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James Jo of Symphony Beauty: Lessons I Learned From My Military Experience about How To Survive And Thrive During A Time Of Crisis

To me, crisis is a time when we experience extreme difficulties or troubles that we feel are too much to handle. It is a time when we must make tough decisions concerning those situations. These decisions could potentially lead to consequences of a lifetime, which is why crises are very difficult to overcome if you are not equipped with the right mindset or surrounded by the right people. As a leader of the company, I am thankful to have great mentors who guide me through the time of crisis. They share their opinions and experiences with me to guide me through those tough situations.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing James Jo.

From the battlefield to the beauty industry, Former US Marine, James Jo, founded Symphony Beauty as a way to bridge the connection between inner and outer beauty, regardless of budget. In 2015, during his wife’s pregnancy with their first of two daughters, Jo launched Symphony Beauty to create clean, safe, high-quality products his wife (and everyone) could feel confident using regardless of their budget. Under the Symphony Beauty umbrella, Jo founded two brands, Purifect and Clara’s New York, which are now collectively sold at over 6,500 locations and online.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I did not have an easy childhood. I was separated from my parents and my younger sister when I was young. My dad came to the US first, to make a better life for all of us; then my Mom followed. I was under the care of my uncle while my sister was cared by my grandmother. It was difficult to be separated from my family when I was young. But we were finally reunited in New York.

To me, the US is a life changing country. It is a place where my family reunited, where I learned to survive in a new culture with a new language. As I grew up, I began to understand the sacrifices my parents made for us to have a better life here in the US.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

The unique thing that we do here at Symphony Beauty is creating clean, safe, and natural products with affordable price points. But to me, the even more unique thing that we do is how much each and every one of our team believes in each other and help each other achieve the unique goal we all believe in.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I joined the Marine Corps in 2003 after 9/11. I witnessed the collapse of the twin towers firsthand and had a calling that I had to do something for my country. I left college to join the Marines and served as a motor transport operator. We were deployed to Iraq in 2004 and I learned and saw things I would not see in my life back in the US.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

During my tour in Iraq, I got to meet marines who later became like my brothers and sisters. We fought alongside each other and would take a bullet for each other without any hesitation.

All those years serving together, to me, the most heartfelt and interesting story I experienced is when after the tour, all the brothers and sisters flew to New York and did a sword ceremony for my wedding after just one phone call from me. That is when I realized that people are the key to achieve anything and make anything possible.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

Every convoy mission I had gone to in Iraq, everyone in the military fighting side by side were all heroes to me. I was able to count on them, knowing they would have my back and I would have theirs.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

A hero is someone who puts other people’s needs and safety first before their own. I believe that actions speak louder than words therefore a hero to me is someone who quietly helps other people without bragging or hoping for anything in return.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

Absolutely. Even in the military, one person cannot do everything. This applies to managing a company or a business. Although I started the company myself, Symphony Beauty is here today because of great teamwork and the belief we have for each other. This is something that is embedded in me since the military days. In order to be a great leader, you need to learn how to be a great follower.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are two people that I am forever grateful for in my life. The first person is my wife. She sacrificed everything because she believes in me and in the company. She sold all her jewelry, including her own wedding ring and my wedding watch to support me. My wife has been by my side through thick and thin, supporting me in any way she can and I am wholeheartedly grateful for that. Another person that I am forever thankful for is a good friend of mine. When I approached people about starting Symphony Beauty, not everyone thought I could do it. But this friend of mine, he gave me half of his life savings and told me that he believed in me. And because of this act of kindness, I am here today.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

To me, crisis is a time when we experience extreme difficulties or troubles that we feel are too much to handle. It is a time when we must make tough decisions concerning those situations. These decisions could potentially lead to consequences of a lifetime, which is why crises are very difficult to overcome if you are not equipped with the right mindset or surrounded by the right people. As a leader of the company, I am thankful to have great mentors who guide me through the time of crisis. They share their opinions and experiences with me to guide me through those tough situations.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

I am sure that there are other people out there who have concrete plans for all the crises they could possibly think of. However, to me, after 7 years of building this company and with all the experiences I have had since the first day I began in this industry, I came to learn that crises usually come off guard. They came when you least expect them to come. The first and most important thing to do, in any time of crisis, is to not panic. The second thing and the thing business leaders and owners should plan is to understand your financials. As much as I do not want to admit it, financials is the key to survive in any business crisis. And lastly, hope for the best and plan for the worst!

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

First thing we should do when we realize we are in a crisis is not to panic. Then, we can start thinking about what we can do to overcome this situation and how we can do it. I really like a quote from Warren Buffet when he said something along the lines of greater opportunities come in a crisis. And that is what we did at Symphony Beauty. During the pandemic, I had to temporarily close the company to figure out our next steps. We came back even stronger and wiser and we are now more ready to face any crisis moving forward.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Honor, courage, and commitment. During my military years, these are the three values embedded deep in me. In times of crisis, having an honor means you stay true and proud to your core values. We did not create Symphony Beauty to become a millionaire, but to share our clean, natural, and safe products with everybody. We also need courage to survive a crisis to have the strength to do what is right when you are tempted to do wrong. Lastly, commitment allows you to follow through your promises. Do not lose ourselves in the time of crisis. Do what you say you would do and stay true to who you are.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Warrant Officer Wells Jr. He was a great leader who has these three characteristics equipped within his life. He led and showed by example. He led our marines and sacrificed his own life at 32 years old to save junior marines. He was a true leader who I truly admire.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

Covid-19 was the greatest setback our company has ever faced. When the pandemic started, all of our orders were cancelled, and payment terms were extended. The whole beauty market was in an extremely bad shape, and no one thought they could survive. But we learned from the past and adjusted ourselves to the new normal. We have brought in new products that became extremely popular during the pandemic such as sheet masks. Now we remain in the beauty category and we are getting accustomed to the new normal.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. See and assess. Take a break from everything and look at the situation from a wider perspective. That is when you can focus on the absolute necessity and eliminate unnecessary factors.

2. Communicate your efforts. Come up with the right plan together as a team. Share the plan and strategy with everyone within your group to ensure the team that everything will be okay.

3. Listen to the people you work with. Brainstorm to create all types of scenarios.

4. Plan for the worst. I always say hope for the best but plan for the worst. This is something I live by.

5. When the crisis is over, evaluate the battle and learn from the experience.

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would like to start a movement to support veterans and their families. I strongly believe in giving back to our community. As a veteran-owned organization, I understand the challenges faced when integrating back into the civilian sector and have committed to supporting our veterans as they transition from military service. We have started partnering with Foundation For Women Warriors to support veterans and their families. We are hoping to grow this movement bigger and bring more attention to this cause.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

Warren Buffet. He is a great business leader. I admire him for having visions and being able to turn them into reality.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram and Facebook @clarasnewyork and @symphonybeautybox

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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