Velour Beauty Founder Mabel Lee on Being Her Own Role Model
"Growing up I didn’t have any Asian female entrepreneurs to look up to, especially in the beauty industry. While it was exciting to discover and carve out my own journey, it was also very scary being an anomaly in the industry."
If you’re into false lashes, chances are you have a set or two of Velour Beauty falsies in your collection, if not part of your regular rotation. That’s because the silk and faux mink lashes that are beloved by everyone from Meghan Markle to Beyoncé are widely considered some of the best in the industry. But what’s the story behind one of the most successful false eyelash brands at Sephora? Next up in our series of profiles in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we caught up with Velour Beauty founder (and Canadian!) Mabel Lee to chat all things beauty, including how growing up mega-independent shaped her as an entrepreneur.
On Velour Beauty’s beginnings
“I started Velour out of personal necessity. My go-to beauty product was false lashes. Growing up, I was really insecure about my small eyes, and what gave me confidence was false lashes. For some, that product could be foundation to cover up acne or lipstick to enlarge lips but for me, it was always false lashes. With that said, I did not come from a beauty background, I just made it a hobby to hunt for the perfect set of false lashes. A year into that hunt, I realized that there was a huge void in the false lash category — all that was available were synthetic drugstore lashes. There was no such thing as a luxury lash market and I wanted to create one that looked natural, long-lasting, comfortable, and easy to apply. Never in a million years did I expect to make a business out of it.
“Once I realized the key was the materials being used, I came up with what I considered the perfect lash. A few friends helped me with the packaging and creating a very cheap website and in 2011, we launched Velour Lashes. This was really a side hustle for me as I was still set to finish school and achieve my dreams of becoming a corporate lawyer. But little did I know the launch of Velour would completely change my career path. Within the first year of launch, we had celebrities like Beyoncé mentioning that our lashes were her go-to and retail giants like Sephora asking us to help them build out the luxury lash space. Ten years later, while I didn’t end up going to law school, Velour is now sold internationally with large retailers like Sephora and Ulta.”
On navigating the pandemic as a beauty brand founder
“March 2020 was probably one of the darkest periods for the brand. When Sephora and Ulta closed their doors due to COVID-19, our brand was hit significantly given that 70 percent of our revenue comes from retail. Direct-to-consumer was not our focus and so we had to pivot and shift strategy almost overnight to move all that traffic. Thankfully, we were able to do so, but having our retailers doors close was a hard hit for the brand. Our retail partners have been so understanding and we made it out on the other side okay so we’re grateful for that.”
On feeling underrepresented in the beauty space
“Growing up I didn’t have any Asian female entrepreneurs to look up to, especially in the beauty industry. While it was exciting to discover and carve out my own journey, it was also very scary being an anomaly in the industry — female, Asian, and very young (I was only 21!). It is very exciting, though, to see many more Asian American founders in the beauty industry now than there were ten years ago when I started. I think this will be a huge motivation for the younger generation. Now it’s like the norm to start your own business and become an entrepreneur which is so exciting to see and I hope this empowers the younger generation in ways that I did not have growing up.”
On her relationship with beauty growing up
“It’s a bit ironic now that I think about it but growing up I was such a tomboy. I loved sports and never wore makeup. Beauty and cosmetics really weren’t a thing for me until the end of high school or early university. That’s when all my insecurities came about and I felt I needed to be more ‘girly’ to be liked. I don’t regret that journey; I think discovering makeup and allowing it to really be a confidence boost opened a lot of doors for me — other than Velour. It gave me the confidence to make new friends and build relationships which were so critical to me becoming who I am today. Now that I’m older, I define someone’s beauty by so much more than just their physical appearance. For me, I hope my physical appearance is the least interesting thing about me and that we all look beyond the physical traits when defining our own and someone else’s beauty.”
On the lessons she learned from her parents
“Growing up in an Asian household it was expected that I become an accountant, doctor or lawyer. My parents set pretty high standards for me and at a very young age they instilled in me the importance of working hard and relying on yourself to achieve what you want. While they had big dreams for me to become a lawyer, when I decided to pursue Velour full time, they, of course, were worried because they did not understand this new world of selling products online.
“But when I told them I was going to pursue it full time, they said one thing that’s kept me motivated all of these years: ‘You are an adult now and the decision is yours, and no matter the outcome, whether you fail or succeed, it is 100 percent in your own control; you have to live with that. So you better work harder than anyone you know if you want to succeed. If you fail, it’s okay, but fail knowing you tried your hardest and believing that you are capable enough to move on from it.’ For some reason that put so much more pressure on me to succeed, not for them, but for myself while empowering me and allowing me to see that sometimes failure happens. It was clear at that point, nobody else is going to benefit or suffer from this decision other than myself. So I was like ‘Wow, I’m all in and if I do this, it’s to prove to myself that I can.'”
On being independent from a young age
“Growing up in an Asian household I was always taught that in order to achieve my goals, I had to solve my own problems and work extremely hard. When my parents divorced, it only amplified that, as both my parents left my siblings and I to grow up pretty much on our own. So if I wanted to go to school, I had to work to make money to pay for it. Now looking back at where I am today, I am really grateful to have been put in that position at such a young age because it gave me this unwavering confidence. As a brand founder, I find myself [turning to those lessons] after all of these years. Of course, I built a strong team around me but if I want to succeed, that starts with me. I have to put in the work.”
On the advice she’d give her younger self
“Don’t be scared to carve your own path. Growing up, I had no role models to look up to and so it was daunting to do what I did, especially at such a young age. But don’t let that stop you. It’s okay to be the odd one out sometimes!”
“For me, when I had insecurities growing up I used makeup — false lashes specifically — as a way to cover up those insecurities. At first it gave me this superficial confidence to make friends, to build relationships, to do things I probably wouldn’t have ever done if I didn’t cover up those insecurities. But eventually, with solid friendships and experiences, I build this true confidence in myself and you grew to appreciate who I was. So I always say, do whatever helps build the confidence, even if it means you need to start by covering up some insecurities, and work on yourself internally with the goal of being confident and 100 percent comfortable and happy in your own skin, as is. Eventually, those insecurities fall away when you’ve done enough internal confidence building.”