A woman smiling as she sits at her desk working

“Real Women, Real Work” is a Darling series about everyday women who work in various fields including business, entertainment, science and education. We want to get to know the WHY behind their WHAT and get an inside look into different industries.

Toni Ko is the definition of the American Dream. In her early teens, her family immigrated to America from South Korea. Today, she is on Forbes’ list of “America’s Richest Self-Made Women,” with an estimated worth of $270 million. Dubbed a serial entrepreneur by PR Newswire, Ko is the founder and creator of NYX Cosmetics, an affordable beauty brand known for its low prices and high quality products.

After years of working for her family’s business, she branched out to start her own beauty company in 1999 at age 25. Her first NYX products, eye and lip pencils, sold for just $1.99. The brand quickly grew, making millions of dollars off of one eye pencil. Soon NYX was on shelves in big name stores like Target and Ulta. In 2014, she sold the company to L’Oréal, a move that would go down in history books as one of the largest beauty acquisitions.

She most recently launched Bespoke Beauty Brands, LLC, a company that helps influencers and entrepreneurs launch successful beauty and wellness brands. Bespoke manages the business side, everything from concept creation to distribution, allowing the influencer to focus on creation and building the brand. Today, Ko uses her influence to pay-it-forward to the next generation. She invests in other female-owned businesses and education for young girls through her firm, Butter Ventures.

Darling got a chance to talk with the CEO and business guru, and here’s what she had to say about her journey in the beauty industry.

Growing up, did you always want to get into the beauty business?

When I was young, I had no idea where my life was going to end up. I had two dreams—one was to be a writer and the other was to be an etymologist. During my teenage years, I was very drawn to makeup. I grew up watching my mom take immaculate care of herself. I also grew up in the family business of beauty. 

Did I imagine that I was going to own my own brand? No, I did not actually consider getting into business until 25.

What was the journey like immigrating to America in your early teens? How did that time of your life shape who you are today?

I was 13 years old when my family moved to the U.S. so it was really hard for me. I spoke no English. It was a really difficult situation for me.

Yet, I cherish those moments because it built my personality and character. I am resilient. I am a chameleon. Put me in a desert, and I will survive. It built me to be a really strong person, mentally, emotionally and physically. 

I am chameleon. Put me in a desert and I will survive.

What was it like starting your own makeup company, NYX Cosmetics, at just 25 years old?

Most immigrant families start their own businesses. My mom started a small beauty store, and I worked there until I was 25. At some point, I started to feel like my life was wasting away in the family business. I felt like my life was locked in.

Initially, I thought I would leave the family business and get a job working for someone, but I started to notice a gap in the beauty market for quality products at an affordable price. At that time, drugstore makeup was awful. Pigment was not there. Eyeliners were hard. You had to burn the tip to get it to go onto skin. Back then, that was the quality of products. 

Because of my family’s business in the beauty industry, I knew someone in manufacturing. It all just clicked! I launched my first company in 1999 when I was 25.

A woman standing at her desk in an office
Credit: Toni Ko

In your first year, your company sold more than $2 million off one eye pencil. You had great success! What were some of your favorite memories of pioneering NYX Cosmetics during that time?

I had no idea what the hell I was doing. It was a one-woman company, but I loved it! I would drive to Vegas for beauty trade shows with all my product samples loaded in the back of the car. I would load and unload 30 pound boxes. I remember that drive. It was beautiful. It was just a moment. 

I used to bribe my friends with free trips to Vegas in exchange for setting up booths and working them at the trade show. We were 26, 27. Everything is fun when you are young. Everything is an adventure!

What obstacles did you face in the early days?

I had every possible reason to fail basically. I am female, young and inexperienced. I ‘m a minority. I don’t come from a wealthy family. I don’t have my formal MBA. English is my second language. If there was a formula for failure, then that was me.

At trade shows, I would go to manufacturers to buy a product, and they wouldn’t let me buy a piece. It was a Pretty Woman moment. Yet, my ability to adapt to any situation came to benefit the success of the company. Every time someone said no, that didn’t deter me. I took it as a challenge to do better.

Every time someone said no, that didn’t deter me. I took it as a challenge to do better.

What inspired you to take the leap to sell NYX?

Because I had a minority investor who invested in 2009, all the investors had to have an exit timeline, which is usually five to seven years. They have to get that money out and return it to their investors. We hit that timeline. 

By then, I had run that company for 10 to 15 years. I was an entrepreneur who had no life. My work was my life. At one point, I looked at my life and thought, “What have I done?” I felt like I had done nothing but worked my whole life.

It was the perfect timeline for everybody to step into something new. I decided to find that “work-life balance,” which has a different meaning for everyone. There are 7 billion people on the planet and each person is different. For me, my life is balanced when I have work. I find my happiness in being productive, in having a goal and in having projects. 

How did you come up with the idea for your new company, Bespoke Beauty Brands?

Bespoke Beauty Brands is basically a beauty incubator. In comparison to the late 90s to present day, the consumer has changed and consumer behavior has changed. Consumers really care about organic dialogue between themselves and the brand. It no longer makes sense for a large corporate brand to have all categories of products under one name.

Instead of building one large brand, I would rather have smaller brands that partner with influencers, models, celebrities or regular Janes and Joes. Bespoke helps cultivate beauty brands that are the true essence of the business partner.

What is the connection between influencers and the success of beauty brands? 

There is no guarantee that a brand will succeed because you have an influencer tied to the brand. Without sales, there is no brand and no company. More important is identifying the organic brand narrative the influencer has and cultivating that. Without an organic brand narrative, consumers disengage.

Having partners who are big names or influencers helps get more views and impressions but that still does not guarantee success. You have to run a company and brand just like you would without an influencer attached to it. The celebrity name just catapults the brand a little faster, like adding fuel into a rocket ship. Most importantly, the partner has to put their enthusiasm and love into the brand.

What is the difference between the beauty industry today from when you launched NYX?

Today, there is so much more information out there. I am not trying to replicate what I was doing in 1999. Consumers can Google any product to learn about the ingredients. You can find any information you want to find.  So you have to be really honest with your consumer. They value brands that they can trust.

 I am not trying to replicate what I was doing in 1999.

Big picture, what are your hopes for Bespoke?

I would like to launch one to two brands a year. I also would like to only work with nice, authentic people. If anyone is in it just for a big pay day, then they are not the right partners for Bespoke. I want to help launch companies with brands that have great intentions.

Every brand we launch must have a nonprofit they donate to. For example, KimChi Chic Beauty, a Bespoke brand that launched in late 2019, works with Trevor Project, a nonprofit that serves the LGBTQIA community. The line got its start with a limited-edition Rainbow Sharts eyeshadow palette with 18 color options and liquid lip glosses in various shades.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

To my younger self, I would say, “Be yourself and stick to it. Don’t rush. Take it one step at a time, and be prepared.” But I wouldn’t change anything. You really have to go through the process to find your authentic self. 

Do you have dreams of starting a business of your own? What advice can you take from Toni Ko’s story?

Feature image via Stephanie Yang Photography

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