This interview series in partnership with @barbiestyle is dedicated to celebrating women who believe that anything is possible. These are women who have created independent and uniquely modern careers and have blazed their own paths toward success. They did not follow a road map or climb a corporate ladder. Instead, they believed that their unique vision could a fill a void to empower themselves and those around them.
Charlotte Cho is the co-founder of Soko Glam, the first US based e-commerce site dedicated to Korean Beauty. Stocking over 30 coveted Korean beauty brands, Soko Glam has become a destination for Korean Beauty in the US. The company doubled in size in the past year with plans to double again by the end of 2017, recently partnered with Bloomingdale’s to open their first mini shop, and launched three skincare products in collaboration with Korean beauty brands (including a vitamin C serum that had a 10,000 person waitlist). Charlotte was born and raised in Southern California. After traveling to Korea in 2008 and living there for five years, she fell in love with Korean beauty culture. In an effort to share her discoveries and new passion with the US, Charlotte launched Soko Glam in 2012 with her husband David Cho. After returning to the US in 2013 and making a new home in New York City, Charlotte grew Soko Glam from a creative outlet into a full-fledged business. She now has 25 employees, a sprawling office space in New York City’s Koreatown, is the author of The Little Book of Skin Care, and the editor in chief of Soko Glam’s content site: The Klog. This is Charlotte’s story on trusting your own ideas, surrounding yourself with the right people, and why seeing yourself in roles you might fill someday is key.
“I was born and raised in Southern California. Even though I’m Korean-American, I never thought that I would be interested in traveling to Korea. Then I hit college and started to feel curious. In 2008, I ended up moving there through an opportunity with Samsung. I lived and worked in Korea for five years and fell in love with it, especially the people, the culture, and the beauty culture. I really gravitated toward the skin-first philosophy in Korea, where they wanted to be savvy and knowledgeable about their skin, versus makeup. My friends were always coming to me for advice and asking me to send products home, and that was the light bulb moment: I could bridge the beauty and skincare gap between Korea and the US, introduce Korean Beauty to the country I was raised in, and help people gain confidence in their skin. So that became my mission.
I started the company in 2012, then moved to New York with my husband (who is also Korean-American) in 2013. At the time, beauty vendors weren’t very familiar with Korean beauty. Now it’s much more mainstream. I think that Korean beauty has offered a chance for smaller beauty brands to gain popularity without having a huge budget. It’s also kept a lot of beauty companies in the US on their toes, which ultimately helps consumers. When we decided to start Soko Glam, it was a very unique offering—no-one else was doing anything similar. I think having the confidence to move forward with an idea that isn’t already out there is really important, especially with start-ups. You have to own it and decide that what you’re doing is special. If I had been shy about my idea, then Soko Glam would not exist today.
You have to embrace your individuality and the different ideas that you have, even if you don’t see them around you.
Since our launch, we now have 25 team members with Soko Glam and The Klog. It’s still very much a start up environment—we’re scrappy, we’re nimble, everyone wears many different hats. My job ranges from testing and curating Korean beauty products, traveling to Korea to keep a pulse on skincare innovations, while managing The Klog. There is a ton of creativity behind what I do, and I think that I’m so lucky to be able to mix creativity and business.
I had various jobs growing up, ranging from a ticket-taker for a movie theater to a waitress. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of these experiences ended up contributing to my future career. For example, as a waitress, you learn so much about the value of customer service because you’re interacting with people. You want to make sure that they’re happy because they’re paying for that experience. That has a lot to do with my work at Soko Glam now—especially given that we just launched a mini shop in Bloomingdales and are interacting with our customers in real time. I also think that getting my esthetician license has given me an advantage, which I got after Soko Glam launched. I had written some blog posts about Korean beauty products, and people started asking specific questions about their skin concerns. I wanted to give them more information than just the generic, ‘Why don’t you try this? I’ve heard it’s good.’ So the best course of action was to learn it myself. I went to esthetician school here in New York, and it helped me learn why Korean women took all these steps of exfoliation. That understanding also helped me write my book, The Little Book of Skin Care.
Seeing my parents on their business journey has helped as well. They immigrated to California 35 years ago and didn’t speak English, but they owned their own business like many Korean immigrants do. Other than my parents, I think my biggest role models as a kid were (funnily enough) my local librarians. My parents didn’t have a budget for baby sitters, so they just left me at the library for hours after school. I remember how kind and soft-spoken the librarians were. They were always there to help, and as an impressionable kid, they really influenced me.
I definitely owned Barbies when I was young, and at the time, I didn’t really register that they didn’t fit my mold. I think the developments that Barbie has made in recent years is great—you see her as a doctor (or a librarian!) and not always as a pretty princess, and in a range of body shapes and skin tones. I think seeing that representation is so important as a young person. To have affirmation from a brand like Barbie, with dolls that look like you, is going to naturally give you more confidence. Without confidence I wouldn’t have been able to take Soko Glam to the next level. To move forward you have to trust yourself to do things you’ve never done, otherwise opportunities will pass you by.
I also believe that the people we surround ourselves with helps to chart our path. You need a good support network.
I consider my husband a big mentor—he has a lot of leadership experience and I often turn to him if I’m struggling with something. When I was getting the business off the ground, there were so many women in positions of power who helped me. I’ve found women in this industry to be really encouraging and positive—I know that they are rooting for me. I try and pay it forward now and support the women who reach out to me for help. Everyone is busy, but taking a few minutes out of your day to help someone can make a big difference. And I’ve been in that position of needing it—I think the biggest naysayer along the way was myself. I would doubt myself from time to time, because I never had experience starting a company before and I had to start from scratch. When I was starting Soko Glam, a lot of my friends were working their way up the corporate ladder, and I would worry that I was wasting time on something that wouldn’t amount to anything. But I stuck with it and I’m so happy I did. In terms of advice for a woman who wants to pursue an entrepreneurial path, I would say go for it.
You are smart, you are resourceful.
The beauty of the US is that even though your start-up might not have worked out, your future employer will see that you have taken a risk and that you’ve learned something along the way.
I truly believe in the Korean, skin-first philosophy and I truly believe in the product. I’m so happy that Korean beauty has become more mainstream, and I’m very proud of being associated and connected to Korea. It’s kind of like my second home, and it really shaped me growing up in my twenties. I remember saying to my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time) that I wanted to be an ambassador for Korea, and somehow connect Korea and the US. I feel like I’ve been able to create that role for myself. Ultimately, I find it really satisfying that what I do is about empowering women. We get hundreds of e-mails from people saying that they learned so much about their skin from Soko Glam, that their skin has changed, that they’ve gained confidence. That is so rewarding. Our belief is that we can help all people believe that there are only good (skin) days ahead, which means that healthy, glowing skin is really within reach.”
As told to Amy Woodside, May 2017
Photographed by Amy Woodside & Zlata Kusnoor