One word that has changed the beauty industry in the last decade – Korea. Enter Alice Kim, the Korean American founder of two cruelty-free beauty brands: Elizabeth Mott and Hanalei Company. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons School of Design, Alice saw a market opportunity – Korean beauty products were high performing and reasonably priced, but weren’t readily available in the U.S. She and her husband Vira set out to make beauty products sourced from innovative Korean factories and bring them to the U.S. market. Their It’s So BIG Volumizing Mascara and Thank Me Later eye and face primers have become top-rated and top-selling in their beauty categories on Amazon. On the back of the success of Elizabeth Mott, Alice launched a skin and lip-care brand made with Hawaiian botanicals, called Hanalei. Learn from Alice how to never have "mascara panda eye" again, how she is pivoting her beauty brands during Covid-19 and how she makes failing frequently a business strength.
As told to Ashley Johnson
Tell me about your two businesses, Hanalei Company and Elizabeth Mott. How did you get started?
My husband, Viraphanh and I started Elizabeth Mott in New York in 2010. He’s a local (Hawaii) boy, and when we met I was working in the fashion industry and he was working on Wall Street. It was just after the 2008 financial recession, and it was a tough situation in the city. We were both very entrepreneurial and interested in starting a business, so we started looking into recession proof types of businesses.
Neither of us had been in the beauty sector, but we landed on cosmetics. At the time, the Korean cosmetics boom was happening. I’m Korean American and in my travels to Korea over the years, I noticed that Koreans had these beauty rituals and great products that we didn’t have in America. Korea also has very advanced technology when it comes to beauty and cosmetics, like technology to make eye makeup last longer or keep from clumping. So we started with one product, our mascara, and we eventually became known in the eye beauty industry for that mascara, along with brow gels and eyeliner.
Today, our products are made in Korea, and we have a sourcing team there who handles everything from the manufacturing and shipping. We have 26 total employees with 12 employees in Hawaii and an office in Kaimuki, and we warehouse and ship from California.
How have you seen fashion and beauty industries change over the years?
When we got started, beauty influencers were new and just getting started. Working with them helped us connect and grow within the indie beauty world. The rise of indie beauty has really made the space to empower women in our industry. I meet a lot of cosmetic executives and for the most part, the ones that have been around for a long time are usually men. But now, there are all these female founders who are very involved and are breaking the barriers.
What is a daily, weekly or monthly routine you do to manage stress and provide yourself with self-care?
Keeping up with exercise. I travel almost every three weeks (pre-Covid-19) and deal with constant jetlag and fatigue. We have two dogs and we exercise with them when we’re home. I enjoy running for distance and I've also been doing a lot of swimming. I usually run and work out with a personal trainer 2-3 times per week. I also try to implement meditation as much as I can.
How are you doing now with the Covid-19 situation, and how are you shifting your business?
It's affecting every single business in one way or another. We do a lot with Amazon, so they've been shipping a lot of our products. Consumer beauty buying has shifted for us, from color cosmetics to more skin and lip care.
Usually during this time of year, we do very aggressive selling for the upcoming year and we secure a lot of units. I'm talking with my buyers regularly, but nobody really has an idea of when this will end. Everyone's unsure at this point and so they are hesitant to put large orders in.
We’re fortunate in that we’re a small, husband and wife team so we can be flexible. We’re looking at developing products that suit the current needs, like more home care products and spa treatments for home rather than focusing on color cosmetics. We’re seeing that people are trying to figure out what they need and nobody really knows. Who has had to stay in their home for 60 straight days before? It’s clear right now the essentials are the most important.
How do you empower your team to be successful and work toward a common goal?
A majority of my team are female employees, and I try to offer them incentives through opportunities, like going to Korea to visit the factories, and seeing how we make things happen in person. We hire people who are entrepreneurial, and they love small business, communities, and creating. We pick people that align with this type of mission and vision that we have, and that helps to keep us working toward our common goals.
Communication really is key. I have an assertive personality, but a lot of the women on my team are less assertive. I try to encourage them to say the things that are in their heart so we can communicate openly.
What is a time you failed and how did you deal with overcoming failure?
In the beauty industry, we have to put out a lot of different varieties of makeup and colors. Sometimes you hit the mark and sometimes not. We have to take risks and fail small to learn, for example, that nobody likes to buy blue eyeshadow in September. And then we take that analytic and learn from it.
I would say I fail quite frequently all the time. We’re always trying things out, and I try to remind my team, how do you know how to make it better if you don't fail at it?
What are your favorite Mohalas?
I like the Keana in Cherry Blossom Tortoise. With the oversized glasses and the polarized lenses, I just feel so much more put together. They make me feel a little bit more like a boss.
What are your favorite Hanalei and Elizabeth Mott products?
For Hanalei, I would say the lip treatment, both because of the product quality and the colors. I travel to the mainland a lot and I get really chapped lips. We decided to create the tinted version because otherwise you have a beautiful lipstick and with chapped lips, you have those dried bits of color. My favorite variation is the Dragon Fruit Hanalei Lip Treatment, which is just like a pop of color. It’s a very beautiful color and it looks nice on most skin tones. I'll even put it on sometimes when I'm at home and I'm not seeing anyone. It gives me a little pop of color and makes me happy. And it's moisturizing at the same time.
For Elizabeth Mott, my favorite is the It’s So Big Mascara. That's our claim to fame. That's the product that we started out with for our first sales, so that's very dear to my heart. But it’s also a really, really great mascara as it uses natural wax and flexible polymers. It does not give you the panda eyes (the undereye black smudges after a long day) and it doesn’t smudge or clump. And you can jump in the water and it will come off without leaving any black eye smudges – perfect for beach life or vacation.
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