Inspirational Woman: Susie Ma | Founder and CEO, Tropic Skincare

Susie MaSusie was born in Shanghai, China in 1988, where she lived with her grandparents.

From an early age she was strongly encouraged to use only natural ingredients by her grandmother, who for over 60 years studied homeopathic remedies alongside her career as a medicinal chemist. In their house, natural was always better, and it was this upbringing that inspired Susie’s belief in natural ingredients and eventually Tropic Skincare’s ethos.

Susie moved to Australia aged six, her family first settling in Sydney where they worked as street vendors selling novelty souvenirs. She had her first taste of business selling alongside her parents while in Sydney, and eventually moved to the city of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland. Cairns was full of lush, tropical plants that Susie and her mum would grow in their garden and use to make natural skincare recipes. With plants like eucalyptus and aloe vera plentiful, Susie fell in love with the natural environment around her, and being so close to the Great Barrier Reef developed a particular passion for protecting the ocean.

Moving to London at age 13, Susie and her mum struggled to make ends meet, so she decided to follow her mum’s example and start her own business selling at a stall in Greenwich Market. Armed with her favourite Body Scrub recipe packaged in jam jars (which still exists in the Tropic Skincare range today), Susie began to sell her own natural skincare with immediate success from her first day trading. This gave her the motivation to continue working evenings and weekends to develop the business, all the while achieving academic excellence in school. Eventually she saved enough money to fund her own university tuition, and went on to study a highly sought after degree in Philosophy and Economics at University College London in 2007.

Upon graduation, and after a brief period working in investment banking, Susie realised that she missed being her own boss and decided to concentrate her efforts fully on her Tropic business. Tropic has gone from strength to strength since then and Susie was able to buy her mum a house, something that she had always wanted to do. From working alone on a market stall, Susie now employs over 100 internal staff and has created business opportunities for over 12,000 Tropic Ambassadors throughout the UK, all from a desire to help her mum pay the bills. Today, she is one of only ten entrepreneurs aged 30 or under whose ventures will be listed in an upcoming ranking of the fastest growing companies in the UK by Virgin Fast Track 100. She regularly speaks at events around the country encouraging other entrepreneurs to believe that anything is possible, and to go after their wildest goals.

Susie has also been shortlisted for the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award. The Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award, continues to be synonymous with unearthing and celebrating, exciting new female talent in the UK. It recognises the success and vision of female entrepreneurs between the ages of 25 and 35, with the winner reflecting the core attributes that Madame Clicquot exhibited in her formative years, such as a fearless approach and innovative thinking to achieve her goals.

This category is part of the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Awards, a ceremony for women in business that champions the success of business women worldwide who share the same qualities as Madame Clicquot: her enterprising spirit, her courage and the determination necessary to accomplish her aims. Consistent with the company’s international scope, the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award is now awarded in 27 countries. In the UK, the award celebrates the best of British female talent in business.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m Susie Ma, Founder and CEO of Tropic Skincare. I started the company when I was just 15 years old, after my Mum and I moved to London from Australia. Soon afterwards, we were struggling to make ends meet so, to contribute to the household bills, I decided to take the plunge and start my own business. I started to make, package and sell a fresh, natural and tropical body scrub from a family recipe we used in Australia. I took to Greenwich Market with a mixture of apprehension and determination, and on my first day I sold out of my body scrubs, which covered a whole month’s bills. So, I kept going. I would whip up my body scrubs after school and on weekends, and even employed my friends to cover the London markets. Tropic was a runaway success, and by the time I was 21, I had bought my mum a house, funded my studies at university, and purchased my first investment property.

Now, I wear lots of different hats to keep the business running! At Tropic, we do everything under one roof, including formulating, manufacturing, packaging and dispatching the products. Our Beauty Kitchen is supercharged by our teams of talented Beauty Chefs and Product Perfectionists to ensure only the freshest skincare reaches our customers. We also have our office within the same building, which encompasses marketing, accounts, customer support and quality control. I’m involved in every part of the business on some level, so my job is to keep those plates spinning, and propel the business forward.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes, but everything has worked out very differently! Throughout high school and university, I had my vision locked on a career as an investment banker, and while I studied Philosophy and Economics, I decided to close Tropic down for good to focus on this goal. Everything seemed to work out for the best, and I landed my ‘dream job’ at CitiGroup as an FX Sales Trader. Well, that lasted all of a few months, until I realised the industry just wasn’t for me! Deep down, Tropic was what I was truly passionate about, so I decided to give the business my all, and make it my primary focus. To seek investment, I applied to The Apprentice in 2011, while I was actually still working at CitiGroup, and made it onto the show. Although I didn’t win, Lord Sugar invested in Tropic, which meant I was able to accelerate growth and take the company to new heights, especially after the publicity we gained from the show.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Of course! Although Tropic’s growth has been phenomenal since launch, there have definitely been setbacks along the way – any entrepreneur will tell you the same.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is learning to relinquish control as the team grows. Your business is your baby, so this can be really hard, as you’re learning how to trust people, as well as identifying those who are potentially untrustworthy. There have certainly been some members of staff that have let me down, but those experiences have helped me to appreciate colleagues who excel in their roles.

Learning how to fail is essential for all entrepreneurs; it sounds cliché but learning from your mistakes is key to your future success. After each setback, I stop for a moment to examine why it happened, what I have learnt, and how it could be avoided in the future. Don’t just brush your ‘failures’ under the carpet – they’re a crucial part of your growth!

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Growing a tribe of over 12,000 unstoppable Ambassadors. At Tropic, we don’t sell in shops or via third party retailers, we have a family of Ambassadors who start their own beauty businesses with Tropic to sell our products across the UK. Seeing lives transform with help from Tropic is just so rewarding, and seeing the community, support, and empowering spirit amongst them all makes me beam with pride. Each and every Ambassador starts their business with the same seed, our Starter Kit, and has limitless opportunities for growth. Some see Tropic as a side hustle to earn a little extra cash for holidays or treats, and some turn their businesses into fully fledged careers and grow a team. To date, we’ve paid out over £17m in commission to our Ambassadors, which is just amazing.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

My eternal optimism! Sure, it means I’m always running a little late, but it also gives me a good perspective on challenging situations, and the ability to find solutions. I am definitely a ‘bigger picture’ thinker, which has helped me to retain clarity in many situations. I also feel like being a touch typing champion (no exaggeration!) has helped me in my career – never forget to cover the basics!

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think mentoring is really important. Through our lives, we can all pinpoint one person that made a positive impact by just giving us some time, and I truly believe that time is the most valuable thing you can ever give to anyone. Even on a less formal level, I think mentoring key members of staff makes a huge difference. As leaders, we have the opportunity to help our employees unlock their potential; not only does it help them grow in confidence, but it’ll bring business benefits too.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

Quite simply, championing more females. I am delighted that Tropic made it into The Sunday Times Profit Track 100 for 2019, and although the number of female-led companies on the list had increased this year, it’s still standing at only 18 per cent (compared to seven per cent in 2000). The Sunday Times reported that many women are still reluctant to take the plunge into business, so championing more female founders and powerhouses in business will help to instill confidence in budding entrepreneurs. It’s exactly why sites such as We Are The City are so important!

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Stand up for yourself. Until you see yourself as a fully established businesswoman, it can be hard to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. Throughout my career, people have tried to knock me down, and tell me I ‘won’t amount to much’. Although I’ve pushed through the negativity (with the help of positivity from those that really matter!) I feel as though I could have done a better job at standing my ground.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

The next challenge for Tropic is to upscale and propel ourselves forward in certain areas of the business. One thing I’m investigating is upgrading the software our Ambassadors use to place Tropic orders and interact with us. So, I’m flying out to the US to meet with a company we may be collaborating with, to ask them questions about what they have to offer. As well as that, we’re working hard to ensure our products are as earth-friendly as possible, so we’ll be converting all of our core products to refillable packaging by 2022. Watch this space!

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