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CEO Jane Hong Has Survived Covid One Polished Nail at a Time

Jane Hong is the CEO of Paintbox, a boutique nail studio on the Upper East Side in New York City and a direct-to-consumer proprietary nail polish line. She is also the mother of two.

If this past year was a color, I would say it’s red. Red is inciting. It can read as angry, but it is also motivational. I think red is how a lot of people are feeling right now, myself included. I feel its chaotic energy, but also its embers of potential.

Today, most of my professional life revolves around color, but I’ve always been aesthetically oriented in the broadest sense of the term. Growing up, I was a classically trained violinist and also a pretty talented drawer and painter. So, I think I’ve had an artistic inclination somewhere in me all along.

Despite my creative passion, I started my career in finance. I went to Princeton, where the career office shared a statistic at the time that something like 80% of all graduates went to Wall Street. The financial industry was booming, and type-A, hard-working masochists were willing to sign up for the 100+ hour weeks in order to get the proper "foundation" for their careers. I was one of those people, and I eventually took a job with Goldman Sachs. My timing wasn't the best – my start coincided with the ’08 financial crisis – but I learned so much in the first few years about grit, resilience, and hard work.

After I got my MBA from MIT in 2014, I moved into more creative industries, first with a job at the design-forward ad agency Huge Inc, and then at the luxury and antique marketplace 1stdibs. My creativity has served me well in business as it’s helped me come up with fresh ideas, different approaches to problem solving, and new revenue streams for a company like Paintbox. 

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to paint my nails because I played the violin. Instead, I would paint my best friends' nails with my extensive Hard Candy nail polish collection, decorating my little canvases with flowers, suns, and hearts. So, I was excited to join forces with Eleanor Langston, a veteran beauty editor, in 2017 to bring Paintbox to life. Langston is the more artistic of our duo, while I run the business side of things without sacrificing my long-held belief in creativity.                                            

I believe nail art is a full-fledged art form and a powerful tool of self-expression. Nails are a place where you can let loose a little bit more, but still operate in the professional world. You might feel a little self-conscious showing up with rainbow or color-block eyeshadow to a PTA meeting or to the boardroom, but you can get away with a rainbow manicure.

I’ve experienced this myself. I don’t wear a lot of makeup because I never learned how to properly apply it on a monolid. I remember being a bridesmaid in countless friends' weddings where the makeup artist would do a smokey eye on all of my friends and just charcoal my eye up to my brows. I felt self-conscious, and I think that's a huge part of why I've never really felt comfortable with makeup. With my nails, though, I love being bold.

During Covid, my belief in the healing and therapeutic power of art has only been confirmed and amplified. But I have also never felt so little control over my life as I do right now. Having to make tough decisions about furloughs and layoffs when I lack a crystal ball about what the future holds has come with a lot of darkness and stress. And then I got Covid myself during the holidays, our busiest season, when my lean team needed the most support.

I've always considered myself a very strong-willed person; I don't break easily, and I can handle quite a bit of stress and uncertainty at any given time. But with the pandemic continuing into its second year, small businesses are truly feeling the squeeze. Building and managing a company and dealing with Covid – both separately and combined – have made for an interesting combination.

One of my biggest struggles during this past year has been that there’s no time for self-care. I know how important self-care is, but between the pandemic and my growing to-do list – looking after a business, my family with two young kids, virtual-school and school applications, and the constant cooking – taking care of myself has fallen to the wayside. On top of everything else, this stress has made my skin rage. I feel burned out and there are days where I just bawl. I used to release my stress in a workout class, but these days, a good convulsing cry is the next best thing.

But, through it all, I’ve always been able to turn to nail art. I paint my nails 1,000 times a day in different colors, even while on Zoom calls. I find the motion of it and the control you can exert over things like color decisions to be therapeutic. There's something very calming about the act of painting and seeing the art come to life on the mini canvas of a nail. 

I remember once sitting with our artist Anna getting a manicure. A woman nearby was finished and held up her hands and said, "This is BOMB!" and Anna looked at me and said, "That right there is why I do this." The happiness and feeling of self-expression that comes at the end of a manicure can be healing. 

Throughout this difficult time of Covid, I’ve learned that I need to give myself more grace – there are demands on us right now that have never existed before. I’ve also learned that I love being in a business that sparks joy for all women.

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