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How a Taiwanese American turned the culture of Japan into a makeup empire

Victoria Tsai, founder, CEO, and product developer at TATCHA
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Over a lifetime, makeup can cost a woman $15,000 and up to two weeks of her life. Despite the high “ makeup tax ,” women who wear makeup are often rewarded with promotions, raises or bigger tips. But makeup […]


Victoria Tsai, founder, CEO, and product developer at TATCHA.

Over a lifetime, makeup can cost a woman $15,000 and up to two weeks of her life. Despite the high “makeup tax,” women who wear makeup are often rewarded with promotions, raises or bigger tips.

But makeup isn’t just a facet of the modern world — the use of cosmetics goes back thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans painted their faces with powders, Cleopatra used a lipstick made from ground carmine beetles, and henna was used in India as a hair dye as early as 300 AD.

At least one entrepreneur has found success in ancient makeup techniques and the Japanese geisha tradition.

Vicky Tsai is the founder of Tatcha, a Japanese-inspired skin-care company. Tatcha sells geisha oils, powders, and blotting papers that absorb excess oils. Tsai explains how she transformed this ancient craft into a $12 million Silicon Valley startup.

“In Asia, instead of using a lot of alcohol-based [products] for teenagers when they start producing a lot of oil, we use blotting papers,” she says. “A facial blotting paper was originally the byproduct of the gold leaf beading process, and geisha and kabuki actors figured out that it can help in the application of makeup, and also keep it fresh. Ultimately, it removes oil from your skin and leaves the pigment behind.”

Before starting her company, Tsai says she worked for a number of global beauty companies. As a product scouter she regularly tested new cosmetics, something that ultimately backfired on her.

“I tested too much on my face and gave myself acute dermatitis,” she says. “My entire face was bleeding, blistering, and scaling — my lips, my eyelids. I was on oral and topical steroids for two years, and the doctor said that my skin wasn’t coming back to normal. The only thing I could use on my face was Aquaphor so I kind of looked like a greasy mess. I was going to Asia all the time for work, so I was using blotting papers that I would pick up in Asia to try and look a little less greasy.”

When Tsai ran out of blotting papers, she contacted a friend from to Japan to inquire where she could purchase more in the United States. Instead of running to the local pharmacy, she was led on a journey across the world.

“At that point, I was really burned out in my career. I had quit my job and started travelling the world,” she says. “I found myself outside of Kyoto at a gold leaf workshop where all they make is things of gold. I asked if it was true that the blotting papers were a byproduct of the gold leaf beading process, and they said yes.”

After learning about the workshop’s manufacturing process, Tsai met with a geisha who told her that, for hundreds of years, Japanese performers had been using the technique to remove excess oil from the skin without smudging or disturbing makeup.

From there, an idea bloomed.

“I called [the workshop] from San Francisco when I realized they were truly the original manufacturers. I asked them if they would be interested in having me bring it to the US — they said, ‘No thank you,’” she says. “I told them I’d be in their neighborhood in a few weeks so I asked if I could stop by. They said, ‘You’re going to be three hours outside of Kyoto?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, mmhmm.’ I had to sell it.”

Tsai wound up returning to the workshop and bought 10,000 packs of blotting paper. She sold her engagement ring to finance the new venture, and then began to work up a marketing, branding and distribution plan.

“It was tough going in the beginning, especially because I was pregnant,” she says. “I went to the library and I grabbed some magazines. I wrote down the names of the editors and just started sending them samples and letters, along with makeup artists. To my surprise, they were amazing — the artists and the editors — and we ended up on the ‘Today’ show within a couple weeks, and we were in national distribution in a couple months. The day that I had my daughter was the day that we rolled into retail distribution.”

Fast forward a few years, and Tatcha has grown to include a portfolio of more than 20 products. And though Tsai is of Taiwanese heritage, she says she is proud that her company celebrates Japanese history and culture.

“To me, there is something so beautiful about Kyoto. It reminded me of a time when honor still mattered, when simplicity still mattered, and when heritage and craftsmanship still mattered,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to bring over — to me the blotting papers embodied all of those wonderful values.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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