In an exclusive Q&A with Renée Ward, Susan Raffy, President of Susan Raffy Consulting, otherwise known as the Rockstar Chemist, shares how her early job experiences in a hospital setting and allergies led her to become a successful cosmetic chemist and offers tips to young adults today who seek inspiration in their present job/career hunt.
Susan is an active member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, where she has served as chair, and is also an active member of the American Chemical Society and Beauty Industry West.
This is another in a series of articles about the “first jobs” of successful people, their words of wisdom for young adults, and reflects the value of work early in life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Renée: Let me take you back to your early, early teen years. How old were you when you landed your first paying job, the first time somebody paid you to do something?
Susan: That’s going to be pretty young. When I was about ten years old my mom worked for the city of San Dimas, California as an accountant. In the summer, I used to make homemade donuts and frost them with all different kinds of frostings and sprinkles. My mom would take them to work every day and bring me home a jar of quarters from people that had paid for the donuts.
By age 11, I was babysitting for several families in my neighborhood for 50 cents an hour, including two families that had sets of twins. At about 12, I had a yard mowing account for an older lady on my street whose husband had passed away. I don’t remember what I got paid for that but it was probably something like ten dollars a week.
Did you work while in high school?
Susan: Babysitting. I was usually babysitting five to seven nights a week. I was one of the older girls in my neighborhood, so there were a lot of families that used me for babysitting.
I also worked at the Santa Ana, California Airport, now called John Wayne, for Cliff Frazier’s Aircraft & Engine Inspection Service. He was the owner of the business and my dad kept his airplane at his facility. In exchange for working on Saturdays and Sundays, answering the phones, collecting the payments and doing general office work, I received one flying lesson every weekend. I did that from 14-16 years of age.
That’s amazing. What happened after that?
Susan: I graduated high school when I was 16. Union 76 Research Center which used to be located in Brea, California, contacted my chemistry teacher to see if there were any students that were interested in a part-time summer job. My teacher told them about me so the summer after I graduated from high school and before I started college at the University of California San Diego, I worked as a research assistant there.
Why do you think they hired you at such a young age, besides the fact that you were probably brilliant?
Susan: Yes, I’m sure that I was probably the youngest person that they’d ever hired, because most people don’t graduate high school at 16. My teacher’s recommendation helped.
What qualities did you bring to the job at that time?
Susan: Probably, at 16 years of age, just the fact that I showed up on time and I wanted to learn from all the people that were around me. I guess, willingness and openness, because I certainly didn’t have any experience in the lab other than having had chemistry lab in high school. I was using benzene and learning how to use analytical chemistry equipment in the lab.
In those days, gasoline contained benzene and now it’s purified out for the most part because it’s carcinogenic. Back then the lab would get samples of fuel and I was testing fuel samples to measure the benzene content using what’s called a GC or gas chromatography and that was my first experience with analytical chemistry.
That’s incredible. I’m pretty sure very few teens get that kind of working experience today. What did you do in college?
Susan: I went to the University of California San Diego on a pre-med track. My first year, I was on an academic scholarship I received based on my high school grades and I lived in the dorm on campus. It seemed like everyone around me was majoring in biology to get into medical school.
I went to my counselor and asked what I could do to increase my chances of getting into medical school without having to compete against so many other biology majors. She helped me change my major to chemistry. So, very early in college I changed majors and I stayed with that throughout my education.
Did you work or do any kind of internships while you were in college?
Susan: Yes, for four years I was in a program — the acronym was HELP and it stood for Health Education Learning Program. My college counselor suggested that it would be good for me to participate in the program. I rotated through every single department in the teaching hospital for the Medical School at UC San Diego; intensive care, neonatal, cast room, dental clinic, surgery etc. and it was ten hours a week that I volunteered for that program for four years.
At the end of the four years is when I realized that I could not see myself in a hospital setting for the rest of my life.
It just seemed that it wasn’t going to be a good fit for me.
I also had many other jobs when I was in college too. I also worked at the Veterans Administration Hospital. I was a research assistant and this was a paying job. Even with the scholarship I still needed to support myself so I worked usually at least 20-25 hours at another job, including being a waitress at a Japanese restaurant and working at the school cafe as a short order cook.
Did anything ever go wrong in your early career, in your early jobs?
Susan: Well, after college I worked in the University of Texas Health Science Center for a couple of years doing research. I was doing a lot of animal surgeries with rabbits and rats and I had a lot of allergies to hair and fur. It took a physical toll on me. That’s when I started looking for other career options and discovered a job at Allercreme Cosmetics, which was a position for a cosmetic chemist.
Allercreme was the cosmetic and dermatological product division of Alcon Laboratories, a large ophthalmic pharmaceutical company. I worked there for three years until the division was sold. I knew about the sale of the cosmetic division for probably about nine months before it actually happened. I just assumed that since I was a good worker and everyone there liked me, that I would be absorbed into the rest of the company in some other capacity. But, when the sale actually went through, there were no jobs for me within the other parts of the company, and I was laid off.
I never forgot that feeling of basically being walked to the front door with my personal belongings when I was laid off. I was pretty devastated because nothing like that had ever happened to me, I probably was in shock. But subsequently, and fortunately, I was recruited by Physicians Formula Cosmetics.
What did you learn from all of your young adult work experiences that have prepared you for what you’re doing now?
Susan: Both of my parents were very hard workers. They both worked full time. When my sister started kindergarten, she was a year behind me, my mom went back to college and graduated from California State Fullerton with her bachelor’s degree. My mom worked full-time, took care of two daughters, kept the house clean, and was going to college at night, and graduated from college. So I had my mom as a really good example of a role model. My dad was also a very hard worker and he always had side jobs, jobs he did after work. I was raised with a really good work ethic and that’s probably been one of the most valuable things that I could have had instilled in me.
Today I am a cosmetic chemist consultant with my own lab in the City of Santa Ana, California. It’s an R&D lab and manufacturing facility for customers that are creating their own brands of cosmetic products. We do fine fragrances, hair care, skin care, men’s grooming, cosmeceuticals, and we have a very big emphasis on anti-aging products because we work with a lot of dermatologists and doctors.
What advice do you have for teens and other young adults today that are seeking their first job experiences?
Susan: I know there’s a great deal of focus on high grades to get into good colleges. I also know that it is much more competitive now than it was when I graduated from high school. I put myself under a lot of stress back then but I’m sure that the stress level of high school seniors and juniors now is even worse. But the practical advice that I learned from my European immigrant parents, for example my dad telling me, ‘Get a degree in something that you can get a job, that you can earn a living and support yourself, and you can still do things that you have fun doing and that you like to do on the side’, I feel like that was really good advice then and now.
I also know that nowadays even people with a college degree are having a challenge getting a position and you have to be super flexible and willing to do anything. I think it also speaks very highly about someone’s background if they’re also going to school but while they’re going to school to show that they had some work experience while they were in college.
Why is that important?
Susan: Because I think it really says a lot about a student that can keep their grades up and graduate from college while they’re also helping to support their college education. It also puts you in a much better position when you graduate to not owe so much money on loans. My niece is 22 and she’ll graduate in May from California State Fullerton and she’s worked at least 30 hours minimum a week the entire time. She’s studying Business and Human Resources and she works for a company in the area. They’re pretty much grooming her for an executive management track upon graduation. If she was not working for them while in school she would not have that opportunity because you just really never know who you’re going to meet in your work career that can either help you now or help you down the line.
Anything else you want to share that’s particularly unique to your life or your work experience, or has truly been helpful for you?
Susan: I just want to emphasize to young adults the importance of finding something that you really like doing so that your workday is fun and fulfilling and rewarding, and that can also support you. And so, for me, I’m really happy that I have a job that I look forward to going to every single day. I like what I’m doing. I like helping people.
Are you a young adult trying to determine what direction to take your job hunting but don’t know how? Start with uncovering your interests. Take the Association for Career and Technical Education’s Career Clusters Interest Survey.