Student Success Stories: Cary Lin

By the Martin Trust Center

My name is Cary Lin, and I was at MIT Sloan, class of 2016. My job is I am the CEO and co-founder of Common Heir, and we are a beauty brand. We stand for top shelf beauty that’s all results and zero plastic.

Before MIT
I started my career in management consulting, and then I quickly switched into beauty and consumer goods. But I decided to go to MIT for my MBA because I wanted to transition my career more fully, and also I felt that innovation was going to be the wave of marketing in the future, and I was right. So it was an amazing choice all around.

At Sloan
I was on Sloan’s Senate for my Ocean — the Indian Ocean — and I also was a teaching assistant for 15.390 New Enterprises and was also involved in the retail and luxury goods club on campus.

Being a T.A.
I loved reading and coaching all the students through their ideas, and watch them have “Aha!” moments as they were talking to customers. I really, really loved the first couple of steps most because that is the foundational aspect of actually getting out ahead and talking to people. And that was often the hardest part and where we saw a ton of drop off in the class. Going from a student working on one idea to seeing a panoply of like 50 ideas across two sections, it was incredible.

Favorite Course
I really loved Dilemmas in Founding New Ventures [now called Entrepreneurial Founding & Teams] because it talks through all the potential things that can come up. Like oftentimes a startup doesn’t fail because it runs out of cash, a startup fails for a lot of reasons that are kind of touchy-feely. And those are the things that I think, just seeing those examples encountered in other situations, enabled me to try to avoid some of the potholes.

Whether it’s a cofounding legal agreement, or whether it’s just having conversations about expectations up front, I think that class enabled me to kind of think about what I really wanted to build and who I wanted along my journey with me, and have conversations so that we could avoid some of those types of situations as best as we could.

The Trust Center
[I loved] the physical presence of being around like-minded people that were throwing all their energies into solving whatever problem felt most urgent to them on any given moment. But just missing that camaraderie, the fact that you can kind of catch a conversation that might be relevant to you just across the hall, the fact that it was an open space where you could pursue whatever you wanted to. I spent a lot of time in the Trust Center when I was there and I’m grateful for that.

After MIT
I moved out to L.A. to work for The Honest Company, in large part because I wanted to work for a female founder that was helming a billion dollar brand, that had Glassdoor ratings of at least 3.8, and had a good company culture, and was doing something genuinely innovative.

I think at MIT — the particular flavor of entrepreneurship at MIT specifically versus other schools — is that there is such a strong core of basic research, basic science, and innovation element to it. So beyond just the patent and licensing office, it’s infusing me with the desire to work for something that had some IP behind it. So that led me to The Honest Company, which was genuinely trying to innovate better-for-you products in your home, and in your body, and for your baby.

Taking the Leap
My husband poked me one day and said, “Hey, do you think you’ve checked all the boxes on being a founder? Have you done everything possible? Or are you just afraid to zero-to-one by yourself?” And it was that “Aha!” moment where I was like I’ve passed go, I’ve passed start, I’ve collected my $200 on literally every size company doing every function I could possibly imagine. I’d frankly run out of excuses to starting my own company. And at that point you realize, even at a place like MIT, there are real, real limitations to learning and to gearing up for something; that sometimes you just have to go and do the thing.

So that’s when I decided to take the plunge, give myself six months to find a problem that I wanted to throw all my energy against, and that all my experience could serve as healthy compost for. It ended up being this idea of, okay, how do we get rid of plastic and petroleum byproducts in the beauty and personal care industry? What is the functional need that plastic serves and how can we serve that consumer better by using better materials, better innovation, better delivery systems, better supply chains, to really marry performance without plastic?

The most unexpected part of my journey? I think the cop-out answer is the pandemic. But I think more than that, it’s understanding how to be limber and how to be flexible, and how to set a vision that everybody wants to work on and be very flexible on and trust people to get it done. I think what I loved about MIT is that it set no expectations for what the correct career path would be after graduation. There is an immense tolerance for risk. I think there is an immense amount of credit given to entrepreneurship and an immense tolerance for failure.

And I think [that] starting a company that coincided with a once-in-a-lifetime event in human history, you just kind of have to be very tolerant that things might not work out. And I think that comfort with failure is something that MIT coaches in people. That in other MBA programs there’s less of a level of being willing to tolerate that risk and being surrounded by a community that will tolerate that risk. That made me feel very comfortable being like, okay bring it on. We’ll just go from point A to point B, point B to point C, and point C to point D, and that was how we spent the last 12 months. Up until at the point where we’re going to market and bringing this concept to life.

Learn how to tell your story and find the right partners that are going to believe in you. At any given point, we’ve pushed the goalpost forward on our funding goals. We said we would raise a certain amount, never thought we would hit it. And then we oversubscribed, we increased the funding goal, the same thing happened again, we oversubscribed, we increase … and each time we were hitting milestone, metrics, traction points, and just keeping on in that right direction.

I think we are at a point where we can be really strategic about who we want to work with rather than just taking the cash. We also have a very clear idea of what we want to do with those resources and exactly how we were going to go do that. I will say that people will look at my background and my co-founder’s background and say, yeah, there are certain tailwinds for what you guys are doing and who you guys are as founders, it’ll be so easy. And it just never is. Never believe it when someone says that; you just have to go do it yourself and find people that are going to be aligned. But, it’s not easy, not at all.

I think, my advice to people who are students, who are thinking about raising external financing for their companies is, remember that you are providing people an opportunity to be part of your journey. And if there aren’t people that are excited by that, then they’re not the right fit. Just move on. There’s seven billion people on this planet, somebody will sign on to your vision.

Company Culture
The thing that is paramount in our working dynamic and in the company is trust and over-communicate. So many things can fester and get lost because people don’t want to confront a feeling that they have after a meeting. Building a culture of compassion and listening also goes a long way in building trust. I’ve been part of companies that you’re not supposed to bring those things to the table. You’re supposed to get your job done and you shove those personal things under the rug. The personal and the professional in a founding environment and in something like this, they cannot be separated.

So just really building that sort of trust and compassion and ability to say, okay, I totally understand where you’re coming from, I hear you. Even if there’s no action against it, just knowing that you’re creating a place where people can feel like they can bring their full selves to work, I think, was very important for me. And certainly was something that we had to do.

Final Advice
One is find a problem that you’re obsessed with, that you’re uniquely positioned to solve. I think that is such an MIT mindset, that we are all attracted to big intractable problems. A lot of us took System Dynamics; we love understanding complexity. Find something that you’re really, really passionate about because that’s the only thing that’s worth all the non-glamorous aspects of founding. It’s very easy to lose motivation if you’re doing it for the status of being a founder. It really isn’t worth it unless the problem is worth it. So find a problem that you would be happy spending your life trying to solve for at least 5 or 10 years because it takes that long.

And then the second thing is just start making moves, just start talking to customers, talking to people, find that problem. And don’t let anyone else’s journey influence what you think is possible for yourself. You’re just going to have a really different [journey] and you have to be okay with that.

By MIT Sloan CDO