Scientist to Candlemaker: Weirdest Career Pivot of All Time?

What do you do when all of your plans and education don’t fit? You pivot. Michelle went from scientist to candlemaker, and grew her business!

Get Started with Interact!

Okay, maybe that’s up for debate. But it’s definitely not the career path you’d expect from someone who spent over a decade doing science research and earning a doctorate degree.

So how did a scientist turned skincare entrepreneur become a candlemaker? It may sound crazy, but hear me out.

Growing up, I loved to paint and could watch Bob Ross for hours. I made Barbie clothes from my mom’s leftover fabric scraps and doodled graffiti letters all over my notebooks. I was a creative at heart, but as the eldest child of immigrant parents, I did what I felt like I “should” do: I focused all my energy on school, got a PhD in cellular biology, and was on my way to securing a stable, corporate job. 

But even as I was spending day and night running experiments and hammering out my thesis in the library stacks, I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be stuck in a lab for the rest of my life.

On a post-graduation tour of Southeast Asia, the idea hit me—I could start my own business.

I would use the chemical compounds I’d studied in school for a skincare line. It was science-related, so I convinced myself it made sense as a next step.

When I got home, I turned down a slew of job offers and told my mom and dad that I was starting a skincare business (and you can bet I’ll never forget the look of shock on their faces … gulp).

In most stories, this would be the part where I said, and then my business took off and we all lived happily ever after!

But it didn’t happen like that.

Even though I grew a loyal customer base and things appeared great from the outside, I struggled with massive anxiety and self-doubt behind the scenes. I always felt like an outsider in the beauty and skincare industry, and as the face of my brand, I constantly felt pressure to both look like a scientist and have flawless skin. Ironically, all the pressure I was putting on myself was causing me to develop eczema, an inflammatory skin condition that can be triggered by stress (not ideal when you’re trying to sell skincare products!).

Fast-forward four years, and I realized I had created a new kind of box for myself with my skincare business. I felt unhappy and bogged down, trying to keep up with a perfect image that I’d created and an industry that I just didn’t fit in with. 

But how could I back out of it now? I had told everybody that this was the thing! I had turned down a serious career in science to pursue this business.

At the time, candle-pouring was just a creative outlet that let me blow off steam. I started mocking up labels and boxes for the candles I was pouring as a fun side project. Having this creative freedom energized me, and before I knew it, my side project was turning into a bona fide business.

With just $1,000, I launched Modern Theory in 2019 with a first run of 100 candles. I made a simple website and shared it with family and friends. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the candles quickly sold out. Once I found a manufacturing partner to help me pour hundreds of candles, I hit the ground running. I reached out to every local brick-and-mortar store where my target customer would shop; I signed up for any show, market, or event that I could get into.

In just a few months, several San Francisco boutiques were carrying my candles, and they became a hit at events! I never felt more happy and humbled.

Going into 2020, Modern Theory was gaining steam and I was ready to build on that momentum. But then COVID-19 hit and all of my grand plans fell to the wayside. Retail stores weren’t placing orders and shows were being canceled. Fear and uncertainty were slowly setting in, but then I caught a huge break.

After a feature and rave review from a popular blog site, I saw a surge in sales, and a few weeks later, my entire collection sold out online. I doubled down on e-commerce. I used email and social media to connect with customers and online retailers. Building and strengthening these relationships helped my business grow quickly.

By summer, I decided to wind down my skincare business (something I thought I could never do) and focus on Modern Theory full time.

By the end of 2020, I secured numerous partnerships, hired an intern, and revenue nearly quadrupled from the previous year. During a year full of hardship and uncertainty, I couldn’t be more grateful for these wins; I made sure to celebrate each and every one of them.

My journey from cell biologist to candlemaker was hard, frustrating, and demoralizing at times, but it was eye-opening, too. It showed me that I have the freedom to choose, the freedom to follow what inspires me, and the freedom to break free of expectations—even if they’re my own. 

Now I’m building a company where I can express my creativity freely, connect with people from all walks of life, and feel good about myself. This is what success looks like to me. 

The great Maya Angelou summed it up perfectly: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

So, no matter what the new year holds, I’m embracing it with open arms and a positive attitude because anything else is just icing on the cake. 

Get Started with Interact!

Michelle Tu

Michelle Tu is a biologist turned creative entrepreneur who loves building brands rooted in sustainability, social impact, and great design. She enjoys mentoring young women interested in business and helping new entrepreneurs find their footing in the startup world. Outside of work, you can find her scouring the world for the best fried chicken, attempting to do Pinterest-worthy nail art, or camping anywhere off the grid. To learn more about her, visit www.michellektu.com.

More Posts by Michelle Tu