Updated: Jan 28, 2019
Rocking the boat means being very passionate about a particular topic and going full steam ahead to spread that message whether it’s popular or not.
Below is the audio transcript for Episode 3, lightly edited for clarity:
Hey Everyone, it’s Lynne. Welcome to Episode 3 of Rock The Boat.
This week, we talk to Charlotte Cho, the co-founder of Soko Glam. Soko Glam is an e-commerce company that Charlotte and her husband Dave started in 2012 to help people discover Korean skincare products, beauty trends, and cosmetics.
I’m a personal fan of Soko Glam, not just because it curates top-of-the-line Korean products but because it helps people like me - admittedly not very skin savvy - learn how to integrate skincare into my routine. Their content is fun, informational & super easy to follow.
I wanted to chat with Charlotte because she clearly understands a thing or two about Korean beauty.
More importantly she’s built a growing company and an impressive community - over 240K strong - from just a side project. So naturally, we were curious about how she did it.
In this episode, we discuss:
• How Charlotte straddles two cultures, Korean and American, and uses them both to her advantage ,
• How she started Soko Glam as a passion project,
• Her thoughts on Asian American representation in the media and how she gives back through her company ,
• And finally, Charlotte’s words of advice to those who want to Rock The Boat .
If you’re interested in embracing your hyphenate upbringing, and changing the narrative to work to your advantage, Charlotte’s story is one to learn from.
We interviewed Charlotte on two separate occasions, so you may hear some variance in audio quality. The first time we met was back in 2017 and at the time, Soko Glam operated out of a WeWork. A year later, Charlotte invited us to their new headquarters at a much bigger office of their own near Herald Square. We were greeted at the entrance with a brightly lit sign that said, “Only Good Skin Days Ahead”.
Charlotte: My name is Charlotte Cho and I’m the co-founder of Soko Glam. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a Korean beauty site. We curate the best selection of Korean beauty products to help people see their best skin days ahead.
Lynne: Charlotte has a sweet and bright personality, and of course, perfect skin.
Charlotte: I’m Korean American, 33 years old, and originally from California and now I’m based in New York. I had a pretty typical experience growing up as a Korean American 2nd gen kid...my parents immigrated to California about 43 years ago.
We grew up in a predominantly Hispanic and White neighborhood so I remember growing up and being made fun of for being Asian. I was one of the only Asian kids in school. There were some people who created little chants and songs just to taunt me and I remember that didn’t feel good. But I was lucky enough to have very nice teachers, and a supportive group of friends so they really helped me get through that. So I grew up a pretty happy go lucky kid
Lynne: Growing up, Charlotte's parents also gave her a lot of autonomy which is likely why she tried a number of odd jobs in high school.
Charlotte: I remember that once I hit high school, the first thing I wanted to do was start working. My family was very confused. I didn’t get forced into it. I just wanted experience. My Mom and my Dad had said you should focus on your studies.
I’m really glad they gave me that freedom. Now that I look back in retrospect, they gave me so much freedom...I had friends whose parents were tiger moms.
I worked at a restaurant as a cashier and also a server, also worked at a lot of little odd jobs….Charlotte recounting all her jobs...Out of all those experiences, working at the movie theater was my favorite…
I also loved being a waitress. I loved to see the inner workings of a restaurant, and how you can share with customers, the science of how things go together, you’re kind of a cog in a wheel...In retrospect, looking back I see how that experience helped me with my journey at Soko Glam as well.
Lynne: Charlotte’s hands-on attitude and her willingness to learn ,really helped lay the foundation for Charlotte’s big idea later on. That famous Steve Jobs quote comes to mind here: “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
Building Soko Glam
Though the idea for Soko Glam didn’t start very big at all. After graduating from college, Charlotte went to Seoul, South Korea to work in PR at Samsung. She wasn’t really sure if that’s what she wanted to do though.
Charlotte: I think I had the same exact problem that people a lot of people have in high school and college...what do I want to do with my life? I struggled with that as well. I’m not particularly good at one thing…I’m terrible at math.
There were so many industries where I thought, "I just don’t see myself in any of those...I found myself in advertising which I thought everyone and their mom was in. So I just thought maybe I’ll go through life not really knowing what my passion is...
Lynne: Growing up in California, she had some exposure to Korean culture through church and Korean school on the weekend. But Charlotte’s older sister was always more interested in Korean culture than she was. Charlotte remembers looking up to celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie who graced the covers of magazines. She didn’t have a single Asian role model. But when she went to Seoul, things began to change.
Charlotte: More than the PR job, it was the whole culture of Korea that I fell in love with so I ended up staying there for 5 years. Not because I’m super passionate about PR...I just loved Korean Culture, everything around me was so amazing
Lynne: She also found love - of the romantic kind - with her now-husband Dave Cho. Dave who graduated from West Point was stationed at the Seoul military base at the time. They hit it off and connected on many subjects including...Korean skin care.
Charlotte: I was never really into skincare growing up. I was just a typical American girl that didn’t listen to her mom. But when I went to Korea, I fell in love with it. Dave also has Korean parents. He listened to his mom and had a decent routine. You’ll see that he has amazing skin. He’s very diligent.
Lynne: This obsession with skin care is everywhere in Korea. Even in the least expected of places, like the Korean military base. It’s a well-known fact that South Korean men develop elaborate skin care routines during their 18 months of mandatory military service. The Wall Street Journal even published an article titled, “The Secret to Surviving Korean Military Service: Moisturizer, Foam Cleanser, and a Cucumber Face Mask”.
Charlotte: Local Korean men are definitely well-versed in skin care. They even have a skin care shop in front of the base...because they are just so good at taking care of their skin!
Lynne: Who knew having smooth skin would be critical to national security? (Sorry, bad joke.)
Charlotte and Dave stayed in Korea for five years, immersing themselves in the culture and sharing their favorite products with friends back in the States. For them, it was natural since they loved Korean products and skin care. It was just fun. When Dave got into business school at Columbia in NYC, they started making plans to leave Korea. But they wanted to find a way to bridge cultures and stay connected to the country they grew to love so much.
Charlotte: Wouldn’t it be cool since we both love Korea so much, for us to create something that would connect us to Korea?
Lynne: And so, the seeds for a creative partnership were planted.
Charlotte: When we first started working together, it wasn’t really work. It was really about a passion project. It was a creative outlet…
We were definitely passionate about this little side project. But we didn’t expect that it would go anywhere besides being a side project.
Lynne: Charlotte admits that they knew very little about e-commerce, or setting up a business from scratch. But as they say, resourcefulness (and the Internet) is an entrepreneur’s best friend...
Charlotte: We would look up YouTube photos on how to take pictures of our products and create our own lightboxes out of cardboard…we literally had terrible photos because we never did it professionally. We never thought it would be a thing. Everything was just for fun and then it snowballed into now, 4 years later, there’s an actual opportunity here and it’s been amazing journey.
Lynne: Along the way, Charlotte’s gotten certified as an esthetician which is a skin care professional who can perform cosmetic treatments like facials and recommend skin care products that are appropriate for your skin. Dave is now the company’s official CEO. Together, they’ve built a company that brings in millions of dollars in revenue. They recently moved into an office of their own (near K town in NYC) and have doubled in size in just the last year with 40 employees.
But like any startup venture, the journey had its rocky moments. Charlotte had her doubts about the viability of Soko Glam. When she and Dave first moved back to New York, she still anxiously applied to regular PR jobs.
Charlotte: I did send my resume out to like 30 places and didn’t hear from anyone, so I would start freaking out.
I would go to Columbia events as a better half and people would ask, “What do you do?” I would say, "I sell beauty products online?" I was a little embarrassed to tell people that...you do have societal pressure in a business school setting to have this amazing career even as a better half.
Lynne: But Dave gave Charlotte some advice that kept her on track.
Charlotte: Every three months I’d panic and be like, "Ok I’m going to revise my resume" and he would say, Just focus on Soko Glam for one year straight and put all your effort into this. Let’s not think about submitting resumes or other jobs at all. Just wait for a whole year and then reassess.
He said, “This will never take off and this will never be a big business if you only put 10% of your effort into this. If you have 90% of your brain focused on other things, then this will definitely not work out."
After 3 months he would have to give me another pep talk when we would only get 6 orders a week.
But then we got covered in the New York Times...6 orders a week ended up becoming 6 orders a day…things started to pick up…and when beauty editors started getting interested in this stuff, we’d be the first people they’d think of. At this point, we definitely knew this was a great opportunity, and opportunity that even Dave’s professors at Columbia began to take note of.
The timing was perfect. I think if we tried to start Soko Glam a couple years before we did, it would have fallen flat on its face. The US just wasn’t ready for it. But with all of these factors, Korean beauty had its chance. We were right there ready to take it on.
Lynne: Timing was dynamite. But the power of storytelling - and the messenger - can’t be undervalued here.
Charlotte: Not to toot our own horn, we created it too. Korean products have been here before we came... but no one else has been able to talk about it like we did. We reached out to the beauty editors and got people interested in the education of Korean beauty products. There were so many factors that allowed Korean beauty to grow. We cold-called all these beauty editors and even they didn’t know what K-beauty was. We were able to give brands a voice.
Lynne: Charlotte became an ambassador of sorts between Korean brands, American distributors, & beauty magazines. Her previous boss at Samsung, ended up joining her and Dave as their first employee at Soko Glam. He always told her that her biggest advantage was her ability to bridge the gap between Korea and the U.S. as a Korean American. So instead of focusing on the differences between the two cultures, Charlotte fully embraced her dual identity.
Charlotte: I think what really helped the narrative and get beauty editors connected was the difference between Missha and our brand. Missha shops were operated by Korean people. But I’m a Korean American, I was born and raised here, I understand the American mindset. I lived in Korea and I have Korean parents, so I understand about that side as well and what they have to say about their products.
It’s kind of like bridging the gap between Korea and the U.S. I was able to say, "Hey I’m Korean American and I understand this." And so that narrative was accepted and understood easily by Caucasian beauty editors. I was able to talk to them like a friend.
Lynne: As Korean beauty becomes more mainstream, it’s not uncommon to find popular Korean brands at major retailers like Century 21 or Sephora now. But Soko Glam was the first to really educate consumers about the products back in 2012. More than anything, it’s the community they’ve built that differentiates Soko Glam from other platforms.
Charlotte: What Soko Glam has created is a community of trust, even a brand that focuses directly to retailers, you won’t find anything like us. Soko Glam has the most loyal and engaged community that is really able to set itself apart from others. That takes years to build and it’s not so easy to build that, and we’re really protective of that and never feel like we need to do something that erodes that trust in any way
Asian American Representation and Giving Back
Lynne: Now that she has built an engaged and loyal community, Charlotte is finding ways to give back.
What I’m really happy about these days is that I have a platform where I can talk about things that really matter to me and some of the things I talk about on Instagram is Asian American representation - for instance the recent Crazy Rich Asians, I made sure I publicized it...it’s such a big moment for Asians in the US. - Charlotte Cho
Lynne: Personally and professionally, Charlotte supports various initiatives around representation. For instance, on World Refugee Day, Soko Glam donated skin care products to North Korean refugees through an organization called LINK (Liberty in North Korea).
Most recently, she’s launched her own skin care line called “Then I Met You”, to inspire everyone to go deeper, in the things that matter to them. She says that its development signifies a turning point.
With Soko Glam now the fastest growing brand in K beauty at 45 brands strong and monthly traffic in the millions - it does seem like a turning point. Still, Charlotte never forgets to pay it forward.
Charlotte: Growing up in California, I didn’t have many Asian role models. Now finally in my mid-30s, I’m in the position where I can help spark that..so the younger generation can grow up with more Asian role models - that’s very important. Hopefully I’ve been able to inspire people from all backgrounds that they can achieve their dreams as a female entrepreneur
I feel like my experience has been so welcoming and inclusive. I encourage all female entrepreneurs to simply ask and believe it or not, people are willing to help you. Even people that you think may not have enough time, or you think may not care to speak with you. People are excited to help others, esp if you are very honest, open and earnest about it. I would say, go for it...Never hesitate.
Lynne: We couldn’t agree more. After all, it’s this very advice that got me and Lucia connected to Charlotte in the first place: simply, asking. So whatever it is that you’ve been dreaming about starting or doing, go for it. And embrace the journey.
Charlotte: Honestly I feel like Soko Glam has achieved so much more than I could ever imagine. I couldn’t ask for anything more to be 100% honest….I feel like we’ve been so lucky to achieve what we’ve achieved, to have a community that is so supportive. Everyday, I just say, “We’re so lucky”.
Lynne: And to think, it all started with a simple side project.
Growing up as Asian Americans, we often straddle different worlds. We may experience an identity crisis, feeling too Asian for America and too Americanized for Asia.
My key takeaway from Charlotte is that we shouldn’t see these hyphenated identities as a disadvantage. Instead, we should embrace our unique heritage as a strength and use it to our advantage. In an increasingly globalized world, it can only serve us well to be able to see from both sides of the ocean.