Welcome to Byrdie's new series, The Hustle. We're profiling BIPOC women and woman-aligned folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
Words like pioneer, trailblazer, and icon are thrown around loosely these days. But, these are the most accurate descriptors for a woman like Toni Ko. Ko is the genius mind that birthed the affordable, high-quality beauty brand, NYX Cosmetics, into the world two decades ago. The beauty entrepreneur moved to the United States from Korea at 13, not speaking any English. But by the time she was 25, Ko had launched NYX Cosmetics and generated over $4 million in retail sales within her first year. She then sold the brand to L'Oreal in 2014 for a reported $500 million, which at the time, was one of the biggest beauty acquisitions in history.
After stepping away from the beauty industry for five years following the sale, Ko returned with the launch of her new-age beauty incubator Bespoke Beauty Brands. Now, she spends her days helping influencers and celebrities like KimChi Chic and Jason Wu launch the beauty brands of their dreams. Ahead, Ko opens up about launching and exiting NYX Cosmetics, Bespoke Beauty Brands, and the beauty products she swears by.
Were you interested in beauty as a young girl?
Definitely. I watched my mom putting her foundation and lipstick on as a kid. I also watched her remove her makeup. My mom always had cucumber slices on her face and massaged her skin with Pond's Cold Cream. [Beauty] is deeply embedded into my DNA and my soul.
Your debut into the beauty industry came when you started NYX Cosmetics at 25 years old. Why did you decide to launch a beauty brand?
When I launched the company, it was 1999. The planning and prepping started in 1998. The beauty industry was dramatically different than what it is today. There was this whole missing gray area of affordable cosmetics that were high-quality. The products that were in the department stores were too expensive. And then, the products at the drugstores were affordable, but the quality and innovation were just not there. So, as a young woman coming into a business, I wanted to bridge that gap.
What was it like building NYX Cosmetics in those early days?
Those first three years were the best years of my life. I had so much fun, but of course, it was hard work. I used to call myself an employee of three because it was me, myself, and I doing all the work initially. From designing to delivering products, I did everything. It was a different world then. We didn't have social media. We used to fax stuff over to Asia. It was just a completely different world, but it was a lot of fun.
You built NYX into a globally recognized beauty brand. You were then able to sell the brand to L'Oreal in 2014. What was that moment like for you?
Oh, my god, that is a moment I will never forget. It took almost 10 months to close the deal because there's a prepping period that goes into the final day of the exit. So, I needed to go out and hire an investment banker to represent my company. And then there are attorneys who get involved. And there are all these presentations and fireside chats that you have to attend before the final meetings. But what happens at the actual sale is quite interesting, and not many people talk about it.
You are so expanded from all of these experiences. There are like 10 months of constant adrenaline rush that you go through, and you just feel like an overblown balloon. But on the day of the actual transaction, it's like somebody comes in with a sharp knife and just pops the balloon, and everything suddenly disappears. When you build a company from the ground up, your entire identity is so tied to your company. And when you have that removed from under you, it's almost like somebody rips your entire foundation from under your feet, and you kind of fall. That's exactly what happened to me.
As part of your deal, there was a five-year non-compete, so you couldn't involve yourself with anything in the beauty industry. What was that period like for you?
When I sold NYX Cosmetics, I had already owned a company for 15 years. I always knew I wasn't building a legacy company that I would be passing down to my children and their children. I knew I wanted to exit, but I just didn't know what it would feel like. No one prepped me for it. There is no book about it.
I sold the company because I wanted to retire. That was my goal. I imagined myself with a big, tall glass of margarita sitting by the beach and enjoying the rest of my life. That only lasted for 24 hours. By day two, I was so anxious to do something. So, I started a few other companies. One was a real estate investment firm. And then the other one was an investment fund called Butter Ventures. This fund is retired now, but my goal was to invest in female-founded companies.
I also have this creative side that I need to fulfill. So, I started a sunglasses company. I did that for close to four years. And then July 30, 2019, was the last day of my five-year non-compete, so as soon as my non-compete was over, I decided to start a new beauty company called Bespoke Beauty Brands. It's a very different business model from NYX Cosmetics. So instead of being one brand, Bespoke Beauty Brands is a beauty incubator, and we partner with influencers or celebrities to launch beauty and skincare brands.
You've helped Jason Wu and KimChi Chic launch beauty brands. What's it been like working with them and helping new founders bring their visions to life?
KimChi Chic Beauty was the first brand. KimChi Chic is an amazing and beautiful drag queen. She has close to 2 million followers on Instagram. So, we have an equity deal with KimChi Chic. Being an influencer is a full-time job, and not all influencers can take the time to take care of things that arise with different parts of the business like HR, legal issues, finance, and operations. So, that's where we come in. So KimChiChic is our CEO and creative director, but we support everything else around the business. She has such a beautiful heart, and the same goes for Jason Wu too.
When you think about the lasting impact you want to have on the beauty industry, what do you hope to achieve?
I just want to do my best. We never know what our future is going to be like. We never know the future of any of the brands. But I just hope to show that nothing beats hard work and dedication. And I am dedicated to the craft that I deliver.
What does beauty mean to you?
Confidence and happiness. I've always said we may sell lipstick, but in reality, we're selling happiness. A dab of mascara or splash of lip gloss can make you feel good. And when you feel good, it shows through the energy you put out, and it has a domino effect on society.
What are some of your favorite beauty products?
I am biased when it comes to beauty products, but my makeup routine is almost the same every day. I use the Jason Wu Beauty Brows Before Boys Eyebrow and Hairline Powder ($14). I am the child of overplucked eyebrows from the '90s, so I have no eyebrows. I then draw in my eyebrows with the Groomed By Mr.Wu Micro Brow Pencil ($12). Another item that I absolutely cannot live without is the KimChi Chic Puff Puff Pass Setting Powder ($18). On my lips, I use Stay In Line Lip Liner Pencil ($10) and Honey Fluff Fluffy Matte Lip Cream ($12) in the shade 5. When I do a red lip, I use Mac Cosmetics Retro Matte Liquid Lipcolour ($22).