Sara Jane Ho: Empowering Women Through Etiquette
Etiquette teacher and entrepreneur Sara Jane Ho talks us through etiquette, success and beauty.
Meet Sara Jane Ho, the Harvard Business graduate who is changing Chinese culture, one etiquette course at a time. After graduating from Swiss finishing school Institut Villa Pierrefeu, she went on to start China’s first finishing school for ladies in 2012, Institute Sarita. Since then, the business has grown into several thriving ventures and in May 2015, she opened her second school in Shanghai.
How did your interest in etiquette begin?
Etiquette and entertainment have always been important parts of my life. My earliest memories growing up in Hong Kong are of my mother welcoming friends and family into our home. For her, entertaining meant creating magic moments and putting others at ease. She enjoyed everything that went into that—planning the guest list, preparing the menu, setting the table and decorating it, and ensuring every detail was in place before guests arrived.
Etiquette combines charm and integrity. Knowing what to do in any situation gracefully is one of the most empowering things for a woman: it means feeling capable and confident around other people. Growing up around those dinners and parties, I’ve become the girl who organises social events and welcomes everyone into her home. It’s important for me to create an environment where people feel safe and comfortable, no matter who they are or where they come from.
What is the inspiration behind starting Institute Sarita? How do you hope it will influence the future of Chinese culture?
As I got older and studied abroad, I travelled and immersed myself in different cultures and discovered that the art of entertaining is universal. People all over the world want to have a sense of belonging. This became clear to me when a friend in China asked me for help because he was very nervous about how to eat at a “breakfast meeting” with Americans. I couldn’t believe how such a successful businessman was so nervous over a simple meal! This was the moment I unofficially began teaching etiquette.
When I was twenty-one, I lost my mother to cancer. My father didn’t entertain at home, and friends and family no longer came over. It was lonely. Then I realised the value of what my mother had taught me: how to create warmth and magic between people through etiquette, and how I could recreate that for myself.
I also saw a need for it in China and around the world. I could keep my mother’s legacy alive by sharing the joy and love that she brought to others through entertaining. Taking a leap of faith, I opened the first finishing school for ladies in China.
“As China opens its doors to the world, I want to continue elevating women and give them the tools to feel confident in any situation, in work or life.”
I think that China needs to learn more about the world, to better express itself to the world.
Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur? Any advice for women looking to venture into their own businesses?
I didn’t always know I wanted to start my own business. But I did know that after graduation I wanted to work for a proper company first, and then my dream was to go to Harvard Business School. What business school offered me was 2 years to learn, be inspired by peers, and time to think about what I wanted out of life. It was there that I decided on two things: I wanted to go back to China, and I wanted to start my own business.
My advice to other women is: if you can combine something you enjoy, with a market need, that can also make a bit of money, then do it!
What are your plans for the future?
I started the institute in 2012, and seven years later in 2019, I started the media business, including The Sara Show, a lifestyle show I host that is on Beijing Television and Tencent Video. We are launching on YouTube soon. On my show, I interview guests, interesting and successful people who share their tips on living and wellness with my audiences, such as Marie Kondo, Jessica Alba, Anastasia Soare (founder of Anastasia Beverly Hills), and Jean Georges.
This month, we are launching an online shop “Wonder Shop” attached to my WeChat Official Account “Miss Wonder” in China, which continues our ethos of positive living. We curate products for a happy home, looking good, going out, family time, and it’s positive living with a purpose because we give 15% of sales proceeds to “Protecting Girls Charity” educating little girls and their parents in rural China on sex education. We give back with every single transaction.
Who inspires you the most?
I always used to say my mother, for her vivacity, her charm, her elegance, her ability to put anyone at ease. But as I grow up and have a bit more life experience, I now say my father. Because my mother is an outwardly strong woman, her qualities were intimidating, but my father’s strength is quiet, wise, gentle. He is able to achieve the same but in a disarming and non-threatening way. As I reflect on myself now as a manager, leading my team to achieve greater things, I often think, what would my father do?
How do you define success?
I recently reposted this on my Instagram stories:
“I aspire to be a woman who wakes up and loves what she does for a living every day. Travels often, spiritually secured, and financially stable.”
How much makeup should a woman wear? How do you think beauty ties into etiquette?
The amount of makeup that should be worn depends on the occasion! On a day-to-day basis, I’m makeup-free. I just put an SPF moisturiser on my face. When I take it up a notch, I have an amazing concealer for under-eyes only, which looks like I slept 8 hours. For nice dinners, I’ll put on Giorgio Armani’s Luminessence CC Cream, and a bit of blush, liner and lipstick. It takes a photoshoot or glamorous event for me to use foundation!
I think beauty is about looking and feeling natural and appropriate. So putting on a full face of makeup and lashes for a casual brunch would feel out of place, as would putting on zero makeup at a gala dinner.
What is a typical skincare ritual for you?
I am definitely more of a skincare than makeup girl. Actually, for a period of time when you put my Chinese name into the Baidu search engine, one of the searches would be “He Peirong bu hua zhuang”, which means “Sara Jane Ho doesn’t wear makeup.” I believe less is more when it comes to taking care of your skin!
The first thing I do when I get home is shower and wash my face. After washing, I’ll use a toner, and then if it’s bedtime, I put on the Methode Swiss Thermal Oxygen Overnight Moisture Mask. If it’s daytime, I’ll put on something lighter. But I always do a mask before and after a full face of makeup. Before, so makeup goes on better, and after, because makeup dries out your skin.
Sara’s Beauty Picks
Giorgio Armani Luminessence CC Cream, SGD73.90
Methode Swiss Thermal Oxygen Overnight Moisture Mask
NUXE Baume Levres Reve De Miel Honey Lip Balm, SGD17.50
L’Occitane Shea Butter Hand Cream, SGD33
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