“I miss that ring – I am not even going to pretend!” she said. But the entrepreneur can take some consolation: Tatcha has now become a staple of skincare routines across the world.
So, what was it that sparked this life-changing event for Tsai? In a deep struggle with dermatitis, she travelled to Japan to find a more ingredient-focused take on skincare. In Kyoto, she met a modern-day geisha who showed her the Miyakofuzoku Kewaiden – a traditional beauty playbook that geisha have used for centuries.
“The best word to describe how I felt when I met the geisha is kensho – it’s a Japanese word that refers to a flash of inspiration. It feels like you can almost see your future with utter clarity,” she said. “It opened my eyes to a completely different way to think about beauty, inside and out.”
Here, Tsai reveals the inspiration behind Tatcha, her experiences in business as a woman of Asian heritage and the legacy she hopes to leave for her daughter (and other young people) – plus, her own wellbeing-focused skincare ritual.
You’ve described yourself as suffering from ‘corporate burnout’ prior to founding Tatcha. What was that like?
“After years of working in the corporate world, the city life, stress, and frequent travel took a toll on my physical and mental health. I developed atopic dermatitis and realised that I had to change my life and began to travel without any real plan. I wanted to make a positive impact in the world, and I realised that in order for my life to feel meaningful, my work also needed to have meaning."
“My travels took me to Japan, where I met a modern geisha. She introduced me to gentle, time-tested ingredients based on the Japanese diet that she used on her own skin. I went to a little apothecary where I saw geisha filing in and out with their beauty necessities: these bell jars full of waxes and oils and powders that I had never seen in the West. So I bought some of them, and after about eight weeks, my skin had completely healed.”
You’ve said there’s a bit of a disconnect between the way we view self-care in the west and eastern philosophies about wellness and wellbeing. How do those concepts fit into the Tatcha philosophy?
“I think self-care in the West is about luxury. There’s this idea that pampering is indulgent. One of the biggest differences in the Eastern approach to wellbeing and beauty is the idea of holistic care. Our skin reflects and affects our inner health. So much of what the industry might refer to as ‘bad skin’ stems from stress, so true skincare requires care of all of you."
“The Japanese phrase ‘hinou dokon’ means ‘skin-mind same root’. In Japan, caring for the skin is caring for the mind, and that belief has shaped our approach to skincare. It doesn’t have to be a daily chore; skincare can go beyond ‘skin-deep’ when you’re intentional and in the moment.”
You’ve said that as a young girl you really didn’t see yourself represented in the beauty world or in pop culture. How did this impact your sense of self and your self-worth?
Even after all your success with Tatcha, you resisted calling yourself a CEO. What was the thought process behind this?
After being at Tatcha’s helm for almost a decade, you were asked to step down during a private equity deal. you’ve now said, “looking back now, I realise that I let two middle-aged male consultants mansplain me out of a job I had done exceptionally well.” Two years later, you were asked to return as CEO to turn the company around. What did that experience teach you?
“Like a lot of Asian-Americans, I was raised with the belief that being successful meant working hard and keeping our head down, but this has contributed to our invisibility and the misperception that we are not fit to lead. When I was asked to come back as CEO the second time around, I came back with confidence that I am uniquely qualified to run the company I built from scratch."
“As a mother, I would never want my daughter, who is now 12, to feel that kind of doubt. It’s important for me to model this self-assurance for her. I'm so grateful for the journey that I have been on because I now have the platform and the lived experience to support others. My top priority now is to turn passion into progress – for my daughter and for all our children.”
You were told at Tatcha’s outset that there was no market for Asian-inspired beauty in the US. How do you deal with being told no?
You’re an ambassador for room to read, which funds girls' education. Why is this cause close to your heart?
“Since I started Tatcha while I was pregnant, I spent a lot of time thinking about my daughter and what beauty would mean to her. I wanted to show her and other girls around the world that beauty begins in the heart and mind, which is why we created the Beautiful Faces, Beautiful Futures fund to make quality education accessible to all. Partnering with Room to Read, we help girls in Asia and Africa stay in school and reach their full potential.
“In 2021, we also expanded our efforts to the United States, where we currently provide diverse books to underserved communities through Room to Read’s literacy initiative. As of today, we’ve funded over 6.8 million days of school for adolescent girls and provided 155,000 books to children in the US. Our partnership with Room To Read is a huge source of motivation. Even on our hardest days, we’re inspired knowing that we’re making a difference.”
Becoming a mother has let you reflect on the messages women receive in the beauty industry. What legacy do you hope to leave for your daughter and for other girls?
Knowing what you know now, what do you think is the secret to success?
Vicky Tsai’s Japanese-inspired rituals
Purify and polish skin:
“While cleansing or applying moisturiser, I take an extra few seconds to gently massage the skin. It helps promote microcirculation and turns what could be a chore into a meditative experience. You can use several different facial massage techniques, but the key is to always move in upward strokes, and outward from the centre of the face.”
“This is an important Japanese ritual – they take a bath twice a day, and shower and cleanse thoroughly before even setting foot in the tub. The long soak is a very reflective time, and I often add slices of orange or lemon, or oils like camellia oil, to make it a luxurious experience.”
“I’ve always been a coffee drinker, but now I try to start my morning with a cup of matcha green tea. I love the ritual of whisking together the tea, and it’s full of antioxidants to begin the day. It’s one of those beautiful ingredients that is good for your health and your skin alike.”
Vicky Tsai’s Tatcha skincare ritual
“I have a tendency to rush through stuff. But with my skincare ritual, which we call ‘The Classic Ritual’, I actually really take the time to practice self-compassion. Putting an intention into each step is an effortless way to turn a routine into a ritual.
“First, as I massage The Camellia Cleansing Oil onto my skin and melt away my makeup, I imagine letting go of whatever I am holding onto that isn’t serving me, whether it’s anger or worry. I let it all go down the drain with the day’s mascara and sunscreen. Then I use The Rice Polish: Classic to gently exfoliate my skin, which reminds me that we can always begin again. I reset my mind, welcoming a new start and new skin.
“After that, I use The Essence, which floods the skin with hydration. As women, we give so much of ourselves throughout the day, and so with this step, I think of replenishing myself so that I can show up for others. Finally, I lock in all the hydration and nutrients with The Silk Cream. As it cocoons my skin, I think of all the people I love in my life, cocooning me in their care and support.
“When I’m done, I feel nourished and cared for from skin to soul – and it only takes about four minutes. I truly believe small steps make a big difference.”