Even if you don’t know what K-beauty — short for Korean beauty — is, chances are you’ve seen the jade rollers, sheet masks, and snail mucin creams that promise glowing, mirror-like skin on your Instagram feed or the shelves of your local drugstore.
Since its introduction to US markets in 2011, K-beauty has become a mainstay of the global beauty industry, and it seems that people’s obsession with it is not going away anytime soon: By 2029, the global market for K-beauty products is expected to reach about $31.6 billion in revenueaccording to Prophecy Market Insights, a market research firm.
One of the leading brands in Korean skin care movement is Glow Recipe. The founders and co-CEOs, Christine Chang and Sarah Lee, first created Glow Recipe in 2014 as a collection of other K-beauty products imported from Seoul to help launch smaller brands in the US, then started their own in-house skin care line three years later.
Now Glow Recipe is one of the hottest brands in skin care, closing 2021 with estimated sales of $100 million. CNBC Make It spoke with Chang and Lee about quitting their jobs to pursue their dreams and how their Korean heritage inspires everything they do at Glow Recipe, from ingredient lists to advocacy.
Chang and Lee’s relationship started as many great people do: bonding over food.
The pair first met as new employees at L’Oréal Korea in 2005. “I remember going out to dinner with our colleagues at a Korean barbecue restaurant one night and noticed Christine For real She loved her meal,” recalls Lee. “We hooked up right away about our passion for Korean barbecue, but that led to extra conversations about our love for K-beauty and our families.”
Just a few years later, both Chang and Lee were transferred to L’Oréal’s New York office. They could often be found after work sprawled out on the floor of Lee’s apartment, relaxing with sheet masks and glasses of wine.
It was during one of these late-night conversations that Chang and Lee, who both call themselves Korean Americans, realized they were the only bicultural, bilingual executives on their teams at L’Oréal. As global marketers, Chang and Lee were fascinated by Korean skincare innovation and predicted it would become “the next big thing” in the US, Lee recalls.
“We felt like our mission was to bring these amazing K-beauty technologies to the US,” she adds. The couple quit their job in 2014 and collected $50,000 in savings to launch Glow Recipe, a name inspired by the menu of services they would see at Korean spas or dermatologists that would provide various “glows” for customers’ skin, such as “water glow” or “honey glow.” . †
Although Glow Recipe now has 40 employees, Chang and Lee look back fondly on the days when the brand was a two-man business.
“When it comes to entrepreneurship, you really have to be your own legal, accounting, and designer team, all these skills that we weren’t exposed to when we were at L’Oréal,” Chang says. “We like to joke that Google was always on speed dial numbers.”
Chang and Lee soon realized the value of asking for help. “Even if you’re sloppy and bootstrapping, it’s smart to outsource a lawyer or accountant to help you grow your business,” she adds. “Every entrepreneur has to figure out what they do best and where their time should be spent, and for us that was product development.”
An important childhood memory Chang and Lee share is that they spent the hot summer months in South Korea playing outside and their grandmothers rubbing fresh watermelon rinds on their sunburnt skin.
Watermelon is one of Korea’s most popular fruits and is a traditional panacea for soothing dry, irritated skin. It’s also the main ingredient in Glow Recipe’s first product, the Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask, which its founders say has perfected over a thousand formulations and sold out seven in a row.
While watermelon was the star fruit of Glow Recipe’s initial launch, the skincare collection now includes strawberry and plum-based serums, avocado eye creams and more. All fruit concentrates are combined with active ingredients such as vitamin C, hyaluronic acid and niacinamide to make the skin clearer and more radiant.
Growing up in South Korea, Chang and Lee always considered skincare a luxurious treat, watching their mothers and grandmothers pamper themselves before going to bed. In the US, however, skincare is often seen as a “job,” Chang says, “something you have to plod through to get to makeup, which was the fun part.”
With Glow Recipe, Chang and Lee set out to take skincare from a chore to a pampering ritual, using clear packaging and sensory, bouncy textures.
“We are incredibly blessed that our work closely aligns with our [Korean] heritage,” Chang says. “To see K-beauty trickling into every medicine cabinet and beauty bag was amazing, and where we always thought it should go.”
Glow Recipes Instagram isn’t just a colorful grid of product guides and sun-kissed selfies – it’s also a place where the million followers can find information about other Brands owned by AAPIA and organizations responding to the recent wave of hate crimes against the AAPI community.
Chang and Lee have personally experienced racism during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“At one point, a person in the middle of the street yelled, ‘Go back to China! Chinese virus!’ to my husband, my daughter and me,” Chang wrote in February 2021 blog post† “Since then, and as people shun her, my daughter refused to leave the house without her umbrella, which gave her a sense of security.”
Sharing a similar incident, Lee noted that a few months after her naturalization ceremony in 2020, a couple who passed her on the street shouted “Corona” in her face and walked away laughing loudly.
“I struggled to understand what was happening at that moment,” she wrote in the same blog post. ‘Did I do something wrong? Was I so different from them? Why did they attack me specifically?’
Chang and Lee view advocacy as a critical aspect of Glow Recipe’s mission, in line with their values of diversity, inclusion and empowerment.
“We are fortunate to have a large enough platform where we can raise awareness for these important issues,” Chang said. “I think our community appreciates that, for example, when hate crime increases, we don’t just start talking about beauty products — these issues are at the center of our attention as well.”
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