China Wong, owner of Salon Spa W in Des Moines, Iowa. 
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China Wong, owner of Salon Spa W in Des Moines, Iowa. 

A graduate of Iowa State University, China Wong started her professional career in the Chicago finance industry. As a then client of up-scale Chicago salons, China was mesmerized by the innovative environments, skilled stylists and superb service. Wanting to join their ranks, she attended Aveda Institute Chicago and after graduation moved to Atlanta to work for the internationally known Van Michael Salons, before returning to Chicago to educate and lead as the senior colorist for Asha Salon.
China’s client list is extensive and has included Barack Obama, Arianna Huffington, Supermodel Emme, Michele Norris and NFL Cheerleaders to name a few. After honing her skills in some of the most competitive markets in the country China brought her experience, education and upscale service to Des Moines, opening Salon Spa W in 2005.

Under her leadership Salon Spa W has been named one of the Top 100 Salons in the U.S. by Elle Magazine. The salon has received industry recognition as a SALON TODAY 200 honoree from 2011-2020. In 2014 & 2016 the salon was nominated for the most prestigious award in the beauty industry, the North American Hairdressing Awards (NAHA). Salon Spa W was the first nominee from Iowa in NAHA’s 28-year history. China herself has been honored by being chosen as one of 2017’s 40 Under 40 honorees in her community and selected as the Des Moines Business Woman of the Year for 2017.

China spends her time developing lead professionals within the salon, creating editorial and session work, attending education events, leading business development and maintains a small group of private clients. She uses her creative energy and business expertise to serve as an educator and keynote speaker at conferences and events around the country.

SALON TODAY caught up with this busy owner, asking her a few questions about her leadership style:

SALON TODAY: From where does your entrepreneurial drive originate?

China: ”I think my entrepreneurial drive is genetic and was passed on to me by my father who is also an entrepreneur.  Since about the age of five, I was learning about cash flow and inventory from him.  I watched him work hard as a first-generation American who overcame poverty, built many successful businesses and made sure all of his children were educated.”

SALON TODAY: What is your strongest leadership quality, and how has it helped you grow your business?

China: “When it comes to leadership, I’m pretty solid and consistent, meaning that what you see is what you get. I’m not overly emotional or rattled by things that might derail others. I’m also extremely passionate about mentorship and helping people achieve their best life.   When I look at my team, I truly want them to have purpose-driven success—professionally, personally and financially. We’ve created an environment for stylists filled with opportunities to build a career and life they love through creative scheduling, ongoing education, community givebacks; excellent benefits and work-life balance. In addition to all of this, one of our cultural values is to put the time and effort into building and maintaining good relationships with guests, clients and each other. I think all of these things are what has made me the leader that I am today.”

Salon Spa W's front desk makes a grand first impression.
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Salon Spa W's front desk makes a grand first impression.

SALON TODAY: How would you describe your management style? What do you think makes you a good leader, and in what areas would you like to improve?

China: “My management style is pretty straightforward. As challenges arise, and they do, you deal with them; learn from them and then you move on.   I’m also very honest and in-tune with my team, so they all know where they stand and visa-versa. We work hard, support each other and celebrate big wins – it’s a culture I’m very proud of. As for improvement, I’m looking for ways to increase 1:1 time I have with team members.  It’s something that is important to them and me, so looking at ways to improve systems, streamline processes and delegate more is an ongoing priority for me.”

SALON TODAY: As you grew your beauty business, what ‘Ah-Ha’ moments of clarity helped you shape its future course?

China: “I’m not sure my ‘Ah-Ha’ moments have given me clarity as much as they’ve revealed that my ‘well-thought out, data-driven, financially sound plan’ was going to be thrown out the window. The best example was the timing of WHEN to expand the salon. My timeframe was much later than what we ended up doing.  In the end, the decision was the right one and client demand, community support and a willing team drove it.”

SALON TODAY: Throughout your professional career, what’s the best lesson you’ve learned after making a mistake?

The plush pedicure stations envelop the clients in a luxury experience. 
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The plush pedicure stations envelop the clients in a luxury experience. 

China: “The best professional lesson I have learned from making mistakes has been to allow myself (and the team) grace to make errors and move through them. Let’s face it, mistakes are inevitable and how you recover from them, learn from them and not replicate those missteps again is key.  We collect a lot of data at our salon that can often give us insights into system errors, communication improvements, additional team member coaching/training, etc. that might be the cause.  From there we can fix it, track it and learn from it.”

SALON TODAY: As you’ve built your career, who has been your biggest mentor and what have they taught you?

China: “That is tough because as I look back on the paths and decisions I’ve made and there have been very specific people that have helped me pivot or plow forward.  Within the industry, Van Council of Van Michael Salons in Atlanta has been instrumental in my career. He is brilliant both artistically and in business and someone whom I deeply admire.  I was so fortunate to work with him early in my beauty career and he instilled the value of recruiting and retaining top talent by creating a culture of education, opportunity and family.  It’s the foundation of my business and why we have so many team members who have been with me for nearly 10+ years. The ICA Council is deep well of knowledge.  I have found that members are so approachable very willing to share what they know and done within their businesses and many of those lessons I have taken to heart and avoided or implemented myself. My partnership with Aveda as a brand ambassador has provided many opportunities to network, speak and travel.  This role has reaffirmed my belief in the importance of on-going education, brand integrity and surrounding yourself with a collaborative community of salon owners and artists who are willing to share best practices. And lastly I read A LOT and I study business leaders in other industries like women who start wellness brands, marketing execs; Mark Cuban and Oprah are baller.”

SALON TODAY: If you were training someone to take over your job, what is the most important advice you could offer them?

China: “I’d tell them to be an optimist and willing to weather the ups and downs of entrepreneurism.  Every day you deal with personalities and situations that are out of your control, so having an open mind and a positive outlook even when life is chaotic sets the tone and mood for the team and the business.  People like to follow and emulate a positive leader who is successful.  They respect that."

A gorgeous photo wall covering accents the styling area. 
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A gorgeous photo wall covering accents the styling area. 

SALON TODAY: Whom do you lean on for advice/support/education?

China: “I lean heavy on people that have ‘been there and done that’ – it might be salon owners with deep industry experience or leaders with different skill sets than me who are blazing new trails for women in business. And there is also so much to learn from our elders, I think that is really lost in today’s society, yet some of the best advice has come from them.  It’s the passing down of their wisdom, listening to their mistakes that create teachable lessons that you can implement professionally and personally.  So, if we want to listen, they are really happy to share.”

SALON TODAY: What makes your beauty business unique?

China: “We truly function as a team, we are not competitive or client possessive.   Our success happens if we all march in the same direction and help each other throughout the day.  Our end goal every minute the salon is open is to create the ultimate guest experience from the time they walk through the door to when they leave.  Because we cannot control the ebb and flow of our clients – some may be early, or late; they might want to add on an additional service; they may need to take a quick call during their appointment, and so forth…  The only way we can make sure every client is happy is to have an ‘all hands on deck’ attitude to fill in the gaps for our team.  And our clients appreciate our camaraderie to ensure that their needs are met.  I truly believe that this is why our clients have such a high level of confidence and trust with our team. At the end of the day it’s a much a better experience for the customer to be served by several team members than to be waiting. And, many people work in silos, but life is not a silo and as employers we have to recognize this.  Whatever your employees are dealing with in their lives comes to work with them every day, so their overall wellness is so important to me as a business owner.  I’ve been successful in creating a culture of financial, personal and professional stability and growth within my business.”

SALON TODAY: What business project are you working on now? What’s you next professional step?

China: “My next business project is upping my presence on social media and capturing all of the things that I’m doing as a business owner within and outside of the industry.  I have been very on the fence about how visible I wanted my social media presence to be, but I am finding that if I don’t drive the narrative, someone else will.  So being strategic, but most importantly authentic when sharing my speaking engagements, mentoring other entrepreneurs, supporting women in business, celebrating wins and giving people a glimpse into my life as I often struggle to find work-life balance is what we are building.  I’m excited about finding my voice and sharing it with others.”

Even in the shampoo area, the custom lighting and the rope accents speak to the salon's creativity,
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Even in the shampoo area, the custom lighting and the rope accents speak to the salon's creativity,

SALON TODAY: If someone were to write a book about your life, what would be an appropriate title?

China: “One of my favorite quotes, is ‘Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground’ by Teddy Roosevelt.  I often have the tug of war between my right brain’s creative approach and left-brain’s business savvy. So this quote reminds me that I need feet on the ground to have discipline, to be consistent, accountable and task-oriented; yet to never lose my creativity and artistry that drives vision and growth. So my book title might be ‘Eyes To The Stars, Feet On The Ground - How To Embrace The Gift Of Right And Left Brain Thinking.’”

SALON TODAY: How do you like to spend your time away from your business?

China: “One of the things I do away from the business is go for a run.  It’s time with myself to think, reflect, strategize, reason, debate and even zone out… it’s whatever I need at that moment.  Running lets me clear my head and figure out what I think versus having an immediate reaction.  There have been many times that outcomes have changed from where I thought they’d end up after taking this time for myself.  Self-care is so important.  I also like to draw and write.  I love stationary and I REALLY love to write Thank You cards. Showing gratitude for others is very important to me. I especially enjoy getting dirty with my kids, the dirtier the better.  We love to play in the mud, explore outside, go for bike rides and just be active. I love seeing life through their eyes. And, my all-time favorite thing to do away from the business is travel with my husband.  He’s the best travel companion!”

SALON TODAY: Tell us something about yourself that would surprise most of the people you know in the professional beauty industry.

China: “Some might be surprised to learn that a lot of my childhood was filled playing tennis, usually 30-40 hours per week.  I fell in love with tennis (and realizing I was pretty good at it!) I attended a training academy/boarding school during my teens that focused on year-round athletic development leading to post high-school opportunities.  But my dream came to a halt when I tore my rotator cuff and that was my game ender. I am also a HUGE Star Wars enthusiast.  My phone ring tone is R2-D2 and my family vacation this year was to the new Star Wars Galaxy Edge at Disney World. I built my own custom-made lightsaber that hangs in my office.  Yes, I’m THAT person.”

SALON TODAY: What do you hope is your legacy?

China: As I think about my legacy its two-fold.  The first is to my children that they see, understand and appreciate by example that they need to have their own ‘skin in the game’ for things that they deem important.  For my team, I hope they see that we built an amazing place for them to practice their craft and not be starving artists. So many in the industry struggle to make it, but I’ve really tried to set my team up to thrive financially, professionally and most important personally. If their life buckets are full and I’ve had a part in helping them live their best lives, then that would be a great legacy to leave behind.”

SALON TODAY: Why did you want to join Intercoiffure (ICA)?

China: “There were two people who were instrumental in me wanting to join Intercoiffure and they are Erik and Carol Knudsen of Erik of Norway Salon in Wisconsin. Both Erik and Carol were mentors, friends and members of Intercoiffure.  Carol in particular would tell me about her travels, experiences, education and learnings all from ICA. I thought it sounded like a great opportunity and it has proven to be true.

SALON TODAY: What is the biggest benefit you have received from your ICA membership?

China: The biggest benefit from ICA for me has been networking.  They are so willing to share what they know.  I remember early in my career, I was sitting at a table with two of my mentors during an ICA event and I asked a few polite questions as many of us often do.  And as time went on, I saw how receptive they were to more questions, so I asked probably 100 questions (no joke) about my business.  And what I appreciated the most were their answers—the good, the bad, the ugly and the real gritty stuff. It’s those types of connections that allow us owners to approach business with our eyes wide open.”

For more information about Intercoiffure Canada America and becoming a member, visit Intercoiffure.com.

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