Over the course of the last year, as Covid-19 has raged across the United States, an outbreak of different variety has plagued every corner of the country as well. While the pandemic has spared no one from its devastating effects on the economy, public health, and day-t0-day life, the Asian-American community has also experienced 12 months of hatred, discrimination, and violent attacks—both physical and verbal—after being unfairly blamed for the virus. Between mid-March and the end of December, Stop AAPI Hate, a tool that tracks incidents of hate against Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the US, recorded more than 2,800 incidents of anti-Asian discrimination, and one widely-cited statistic identified a 1,900 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans from the year prior.
In recent weeks, several troubling reports of violence against Asian seniors—including that of an 84-year-old San Francisco woman who died from injuries sustained during her attack—have led to heightened awareness of these anti-Asian hate crimes, and many have taken their response to social media. Big names, like Chrissy Teigen, Gemma Chan, Cardi B, and Naomi Osaka, have shared their outrage and encouraged others to speak out against these happenings, while others have used the hashtag #StopAsianHate to share their own experiences with racism. Some brands and corporations have also expressed their dismay, calling attention to the dire situation and making renewed pledges to act with inclusivity. Yet, within the beauty industry, relatively few have declared their support for the Asian-American community or even acknowledged the current surge in hate crimes. Given the field’s long history of benefitting from Asian tradition, innovation, labor, and buying power, the Asian-American women behind many of its most prominent brands believe it’s time for the beauty industry and its various players to finally take a stance against anti-Asian hate. Read on to hear 12 Asian-American founders discuss their experiences of discrimination within the space and why change is so long overdue.
Vicky Tsai, Founder of Tatcha
“As an Asian American, seeing the recent actions of discrimination and violence against our community in the US has been heartbreaking, but unfortunately it’s not anything new. Growing up, I was one of the only—if not the only—Asian students in school, and our representation in media was far and few. I learned about the concept of sekaijin (global citizen) when studying the writings of D.T. Suzuki, and I fell in love with the idea. As people who live between cultures, we have the opportunity to share the best of both worlds to advance society and uplift individuals. I created Tatcha exactly for this reason—to celebrate, honor, and share Japanese culture—but when we launched a decade ago, I still found myself being told that we wouldn’t succeed because Asian beauty was ‘too ethnic’ and not aspirational enough for western consumers. Luckily we have made progress since then, but in order for us to continue moving the conversation forward, we need to keep showing up, speaking out, and representing the cultures and heritages we come from, and the media needs to take notice and continue covering what is happening.
As an Asian American founder, it’s inherently part of my job to make myself visible and create whatever impact I can. The solidarity and support I’ve seen come from other communities of color has also given me hope that we can create a future where our children feel safe regardless of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. As a society, I think we can get there—and by talking about it, we’re bringing the issue into the broader cultural conversation—but it’s going to take time, continued conversations, and education to make it a reality. There’s no quick fix.”
Charlotte Cho, Co-Founder of Soko Glam and Founder of Then I Met You
“Growing up as an Asian American in California, the lack of Asian representation in the media led me to believe my physical appearance would never be seen as beautiful. Moving to Seoul and developing a passion for skincare completely changed this for me. The standards of beauty that I internalized in America were no longer relevant in Korea, and after five years, unlearned. Back in 2012, when Soko Glam was born, America was in the dark about K-Beauty and Korea’s ‘skin-first’ philosophy. A lot of the work Soko Glam did in the early years was surrounding educating Western consumers about ingredients, formulations, and skin health through our content resource, The Klog. It was surreal to witness the explosion of popularity from American consumers who dutifully followed the Korean 10-step skin care routine and the skin-first lifestyle that Koreans had ingrained in their culture. For the first time, I began to hear non-Asian women tell me, ‘I want to achieve glowing skin, like Korean women!’ This interest and acceptance of Korean beauty felt like a warm embrace from the West, one that I had never felt before in over 30 years.
Dave, my co-founder and husband, and I started Soko Glam in 2012, and I clearly remember that at the start, we were disregarded and underestimated by the beauty industry. No one thought that Korean beauty could take off with US consumers, since at the time, the industry was focused on brick-and-mortar shops and on color cosmetics. We were unfazed by the naysayers because we were passionate about skincare and the impact it could have on your skin and confidence. Fast forward to 2021, and Korean beauty is now synonymous with innovation. After proof of concept and the wide acceptance of Korean beauty, those same naysayers have tried to capitalize on these trends. I’m very proud of the impact we’ve made in the beauty and skincare industry. The US beauty industry should be crediting the K-beauty industry for setting a higher standard of innovations in product and packaging formulations, educating consumers about their skin, and bringing much more focus to indie brands.
The Asian-American community has seen a rise in violence and discrimination over the last year. Our elders have been physically harassed, and micro-aggressions are becoming normalized. The beauty industry, including media and brands, can curb this violence and amplify Asian-American voices and experiences to create a culture where hate against Asian Americans is nonexistent and AAPI representation is plentiful. It starts by being an ally to Asian Americans, providing education, and having open platforms to communicate and discuss these issues. It also means giving credit where credit is due, by acknowledging the impact of Asian-inspired trends, whenever they are taking inspiration from it.”
Tina Craig, Founder of U Beauty
“It’s not until pretty recently that we’ve experienced adequate representation, like the presence of Asian-American models in editorials and ads. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was especially noticeable. It was the age of glamazon supermodels, like Cindy Crawford and Paulina Porizkova, with features impossible for me to achieve. Foundation shades were either orange or pink, so I just didn’t use any. Anytime I did see Asians depicted in popular culture, the women were portrayed as hardened dragon ladies with heavy black eyeliner and long spiky nails, and Asian men just Chinese delivery guys. We were both invisible and misrepresented until the past decade. The fox-eye trend is offensive, as is the appropriation of ancient medicinal practices. The women in my family have been doing Gua sha and rolling for as long as I can remember (and far longer!). I’m in full support of everyone using these longstanding methods and tools and of course, it’s not offensive when non-Asian women appropriate these practices. But it is problematic when they try to tell us how to do them better. Let’s educate ourselves on the cultural origins and honor them instead of trying to usurp something for yourself.
There’s been a staggering rise in violent attacks against Asian Americans in the past year: an incomprehensible 1,900 percent—and 90 percent go unreported. We are the silent minority who don’t like drawing attention to ourselves. But we can’t let ourselves be silenced and stereotyped anymore. Outspoken support from various industries is vital in making this change, as the time for brands to stay quiet on social issues is over. I would love to see brands use their platforms to allow more Asian Americans to share their stories, along with more conversations and dialogue around these issues. Naturally, I’d love to see Asian models more frequently portrayed in imagery—if not for myself, for the younger generations to feel a strong sense of representation.”
Deepica Mutyala, Founder of Live Tinted
“Growing up, I didn’t see myself represented in media, magazines, or in any part of the beauty world, and because of that, I conformed to what I was seeing instead. I tried to change everything about my looks, from dying my hair blonde, to wearing blue contacts. It’s that experience that shaped my intent and career path. I’m aiming to change that narrative for the next generation and would love to see a diversified beauty industry that represents many different cultures. Speaking for myself and to my experience, I’ve always felt tokenized in the beauty industry. But I choose to view it as a positive thing now because the existence of a token Brown girl wasn’t even a thing when I was growing up, so I feel like we are moving in the right direction. My goal is to normalize all shades and skin tones to be seen as equals. We deserve more opportunities in creative careers. We were told our whole life to go down a very traditional career path to ‘live the American dream,’ but the reality is that there is a whole collective of us out there that are super talented and meant to build our own versions of the American dream. I hope more of us are given the opportunity to do so, and I plan to do what I can to help make that happen.”
Sarah Lee, Co-Founder of Glow Recipe
“The beauty industry can always be more diverse and inclusive when it comes to representation. It’s a responsibility for brands to have products for all skin types and tones, have diverse imagery in their marketing, and communicate realistic expectations of beauty. Brands have a huge influence on consumers, so it’s crucial to use that for positive, uplifting change. It’s amazing to see how many beauty lovers are obsessed with Asian beauty because it demonstrates the importance and relevance of those traditions within the industry. Earlier in our careers, we noticed that many global brands were inspired by Asian beauty traditions, innovations, and tools that informed the products they would launch. Asia was and still is the hub of new, cutting-edge technologies that everyone is excited about. From the clear impact that Asian beauty has made on the industry across all kinds of brands, past and present, it’s so vital that the Asian community is being supported during this really horrific time.
When the news started showing all these violent crimes against Asians, it was extremely upsetting. We were so inspired by our Asian-American peers speaking out and using their platforms to shed light on these acts, while also sharing their personal experiences as Asian Americans within the industry and the world. We are fortunate to have a platform from which we can raise awareness of these important issues while sharing the core values upon which we built our company. We plan on continuing to leverage our platform to speak up and having meaningful and deeper dialogues with our community, and we hope to see more brands speaking out and spreading awareness in support of the Asian community.”
Christine Chang, Co-Founder of Glow Recipe
“In recent months, there have been stories within the beauty industry at large of lifestyle brands misrepresenting Asian influences or customs and receiving heavy backlash as a result. If companies are selling Asian-inspired products or tools, I do think it’s incredibly important for these companies to also provide sufficient education around these ingredients, traditions, and innovations, and also support the communities they derive inspiration from. Inclusivity in the beauty industry is non-negotiable, and visibility and representation is critical because it can have a lasting impact on customers. When someone doesn’t feel represented as a part of how beauty is defined, it’s extremely discouraging and isolating. We believe that all customers should be able to see some aspect of themselves reflected within a brand’s values, visuals, and language. There’s also so much diversity within Asian cultures—it’s not a homogenous group. We’d love to see more Asian Americans of all backgrounds, skin tones, and regions be widely represented in campaigns and storytelling.”
Amy Liu, Co-Founder of Tower 28
“A lot of progress has been made but ultimately, I don’t think Asians are fairly represented in beauty. Generally, it’s the same profile that is always promoted as the beauty standard for Asian: fair skin, jet black hair, slanted eyes, thin figure. This single-note expression leaves out so many, including Southeast Asians and those with deeper skin tones. The beauty industry needs to cast a wider net. We (Asians) don’t all look the same! And as a percentage of the overall population, we certainly are not reflected proportionally in the media. Frankly, I think it’s taken a really long time for Asians to even be part of the conversation. Growing up, I never saw Asian models. The only celebrities I saw that I could identify with were few and far between (e.g. Lucy Liu), and often, it’s the half-Asian, half-white, more Western looking Asian woman that our culture deems beautiful. Not showing or promoting Asian faces as part of the beauty standard has damaging effects, especially since society tells women and girls that their worth and identity is defined by their looks. If you don’t feel seen, you don’t feel of worth, and that lack of self-confidence permeates every facet of life. So many Asian-Americans I know feel relegated to be in a support position, away from the limelight, ever the number two. It only perpetuates the hardworking Asian stereotype of a person who does the heavy lifting, but if you look at leadership, it’s still not diverse enough.
As the Asian community has become increasingly wealthy around the world, brands have paid attention because it made sense for their pocketbooks. Lunar New Year advertising in luxury is ubiquitous, and the beauty industry loves to be inspired by Asian skincare trends (BB/CC cream, K Beauty, sheet masks, and more). If you’re trying to take our money and market to us, you need to also stand with us and stand up for us. I’m sickened by what’s happening, but I’m also glad it’s forcing people to pay attention and give Asian-Americans a voice and a platform. Just like you would for any of your friends, show up. Stand up for your Asian employees, consumers, and community. Let people know where you stand on the issue, and help dispel the stereotypes using whatever tools you have: images in social media, the words you use, influencers you include, the people you hire and promote. It all makes a difference.”
Priscilla Tsai, Founder of cocokind
“We are not represented proportionate to how much we give and consume in the beauty industry. We are so used to trying to ‘fit in’ to the beauty standards that the Western culture has created for us. As a result, to me, it feels like we are outsiders trying to fit in rather than as fellow Americans with a culture and heritage that should be celebrated in the beauty industry. We mostly hear about Asian beauty in the context of K-Beauty and J-Beauty, but this doesn’t recognize the span of influence that the Asian culture has had on the broader beauty industry as we know it today, from Asian-inspired ingredients, skincare steps, methodologies, and more. The industry has some catching up to do in order to truly honor the contribution from the Asian culture.
The Asian community has provided endless inspiration and consumer dollars to the beauty industry. Any beauty company should recognize how important this community is and show support during this difficult time. If you are comfortable taking our dollars, you should feel the responsibility to stand up for us too. We need to better celebrate any demographic that is currently underrepresented, such as the AAPI and BIPOC communities. We see this as one united effort, not as separate issues. I’m excited that the Asian American and BIPOC communities are coming together right now to demand more from brands; we deserve to be a part of the inclusivity conversation. Beauty and wellness brands need to take us seriously!”
Nikita Mehta, Co-Founder of Fable & Mane
“In the past year, I have seen more brands include brown skinned women—this week, for instance, L’Oréal has appointed Nidhi Sunil as the first Indian global ambassador which is a good steer in the right direction, although I do sometimes wonder why it took so long. More beauty brands now cover my skin shade color and hair type concerns, which simply did not exist as little as five years ago. There is so much innovation and cultural beauty secrets to learn, acknowledge, and appreciate from Asia, from the slow beauty ritual of Japan to the facial cleansing steps in Korean skincare and coveted glass skin to the incredible energy medicine from China. For me, Asian Beauty, specifically in wellness, represents a new healing dimension of beauty for our bodies and our planet. From a purely product point of view, I believe it starts with education as it involves a new habit to adopt. I would love to see more brands start sharing knowledge of the rituals from Asia through imagery, educational how to videos, understanding the benefits of ingredients and championing the results from a scientific standpoint and incorporate this into their launches in an authentic, transparent way.”
Bee Shapiro, Founder of Ellis Brooklyn
“Beauty and fashion will always have an aspiration/desire/want aspect on some level. This is how trends are created and is core to how the industry functions. I have seen tremendous change in Asian representation—spurred by K-beauty and the rise of Chinese consumers—but I haven’t seen a whole lot changed on Asian American representation which is altogether a different look. I do think the product offerings have been improved, though, especially in foundation colors. I remember as a teenager, there were only a few color brands that even had foundations with a warmer undertone.
This cultural appropriation aspect is such a landmine, and it’s full of nuance. Facial massage and the idea of draining lymph nodes, for example, have been part of East Asian beauty routines for some time now. I don’t necessarily feel personally insulted that others are coming out with Gua Sha tools etc. It’s getting popular because it’s effective. What I take more umbrage with is when I see photo shoots that try to make a non-Asian model look Asian. These are the editorial spreads or ad images that put Caucasian models on the streets of Tokyo for example and do cat eye makeup to somehow make her look more Asian. I also think Asian Americans, again here, are lost. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a spread documenting the uniqueness of Asian American lifestyle and culture in an aspirational way. I think it’s important to include Asian Americans in the idea of what aspiration can look like. That means in imagery and campaigns. Imagery is incredibly powerful. This is why we have all that FOMO, want, desire, from viewing Instagram. Capturing Asian Americans apart and more than your typical Asian aesthetic could be very liberating.”
Ju Rhyu, Founder of Hero Cosmetics
“The beauty industry does owe a lot of its commercial success to Asian beauty culture—K-Beauty, J-Beauty, Chinese beauty tools, to name a few. Not to mention, many brands have been catering to the Asian community with Lunar New Year products or packaging and events like Singles Day. Now is the time for the beauty community to show they support the Asian-American community by acknowledging the racism we face. One thing they can do more of is to talk more about the inspiration or history of things inspired by Asian culture. For example, if they use a gua sha, talk more about how it has been used in Chinese beauty culture, even if they are a non-Chinese brand. I think this would promote a lot more education and also honor and respect the cultures that many of these ideas come from.
The Asian-American community is a significant one in the US that often gets overlooked. The buying power is over $1 trillion, and we are the fastest growing demographic in the US. It’s easy to overlook Asians since we tend to have the ‘model minority’ reputation as people who have integrated well in the US and have had reasonable success educationally and professionally. But that doesn’t mean that racism against Asian Americans doesn’t exist, and I hope that the beauty community can voice their support and acknowledge that it does happen and find long term solutions for change. I’d love to see more diverse hiring at all levels of an organization, better representation in content, more sensitivity to the Asian-American community in marketing, and more recognition when ideas or products come from Asia.”
Emily H. Rudman, Founder of Emilie Heathe
“A main reason why I started my brand, Emilie Heathe, was because when I was growing up in the early ‘90s, I did not see a representation of myself in mainstream media as an Asian American. Back then, the focus was more Eurocentric and ‘all-American’ California girl looks: blonde hair, blue eyes, tan skin. And the few brands that were available or more Asian-specific were really focused on an Asian consumer from Asia and sticking to a more stereotypical aesthetic. I was Asian but raised in a predominantly white community, even being raised in New York City. Fast forward to 2021, and we have certainly come a long way in mainstream media, but we still have so much further to go. To this day, there is still a lot of tokenism or quota filling, where brands are just checking off the diversity box to display diversity in their marketing and give the appearance of inclusion. But are they using diverse teams to create those marketing materials? Just because you include an Asian face in your ad or display, does that really mean you are taking the particular needs of that type of customer to heart, and is it filtering into all parts of your creative process?
There is a fine line between inspiration and copying and appropriation, but I do understand that it is difficult to navigate. On the one hand, there is a heritage and history and tradition that needs to be maintained, respected, and honored. At the same time, without widespread sharing or transformation, traditions can fade away. I think permission, respect, and sharing are what’s missing in what we see in the industry today. I think people need to pay homage to where their inspiration came from and not try to make it entirely their own. It’s great to see brands ride the K- beauty wave, but at the same time, is it fair that they are marketing their innovations when those really come from somewhere else? I know there has been a lot of debate about the popularity of gua-shaing, a traditional Asian beauty practice that is now being offered by what feels like every brand under the sun. I think it is wonderful to be inspired from other cultures, but again, it has to be done with respect.
The Asian community has been one of the most powerful when setting trends in beauty. From a pure business standpoint, Asian Americans have insane spending power, even given their small size proportional to the rest of the population. We literally helped build America and are instrumental to its survival and commerce. For a lot of Asian Americans, we have felt like we have needed to stay silent because we’ve had it ‘better’ than other minority groups or because we are too afraid of what might happen if we make a stand. I think we need to stop feeling this way, and the beauty industry and all industries need to support us in making our voices heard—saying that they too believe it is not ok and are vocally working on being better, doing better, and working to change their mindset, practices, and perceptions and rid themselves of assumptions. Show Asians, hire asians, work with Asians—and don’t stop there. Do this with all BIPOC and other underrepresented groups. Don’t make assumptions, don’t put us in buckets because that makes your life easier. The change has to come from within—internally at companies as well as internally in each person to individually change their mindset and educate themselves. It is not something that is one and done. It’s something you constantly have to be learning about and actively doing.”