As the CEO and founder of one of the most prestigious medi spas in Canada, Dr. Diane Wong is certainly a force to be reckoned with. The 5ft tall, petite woman kickstarted her medical career as a urology resident during a time when there were only two female urologists in the country (mid 1990s) and when the industry was dominated by white males, having been intimated and towered over at operating tables. However, that did not deter the dynamic Dr. Wong from paving her own path in the medical industry.
Armed with a boatful of confidence, she identified a niche in medical and non-surgical aesthetics, launching her first clinic Glow Medi Spa in the upmarket Yorkville 20 years ago. Since then, Glow Medi Spa has been awarded Canada’s Top Medi Spa for three years in row (2017, 2018, 2019); was featured in top beauty magazines such as Elle, Fashion, Spa, Zoomer, etc. and has expanded into two other branches (of which one was recently sold). Her clientele features celebrities and the cream-de-la-creme of Canada’s social hierarchy.
Wong took time off her busy schedule to speak to The Edge about the secret to building an exclusive brand, the harsh reality of COVID-19 for the beauty industry and how she was forced to adapt to changing times.
What inspired you to become a cosmetic physician?
In medical school, I discovered that I loved to work with my hands, and I fell in love with surgery the first time I stepped up to the operating table. It was love at first sight but like many love-struck romances, this one was not meant for me. After four character-defining years in urology, I put away the scalpel and replaced it with a needle.
I’ve always been results-oriented. I love people and I am a great listener. I wanted to be one of the best in whatever I did, and I wanted to make a difference. I got out of my scrubs and galoshes and embarked into uncharted territory at the time. I left behind the no-scalpel vasectomies at “The Gentle Vasectomy Clinic” and fell in love with Botox, fillers, lasers, and skin treatments. I embraced the world of cosmetic medicine without the knife. As a family physician in 2001, it was just my luck that Botox became Health Canada approved that year and I got onto that unbeaten path which brought me to the beauty capital of the nation, Yorkville. I found my niche in the market by keeping it natural.
Glow Medi Spa has won the Canadian Top Medi Spa Award for three years in a row – what is your secret to success in marketing your brand that has strengthened it to such great heights?
I stand behind my brand. I keep it real and I keep it personal. I took pride in the name Glow Medi Spa and I care. The secret to my success is being me and staying me. It is hard to be a good doctor and businessperson at the same time. I always try to remember that I am a doctor first. I love what I do, and I have the best interest of my clients at heart.
In the early years, Botox, lasers and medical cosmetic treatments were all under medical guidance. It was easy to predict that the industry would not stay the same always. I realized that the safety of the public would be at risk and I began to write articles many years ago to address the impending problems that would surely arise. However, the public will turn a blind eye when it suits them, and no warnings could stop the explosion of the medical aesthetics industry.
Fortunately, however, the Leading Spas of Canada also took an interest and concern as the spa industry started to adopt medical aesthetic treatments and technologies. Our collaboration brought attention to the spa industry leaders who we educated on the risks and benefits of medical treatments as popularity and demand continued to grow.
Through the Leading Spas of Canada as well as other international networks, I have met some wonderful people. Many of them I have never seen in person, but I “met” these people who knew me and recommended me and reached out to me. I networked with people who remembered me, and my reputation grew through word-of-mouth, the good old-fashioned way.
On social media you speak about your unique ““Baby Steps Approach” that gives you a competitive edge, please elaborate on this concept.
I coined the term “baby-steps approach” almost 20 years ago, when there was great fear about using a “toxin” in your face that would make you so “frozen”, you wouldn’t be able to express yourself. I called that ill-fated result the “skating-rink” forehead, so shiny and smooth. But it was an emerging trend along with the huge lips and massive cheeks that was indeed scaring away potential new clients.
The “baby-steps approach” would allow newbies to take it slow and I would introduce beauty treatments gradually respecting their comfort level. I was confident that once I met with a new client, they would be with me for years, so there was never a rush to do it all in one appointment. When you take baby steps, no one else even realizes that you are getting work done. There is just a gradual freshening that all looks very natural. I believe in relationship-building with my clients, which is all about trust and listening and valuing what they want.
COVID-19, specifically the lockdowns, has affected many businesses including non-surgical cosmetic treatments – which forms the core of all your practices. How has this period affected your business and what measures have you put in place to adapt to this period?
In the non-surgical cosmetic world, it is all about touch and face-to-face interaction. The majority of our business is Botox, dermal filler injections and high-powered lasers. There are no virtual needles or DIY Botox at home. COVID-19 has shaken our business to the core. Being in shut-down for over three months was indescribable.
I am one of the dinosaurs who refused to do virtual consults, hated on-line shopping, and wanted to build the physician-patient relationship in person, face-to-face. During the first shutdown, I refused to embrace changes as this was not what I envisioned. I liked the good old days when clients would come in for a consult, we would develop a true relationship based on trust, and we could take the time to evaluate all facets of their face and skin and develop a personalized treatment plan consisting of injectables, lasers, skin treatments, and at-home skin care products. Clients felt at-home at all our locations where they were pampered with a team of professionals who knew everyone by name.
Now we are down to minimal staff and plastic barriers and masks and shields and sanitizers and HEPA filters.
On the positive side, many clients returned when the restrictions were lifted, needing their usual beauty pick-me-ups, and needing to look and feel better. It surprised me how resilient our business is and that clients see it as a necessity. I have noticed that the spend per person has increased. There is less hesitancy and more a sense of urgency. They worry that if we are forced to lock again, they may not be able to get all the treatments they want. Also, many clients are seeing themselves more now on zoom meetings and noticing lines and wrinkles and grooves and folds that they did not even know they had. They are shocked and feel the need for an immediate fix.
We have taken a proactive step and now offer virtual consultations based on client preferences or current restrictions. Clients can meet with a senior medical aesthetician at our clinic via zoom or via telephone. Skin issues and recommendations for at-home skin care products or at-home peels or facials are all discussed. We assist in selecting the appropriate products and arrange to have them delivered right to your door. Curbside pick-up is also available at both our locations in Yorkville and Aurora. Our medical aesthetician will walk you through your peel or facial via zoom and guide you also on using your skin care products at home. If advice from myself is needed as the medical director, I am also available to virtually meet the client and assess their skin.
What are the major trends you have noticed in the past five years in cosmetic surgery – surgical and non-surgical – and what trends do you foresee? Do you believe that the rise of social media, specifically beauty influencers, have had a significant impact on the industry – either good or bad?
Trends are replaying themselves. I have been in the non-surgical cosmetic industry for 20 years and old styles are unfortunately coming back again. The old “trout” lips have resurfaced as the “ski jump” lips… That never has been and never will be a style that I embrace. But at least they are temporary so they will wear away. I equate beauty styles to fashion styles like high-waisted mom jeans, cut-off T-shirts, and white running shoes. My teenage girls are wearing some of the same styles I wore as a teenager. The trends come and go and repeat themselves in time.
I am more old-fashioned in my approach and prefer to customize each person’s treatment to their particular facial features. I love to accentuate the positives and detract from the negatives (most of us have negatives unfortunately). I like to respect natural cultural differences and not create the same look for all cultures and all faces. With beauty trends, we should realize that not one style suits all.
Beauty influencers and social media have a tremendous impact on clients’ perception of what is beautiful these days. Although it is a great stimulus for clients to come in and seek beauty treatments due to these influencers, it can be detrimental if the client is fixated on a beauty trend which may not be best suited for their particular facial features. I prefer when clients ask my opinion about what may be best for them rather than expect or demand the latest trend.
As a female entrepreneur of visible minority, what were some of the major challenges you had to overcome when you launched your first practice and do these challenges still apply in today’s society or are there new ones to overcome?
In my past career in urology, I had faced much adversity in a male-dominated surgical field that the beauty industry for me was a welcome change. Imagine being a 5 ft tall, Chinese woman amongst urologists who were mostly all Caucasian men and 6 ft tall. I had to stand on 3 stools to reach their height of the operating table and always had to have size 5 ½ gloves special ordered for me. In 1996 when I entered the urology residency programme, there were only 2 female urologists in Canada (outside of Quebec). I remember presenting at a urology conference and the entire audience consisted of hundreds of males.
By that time, I had already hardened and developed a thick skin, so I took on the challenge of being a female entrepreneur with some ease initially. I didn’t notice at first that there was a difference between men and women in this field or between different races and I just accepted all the challenges as challenges. It is hard to say but in reflecting now after 20 years, I suppose that some of the challenges I faced, could have been less daunting if I was someone other than myself.
Being a woman or being a visible minority never hindered me in my career. In fact, I think I had an advantage being a woman in the cosmetic medical industry. I can relate to my patients, most of whom are women. We have developed a very trusting relationship and they are open and honest with me and that comes with great ease. Not to mention, it’s a lot of fun being able to share experiences with my clients, it’s a two-way street.
One of my greatest limitations may be the fact that I only speak English. Some clients, including Chinese-speaking clients, prefer to speak in their native tongue. They are more comfortable and able to express themselves fully. I do wish I could speak Chinese or another language to make those clients more comfortable.
If you had to look back to your first day ‘on the job’ when you had launched your first practice 20 years ago, what would you have said to yourself then that you have learnt since?
Choose your team wisely. As an entrepreneur you will be the cornerstone, but you also need a strong team to help you along the way. You cannot do it alone. It is best if you can find people who will share your vision and support you along the way but sometimes that does not happen. You must recognize when you don’t have the right team players. Don’t be afraid of change. Unwillingness to make a change soon enough may be a costly mistake.
How do you balance almost single-handedly running two practices and a personal life?
Good question. But a very difficult answer. Until very recently, I actually had three practices and very little of a personal life left. I worked 24/7 literally as sleep, weekends and vacations never allowed me to be away from work. I had always loved my “job” when the adrenaline rush would give me the energy of my youth and my mind would be swept away with all the exciting plans. Always promising myself and my teenage girls, that once I pass this last hurdle, it will all be much better. I’ll have more time, I’ll be more relaxed, we’ll be able to enjoy so and so again. I became more involved in the administration and business itself and less involved with direct patient care. The hours became longer, the business grew, the staff grew, the issues grew, and the stress grew. But when you are in too deep to see it, it takes a major life catastrophe to shake you up enough to stop and regroup.
Maybe this COVID-19 pandemic has saved me. I woke up one morning on March 17, 2020 to find out that the world had changed, almost overnight. All my businesses were closed, without notice. Bills kept pouring in, revenues were literally zero. This couldn’t be real but yet it was. It still is. Reality still is sinking in.
As an entrepreneur, I have always had to make hard decisions. This would be the hardest as the unknowns ahead were truly that…unknowns. After two months of closure, I decided to sell my newest and largest location. It was not an easy decision as I had poured so much into it already with the greatest yet to come. It turned out to be a great decision. It allowed me more time to spend at the other two locations, once again seeing my patients one-on-one, and it most importantly allowed me more time to spend with my family.
The prolonged closure and complete lockdown of Toronto for over three months allowed me the time to reflect and realize the most important things in my life. It’s an easy answer for most…family of course…yet sometimes we entrepreneurs lose our way when the daily demands of our work pull us in another direction. We tend to justify to ourselves and to families that our work is a good thing for all of us. However, in extreme times of uncertainty and fear, we are forced to face the real truth. We realize that we have sacrificed so much for our businesses, but at the end of the day, it’s our family and friends that mean the most.
It’s never too late to take a step backwards. Or forwards really, as this is a new path now. We have gained all the experiences of leading a team, making the decisions, blazing the trails. We have much to pass on to the new generation and still so much to contribute as leaders in our field.
What advice do you have for cosmetics physicians and budding entrepreneurs who are also looking to start their own practices?
Diversify but don’t stretch yourself too thin. Be cautious but not overly so. Don’t be afraid of change. If you love going to work, it’s the right thing for you. Don’t be a cowboy. Follow the rules, they are there for a reason. Follow your gut, you will regret it if you don’t. Follow your passion especially if it keeps you up at night. Try not to have regrets. Do your research, shop carefully for technologies, employees, and your professional team; this is too expensive an industry to make mistakes. Ask for help when you need it; it may not be offered but is there if you ask. Know your limits and stay within it.
Veruschka Mungroo | Senior Editor