Beautiful Inside and Out: A Conversation with Entrepreneur MJ Thomas

Entrepreneur MJ Thomas is the proud owner and founder of Malaya Studios in Pacifica, California. They offer lash, ink, skin, and wax services at two locations in the area with 10 resident artists and growing. Thomas also founded and is the lead educator at MalayaMade Pro Academy. She uses her 12 years of industry experience to help others unlock their potential and be successful in their beauty practices. But it wasn’t always like this. Thomas was a single mom juggling two jobs and her schooling when she decided to become an aesthetician. Continue reading if you want to learn more about her career journey, how she balances being a working mom, and the advice she has for budding entrepreneurs.

Check out our chat with her below: 

Haley Sengsavanh: Did your experience as a single mom affect your career path?

MJ Thomas: I decided I was going to be a mother at 19. I feel that the decision to become a mother happens when you decide to continue the pregnancy. That also meant fully embracing everything that came with it. I had to prepare myself by thinking about how I was going to do this and that no one’s coming to help me. I still had ambitions to finish school and was also pursuing my medical prerequisites. I figured if my daughter was due in June, I could still finish school, have my baby, and then feel it out from there. 

I was talking with my mother, who is a nurse practitioner and I asked if she always knew she wanted to be in the medical industry. She said yes. I was trying to follow in her footsteps but I just didn’t feel the same way. I had worked at the hospital for a little bit but I didn’t feel any connection. I then asked my mom what she would do if she could do anything in the world and she said her dream would be to open a med spa. I looked into it more and found out that the course to be a licensed aesthetician was only about four to six months. I ended up signing up for that course, which was also perfect because of the flexible schedule. We got facials on the first day of school. When I woke up from my facial, I was like, “Yeah, I could do this for a job and help make people feel this way.” 

How did your journey as an aesthetician start?

After I had my daughter, I was finishing up school and finishing up my license, but I was also bartending and still working at the hospital part time. After I got my license, a girlfriend from school called me and said, “Hey, I’m leaving the place I’m working at right now. I’m the only aesthetician and they’re looking for a replacement.” She explained that I would rent my own room and provide services. I agreed to go and check it out. I met the owner and she said this would be like my own little business. When she said that, I was sold. When I wasn’t working elsewhere or with my daughter, I spent all of my free time building that business. I told myself, the moment that I’m making the same amount as my hospital job, I’m going to quit. Two months later, I quit. I held on to my bartending job because it was only a couple of nights a week and I would leave with cash tips. I told myself again, the moment I’m making the same amount that I’m also making at that bartending job, I’m gonna quit. Literally the next month, I quit. 

So then I was a full time aesthetician and could make my own schedule. I decided to work five to six days a week and if I was still okay after a year, I was going to open up my own business. Sure enough that year came. I was able to put my daughter in private school, I was able to buy a new car, and I opened up Malaya Studios. It used to be this little run down tea house and it had a big kitchen in the back. I decided to buy it. I put in my notice for the previous spa I was at, gave myself two weeks to throw paint up and move all of my things in, opened up the doors, and figured out the rest as I went.

How did you come up with the name for Malaya Studios?

My daughter’s name is Malaya. It derives from the Tagalog word Malaya, meaning free, vast, and limitless without restriction. I feel that the space that we created and the culture that we have at Malaya Studios signs the permission slips for women who are too scared to do that for themselves. Whatever we can offer you, take it so that you can step confidently into the world and feel empowered. 

What was one challenge you encountered when building up a client base?

It was a lot of work. Groupon had just started at the time and they reached out to me about doing a feature. I had no idea what it meant, but my services would be heavily discounted. My little shop was in Pacifica and it’s off the beaten path. No one really goes there unless you have business in the area. So I agreed to a feature. I also talked to the massage therapist at the studio and we collaborated. It was basically giving away services and hoping that these customers could become regular clients or we could sell them a package. 

But holy smokes! I launched that Groupon and 886 people bought it in 24 hours. I didn’t think to put a cap on it because I didn’t expect so much interest. Sometimes you have to give things away for free. You have to do things for less than what you would want to, but the value of a testimony or word of mouth is amazing. It paid me back at least tenfold because I was then able to open up my studio and have those clients stay on. 

Image courtesy of MJ Thomas

What is your favorite kind of service to give others?

I love doing brow tattoos and lash extensions. As soon as those appointments are done, the transformation is instant. Doing brows is also amazing. Usually the people who want microblading have scars, traumatized hair follicles, or can’t see to do their own makeup. Being able to solve that problem instantly is so touching. The insecurity that women may have had before getting their brows done can just disappear. You see the healing happen instantly and it’s such a beautiful thing to contribute to.

How do you maintain a healthy work life balance? 

I grew up not wanting to disappoint others. But I realized that the only person that really matters is myself and sometimes that comes with disappointing people. I see that a lot of women end up giving and giving on an empty tank, and you end up being resentful. Especially mothers who take care of children and always put their kids first. Sometimes a lot of guilt and resentment can follow. 

I’m now married and have four kids. The biggest thing I’ve learned is to remember your why. I started this because I wanted to be able to go on field trips and pick up my daughter or drop her off. If she was sick, I wanted to be able to stay home. So for me, that’s my reason why. Even when I got busy, my family always came first. It’s also important for me to remember that I have relationships with not only my kids, but also my husband. It does take a lot of planning so time blocking is so important. But I honour the days that I’m off. I set my boundaries so that when I’m working, I’m working and when I’m not, I’m not. I think that is huge. 

Why is it so important for you to use Malaya Studios to help other women realize their dreams?

My heart has a very soft place for single mothers, women who feel stuck, or women who feel like they don’t have other options. Especially if you have a knack for helping people, becoming an aesthetician is so user friendly. If you’re interested in doing it, the opportunities are endless. You don’t have to open your own place, but you can rent your own little space and manage your own time. You can work for a spa or a beauty brand. It’s all about helping women feel confident. And that’s our job. How empowering is it to help other women feel good, right?

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs trying to start their own business?

My biggest one is start gritty, not pretty. It’s something that perfectionists need to learn how to do. You have to learn to just start because you’re braver than you feel. No matter what industry you’re in, you’re going to get a lot of naysayers. Be around people who breathe life into your ideas, or encourage it and ask the why-nots. Lastly, surround yourself with people who are doing the same. It can be really lonely when you are building something out of your own mind and out of your own vision. But once you emerge, I promise you, everything will be okay.

Haley Sengsavanh

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