In light of it being Female Leaders’ Month, I spoke to Rachel Polla, General Manager of the Swiss-based medical spa Forever Institut. She made being a successful entrepreneur look easy, so I thought I would share some of what I learnt from her.
The beauty of this Forever story is that it is fundamentally about women being badasses and finding an exquisite balance between family, business, self-fulfillment, and making the world a better and more beautiful place.
As a starting point, Polla made me laugh when she pointed to her education – both at home and in school – and her rebellious nature as the roots of her entrepreneurial nature. Then I realized she was right - rebellious teens do make the most successful entrepreneurs!
Different cultures have very different approaches.
Polla and her three sisters mostly grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and attended the International School of Geneva. The multicultural education widened Rachel’s horizons and opened her eyes to the fact that different cultures have very different approaches to everything from food, social norms, and risk.
First medical spa in Switzerland.
Polla’s parents, two medical doctors, started Forever Institut, the first medical spa of Switzerland and one of the first of its kind in Europe.
The idea was born from time they spent as a family in Boston, USA. Barbara Polla, Rachel’s mother, got an internship there so Luigi, her husband, followed suit (three cheers for Barbara!) and ended up interning at Mass General where he worked under the inventor of dermato-cosmetics and of the hair removal laser. That inspired him to import the lasers to Europe, found his dermatology office, and, 10 years later, Forever Institut.
Their entrepreneurial spirit did not end there.
A contemporary art gallery, Analix Forever, was opened and has now been partially relocated to Paris where the concept has evolved into a brand that curates pop-up art shows. A medical skin-care product line, Alchimie Forever, was also developed, and is now based out of Washington, DC.
From Barbara and Luigi Polla’s initial idea, their family brand has now grown into a family-business that is managed by the four sisters, each contributing in their own way.
Ada, Cyrille, Rachel, and Roxane all took their own paths in life, maintaining a link with with the family business for example by helping out at the reception of the Forever Institute and eventually becoming active shareholders with a seat on the Board.
Today, Harvard and Georgetown-educated Ada runs Alchimie Forever. Cyrille graduated from Cambridge University and is in charge of marketing and communications. Rachel worked for different aspects of the family business before moving to a Swiss Bank’s communication department for almost a decade before coming back as Forever Institut’s General Manager. As for Roxane, she is in training to become a surgeon and while that is her main focus, the vision is that she will become the source of the family’s scientific integrity.
Speaking with Rachel, she shared some lessons learned from her entrepreneurial experiences as well as the vision the four Polla sisters have for the future of their family brand:
- Know your business. Forever Institut started off as a medical spa, but during its initial years also dabbled in more classic spa offerings. Ultimately, they realized their strength was in how they differentiated themselves from the rest of the market, which lied not in massages but in the innovation they could offer on the medical aspect of things.
- Define your values & principles, then stick to them. The four sisters took a course on “Enterprise succession” which helped them put together a shareholder contract, and while it is critical to realize that there are no right or wrong answers, for them it was unanimous: their core value was love. So yes, they are running a for-profit business, but maintaining their sisterly bond came first. With clear guidelines, making decisions in difficult or stressful times is much easier.
- Trust your instincts & experience. Contrary to what some might say is conventional wisdom, the Polla approach to a downturn in the economy is not to cut costs but to invest in their business and advertise. And it works!
- You are your support network. The adage “it takes a village” refers to raising a child, but as many entrepreneurs see their business as their baby, it’s only fitting that this apply too – and it does. Even if you are a superhero, you cannot do it alone – you need family, friends, and a team that has your back and overall, a support network that (although it’s obvious, apparently it bears repeating) does not add stress or troubles to your ever-growing to-do list but helps you navigate the sometimes stormy waters of life.
- If you need something, ask for it. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Building on #4, if you’re juggling too much or need someone to cover for you because an emergency came up, ask. Being human will endear you to your team and contribute to, not tear down, your reputation.
- The future is yours for the making. Whether you’re the founder of a company or are stepping into a leadership role, your vision matters. Find a way to build bridges between generational (or other) gaps, refine the direction you’re going in, and while always respecting what was done before you, lead the way forward.
For the Forever brand, looking ahead means finding new ways to achieve their overall mission to “enhance natural beauty” because looking good means feeling good means doing good.
Their newest endeavor, the Forever Boutique, is a space in Lausanne, Switzerland, intended to democratize esthetic medicine by making it accessible, pleasant, and simple.
Understanding that success does not mean staying at work longer than anyone else, Rachel aspires to further cultivate the balance she has always wished for, for herself and her team – because women today can have it all: the family, the career, and the inner beauty that is reflected on the outside.