Vicky Tsai, 42, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan to Texas more than 40 years ago, is the founder of Tatcha, a skincare brand based on Japanese beauty rituals. She started the line in 2009 with blotting papers and financed the first batch by selling her engagement ring and car, and moving into her parent’s house with her husband. Her company ranked at No. 21 on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private U.S. companies in 2015.
Tsai’s cultural background and the subtle biases she faced growing up are key to her journey as an entrepreneur. Unilever purchased Tatcha in 2019 for an estimated $500 million, and Tsai stepped down as CEO shortly thereafter. She recently returned and is leading the company she created. –As told to Shivani Vora
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan right before I was born. We moved to Houston when I was a teenager. Right away, I became aware that there was one standard of beauty that I would never fit into. When I was in high school, my mother owned a beauty store that sold luxury Western skincare brands and products. At home, however, she would mix herbs and create more traditional Chinese remedies that she had learned from her own mother. I was always more fascinated by the beautiful jars and expensive creams on display in her store than I ever was by the pot of herbs simmering in the kitchen–an unconscious bias I now recognize as stemming from my desire to fit in as one of the only Asian students at school.
My twenties were spent traveling around the world for work, including in Asia. That global exposure to beauty in all forms, shapes, and shades is what made me finally embrace what I saw when I looked in the mirror. In 2008, my travels eventually took me to Japan, where I fell in love with the country’s rituals of well-being. I never set out to launch a company, but creating Tatcha brought me a gift: The ability to recognize the beauty and power of the Asian heritage I had struggled to see in my youth.
In 2009, when I began to approach potential retail partners for Tatcha, I was explicitly told that “Asian beauty is not aspirational in the U.S.,” and that Tatcha was “too niche” and “too exotic” for the Western woman. It felt like high school all over again, but it made me only more passionate about bringing a different perspective on beauty to the U.S.
My background as an Asian woman is what led me to create Tatcha, which is founded on the Japanese beauty rituals that I religiously adhered to. But it also presented a challenge. In the 10 years I spent leading Tatcha, I never felt comfortable or worthy of being called the CEO. I came up with the title of “chief treasure hunter” to throw people off the scent, and hid that I had gone to Harvard Business School to avoid seeming boastful.
During a private equity deal, I was told I was not qualified to lead the company I had successfully helmed for nearly a decade. Not wanting to put my ego ahead of my company’s success, I took their advice and stepped down. Looking back now, I realize that I let two middle-aged male consultants mansplain me out of a job I had done exceptionally well. Two years later, I was asked to return as CEO and am now leading my company out of Covid.
Looking back as Tatcha is almost 12 years old, and in a moment where so many powerful voices are being raised in the Black and Asian communities, it has been a time for reflection. For a long time, I tried to ignore my heritage and become something else. I kept my head down and allowed people to tell me that I wasn’t good enough at my job. As a mother, I would never want my daughter, who is now 11, to go through that.
We are in the midst of an opportunity for change. Over the past year, I’ve realized just how much being part of a marginalized community impacts our safety and our sense of self–and invisibility is at the heart of those issues. We have the opportunity to work together across our different communities to tell our stories, use our resources, and create change. If we want to leave a better world for our children, every one of us is responsible.
I’m so grateful for the journey that I have been on because I now have the platform and the lived experience to support others. My top priority now is to turn passion into progress–for my daughter and for all our children.
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