Carol Lee, President and CEO, Linacare Cosmetherapy Inc.
When Carol Lee looks out the front window of her Vancouver Chinatown office, she isn’t thrilled by what she sees: empty storefronts, a hip longboard skateshop and a new modern restaurant that pays no homage to the building’s heritage.
But then she closes her eyes and envisions a more vibrant future for the struggling neighbourhood, one of the largest historic Chinatowns in North America. “We would have lanterns strung across the streets and lit up at night. It would be filled with tourists, local and foreign. We could have a museum. Chinese seniors would be coming back to live here. I see Chinese schools, maybe a Buddhist library. It would be a very lively, inviting, family-oriented vibe.”
Lee’s own family ties are deeply rooted inside these gated streets. Her office, headquarters to Linacare Cosmotherapy Inc., is located in the same building that once housed her grandfather’s dry goods and furnishings store and has been owned by her father’s family since 1921. And though Lee is still routinely cited as the “high-achieving, Harvard-educated daughter” of legendary businessman Robert Lee (Prospero Group founder and former UBC chancellor), she has become an influential force in her own right.
Linacare—the therapeutic-oriented skincare company she co-founded in 2003 with Dr. Henry Fung—now sells to major hospital pharmacies, skin care centres and cancer clinics across Canada, as well many beauty boutiques, becoming a global success in just over a decade. Although several international beauty conglomerates have expressed interest in buying the company, Lee has always shut down the talks before they even begin. “The world doesn’t need another expensive beauty cream,” she explains. “This is a product for cancer patients and people with really bad eczema—those who really need it.”
Now Lee hopes to make the same sort of meaningful difference in the neighbourhood that’s at the heart, literally and figuratively, of everything that she does. In 2009, Lee established the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation and built an impressive board of directors that includes Brandt Louie, Robert H.N. Ho and Caleb Chan. Since 2014, she has chaired the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee, working closely on several initiatives to secure senior housing, shops and institutions that are helping to preserve the district’s cultural heritage. She is also vice-chair of the Asia Pacific Trade Council.
She is also now a first-time restaurant owner—a three-time restaurant owner, in fact—having recently purchased the iconic Foo’s Ho Ho (to save Canada’s oldest operating Chinese restaurant from becoming a Mexican taqueria), Garden Villa Restaurant (with the original chef and star designer Craig Stanghetta, she hopes to turn it into an upscale destination Cantonese restaurant on par with Kirin) and an empty Pender Street storefront (formerly a travel agency), which she and her sister, Leslie, are turning into a Chinese teahouse and bakery that will sell stylish yet affordable souvenirs.
So why restaurants? “My parents were like, ‘You bought a what?’” she says, laughing. “People are still telling me I’m crazy. The restaurant industry is littered with failures. It’s hard. The margins are thin. You have to be there all the time. But the motivating factor for me is not money. It’s about retaining some of the culture. Restaurants are so central to Chinese culture. And to me, they’re essential to a vibrant Chinatown.”
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