This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Glamour is celebrating AAPI leaders in the beauty space by bringing together founders of large and small beauty brands for a discussion on the joys and struggles of creating a business, the secrets to success, and the overall state of the industry.
Next up, Priyanka Ganjoo, founder of viral makeup brand Kulfi Beauty, talks to Ju Rhyu, founder of skin-care and acne-patch brand Hero Cosmetics, about the importance of building brand communities, investing in underrepresented founders, and the power of the cold email.
On AAPI Heritage Month
Priyanka Ganjoo: For AAPI heritage month, Kulfi Beauty launched our first-ever creator campaign called Feeling Seen. We featured eight AAPI creators and wanted to dig beneath the surface and tell their stories, what got them into content creation, and what motivates them to build their communities. Our followers have been really wonderful, sharing the fact that they felt alone, but now they are excited to be a part of a community where they can find people like them. It ties to our core mission as a brand for Kulfi. We celebrate joy and self-expression. Creating space for that is core to us.
Ju Rhyu: That’s awesome. For Hero Cosmetics, it’s really all about uplifting the people in our community. We’re part of the AAPI beauty box, featuring eight brands, all with AAPI founders. So Fable & Mane, Glow Recipe, Mount Lai, Cocokind, for example. Proceeds are going toward a charity based in New York City called Heart of Dinner that supports the elderly community within the Asian American community. The other thing is elevating Asian American artists. We have these cool cosmetic bags we had designed and offered those as a gift with purchase on our website. We just did the first with a Polynesian artist named Punky Aloha that did really well.
Priyanka: Being an entrepreneur, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with so many Asian entrepreneurs that are bringing their culture into their brands, whether it’s beauty or food or whatever, and that’s part of my everyday routine now. I was going to take a photo of my pantry and bathroom because it’s 80% AAPI brands. Making that part of my routine is something that I strive for everyday.
Ju: I agree with that. We should support underrepresented founders all the time. One thing I’m trying to do this month is think about ways I can get involved in the community. What are the organizations I want to support? Is it through charitable donations or am I going to start an organization? I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m really thinking about how I can make a bigger impact. Not just this month, but going forward.
On building a brand community
Priyanka: Our communities are the reason we exist. I started working on Kulfi in 2019 and just when I was getting into it, we went into lockdown. I was having a few investor conversations that obviously shut down and was hearing really negative things like, “You should give up and get a real job, this is not worth pursuing, the future is not South Asian beauty.” But it was the DMs I would get from our little Instagram account—at that point we had 500 people following us—or I would get on phone chats with followers to reassure myself that what I’m doing is valuable. It also helped me build personal connections in a way that I couldn’t have otherwise. Since we launched, having that community motivates me.
Ju: As Hero Cosmetics has grown into this bigger company, people have started messaging me on Instagram directly; it’ll be people in the Hero community, but a lot of times, people who are also AAPI and want to start a business. I love being in the beauty industry because there are actually quite a few AAPI founders and we are all connected and know each other. They’re like my tribe. We support each other, give each other advice, cheer each other on. That’s an aspect that I really love and appreciate.
On launching a brand
Ju: My aha moment was when I used my first hydrocolloid acne patch. It worked way better than any other acne treatment I had ever used. I picked it up at the pharmacy in Korea and it was not branded, nothing. This was in 2013 or 2014. After that experience, which was for me a life-changing discovery, I was like, “More people need to know about this. I think someone needs to turn this into a brand. Why not me?”
Priyanka: Growing up, I never wore makeup because, in my community, people thought you wore makeup to make your skin lighter or to attract men. There was heavy judgment involved. The first time I used makeup was when someone at a job training told me I needed to look more professional because I looked tired all the time. That was a disaster, because I went to the makeup counter and they gave me products to make my nose look smaller, to make my lips look bigger. They were telling me all these things that were wrong with me.
This kept me away from makeup for a long time until my corporate career brought me to beauty. In 2014 I joined Estée Lauder in their strategy team and went on to work at Ipsy as a beauty merchant. I started playing around with makeup by myself and it was a judgement-free zone. I was like, wait, this is fun and makes me feel so happy, but why don’t I see more people who look like me doing this? I was waiting for someone else to solve it, but I thought, I need to create a brand where people who look like me can see themselves.
On the biggest challenge
Ju: The most difficult thing is getting people to pay attention. You have a product and a website—how do you get people to know about you and buy your product? Back then, we didn’t have a marketing budget, so I had to be really clever. When people started buying our product, that was like, “Wow, people actually want
this thing!” which is really validating and surprising.
Priyanka: From a business standpoint, the biggest challenge is fundraising. A lot of the money coming into the beauty industry is still controlled by a white male demographic that doesn’t understand why we need brands like Kulfi. Being able to survive without having that funding was something really difficult because I was like, “This should be a no-brainer,” but it really isn’t as obvious [to them] as it should be.
Ju: What I realized about entrepreneurship is that it’s all about convincing skeptics. Hero Cosmetics still has skeptics, even though we’ve been around for five years. It’s just the nature of the industry. That’s why founders are so amazing because they see something most people don’t see. Even when you’re a bigger business, you’ll still have skeptics. That’s okay because being an entrepreneur is all about that deep belief and knowing you’re going to persevere and prove them wrong.
Priyanka: The flip side of that is taking care of my mental health. Entrepreneurship is all-consuming and, at the same time, very lonely. How do I make sure that I’m setting boundaries so I can have healthy relationships outside of work and continue to feel joy in what I’m doing?
Ju: You have my number, so anytime you feel lonely, text me.
Priyanka: You’re one of our angel investors. You invested before we launched. It was literally a deck and one phone call where I told you my vision. And you were like, “I’ll write you a check.” You understood where I was coming from.
Ju: You have the background and conviction to make it a success. I always back founders where the business comes from a personal place. There are some businesses where it might be fem health, but it’s founded by a man. There’s not as much authenticity. I love with Kulfi that there’s a lot of empathy. Not many people have dared to be the solution, but you’re one of them.
Priyanka: We should get on a call more often.
Ju: I know, we should. We’ll be each other’s hype girls.
On recent wins
Ju: We just expanded at Ulta, full chain with eight additional SKUs [stock keeping units]. It’s huge because we do a lot of our revenue in Amazon and Target, and we needed to prove that we could succeed in specialty retail. The fact that they brought us on and are also supporting us in a really big way, taking eight SKUs full-chain, [with] out-of-aisle moments. Then literally the week after launch, my team was on a call with the Ulta buyer and they were so happy. They’re giving us another shelf at the end of this year.
Priyanka: So this is a personal brag moment, but being on a billboard in Times Square just happened, which I could never have imagined. Sephora has a billboard on top of their store in Times Square, and they reached out saying, “We want to feature a quote from you.” It’s surreal seeing us showcased in such a big way. And then, of course, every time a customer makes an order, it’s such a special feeling because I’m still in awe that someone went to our website and trusted us.
On Stop Asian Hate one year later
Ju: I think last year was a great catalyst. It’s going to be a journey; we’re never going to have a moment where we’re going to be like, “Okay, our work is done.” The next step I would like to see is that this should be something that isn’t thought about in this one month but throughout the year. I’d love to see this be a real, consistent topic that we all talk about and try to find solutions to.
Priyanka: I think more needs to be done. The reality is that my friends in New York who are Asian are afraid to take the train. It’s just not right. It’s also not fair to make the members of the community that are impacted do all the work around education. AAPI community members are the ones who are speaking up and putting in that labor, which I think is great, but other people need to speak up and rally. We need that allyship.
On advice for new entrepreneurs
Ju: Cold-email, cold-call, don’t be afraid to reach out to random people. That’s actually how Priyanka and I got connected. You messaged me on LinkedIn and we did a Zoom chat and then I became an investor. You never know what a random email or LinkedIn message can do, so take the chance.
On keeping the spark alive
Priyanka: It’s been five years of Hero Cosmetics. What are some practices that have helped you sustain the energy and passion you had for the business on day one?
Ju: Thinking about the future helps. The goal post keeps changing. When you’re zero, you just want to get to a million. Everything’s going to be great if I can just hit that million-dollar hurdle. Then once you hit a million, the goal post changes because then you want to get to $10 million, then you want to get to a $100 million. You just have to keep thinking bigger and that’s a big part of what gets me excited. It’s a marathon for sure. You have to pace your energy and time. So taking breaks, going on vacation, resetting. That mental health aspect is really important.
On generating media presence
Ju: When you launched, I saw Kulfi everywhere. You got amazing earned media press right out the gate. How were you able to generate so much amazing goodwill in the press and sustain it?
Priyanka: Definitely tapping into your community. A lot of the people who first started posting us on social media were people I’d had conversations with. It feels like they’re personally invested in your brand. Also our visual aesthetic—having packaging that’s Instagrammable and beautifully presented. Even our own imagery—we invest a disproportionate amount of our budget into having really beautiful photo shoots and made it a point to have BIPOC creators behind the scenes. It changes creative output and looks very different from what you see in the market because it’s created by teams that don’t typically get formed by brands. I also do one TikTok a week. It’s important for me to stay connected to the community because they tell me what we should be making next. With our new launch coming up, I’ve personally tested our product on over 300 women. Personally putting yourself out there and connecting helps.
Ariana Yaptangco is the senior beauty editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @arianayap.
Originally Appeared on Glamour