[Women in Business] Vicky Tsai: Bringing Japanese Beauty Treasures to the US With Tatcha

February 22, 2019


Among the many titles Victoria Tsai holds at Tatcha — founder, CEO, product developer, sushi connoisseur-in-chief — the one on her business card suits her best: Chief Treasure Hunter.


A Harvard Business School graduate turned globe trotting beauty expert and explorer, Victoria created Tatcha as a way to share the treasures she has discovered along her journeys. After suffering from acute dermatitis and developing a keen awareness of the importance of ingredients, Victoria began traveling in search of a more evolved approach to beauty.


While in Kyoto, a chance encounter with a modern-day geisha inspired her to create a skincare collection in homage to the geisha’s timeless rituals. Since Tatcha’s creation in 2010, the company has grown across the U.S. and inter-nationally, and in 2015 was listed the #2 fastest-growing, privately owned company in the U.S. led by a woman by Inc. Magazine. Tatcha was also listed the fastest-growing independent luxury beauty brand in the country.


Through this period of fast growth, Victoria remains deeply connected with clients through social media and handwritten letters. This personal correspondence keeps her attuned to their needs, allowing the company to grow and develop in the best way for clients.


Victoria is also passionate about education and philanthropy, and built giving into Tatcha’s DNA. Every full-size skincare purchase funds a day of school for a girl in a low-income country through Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program. Today, Victoria splits her time between the Bay Area and Japan, where she works with scientists, researchers and modern-day geisha. Marrying Kyoto craftsmanship with California ease, Tatcha evolves the time-honored beauty practices from the geisha and adapts them to fast-paced, modern life.

A long-time Japanophile (I studied Japanese for 10 years and double majored in Japanese and Global Studies in college) and self-processed skincare junkie, I jumped at the opportunity to interview Tatcha founder and CEO Vicky Tsai. For a while now, I've admired the way that Tatcha takes the best of Japanese culture and distills it down into gorgeous skincare products, pays homage to the simple but wise principles that guide health and wellness in Japan, and Vicky's sometimes painfully vulnerable social media posts. (Your heart will go out to her when you click on the Instagram post shared further down.)


In this interview, you'll find heartwarming and inspiring stories about Vicky's trials and growth as a founder and mother. You'll also get an inside glimpse into  the Japanese customs, sayings, and concepts that changed Vicky's life and may just change the way you move through yours too. We discuss Tatcha's philanthropic work helping more young girls around the world get access to education, Vicky's self-care rituals, and much more. Enjoy!


Sophie: Many of our readers are already familiar with your company, Tatcha, but many may not yet know the story behind it. Could you please share why you decided to found your own beauty company?


VT: I actually didn’t intend to found a beauty company. During business school, I interned for one of the big beauty companies. I tested so many products on my skin that I gave myself acute dermatitis. Afterwards, my entire face was bleeding, blistering and scaling including my lips and eyelids. I was on steroids and antibiotics, but my skin would react to everything I came in contact with. My doctors said it would never return to normal. At the same time, I became disillusioned with my corporate work. I woke up one day and decided I wanted to find a simpler, more authentic approach to life.


I began to travel, eventually finding myself in Kyoto. I’m actually not Japanese — my parents are from Taiwan and I was born in the U.S. — but the people I met in Japan taught me an entirely new way to think about beauty. Aging is not something to be reversed, but to be celebrated — beauty is gained over time, not lost. To care for the skin is to care for one's health, because skin is our body's largest organ and reflects our stress, our diet and our environment. Instead of constantly going to battle with their skin, they consider it with gratitude for all the incredible work it does for us. I found myself healed in the truest sense of the word. The beautiful ingredients and timeless rituals I was introduced to calmed my skin; the kindness and mindfulness of the people nourished my soul. Creating Tatcha was my attempt to bring a small piece of Japan home with me — I often call it my love song to Kyoto.


Sophie: I’m so shocked that no one else seems to really have incorporated concepts and materials from Japanese beauty with as much depth as Tatcha has to the U.S. yet! Can you talk about what draws you to Japanese beauty products, culture, and heritage and why we should take notice more?


VT: Japanese beauty is consistent with their approach to their food, aesthetics and philosophies — they practice minimalism. The formulas are very spare, meaning the quality and precision of each ingredient is paramount. It’s like sushi: only a few ingredients can be really beautiful if done right.


Sophie: Beyond cosmetics and skincare, have you incorporated anything else from Japan into your daily life?


VT: When I first traveled to Japan, I was touched by the kindness shown to me by everyone I encountered, from the taxi driver to the department store clerks to geisha. They live a beautiful value called omotenashi, which is the art of making someone else’s happiness your own. There is also a saying, ichi-go ichi-e, which translates to “just this one moment, once in a lifetime.” It reminds us that we will never recreate this exact moment again — knowing that, what intention will you bring to it? The way that people lived these values brought so much meaning to every interaction, something I have tried to bring home with me.


Sophie: You recently shared a really touching anecdote on Instagram about some of the tough times you experienced starting Tatcha. What were some of your biggest struggles and how did you keep your chin up when the going got rough?


VT: Each stage of growth of the company comes with unique challenges. In first creating Tatcha, it was raising money and finding great manufacturing and retail partners to work with. Once those were in place, we had to get the word out. Later on, the challenge is attracting and building a great team, as quickly as the business can grow. Over time, it’s about keeping these things in balance, while remaining true to your values and mission. Having touching moments with our clients, or seeing the growth and passion of my colleagues, always reminds me of what we are working towards.


Sophie: What has surprised you most about this journey founding and growing Tatcha?


VT: The most surprising part so far is how wonderful our clients are — I continue to be amazed at how deeply and passionately you can connect with women who are far away. Some of my close friends are people who have been fans of the company since the very beginning.


Sophie: Tatcha has some of the most beautiful and elegant packaging out there. Did you know from the very beginning that this would be one of your differentiators?


VT: Thank you, that is so kind of you! We knew we wanted to do custom packaging from the beginning — everything in Japan, even candy or stationery, is beautifully packaged with hand-finished touches. In creating packaging, we are constantly inspired by elements of Japanese culture: the jars are the same shape as the jars traditionally used to hold the matcha for a tea ceremony. We wanted everything we made to be both worthy of representing classicalJapanese beauty culture, and worthy of the clients they were made for.


Sophie: I know that I and many of our readers are big fans. Can we get a sneak peek at any new products you have in the pipeline?


VT: Thank you! Our newest treasure is our Dewy Skin Cream, which will officially be available on March 1st. Our collection is inspired in part by a book written in 1813 to capture the Japanese beauty and skincare rituals of the time. Skincare is Chapter 1, and we are excited to explore what else the book has to offer.


Sophie: Please tell us about Beautiful Faces and why it was important to you to give back in this way.


VT: Even before creating Tatcha, I had always wanted to make a company that would give back. Building giving into the DNA of the brand ensures that you will be able to make it work; we developed this partnership long before I took a salary or the company was profitable. Room to Read is an incredible organization that is dedicated to world change through educated children. We wanted to partner with them, specifically with their Girls’ Education Program, not only because they are a hardworking and impactful organization, but because educating girls is one of the strongest ways you can make a difference in the world. Not everyone can donate thousands of dollars or dedicate their life to nonprofit work, but everyone can find some small way to make a difference. Thus far, we have funded over 2.5 million days of school thanks to the incredible support of our clients and partners.


Sophie: How do you hope that founding your own company will influence your daughter?


VT: My daughter, Alea, was born on the same day that we launched into retail, so I often say that she and Tatcha are my twins. Now, she has turned out to be more wonderful than I ever could have dreamed, and she is learning from my experiences. She has to sacrifice a lot because I’m gone all the time. I hope that what she gets out of that is that she, like any woman, is capable of doing anything she wants in her life if she gets an education and is willing to work hard. I hope she learns that she doesn’t have to choose between motherhood and meaningful work. She also visited Cambodia with me and met girls from Room to Read’s program. She returned with a passion for giving back to others and even raised money to build her own library thanks toRoom to Read.


Sophie: Can you share your personal self-care and beauty rituals? What are some of your favorite products (both from Tatcha and other brands)?


VT: My ritual can change depending on my diet, the weather, hormones, or anything else happening in my life — but it is never more than four steps.


In the morning, I gently exfoliate with the Rice Polish in Classic, plump with The Essence, and seal in moisture with The Silk Cream. I always add the Silken Pore Perfecting Sunscreen.


In the evening, I melt away makeup with the One Step Camellia Cleansing Oil, use The Rice Polish once more to lift away any debris from the day, and hydrate with The Essence. Then I apply the Violet-C Brightening Serum, which softens and smooths skin right away and brightens over time, and finally finish with our Dewy Skin Cream, which is slightly richer, for nourishing skin overnight.


About the author:

Anne-Sophie Bousset ("Sophie" to English-speaking friends), is a freelance marketer and community builder. She helps companies build their brand, attract clients, and build a community around their product. Her favorite things include sunshine, yoga, reading, and lazy Sundays in with her cat, Phelps. She can be found on Twitter @Sophie_Bousset.

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