Cookie Lee wants women to have their cake and eat it too

Cookie Lee. Photo credit: Leonard Ortiz/The Orange County Register

By Corinna Fish

Even though campus was far larger than she remembered, entrepreneur millionaire Cookie Lee (Debra Lee ’78) savored every Aggie tradition she could at the centennial Picnic Day, including cheering on the Doxie Derby and souvenir shopping at the bookstore. She also made sure to visit the place that drew her to UC Davis in the first place: the textiles department. Walking through Everson Hall transported her to a time in her life filled with creativity, design, exploration—and a little mischief.

“Walking up and down the hallways, I realized: OMG, my friends and I were terrors!” laughed Lee.

The memories were made all the more special by spending the day with her former roommates. “When I realized it was going to be the 100th anniversary of Picnic Day, I immediately called all my roommates—we’ve stayed in touch all these years, through kids and careers and everything,” said Lee. “I asked, ‘Okay, who’s in?!’ And we had an absolute blast!”

Lee originally transferred to UC Davis from UC Berkeley to pursue her passion in textile design, but a senior-year switch in majors to managerial economics proved fortuitous. “The design work helped me realize how much I loved it and my business professors helped me understand how to apply theory to the real world in a way that made sense,” said Lee. “I think the opportunity to mix creativity and practical experience is what sets UC Davis apart from other schools. My degree was not only highly marketable, it was terrific preparation for my MBA at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management.”

After graduating, Lee thrived in a high-powered corporate career. During a stint spearheading Mattel’s marketing in the mid-80s, however, Lee knew she didn’t want to continue working outside the home once she became a mom. So she started brainstorming how to combine her eye for fashion, her nose for business, and her commitment to her family.

“I was a latchkey kid, and I didn’t want the same for my kids,” explained Lee. “I wanted to be there for them and have a satisfying career.”

Her “aha” moment came during a jewelry-making class and in 1985, Lee launched her baubles business under the moniker Cookie Lee.

At first Lee pursued the business on the side after office hours, a strategy she recommends to would-be entrepreneurs wanting to test the market before they go full-time. Then in 1992 she began recruiting independent contractors. She chose a direct sales marketing model so women who, like Lee, wanted to put their families first could have a flexible career—and have a lot of fun, too. The unabashed bling with the unforgettable name quickly gained momentum on the home-party sales circuit, ultimately growing to more than $100 million in annual retail sales.

“I had no clue that it was going to be such a big company! But I hunkered down, worked hard, focused on what I wanted for my family, and focused on my vision of women helping women,” said Lee. “Everything I learned at Davis—creativity, applied business management, thinking outside the box—really made a difference. If I hadn’t transferred, I wouldn’t have started Cookie Lee. Becoming an Aggie was the best decision I could have made, for myself and my education.”

In April of 2014, Lee sold the business. “Making sure the name Cookie Lee will carry on long after I’m gone is very important to me,” said Lee. “I put succession planning into place so the company could move forward with its mission of empowering women to grow their financial stature and their self-esteem.”

She is keeping happily busy with family and community service while exploring what’s in store for her next.