How an Investment Banker Transitioned From Finance to Fashion to Pharmaceuticals
You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you’re in your 30s, what do you do when you’ve, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you’re now ready to commit to something you’re passionate about, whether it’s a job, a city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we’re debuting a new series, Second Life. Each week, we’ll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes of their lives.
Although you might not know it, Alexandra Wilkis Wilson is the innovative founder behind some of your favorite brands. Among the serial entrepreneur's many successful startups are Gilt, the online shopping site, and Glamsquad, the on-demand beauty app, just to name a few. Given that she's now the SVP of consumer strategy and innovations at Allergan, the pharmaceutical company best known for making Botox, you'd never guess that Wilkis Wilson started out her career as an investment banker.
"Earlier in my career, the challenges I faced were about feeling uninspired and unfulfilled in my roles and not knowing what my long-term career goals were," the successful entrepreneur told MyDomaine. "As an entrepreneur over the past 10 years, my challenges have become more about managing risk," she explained. "Although sometimes difficult, I welcome change and opportunities for personal development. I view my career as a journey—and the tough experiences only make me better."
In this edition of Second Life, hear from Wilkis Wilson on making the transition from finance to fashion to pharmaceuticals, including the mistakes she made along the way and her wise advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Tell us about your first career path.
When I graduated from college, I went into investment banking. I was an analyst for three years. For two of those three years, I was based in London, covering southern European media and technology companies. It was an intense experience for me at a young age (22 years old) with long hours spent at the office chained to my desk.
However, I really enjoyed the international exposure and had the opportunity to put my languages to use (I speak Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian). Additionally, I appreciated being trained early on in financial modeling skills and learned how to interact professionally around CEOs and executives of large companies.
How did you make the transition from finance to fashion to pharmaceuticals?
After three years as an analyst in investment banking, I went back to school, this time for my MBA. I went to business school determined to steer away from finance and move into fashion or beauty, two industries that genuinely excited me. I felt that within those industries I could truly excel and add tremendous value through passion, an intuitive understanding of consumer behavior, and hard work.
It was there in graduate school that I was reunited with my friend from college, Alexis Maybank, who eventually became my co-founder at Gilt Groupe. During our two years at business school, we were inseparable. After spending three years in luxury fashion at Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, Alexis and I got together with three other co-founders and launched what became known as Gilt, an e-commerce sensation that sold to Hudson's Bay Company. I spent seven years in a number of roles at Gilt, from merchandising to business development to brand relations to launching new business categories. I honed in on my passion for connecting with consumers and responding to their needs through our exciting and diverse business offerings.
After my time at Gilt, I co-founded and led two other consumer-focused ventures, Glamsquad, the in-home beauty services company, and Fitz, the in-home closet organizing and personal-styling startup that sold in early 2018 to Tradesy. Although these were all seemingly different companies and roles, they all connected back to my love of finding new ways to support and empower consumers to become the best version of themselves.
Then, about a year ago, I was introduced to Bill Meury, EVP and chief commercial officer at Allergan (a global pharmaceutical leader and the maker of Botox), and a new and very different opportunity presented itself to me. Bill and Allergan CEO Brent Saunders wanted to create an internal innovation unit within the company that would disrupt the medical aesthetics industry from the inside by making connections directly with consumers—something that has never been done before in the pharma industry.
I saw this as an opportunity to take on a new role in a new industry while playing on the strengths I'd developed throughout my career. I took on the position of senior vice president of consumer strategy and Innovation at Allergan, where I now lead the company's digital venture unit, Project Moonwalker.
Tell us about your current career path/business?
At Project Moonwalker, we're currently working to launch multiple new businesses that have the potential to transform the medical aesthetics industry. It's my job to recruit, lead, and inspire a diverse team of digital, technology, and consumer experts while leveraging our internal pharma and aesthetics talent.
We recently launched our first venture, Spotlyte, a new innovative digital hub of curated content that helps first-time considerers of medical aesthetics discover how treatments may fit into their routine. In addition to well-researched content, Spotlyte also has a chat function that lets visitors speak with a team of specialists, as well as a database of over 13k providers.
What triggered your need for change?
I think it's important for me to constantly challenge myself. Moving into this role at Allergan was an opportunity for me to diversify my experience and to learn while fueling my passion for empowering the consumer and building strong teams. I feel fortunate to learn every day from my team and global colleagues at Allergan.
How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
I don't think there's any simple answer to that. Going the unconventional route or trying something new is always intimidating, no matter what stage of your career. I always like to seek advice from a variety of mentors, from my mentors to various diverse executives I trust and respect. Additionally, I've learned to follow my instincts and trust myself to make the right decision.
What are some mistakes you made along the way that ended up helping your success?
Building the right team is critical. Over the past 10 years, I've been directly involved in hiring hundreds of people. However, getting hiring right isn't always easy. I like to move quickly, especially in a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment. My instinct is usually to hire people as fast as I can. But I've learned the hard way that when you hire a person who isn't right for a team's culture, it can have damaging effects.
Ultimately, even through extensive coaching, it's tough to turn people around if they aren't a cultural fit. I've learned that it's important to do my due diligence on others, often through a back channel or leveraging common contacts through LinkedIn. Even if these extra steps slow you down and sometimes force you to reject a candidate who's strong on paper, it can help you to hire the best team possible and to avoid recruiting people who could have a toxic effect on an otherwise great dynamic.
What do you love most about your current role, and why?
I genuinely find the medical aesthetics industry incredibly interesting. I love learning as much as I can about the drugs and devices available and in development. Right now, there are over 65 million people in the United States considering medical aesthetics. As an entrepreneur, that potential for growth is very exciting!
This role has been fun for my friends who now come to me with their many questions around beauty treatments and aesthetics because they know I've become more knowledgeable about these treatments through meeting so many doctors and R&D specialists. I love being able to refer my friends and family to Spotlyte for captivating articles, the ability to chat with trained aesthetic specialists, and for connections to providers all across the country.
When you look back and reflect on your career, do you have any regrets? Or are you still really happy with your decisions?
In my opinion, life is too short to have regrets. That's not to say I haven't made mistakes, I most certainly have. I genuinely think that making mistakes has made me tougher and stronger than my successes have. I don't have any regrets.
What advice do you have for other women who want to take a leap but fear the change?
Don't fear change; use it as an opportunity for growth! A career is like a marathon, and you'll have many opportunities to reinvent yourself. I also cannot stress the power and value of your network enough. Build your network and maintain relationships—you never know when you might cross paths with someone down the road.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I often say this to my team…Just remember, "If you don't ask, you don't get."
For more inspiring stories from successful women who've made major career changes, tune into MyDomaine's Second Life podcast.