With a clear vision and passion for skincare that has never swayed, Vicky Tsai discusses how she has built the beauty empire known as Tatcha.
When it comes to building a successful brand, laser-focused vision is a must-have. However, when it comes to beauty entrepreneur Vicky Tsai, you could argue that was the case tenfold. Having founded Tatcha – now one of the best-selling skincare brands at Sephora US – in 2009, Tsai sought to bring the healing power of Japan’s skincare and spirit to others, but it wasn’t an easy ride.
Tsai began her career on Wall Street, but quickly realised she needed to find a role with, as she describes, “greater purpose”. One day, she woke up and decided to quit everything without a plan, despite being pregnant with her first child at the time. “I remember waking up and saying out loud, ‘I choose happiness’,” she recalls. After an eye-opening and healing trip to Japan, the idea for Tatcha came into play. “I never thought I would start my own company, but when my experiences in Japan healed my skin and my spirit, I wanted a way to keep learning these wellbeing practices and to share them with others,” she says.
By sticking to her vision and business acumen, Tsai has built a beauty empire adored the globe-over. Having just entered the Middle Eastern market, Emirates Woman sat down with the beauty entrepreneur to delve into her journey building Tatcha, the highs, the lows and everything in between.
Talk us through your career.
I began my career in finance on Wall Street but realized early on that if I was going to spend so many of the waking hours of my life working, I needed my job to have a greater purpose if I wanted my life to have a greater purpose. After a few years, I went to business school and moved into marketing and general management at some of the leading companies around the world, thinking I would eventually find a way to marry purpose and work. But the fancier my resume looked, the more worn and empty I felt physically and spiritually. The stress of corporate life also came through on my skin. I developed acute dermatitis, which meant having painful blister-like hives on my entire face including my lips and eyelids. I had to take steroids and antibiotics to keep the inflammation invisible, but after three years, I was desperate to stop taking these drugs because of the side effects and because I was pregnant with my first child. Around this time, I woke up one day and just quit without a plan. I remember waking up and say- ing out loud, “I choose happiness.” I started travelling to find myself and that’s how I ended up in Kyoto where I was fortunate enough to begin studying rituals of wellbeing and beauty. My experiences in Japan healed my skin and spirit. I created Tatcha as a way to share this healing journey with others.
How did you find your way into the beauty space?
I grew up in the beauty industry. It started when I was a teenager working at my mother’s Japanese skincare boutique. After Wall Street, I worked for some of the largest beauty companies in the world but I didn’t expect to have a career in beauty un- til my experiences in Japan had such a pro- found effect on me, from the skin to soul.
What inspired you to start your own brand?
During the three years that I suffered from acute dermatitis, I spent some time working for a startup with scientists from the University of California at Berkeley who wanted to provide consumers with health, environmental and social impact data on personal care. It was here that I began to learn about the harm that can come from ingredients, the lack of regulatory oversight on cosmetics in the US, and the potential impact on unborn children. My acute dermatitis had been triggered by exposure when I was working at a skincare company and then exacerbated by stress. It was concerning to me that I had already been taking antibiotics and steroids almost daily to keep the flare-ups at bay, but when I became pregnant with my first child, I felt a sense of urgency to find a way to heal my skin permanently and without exposing my unborn child to pharmaceuticals. I tried everything I could find – natural skincare brands, speciality brands for eczema and psoriasis, doctor brands, but nothing worked. I never thought I would start my own company, but when my experiences in Japan healed my skin and my spirit, I wanted a way to keep learning these well-being practices and share them with others.
You launched Tatcha in 2009 – 13 years ago – how have things evolved since then?
Every day at Tatcha is different and yet we are the same as we were in the beginning. Almost our entire founding team is still with the company, including our scientists, leaders, and cultural advisors from Japan. We continue to be dedicated to our purpose of caring for our clients from skin to soul, and supporting girls’ education globally through our Beautiful Faces, Beautiful Futures partnership with Room to Read. We continue to call ourselves the Tatcha Family because we feel lucky to get to work with passionate, purpose-driven, kind, and fun colleagues every day. I hope that we always grow and evolve as a company without changing what matters most, which is our values, purpose, and culture.
Tatcha was acquired by Unilever during the summer of 2019. After building the brand for 10 years, what made you decide to take this leap?
The beauty industry is one in which you need really great partners if you want to reach more people around the world. We weren’t seeking an acquisition, but my goal for the company has always been for it to last at least a hundred years and to make a major positive difference towards ending literacy and gender inequality, which requires growth and international scale. When the Unilever Prestige Division approached, we saw how aligned we were in our vision for building meaningful, purpose-driven companies that would make a difference in the world. I realised that becoming a part of the Unilever group would strengthen us while protecting our purpose at the same time. We still operate independently of Unilever but benefit from their sponsorship in many ways. It’s been a great partnership already.
Now, you’ve just launched in the Middle East for the first time which is so exciting! What do you envision for the future of the brand in this region? We are excited to launch in the Middle East with Sephora launching in Dubai, Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The client in this region is sophisticated and deserving of skincare formulas that are gentle yet transformative. We’re honoured to care for her skin.
How has Tatcha changed the skincare game?
In 2010, when we first launched in the US, even though there were heritage Asian skincare brands in the market, we were told explicitly that Asian beauty is not aspirational outside of Asia and that Tatcha would fail to gain traction as a result. At that time, American and French beauty brands set a very specific Euro-centric beauty standard that much of the modern beauty world followed, but that didn’t feel right to us be- cause we believe that all cultures have practices of beauty and wellbeing worth learning from. Cultures with thousands of years of heritage are especially rich in traditions that can benefit skin and spirit alike. It means a great deal to us to share Japanese rituals that have meant so much to us, and hope they are helpful to other people as well.
What, in your opinion, are the brand’s hero products?
The Essence is the heart of Tatcha. It is pure, 100 per cent Hadasei-3, our proprietary complex of double-fermented rice, green tea, and algae. Until I began my journey with Japanese skincare, I didn’t understand the point of the essence, but after years of research, development, and experience with our own, it’s my can’t-live-without formula. It floods the skin’s aquaporin channels with hydration. When aquaporin channels are hydrated, active ingredients can get where they need to be. And when they can penetrate deeper, they can do their best work.
Talk us through your own skincare regime.
I incorporate a mindfulness practice in every step of my skincare because your skin reflects your physical and emotional health. Putting an intention into each step is an effortless way to turn a routine into a ritual. First, as I massage cleansing oil onto my skin and melt away my makeup, I imagine letting go of whatever I am holding onto that isn’t serving me, whether it’s anger or worry. I let it all go down the drain with the day’s mascara and sunscreen. Then I use The Rice Polish to gently exfoliate my skin, which reminds me that we can always begin again. I reset my mind, welcoming a new start and new skin. After that, I use The Essence, which floods the skin with hydration. As women, we give so much of ourselves throughout the day, and so with this step, I think of replenishing myself so that I can show up for others. Finally, I lock in all the hydration and nutrients with The Silk Cream. As it cocoons my skin, I think of all the people I love in my life, cocooning me in their care and support. When I’m done, I feel nourished and cared for from skin to soul – and it only takes about four minutes. I truly believe small steps make a big difference.
Throughout your career in the beauty space, what have been the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Even though the beauty space was created originally by women and for women, on the business side it is led almost exclusively by men. When we started out, we faced unique challenges in raising capital. Less than 5 per cent of venture capitalists are women and less than 5 per cent of venture dollars go to women-founded companies. If a woman makes it through the early days and brings the company to a level of success, she is then often asked to step aside so that a male executive can bring the company to its full potential. As of 2021, of the top 20 beauty companies in the world, only three are led by female CEOs and none of them are women of colour. I experienced all of this and talk about it now because I am passionate about making things better for beauty entrepreneurs and women leaders of the future.
And the milestones?
We measure ourselves not by sales or rank, but through our ability to make the world a more beautiful place for all children. In 2014, we began a partnership called Beautiful Faces, Beautiful Futures with Room to Read to support girls’ education around the world. We recently crossed over 6.5 million days of school for girls who will one day be leaders in their families, communities, and nations. This is the milestone that matters most to us and we look forward to the number being 100 million days of school.
Tatcha is available on apothecabeauty.com.
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