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What This MIT-Trained CEO Wishes School Taught Her Differently: There's No ‘Right Way' to Succeed

Source: Arcaea

There's no "right way" to become successful. That's what Jasmina Aganovic, the 35-year-old CEO of beauty biotech startup Arcaea, wishes she'd known before she embarked on her career.

Aganovic, who has a degree in chemical and biological engineering from MIT, launched Arcaea in 2021 after multiple stints developing products for other biotech companies. Her startup develops lab-grown compounds that mimic common ingredients in beauty products, but in a more effective and sustainable way, she says.

In less than two years, her company has raised $78 million from venture capital firms and beauty industry giants like Chanel and Givaudan. Arcaea recently began shipping its first lab-grown ingredient, ScentArc, which Aganovic says can "shift our smell, naturally, away from body odor" rather than simply masking bad smells.

But for years, she says, she struggled — especially to accept the ups-and-downs of her job and the disappointment of not always immediately meeting her own high expectations.

School taught her to always search for "the clear, best answer," Aganovic says. But often, you won't have the time or resources to find a perfect solution, which might not even exist in the first place.

"If you are very academically oriented, and you go to a school like MIT, it's really easy to just be trained throughout your life to believe that ... there are correct answers, and there are incorrect answers," Aganovic says. "And then once you're in the real world, it is not as clear, right?"

Her solution: If following a success script doesn't always work, stop trying to follow one.

Instead, make "constant adjustments and judgment calls based on what you know about the business, and then iterating and iterating from there," she says, adding: "There isn't necessarily one singular way of doing things."

'There's a serious double-edged sword there'

Realistically, Arcaea has a long journey ahead: Any new startup experiences constant bumps in the road. But even getting to this point was a challenge for Aganovic, who says accepting the twists and turns of her career choice meant repeatedly adjusting her expectations and "learning how to practice self-compassion."

"The days that are really great are just so awesome," she says. "And the days that are not are really terrible."

That's a relatable concept for anyone who's emotionally tied to their job. A few months ago, for example, Arcaea suffered a setback: A pilot batch of a new ingredient failed, sending Aganovic and the company's engineers scrambling for solutions.

It was easy to not "feel worthy" of her position in that moment, she says. Her younger self might have stewed over the failure. Instead, Aganovic tried to focus on a more helpful concept: Setbacks aren't always permanent.

"We resolved [the issue]," she says. "And then you're like, 'We're awesome. We can do this!'"

It's not an easy mindset to adapt or internalize. Aganovic says it took her a particular amount of time because of her own personality and background: a high-achiever who has always pushed herself hard to be successful in school and her career.

"[People like me] believe that being hard on themselves pushes them to be more successful. But there's a serious double-edged sword there that starts to become really burdensome later," she says. "It's not productive energy ... I wish I had been a little bit more aware of [that]."

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