance. I started Belly Armor when I was pregnant with my first child. I had my second child when the company was about 2-3 years old -- that was a particularly challenging year. While I had control and flexibility over my schedule, we were still a small company at an important growth stage so I started back at a couple of weeks after she was born. As the demands of the business and personal life evolved, I have had to constantly work to strike that balance of achieving our company's goals while leading a fulfilling personal life.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?

Do something you are passionate about, something that you strongly believe in. Otherwise, your motivation may wane over time, and you may feel increasingly conflicted about your time and energy spent on the venture versus on other responsibilities and interests in your life.

Also, do good planning upfront before you dive in - understand the market demand, target customers, competitive landscape, differentiators of your products/services. Knowing these, you will be able to test the viability of your idea and gain clarity for your path forward. You have to be really honest about your strengths and weakness, what type of resources and support you need to get started and keep things going for a period of time until you get traction. Your initial capital should also have some of your own capital - having skin in the game will make you feel even more invested and motivated.

Be prepared for the business to take a lot of your time, energy, and mindshare. Because it is your own company, it will be hard to completely turn off, even when you are on vacation or on maternity leave.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I think work/life balance is very individualistic - everyone defines that balance differently and everyone goes through their own journey to achieve that balance for themselves. But I think what is true for everyone is that striking this balance is a constant work-in-progress as careers evolve, as life happens and priorities shift. I believe a good balance is achievable when one is clear and realistic about what that balance means for them.

One of the benefits of running my own business is having the invaluable flexibility and control over my schedule that I want as a parent of young kids. I am also very blessed to have a husband who helps me achieve balance, being a wonderful father and a strong supporter of my entrepreneurial pursuits. Day to day, I try to maintain work/life balance with some tactics:

- Prioritizing the 3-4 most important things (work and personal) I must complete that day, and try to get those squared away early in the day. Once those are out of the way, there is less stress and overhang. Everything else I accomplish will be icing on the cake.

- Clearly separating time for work and time for family, being okay with that designation, and being fully present when I am in either one. This helps to remove the guilt (also commonly felt amongst my fellow entrepreneur friends with kids) about not spending time with family in order to work on their own businesses.

- Choosing progress over perfection - it is better to get something to a very good point and move on, than to be stuck making something perfect if that marginal improvement will be insignificant.

- Making time for myself to recharge - this has been by far the toughest thing to do, but one that I'm finally finding ways that work for me. I learned that my preference for relaxing and clearing my head is not spa time or a walk in the park. It is doing something productive in silence - like cleaning or baking - doing relatively simple tasks which feel therapeutic, allow me quiet time to think, and give clear results and a sense of accomplishment. I also learned that being a goal-oriented person, signing up for a race is a much stronger motivator for me than putting "Go to the gym" reminders on my calendar.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I think in most work environments, there are still different standards and expectations for women versus men, especially regarding the way women lead and communicate. Women are generally expected (and we are often taught at a young age) to be amicable, humble, consensus-building, confident but not too much, expressive but not too emotional. A strong stance by a woman can easily be seen as non-cooperative or abrasive, whereas it may readily be perceived as confidence in men.

I often hear women beginning their statements with caveats like "this may not be that important but..." and "I'm not sure this could work but...," being less vocal and less confident about their ideas, opinions and potential. As a result, I think women often shy away from negotiating for salary, benefits and promotions, and purposely quiet our voices or downplay our opinions - either because we don't believe our opinions are good enough or because we feel the need to diminish them to avoid appearing over-confident or confrontational. Raising two girls has made me more cognizant of this and my own upbringing and societal expectations, so I try to do what I can to change this at home and at the workplace.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

Guidance from people with experience and perspective, and who have your best interest in mind, can be invaluable. I have been fortunate to have had many mentors throughout my life so far. During the earlier part of my career, a couple of mentors advised me with honest and constructive feedback and served as my staunch advocate with promotions and international work opportunities. Their guidance and friendship have been invaluable.

In recent years, my most indispensable mentors have been the groups of women entrepreneurs I was very lucky to befriend. We have been a part of each other's entrepreneurial journeys, sharing ideas, connections, and experiences as inspiration and caution for each other. Many of us also discuss the challenges of parenting while building our own businesses. Each person is an amazing woman with purpose, vision, ambition and compassion. Being surrounded by them has given me perspective and support when I needed it most and inspiration to keep moving forward.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

There are many female business and political leaders that I admire and follow and would love to meet one day. While some of her policies and actions had been controversial, Margaret Thatcher was a role model for me since I was young, being one of the few female world leaders then (and unfortunately there are still only a handful today). I had the honor of meeting her at an intimate student symposium during high school, not long after she left the prime minister office. When she entered the room that day, I was completely awe-struck by her powerful yet warm presence, and had to collect myself as I opened the symposium and introduced the group. I remember being completely inspired that day by the harmonious combination of her intelligence, toughness, wit, confidence, warmth, grace and femininity all at once. She inspired me to find my own style and my own voice as a leader, more assured that confidence does not equate to arrogance, that toughness can be done with grace, that exuding femininity does not have to imply weakness.

What do you want Belly Armor to accomplish in the next year?

Belly Armor was founded on a two-fold mission to increase awareness about the health issue of everyday radiation in our lives and to provide safe and effective solutions for people to reduce their exposure. We started out offering only maternity apparel and accessories, and have since followed our customers' demand by offering nursery products (nursing cover and baby monitor) as well as our RadiaShield Men's Boxer-Briefs to address fertility concerns. For the coming year, we will continue to listen closely to what parents are most concerned about with their family's radiation exposure, and will be further broadening our product lines for customers to conveniently and effectively reduce that exposure. We will be doing partnerships to support causes we believe in, something I am very excited about.

Over the past few years, the public's awareness of this health issue has grown significantly, and governments worldwide have been taking action to safeguard the public. (The World Health Organization has labeled cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen. France has banned the marketing of cell phones to children under 12 and banned wi-fi in places designed for children under 3 years old, due to health reasons.) We will continue to work closely with our distributors globally to educate people about the health issue and the state of the science today.


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