How this high school graduate started working at L’Oréal and Christian Dior

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Joanna Koh explored the beauty and fashion industry after she left school at 18. Source: Joanna Koh

After leaving school at 18 and completing her diploma, Joanna Koh deviated from the academic path and played her hand in the fashion and beauty industry with the likes of L’Oréal and Christian Dior.

With fashion on her mind, Koh felt it was the right time to explore a youthful interest and an opportunity to try something different. 

“At that time, I found myself in the fashion industry as a model. I actually represented Singapore in a few competitions overseas, so I got a chance to travel. 21-year-old me went to some incredible places, like Ghana. It’s kind of mind-blowing to think back about it,” shares Koh.

Eventually, she dabbled in entrepreneurship — where she started her photography studio and her own company specialising in makeup artistry. 

Here, she collaborated with many other makeup artists under one umbrella as an agency. 

“Then came an opportunity in my late 20s to set up a company because I had already been working as a makeup artist for over a decade,” she says.

“Through that, I started to work with more MNCs. One of our clients was L’Oréal, where we provided makeup artists as well as support them in their training for their sales teams.”

These connections allowed Koh to make her way into the luxury industry.

The personal care company invited Koh to move to Hong Kong — a move that will see the entrepreneur join the world’s largest beauty company.

There, she worked as a Training Manager for makeup artists, serving Asia Pacific in travel retail. 

The sales team was being placed at airports. It is a form of travel retail that involves dealing with customers worldwide and “they are in a completely different mindset.”

Her move from L’Oréal Hong Kong to Christian Dior

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It has always been Koh’s passion to develop people to reach their fullest potential through learning. Source: Joanna Koh

Surprisingly, training was something that Koh never considered until after her work experience at L’Oréal.

“I didn’t really think about training at that time. I kind of flowed into that area. It was after I realised that I wanted to do more than just work in fashion, or more than just work in beauty,” Koh reflects.

After two years with L’Oréal, Koh returned to Singapore to work for Christian Dior, where she is currently the Regional Training and Retail Performance Manager for the APAC region.

Instead of face-to-face training, Koh has transitioned to managing the trainers and the training managers from the region.

While the glamour of the luxury industry no longer fazes her, she still catches herself in awe at certain moments.

“For example, Christian Dior is under the group LVMH. And whenever I see all the different businesses and brands under the LVMH group all around me in Paris, it gives me a sort of satisfaction that I’m part of something much, much bigger than what I see in my day to day,” she shares.

Advice for women joining the fashion and beauty industry

Koh reflects that most of her journey involved entrepreneurship. She emphasises that one must have the courage to put yourself out there and take leaps of faith when trying something new.

“There was a lot of investment from my end as well, in terms of not just money, but with time. In fashion, there is quite a lot of pro bono work to be done before one reaches a certain standing in the industry. I personally did quite a lot of that, especially in the earlier days,” she adds.

The regional training and retail performance manager reminds those who plan to venture into the industry that it will take time to see results and that the switch can be worth it.

“It’s easy to build up certain walls and the easy way out could be for many people to be mean to others,” she says.

Koh strongly believes that kindness and having a strong support system go a long way.

The fashion and beauty industry is full of secrets, but Koh refuses to believe that’s how the industry should be.

“From my perspective, being in training and learning development, we should always share with others because in terms of knowledge. I always have believed that sharing, like building up people around us, doesn’t mean that we ourselves are going to be put down,” she points out.

The eye-opening EMC programme at INSEAD

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Koh’s female classmates at INSEAD who came from diverse backgrounds were a constant source of support, knowledge and inspiration for her. Source: Joanna Koh

INSEAD Business School’s Executive Master in Change programme gave Koh the knowledge she needed to make a difference through working with people. The programme first attracted her because of its human aspect to the courses.

“I’m very interested about what goes on, like, in the human mind. I think being in the industry of training, especially in the functional training is, I work with people like all the time, and it’s my role to guide them,” she says.

This outstanding alumna is part of the INSEAD business school’s “Ambition Has No Gender” campaign.