You may know her as the co-founder of Birchbox, but Mollie Chen is also a master of forming healthy habits while knowing how to treat herself — why not enjoy a great workout, cocktail, AND a cookie in one day? We sat down with Mollie to chat about maintaining a sense of balance that works for you, what weeknight recipes are her go-to, and why puzzles are the new coloring. As far as we’re concerned, Mollie is the new Gwyneth. ;) We hope you enjoy our chat with her.
You’re into living a very healthy, well-balanced life. Can you talk a bit more about this? Have you always been this way?
The easy answer is that I’ve always loved food. But it’s taken me a long time to figure out what “balance” is. I had an unhealthy relationship with food previously: I’d eat “good” things and then overindulge or binge on other things. It took me time as an adult to figure out how to balance it and I’m still figuring it out! I do have one too many cookies and cocktails sometimes. [laughs] Living in New York, especially, you have an embarrassment of great food around.
I feel better when I eat the right mix of foods. That usually means a lot of veggies and whole grains, but it also means a fair amount of sweets, a good homemade baked treat. And when I’m not pregnant, I enjoy cocktails.
My husband and I joke that it’s the house of green things. If you fill up your plate with delicious veggies, having all those things on your plate is like insurance — it’s kind of like investing in feeling great.
What advice do you have for someone who wouldn’t consider themselves super “fit” but would like to start living a more healthy lifestyle?
I think it comes down to balance and finding what works for you. My way of being healthy won’t work for everyone so for every category in food, exercise, mental health, etc. you have to figure out what’s sustainable.
It’s figuring out what do I enjoy, how can I do this every day? For example, for exercise, don’t force yourself to do something you don’t like. Healthy habit formation is one of the hardest things, and it happens over time. I like to think about the small changes you can make.
You cook the most delicious food, according to Instagram! Do you and your husband have any go-to recipes for busy weeknights?
He and I were best friends before we got married, so we’ve had five years of cooking together! People pick the types of food they’re comfy with. For us that’s Italian, Mediterranean, and New American. We eat a lot of eggs, roast chicken, and there’s always some sort of giant salad on our table.
On a weeknight, we like to do socca, which is kind of like a giant chickpea pancake. You can put a pesto on it. We also like doing poached eggs, rice, veggies, with a delicious dressing — it’s our adaptation of the Sqirl pesto rice bowl.
I love breakfast too. Now that I’m not at Birchbox, I really relish having breakfast at home. I like to have a bowl of oatmeal, or some great granola and fruit.
Who does the cooking in your household? How do you maintain a partnership in that?
Luckily, we both love to cook. There are certain things that we gravitate towards. I will always cook over delivery.
The reason why we cook so much is because I would always rather cook something. I’m better at figuring out the recipe, and Rob is much more about projects. He’s more dedicated to the details in cooking, and I make sure to always have delicious veggies.
Birchbox was and is wildly successful, but you have chosen to leave the company. You wrote a very honest piece about your decision to leave and how you and Birchbox were not right for each other anymore. What advice do you have for someone who is also on the brink of making a difficult career-related decision, such as leaving their current job to pursue something new?
I think at the end of the day, you know when it’s time. You have to take the responsible steps to get there. For me that means talking to smart people, making lists, and turning the problem over in my head.
It was hard for me to leave. I loved the company so much, but I ultimately realized you can love something and be proud that you built something but also know when it’s time to go. The analogy I give people is: let’s say you’re dating someone. If that relationship is not giving you joy, it might be the best decision to just walk away from it. For people trying to make that decision — it’s a slow process. It took me six months to make that decision.
The main advice I’d give is be honest with yourself, but also give yourself time to work through the problem.
What is something that you wish you had known at the beginning of the founding at Birchbox that you now know?
Plenty of people maybe told us this, but I think when you’re starting something new, every little decision feels like a crucial decision. We spent a lot of time on small decisions. Now, having a bit more maturity with age and having been through six years of Birchbox, I think I have a bit more perspective. We did a lot of agonizing in the beginning. I think that it’s good to test and build, but at certain point you’ll have to make a decision.
I’m sure everyone is asking you, “What’s next?” I’m interested in what you’re doing now but also, what are you excited about? What are you up to now?
I think like anyone who comes off a pretty big rocketship ride, I’ve enjoyed being able to take a step back. It’s a real privilege to take a step back and be able to take a look at the landscape.
I care about people, and I care about companies that solve problems for people. While Birchbox sells beauty and sells happiness, we also help women solve the problem of discovering products. I’m still looking at solving a problem.
I’m also excited about really well-designed packaged goods. I’m typically more of a consumer of those products. I also love thinking about content and how it connects people to brands.
Be honest about why you exist — you can’t just tell a customer that they need you. You need to latch onto a greater purpose.
Industry-wise, I’d say that I do get excited about food, health and wellness. But back when I was an editor at Traveler, I realized that you don’t have to work deeply in the industry even if you love it. In fact, when you think about something all the time, it can diminish your enjoyment of it.
What’s something that you are nerding out over right now that you think might become the next big thing?
Puzzles and pizza night! Puzzles are the new coloring — you heard it here first! It’s fun — no one looks at their phones! I also read a lot. I listen to podcasts about politics. When the weather gets nicer, I’m trying to become a gardener. The thing I nerd out most about is food. My friend told me I talk about recipes all the time.
Can you walk me through what you’d consider a “typical” day, starting with what time you wake up in the morning?
I’m a morning person and I’ve always been that way. For me, if I don’t work out in the mornings , it makes me a less pleasant person to be around during the day — I have less energy, and I’m grumpy. Most days I try to do a class at Equinox or a Peloton ride at home. Otherwise in the mornings I might do twenty minutes of yoga or go for a walk.
I start every morning by getting up between 6:30-6:45am to work out. Then I have breakfast and coffee at home. For the bulk of my career I’d just run out, grab coffee somewhere, then eat breakfast at my desk. These days, Rob and I have breakfast together at home. It could be avocado toast with eggs, and Rob’s in charge of coffee.
We’re picky about coffee. We use a Chemex during the winter and we like a cold brew in the summer. Lately we’ve been using beans from Parlor Coffee, who are based in NY. We also love Tandem Coffee Roasters from Portland, Maine.
From there I either go into the city to work out of First Round Capital, or I work from home. All my clients are remote so I’m typically on the phone a lot — I’m on Google Hangouts for most of the day!
Then, I like to mix in meetings with people who I know from Birchbox. I’ll do afternoon or coffee meeting at least once a day. It’s nice to have an office in the city, and now I have a lot more flexibility than I’ve ever had before.
What would you consider your self-care routine?
Exercise is huge. It’s the most consistent way I’ve found to maintain balance and wellness.
There’s stuff I don’t do that I want to…I never got into “girly” maintenance habits. For instance, I never get manicures — I get really impatient.
I’ve never been one to do facials, but now I go to Heyday [Editor’s note: According to their website, Heyday is “a facial shop taking the facial out of the spa and into your life.” Into it.]. It’s a complete indulgence. I go once a month. It’s perfect for me — I’m in and out within 30-50 minutes, and it’s a chic and stylish spot.
Aside from that, I also try to read or listen to a podcast before bed.
Have you found your relationship to technology changing recently? In your piece called “A Type-A Guide to Time Off” you mention weaning yourself off your devices.
I think like many people, I really overdid it in January and February. We were in this constant whirlpool of being tugged by the headlines. I got constant notifications from the New York Times and other news apps. It was really affecting my ability to function.
I think now, it’s about not getting up in arms about every single thing. I don’t look at Twitter constantly. I try not to read the news before bed.
I’m trying to stay focused but still be really active. I’m trying to focus on things that are positive and making an impact. For instance, my friends and I are throwing an event to raise $20,000 for Planned Parenthood this weekend. I think you can ask yourself, “What can I do in my daily life that can make an impact?”
Last book you read? I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It’s a super strange read — you’re not zipping along on a plotline with this one. My next book will probably be something a little more plot-driven.
Favorite thing to eat when you just want to treat yourself? I love cookies, or an ice cream cone with sprinkles.
Last thing you splurged on? We just bought our first piece of art. It’s a mixed media piece by Rose Blake, a young British artist.
You can follow Mollie on Instagram @molliechen.
As told to Alisha Ramos, March 2017. Photography by Heather Sten for Girls’ Night In. Interview lightly edited for conciseness and clarity.