Profile of Vicky Tsai, Founder and Philanthropist of Beauty Brand TATCHA (San Francisco Magazine)

Liquidated for Love

Three months after 9/11, Tatcha beauty brand founder Vicky Tsai — then a derivatives trader for Merrill Lynch — was staring into a hole. She worked at the World Financial Center across the street from where the Twin Towers had fallen, and after a temporary office relocation to Jersey City, was back at headquarters, the only window in her sight line overlooking ground zero. 

“That was the beginning of my career,” says Tsai, who witnessed the site’s excavation for several months. “I thought I would spend the first two decades of my adult life making money and building a career and I would figure out the rest later. After 9/11, I completely saw my life differently.”

Born in Missouri to Taiwanese-American parents, Tsai worked as a teen in her mother’s Houston shop selling Asian skincare products, later earning an economics degree at Wellesley. She started her career in trading because she found the markets fascinating. But the distress of 9/11 and its aftermath led Tsai and her husband, who also worked for Merrill Lynch, to reevaluate their future. 

“I thought, ‘If I can’t make a positive impact through my work then I don’t know how I’m going to find meaning and make a positive impact in my life,’” she says.

In 2009 Tsai launched Tatcha, a San-Francisco based skincare brand inspired by the beauty rituals of Japanese geishas. (She believed so strongly in the business that she sold her engagement ring to fund its first product line:  blotting papers made with gold flakes and abaca leaf.) The core ingredients in Tatcha’s products are rice, seaweed and green tea, a powerful trifecta that, after visiting Japan and meeting a geisha who shared her skincare secrets, Tsai used to heal her own acute dermatitis.

In 2015 Tatcha was listed by Inc. Magazine as the #2 fastest-growing, privately-owned company in the U.S. led by a woman. Fans of the brand include everyone from celebrities (Drew Barrymore called Tatcha’s Luminous Dewy Skin Mist a “game-changer” and Chloe Sevigny has described herself as Tatcha “obsessed”) to makeup artists to royalty. In 2014, actress-turned-Duchess Meghan Markle shared with Allure magazine her love of Tatcha’s Rice Polish, an exfoliant made with finely ground rice bran and papaya enzymes.

While Tsai took a circuitous path to starting the company after leaving Wall Street, earning an MBA at Harvard and working for a Silicon Valley start-up along the way, her yearning to effect positive change in the world persisted.

That’s why, along with helping women achieve that geisha glow, Tatcha helps girls go to school. Through its Beautiful Faces, Beautiful Futures program with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Room to Read, the company donates a portion of every product sale to funding girls’ education in underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa. Tatcha’s contributions to date have funded more than 3 million days of school for girls.

“The macro-economic multiplier effect of educating girls is so significant on their communities,” says Tsai, who partnered with Room to Read in Tatcha’s third year in business, before the company was profitable. “Educated girls become educated mothers who have lower birth rates, lower infant mortality rates; they’ll start their own businesses, they’ll give back to their communities, they’ll make sure their kids get an education.”

Tatcha supports the Girls Education program of Room to Read, which focuses on secondary education. Barriers such as lack of safety, increased costs and societal pressure to marry cause many girls to drop out prior to completing secondary schooling. The program supports girls approximately ages 11-18 in the areas of life skills, mentorship, material support and family and community engagement. Local mentors, called social mobilizers, empower girls to advocate for themselves and their futures.

“It’s an individualized approach to helping girls reach their potential,” says Tsai.

Dividing her time between San Francisco and Japan, Tsai works with scientists and modern-day geishas to develop Tatcha’s products. Her experiences in Japan have shaped not only her approach to skin care, but her approach to philanthropy. 

“Everything in [Japanese] culture is about being present and grateful and understanding that you’re part of a bigger community and taking care of other people,” she says. “I created Tatcha because I wanted to share that goodness and that different way of living with other people.”

Tsai has joined Room to Read on visits to participating schools in Cambodia, India and South Africa. She says the girls’ bravery and capacity for hope despite extreme challenges reminds her what real courage looks like. “They’re in communities that are so under-resourced, the basics around human life and comfort are not there — there’s no electricity, no running water . . . [they] might not have enough to eat on any given day. They also retain the fundamental optimism of children — ‘If I wish hard enough and try hard enough, maybe my future can be different.’”

This past July, Tatcha was acquired by Unilever, a transnational consumer goods company with a range of brands including Dove, Ben & Jerry’s and TRESemmé. Tsai has stayed on as Chief Product Officer and Chief Treasure Hunter (the latter title depicts her mission to uncover treasures of Japanese culture). Tatcha’s partnership with Room to Read, built into the brand’s business model, will continue.

At the forefront of Tsai’s plans moving forward is developing a way to bring clients along virtually to the locations Tatcha supports through Room to Read. “I would love for them to see the impact they’re making in giving somebody a more beautiful life,” she says. “Tatcha is just the conduit.”

View this article in San Francisco Magazine (October 2019) here.

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