"What do you love most about your face?" That's the first question that Vanessa Lee — and all of the aesthetics providers at her beauty bar, The Things We Do — asks each client who comes into her studio in search of injectable beauty treatments. Lee, a renowned cosmetic nurse and injectables educator with over a decade of medical and aesthetics experience, opened The Things We Do beauty bar in Los Angeles because she saw a need for a total shift in patient approach from aesthetics providers.
"Our philosophy at The Things We Do is natural intention beauty guidance," Lee tells The Zoe Report. Though she's an injector and her job inherently requires her to look for ways to "fix" her patients' appearances, she makes an effort to celebrate and enhance their strongest features while making slight tweaks that make them more confident. In other words, she wants her patients to look as natural as possible — and has no problem telling them no when they ask for something that she believes will put them over the edge of looking natural.
She says, "When I joined the medical cosmetic field, it was really difficult for me. I always knew that I wanted to work in beauty, but the beauty industry is still a business. [What I do is] medicine, but it's still a business at the end of the day."
She explains how working for plastic surgeons and in dermatology offices took a toll on her mental health and made her question her ethics as a provider because she was taught to treat each patient as part of a quota and to harp on people's insecurities to make greater sales. "By my second year into it I was very disheartened by the entire field and I almost left it," she says woefully. So instead of continuing that narrative, she decided to set out on her own to create an inclusive space that aims to "highlight the best things about yourself [and help] your true inner self reflected on the outside."
But to learn how Lee started an enterprise that reportedly grossed $3.2 million in the first year after opening in December 2018, her first year of business millions of dollars a year and boasts celeb fans including Jessica Alba, Kim Kardashian West, Khloe Kardashian, Kehlani, Lucy Hale, Gabrielle Union, and Jenna Dewan, you have to go back 30 years and to the other side of the globe to Abulug, a small province at the northernmost tip of the Philippines.
Lee Was Inspired By Her Grandmother To Go Into The Beauty Industry
"My lola [grandmother] was a beautician back in the Philippines and she had a well-known beauty salon there," Lee explains. "She always wished that my mom, her daughter, and my aunts would go into the family business, but they all ended up going working in hospitals."
Lee first started working in hospitals, filling roles in the ER and neurosurgery department while also doing some cosmetic nursing on the side. She picked up work in both dermatology and plastic surgery offices to learn more about aesthetics and overall skin health. After a few years, she decided to pursue cosmetic nursing full time, but her mom would always say, "You know that's just a hobby, right, anak [child]? You'll go back to the hospital soon?" Her parents feared for her job security, and their worry only grew when she told them that she had built up enough of a clientele to start up her own practice.
It wasn't until last year — 2019, after over a decade of her working in the field — that her mom started believing in her career path. Lee "accidentally" had one of her six-figure paychecks sent to her parents' house rather than her own. "She's a typical Filipino mom, so I knew that she was going to be so nosy that she had to open it up herself," Lee reminisces. "She called me and said, 'Anak, oh my God, what is this?! You're really doing okay?' And I was like, 'I told you, mom — we made it! You did great and I turned out okay.'"
But despite her parents' doubts about her chosen career path, she knew that she wanted to bring their hearts and her Filipino upbringing into her space.
Everything About The Things We Do's Space Is Inspired By Filipino Culture In Some Way
"Typically at an office like ours — med spas, plastic surgery offices, and dermatology offices — the feel is very white and very sterile," says Lee. "But nowadays, people are more keen to design things a little more friendly. I wanted to create my own space and make it as bold as possible."
The paints that were chosen for the interior walls and furniture were directly inspired by the different skin tones of Filipino women. She used an eyedropper tool in a photo editing app to pinpoint the exact shades that she wanted to use, especially those that were from women with darker skin tones. "We wanted to embrace the natural darker skin tones of Filipinos, which unfortunately aren't normally celebrated or highlighted because of a colonized mindset in the media in the Philippines," she says.
The wallpaper in every room is reflective of batik paper, which is very popular in certain regions of the Philippines. The restroom is tiled floor-to-ceiling with capiz shells, which is a material that most Filipinos have in their household, usually in the form of a lamp or other home decor. On the walls and shelves of the studio are displayed palm fans, or pamaypay, and the canvas totes they sell in the lobby read, "Maganda Ka," which means "you are beautiful" in Tagalog.
The Filipino inspiration doesn't stop with the decor and merch. "Filipinos are also really known for being extremely hospitable and extremely welcoming, [so I didn't want patients to feel like they were walking in for a medical procedure]," Lee says. "I want them to feel like they're surrounded by their knowledgeable sisters who happen to be professionals in this field and that we're here to take care of you. I wanted to make sure that even the attitude of the Filipino people was apparent all throughout the experience at The Things We Do."
Lee Also Brought The Philippines Into Her In-House Skincare Line
Even if you don't live in L.A., you can still experience The Things We Do's magic through their in-house skincare line. One of Lee's most popular products is the Dew & Go Microneedling Infusion Stamp, which is a small microneedling tool that contains a serum in its chamber so that it infuses the serum into your skin as you microneedle. The revolutionary tool — which, according to Lee, offers a safer alternative to the more popular microneedling rollers — has made quite an impact on the skincare community, with renowned estheticians like Shani Darden stocking it in their own studios.
The Dew & Go comes with The Things We Do's Skin Brew, which is a mixture of malunggay (or moringa) extract and snail mucin, which is a popular skincare ingredient in many Asian countries. "Malunggay is a holy grail plant to Filipinos," she explains. "I remember helping my grandfather make Filipino foods like munggo, sinigang, and nilagang baka, and we would always add malunggay to it. It's a great plant for your digestive system but it's also a great plant for beauty. It has tons of antioxidants in it and it has such a high vitamin C content. It's kind of like our kale," she says jokingly. "I wanted to make sure that it was a star ingredient of one of my products because of all of its health benefits and antioxidant properties."
But even more fantastic — and slightly eerie — is her late grandmother's connection to her best-selling product, the Gly Glow Scrub. Before she founded The Things We Do and started her skincare line (but when it was already in its brainstorming stages), Lee was working at a dermatology practice and seeing a new patient who happened to be a medium.
During an appointment, the medium stopped Lee, saying she had a message from an older woman with darker skin and short brown hair, wearing a string of pearls and a long-sleeved pleated white dress with red flowers on it. Lee knew that the patient was talking about her grandmother, the beautician in the Philippines, because that exact image of her was on display in a frame in her parents' home. She never posted that photo on social media, so there was no way for anyone to know about it.
The medium shared that grandmother was proud of Lee and wanted her to go into business for herself. The Things We Do (both the studio and the skincare) was still under wraps and Lee was only in the testing phases of the products, so she vehemently denied it. But the medium insisted, "She knows you're starting a skincare line, and she thinks you should go with the orange cleanser with the brown dots in it." At the time, Lee was trying to choose between two cleanser formulae, one of which was a clear gel texture, and the another, which — you guessed it — was orange with brown dots in it.
"I've always prayed and meditated, and I've always been open to the universe showing me the way," says Lee. "So when I receive signs I become a stallion and I run towards it, and that's served me really well. Three months after that happened with the medium, I left that company, and six months after that I opened The Things We Do."
Less Than Two Years Later, The Things We Do Is A Force To Be Reckoned With
Since opening in LA's trendy ROW DTLA district in December 2018, The Things We Do has become a staple in the Los Angeles skincare community. Not only does the beauty bar offer injectables and other aesthetic treatments like threads and microneedling, but they also offer facials and holistic treatments like acupuncture, cupping, and vaginal steaming. Lee opened up a second location in her hometown of Chino Hills and is expanding the first location into the unit next door.
The business opened to such high acclaim that Lee had to close off her personal schedule to new clients just four months after launching, and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. "Our type of business, within the first year, is not usually profitable," Lee explains. "It usually takes two to three years to break sales numbers of $100,000 to $400,000, if it's a really good year. But in the first year of The Things We Do, we did $3.2 million in sales and that was unheard of in our field."
She continues, "I teach dozens of providers —and in a good year, even hundreds — and after I'm done injecting, they'll always ask me, 'What's your secret? How are you guys so successful? What's your selling technique?' I always tell them that are selling technique is that we do not have one. We just do our best to make sure that we're serving our patients as well as we can. Making sure that we're creating a safe space for them, and that they feel comfortable. That's it. That formula works we are the proof of that."
In the wake of coronavirus, both studios are closed, but her team is still hard at work. They're currently offering free virtual skincare consultations and 15 percent off your skincare purchase post-consult (with no minimum order).
As for what's next, Lee is excited to continue her work fueled by her philosophy of putting mental health and skin health above all else. She works closely with a psychiatrist who sees any of her patients whom she thinks may have any form of body dysmorphia. "We really try to reframe the conversation and make it a little bit more positive," she says. "It's about loving ourselves and trying to highlight what's naturally beautiful about ourselves, whether it's conventional or nonconventional beauty."
Lee hopes to become an inspiration for other young Filipinas aspiring to enter the beauty industry or become entrepreneurs themselves, acknowledging that getting started can be tough for first-generation Americans. "I remember getting started and looking over at other people who were also getting started too, and realizing that their dad owned a lot of stuff and gave them $200,000 [to get their businesses off the ground]," she says. "Being first-generation Filipino-American, you might not have that money. I know that this is a common theme with other first-generation Americans. It's going to be really hard at first, but if you work hard enough you can do it. It's going to be so difficult starting from not very much, but I think it's that much sweeter when you finally get those checks and those dreams come to fruition."