Why The Founder Of Tatcha Didn't Take a Salary For the First Nine Years

Badass Women celebrates women who show up, speak up, and get things done.

Victoria Tsai
Photo: Courtesy

Victoria Tsai was a Harvard MBA candidate when she landed a summer gig at a major beauty conglomerate. Part of her job was testing the latest lotions and creams — and her sensitive skin began to suffer from chronic dermatitis as a result. Tsai's skin struggles continued after graduation and during her next job, which required international travel.

During a trip to Japan, Tsai became fascinated with the glowing complexions of Japanese women — particularly that of modern-day geisha, who practice one of Japan's oldest fine art forms. After using the techniques she learned from them to bring her own skin back to health, Tsai decided to develop her own now wildly-popular brand, Tatcha. So popular, in fact, that even Meghan Markle is a reported fan.

But for Tsai, it wasn't just about producing a range of products. In fact, before the brand was even profitable, she made a promise to herself, her company, and her customers. For every product sold, the company would fund a full day of school for girls around the world in partnership with Room to Read.

The choice was a non-negotiable for Tsai, who has structured her business accordingly. "This is baked into the DNA of our brand," she tells InStyle. "It's part of our cost of goods."

With that in mind, Tsai lives up to her personal definition of a badass woman. "They defy convention in a way that brings people along," she says, "And makes everything around them better."

We spoke with Tsai about the key elements of her work and business, below.

On putting happiness first: "I get a lot of questions about how I chose to take that leap of faith [into entrepreneurship]. The answer is always the same: We are responsible for our own happiness," Tsai says, adding that her happiness stemmed from finding a genuine connection to her work. "I knew that if I kept doing work I didn't believe in and that didn't speak to what I wanted to do with my life as a human being, there was a 100 percent chance that I would be unhappy. If I tried something different — whether it was starting my own company or changing careers — there was a chance that I'd be unhappy. I'll take a 50 percent chance of being unhappy versus a 100 percent chance of being unhappy any day of the week."

On riding out the lows: "I had to leave my groceries at the grocery store when I was nine months pregnant [because I couldn't pay]. That was definitely a low point," Tsai says. But the beauty industry powerhouse didn't let it phase her. "[After it happened] I went back to work. There's only one way out of that hole — work."

On her role models: "I think [Japanese geisha] are badasses, especially modern-day ones," Tsai says. She sees the original connection to artistry embodied in modern-day geisha. But that image can often be misconstrued. "[Today, being a] geisha has been miscast in the western world as something sexual when it's not at all," she says. "It's a demanding art form that requires years and years of study and discipline and commitment, no different than being a prima ballerina. It's not a way to get rich. It's not a way to get famous. It's not an easy life. So if you choose to do it, it's because you are really passionate about an art form and dedicating your life to it."

On paying it forward: "I didn't take a salary for the first nine and a half years. Every single dollar went back into product development, customer service, or Room to Read," Tsai says, referring to Tatcha's nonprofit partner that supports girls' education. "We always told ourselves that if we wait until we're profitable, until we can 'afford' to give back, there will always be something else that's going to have a better R.O.I., whether it's advertising or headcount," she says. "So [we thought], let's just build it into the model right now and make it permanent. That meant we had to optimize the rest of the company around it. We have less money to spend on marketing and sales then other companies, but that's how we built our business model and that's not going to change."

On her proudest accomplishment: Tatcha's Room to Read partnership tops Tsai's list. "To date we've [provided] over two million days of school for incredible girls around the world and we have our eyes laser focused on how long it's going to get to 10," she says. "You know theoretically that different countries and economic conditions mean that children have don't have access to everything, but it's not until you go and see that there's no books [that it really hits you]."

For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.

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