Today’s interview is with the beautiful and accomplished Vicky Tsai – founder and CEO of the beauty company Tatcha. I first heard of Tatcha over a year ago when a friend who founded a beauty company handed me a packet of Tatcha’s now famous Aburatorigami oil papers as a gift. A connoisseur of oil papers myself (yes I’m basically saying that I’m oily), I thought that the Tatcha papers were absolutely amazing! On par or even better than my favorite Yojiya’s from Kyoto.
I’ve followed Tatcha ever since, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Vicky. She is gorgeous, intelligent and knows a whole lot about not only beauty, but building a brand and a successful business. Random fun fact – we also went to the same business school! Enjoy meeting Vicky.
Who are you? Where are you from, and where do you live?
Hi, I’m Vicky. I was born in the States, soon after my parents moved here from Taiwan. We lived in Texas when I was growing up, and now I live in beautiful San Francisco (when I’m not traveling!). And, I’m a mom!
Can you share a little bit about how you started Tatcha? What was the thing/event that prompted you to start your own business?
Growing up, my mother made a lot of our own skincare treatments from traditional Chinese herbs. I resisted using our concoctions even though they really worked because they smelled medicinal, but she always said that it originated with geisha, and if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for us. Fast-forward fifteen years: I was working for a high end skincare brand which involved testing a lot of products, and I developed acute dermatitis. It was not pretty – my face, lips, eyelids, everything was bleeding and blistering and peeling. It took a year of topical and oralsteroids and antibiotics, but my skin hasn’t been the same since then. That was a wake-up call. I worked later for a start-up called Good Guide, which rates products based on health, social, and environmental benefits.
There, I learned that there is no regulatory environment for skincare in the United States; the FDA has no oversight since technically cosmetics are neither food nor drug. I tried using ‘green’ and ‘organic’ products, but they left quite a bit to be desired from an efficacy and sensorial experience. To add to all of this, I was thinking of having a child, and the last thing I wanted was to be putting chemicals in my skin that would be passed on to her. That’s when I remembered my mother’s stories about geisha and I started traveling back to Asia. My travels ended in Kyoto, where I have had the rare opportunity immerse myself in a world of pure beauty, artistry and heritage like I’ve never known. These experiences reminded me how much beauty and goodness there is in the world, which I try to share with others through Tatcha.
I know that before you were in brand management for SK-II and Starbucks. How were those experiences? What were some of the biggest learnings that you’veapplied to your biz now?
I have been fortunate enough to learn the ropes with some of the best brands out there. SK-II is one of the handful of beauty brands for whom I’ve worked, and from them I developed a strong technical understanding of skincare formulations, and how our skin works as an organ. At Starbucks, I learned about the importance of customer service and human connection. Brands can represent more than the product they provide; they can also stand for values.
How scary was it to start your own business? (I read that you sold your engagement ring!) And what were some challenges that you faced that were harder than you thought?
As crazy as it sounds, it was never actually scary. I think fear comes from now knowing whether your next step is the right one, but once I discovered these treasures in Japan, I developed tunnel vision. All I could see was the possibilities. Entrepreneurs are all probably a little crazy in that way. I also had this amazing support network behind me – my co-founders, husband, my parents, my friends. I’ve never felt alone. That said, there were and continue to be challenges, every day. I worked four jobs at one point and started Tatcha when I was pregnant, so it was really a game of stamina more than anything else.
Can you share a little bit about your style? I’d love to hear your aesthetic given how beautiful Tatcha products are. Any favorite clothing/accessory items?
Between my two-year old daughter and all the time I spend on the road, I value simplicity. As long as my skin looks good, everything else is about comfort. I do have a pair of real riding boots that have traveled around the world with me and back. They even have a ‘taxicab yellow’ smudge on them from when I got into a recently-painted cab. They’re the most comfortable things I can wear, from traipsing across Kyoto’s cobblestones to rushing across New York City grates – and they can be dressed up or down!
What about “dream” items you’d love to add to your closet one day?
I have a friend who is a retired geisha who works with clients design incredible kimonos. Each one is a work of art – hand painted and full of personal meaning. She took me to one of her favorite kimono artisans in Kyoto and I fell in love with this one that is black as night with the most exquisite pink and white peonies on it. Each petal was tipped in gold. It was on “sale” for $40,000. I wouldn’t mind hanging that in my house as a piece of art one day.
What is the one product you’d say people absolutely have to try from Tatcha?
If I can only recommend one step in our ritual to everyone, it would be our Rice Enzyme Powder. It’s a cleanser, exfoliant and treatment in one, with three different strengths for different skin types. It also increases the efficacy of anything that you use after it, and immediately leaves skin with a baby-soft glow.
Can you share some of your favorite beauty products that are non Tatcha?
That’s a tough one! For me, beauty is looking well-rested and put together, even when I’m not. So my favorite non-Tatcha beauty products are things that help me fake the funk, like ReBloom, an all-natural sleep aid – and Visine.
What are your top, not-well-known beauty secrets and tips?
SPF is a necessity, and people should absolutely wear it, but my number one beauty secret is a hat and/or a sun parasol. Photo-aging can be extremely damaging to the skin – look at this man.
In skincare and makeup – you obviously know a lot. What should we splurge on, and where can we save?
Splurge on skincare, across the board. Treat your face like it’s the only one you’ve got. If you have good skin, makeup is just the icing on the cake. If you have bad skin, no amount of makeup can fix it. For makeup, powder-based color cosmetics like blushes can be a save. Anything around your eyes, though – mascara, liner, so forth – should be a splurge. Eye products are more technically difficult to formulate so you generally get what you pay for.
I know that you are very inspired by Kyoto and geisha/geiko. What are a few things that we could all learn from the geisha?
In Japan, there is a philosophy called kodawari. It translates to the quality of being sensitive to details, but the philosophy represents the pursuit of perfection, even in minor things. It’s similar to what my mom told me growing up: anything worth doing is worth doing well. The reason that I think geisha are badasses, and still highly admired in Japan, is because they take kodawari – this idea of committing yourself to your art – to a whole different level. From them, we can learn how to fully commit ourselves to whatever we choose to put out into the world.
Can you share a piece of life advice?
Finally – please share something surprising about yourself!
I’m not Japanese?
Since I recently returned from my own trip to Japan, I feel that I can really identify with Vicky’s philosophies. The attention to skincare, simplicity and desire to execute even the smallest details to perfection were some of the ideals that made a huge impression on me. Thank you Vicky for bringing some of the best of the East here to us and for sharing some of your thoughts and beauty philosophies here today. For more of Vicky and Tatcha, check out the site here.