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How She Got There: Jess Lee, CEO and Co-Founder of Polyvore

Name: Jess Lee
Age: 31
Job Title and Description: CEO and co-founder of Polyvore. Polyvore is a new way to discover and shop for the things you love in fashion, beauty and home decor.
College/Major: Stanford University/Computer Science
Website: polyvore.com 
Twitter Handle: @jesskah 

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?

Jess Lee: As CEO, I spend most of my time on two things: people and product. By people, I mean recruiting the best possible team and creating an environment that empowers them to do their best work. By product, I mean identifying problems our users have, and letting loose that amazing team to come up with solutions.

There is no typical day. It’s everything from interviewing people, to giving presentations, to learning how to write better SQL queries. The one constant is that I’m always learning.

What is the best part of your job?

JL: As a first-time CEO, many of the challenges I face are ones I’ve never experienced before. I learn something new every day, which is both humbling and rewarding. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by a team of smart, passionate, interesting people who enjoy solving problems in clever ways, and we work through the hard problems together. The best part of my job is getting to learn new things all the time alongside people I really love being around.

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

JL: I grew up in Hong Kong and moved to the Bay Area for college. After studying computer science at Stanford, I was pretty sure my path would lead me to become an engineer. Then I got a call from a Google recruiter, encouraging me to interview to be an associate product manager. I didn’t really know what a product manager was at the time, but I went to the interview anyways.

One of my interviewers was Marissa Mayer (then a director of product at Google, now CEO of Yahoo!), who gave me the advice to always choose the more challenging path where you’ll grow and learn. Being a product manager definitely felt like the more unknown, challenging path, so I took it. That was how I ended up at Google.

What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?

JL: When I was interviewing for my first job, I was only evaluating companies based on their products, not based on their teams or culture. It turns out the two most important things that impact your day-to-day job happiness are who you’re going to be working with and what the work environment is like. When you’re interviewing, don’t forget that it’s a two-way interview. Make sure to evaluate the people who interview you, and to ask them what they like or dislike about the company.

Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?

JL: When I was growing up, my mom ran her own small business out of our apartment. Because of that, it never occurred to me that women weren’t normally CEOs.

What words of wisdom do you find most valuable?

JL: Marissa Mayer told me to constantly challenge myself and to go where you can learn and grow the most. Even if you don’t succeed at it, you’ll have learned a lot. That’s the piece of advice that made me decide to join Google in the first place. It also led me to the decision to leave Google, make the leap to a startup and step into the CEO role at Polyvore. I made a ton of mistakes along the way, but I’ve also learned so many new things.

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?

JL: Early in my Polyvore career, there were times when the company was doing too many things at once, or when I personally was doing too many things. I eventually learned that there are only a few things that really matter in moving your business, and it’s better to do those things really, really, really well, rather than doing a lot of things poorly.

What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?

JL: When Polyvore was five people in a living room, I never imagined we’d grow to have so many users. Some surreal moments for me: seeing a Polyvore set projected on a huge billboard in Times Square, having Kate Moss judge a Polyvore contest, winning a Webby Award and being mentioned in an interview as a favorite fashion site by one of my all-time favorite actresses, Kristen Bell.

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?

JL: One thing I look for is the ability to break a complex, big, hairy problem into smaller pieces. At a startup, you’ll be faced with major challenges, and you have to be able to decompose that challenge into smaller, easier problems that you can tackle one by one; otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed.

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?

JL: Surround yourself with great people and try to learn new things.

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Lily is a member of Wesleyan University's class of 2016, where she double majored in government and sociology. She's a writer, editor, and social media manager, as well as co-founder of The Prospect (www.theprospect.net), the world’s largest student-run college access organization. In addition to her work with Her Campus, she also serves in editorial roles at HelloFlo and The Muse.
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