When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.
Christine Chang and Sarah Lee’s initial bond over beauty transformed into a booming new business. The pair first met when they were working at L’Oreal Korea, and formed a friendship over late-night barbecue after hours at the office. When they both moved to New York City in 2008, they began to realize that K-Beauty was on the rise. Equipped with expansive beauty industry experience and international backgrounds, they came up with the idea for Glow Recipe over sheet masks and wine. After starting out as a small boutique selling Korean beauty products, Glow Recipe went viral when Chang and Lee released their signature skincare line (the Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask is a cult fave). More recently, Chang and Lee have transitioned to focusing their efforts solely on creating original products.
In their Thrive Questionnaire, Chang and Lee discuss starting their own business, their professional styles, and how to look polished on-the-go.
Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed? What is your morning routine?
Christine Chang: My morning routine is all about on-the-go efficiency as I’m crunched for time between dropping off my kid at school and racing to morning meetings or breakfasts. The first thing I do when I get out of bed is drink a glass of warm water. If I have a few minutes, I use the Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask first thing in the morning on dry skin, without cleansing. It always helps to smooth out any roughness and flakiness, so makeup applies like a dream afterwards. I leave it on for five minutes while I brush my teeth and get ready for work, and then wash it off with the Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser. I then follow with a hydrating toner, serum, and moisturizer, then standalone SPF. I’m a big believer in using a standalone SPF product so that my skin gets sufficient protection throughout the day.
In case I don’t get to my full routine at home, I also carry a pouch of skincare in my purse that I can whip out in the shared ride to work, including a mist to hydrate my skin, an antioxidant serum to help protect it, a moisturizer, and an SPF. Sometimes I even throw on a sheet mask in the car if I feel really dry. A pop of color with red lipstick afterwards helps to tie the look together!
TG: What is your bedtime routine?
Sarah Lee: My mother taught me from a very young age that cleansing is the most important step of the skincare routine — and she made me cleanse my face as soon as I came home from school! The goal is to keep a clean canvas longer than you’ve had makeup on, to keep skin healthy. Since my teens, it has been my habit to cleanse first before anything else. After I get home from work, I remove my makeup and deep-cleanse my face with Glow Recipe Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser. It has hyaluronic acid and AHA, so it helps remove dead skin while hydrating at the same time. Then I tone and hydrate skin with Watermelon Glow Ultra-Fine Mist in a few layers to get that extra hydration. Then I apply a sheet mask — recently I’ve been obsessed with Sweet Chef Ginger Sheet Mask as it helps brighten and hydrate my skin. I leave it on for about 10 minutes while I multitask (usually responding to emails), and apply Glow Recipe Pink Juice Moisturizer to seal all the goodness in! If I’m ready to shower and take a bath right away, I usually like to sheet mask while bathing. Before I go to bed, I apply Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Sleeping Mask to add extra moisture.
TG: Why did you start your company? Were there any big learnings from the time you created it until now?
CC: Sarah and I were de-stressing years ago over wine and sheet masks when we realized that we were both working on projects inspired by Korean beauty technologies. At the time we were also seeing that beauty companies, globally, were being inspired by innovations coming from Korea, especially in skincare. As the only two employees at L’Oreal that had work experience in both the U.S. and Korean markets, we knew that we’d uniquely be able to leverage our combined 20 years of bi-cultural beauty industry experience and passion for clean beauty to bring over best-in-class K-beauty curations to the U.S. In the beginning, there were definitely a lot of growing pains. We had been marketers and product developers our entire lives, but had to figure out how to put together a site, design emails, deal with warehousing, legal issues, trademarking — we were constantly Googling to figure things out. We also had to learn to evolve when it was right for our customers. The most recent example of this was when we moved from a curation business to focusing on our in-house brand, Glow Recipe Skincare, so that we could better meet our customer demand for innovation and content. While it wasn’t the easiest decision, we’ve been beyond grateful for positive feedback from our customers and even our brand partners, many of whom we’ve worked with for years and have helped establish in the US.. through different retailers. We learned about running a business in a very hands-on way, but we wouldn’t change this experience for anything — this can-do attitude and ethos of putting our customers at the core of our decisions is the basis for our company culture today.
TG: What is one on-the-go beauty tip anyone can use to get ready faster in the morning?
SL: My favorite morning beauty hack is sheet masking in the car. Sheet masking is not only a supercharged way to hydrate and nourish skin, but it’s also a fun, satisfying way to “skintertain” and pamper myself (even if it’s only for a few minutes!) during what many people consider to be the worst part of their day. I try to only apply eye and lip makeup before leaving my apartment, which allows me to place the sheet mask on my bare face. By the time I reach the office, my skin looks and feels healthier and is fully prepped for the long day ahead!
TG: What is one beauty tip to instantly feel more glamorous?
SL: Two tips: A quick spritz over your makeup with a hydrating mist gives a fresh, dewy finish. And off-white nail polish. It goes well with any outfit while giving an edgy look!
TG: What is the best way to look professional in the office?
CC: A blazer helps to tie together any look! I like the boxier shapes from brands like Tibi or Rag & Bone.
TG: What gives you energy?
SL: Extra sleep and hot water with lemon always boost my energy.
TG: What daily habit or practice helps you thrive?
CC: Reading at night with my daughter. She’s at an age where we’ve started on all of my personal favorites: Little Women, Narnia, and Harry Potter. I enjoy the reading session as much as she does.
TG: Name a book that changed your life.
SL: The Billionaire’s Vinegar — for a couple of reasons.
1. My love of wine — my husband and I are unabashed oenophiles and I am enamored with the origins and narratives behind the bottles that accompany us during so many of life’s important moments.
2. The history and development of markets, in this case how the economics of wine evolved across different eras and different continents, and how human behavior has a tendency to consistently repeat itself over time.
TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
SL: I try to keep my phone and other devices outside of the bedroom, but there are times when I have conference calls with Korean vendors late at night where I take calls from my bed. I’m incredibly lucky to have a husband who understands and supports my unpredictable schedule, and actually asks me to take calls from our bed!
TG: How do you stay organized?
CC: Before I go to bed, I check the weather for the following day to mentally lay out what I’m wearing. I also check my calendar so I’m prepared for what’s to come. I keep a notepad by my bed so I can download my thoughts and ideas (kind of like a “pensieve”) and go to bed with a clear mind — deciphering my illegible handwriting in the morning is always fun!
TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?
SL: I prioritize things that need to get done immediately, and over time, have learned to say “no” even if it seems like a good idea/opportunity in the short term. This applies to how we run our business as well. We’re currently in the process of streamlining and focusing on fewer, bigger things. Recently we decided to stop curating K-beauty products, and focus on what our community has been asking for: innovating with Glow Recipe Skincare. Although our e-commerce business was still strong, our in-house brand, the Glow Recipe Skincare business, was hitting a momentum where we knew we had to make a decision: continue with both business verticals, or invest the entire company’s energy and resources into Glow Recipe Skincare. This really keeps the team more laser-focused on what the priority for the business is, and not stretch thin overall.
TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
CC: During the first several months of Glow Recipe, we were managing the site, answering customer emails and cold calling press all day, while packing boxes and calling vendors at night. It’s tempting to want to do it all yourself, but we learned to delegate and prioritize hiring the right team and partners to help us so that we could focus on the longer-term vision and strategy of the company.
TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
SL: When our vendor communicated last minute that they couldn’t fill one of our new products in time for launch, and I felt like there was nothing I could do to expedite the process to make the ship date for a retailer. To me, failure is about not meeting expectations, whether it’s others or my own. We had a clear timing in mind and it didn’t seem feasible. One of my biggest takeaways from the experience is to never make assumptions about timelines, and that it’s important to manage tightly while always maintaining a conservative buffer. We had a team member fly out to the manufacturer and approve the filling standard on-site — a lot of FaceTiming was involved! We had to air freight shipments, and have our warehouse double up on resources. We had to partner closely with the retailer to make sure we ship on time. In the end, we made it work, and after this experience, we’ve been on a mission to always add a buffer for the unknown variables that could happen.
TG: What advice would you give your younger self?
CC: Forget the linear life — meaning that as much as we try to control our timelines, milestones, and achievements, they rarely happen in the order or timing that you might have planned, and that’s ultimately ok. It all contributes to the bigger landscape of your life story. While it may not be immediately apparent, the dips and curves are still meaningful.
TG: What advice do you have for someone wanting to start a business?
CC: If you have a true passion for your idea, take the leap. I’m of the belief that if you throw your hat over the fence, you’re going to find a way to retrieve it. Though it was a big transition, fully committing to Glow Recipe really helped the business grow and evolve more quickly.
TG: What brings you optimism/hope?
SL: Enjoying and celebrating the journey, as opposed to single-mindedly running towards a goal. The ups and downs along the way are all part of what makes a success.
TG: Can you share a time you went from surviving to thriving?
SL: When we started our business, I still remember staying up until 3 a.m. handwriting notes and packing boxes with Christine (and occasionally enlisting the help of our husbands!). As small of a step as it might sound, one of my greatest surviving to thriving moments was signing a contract with our first warehouse. Reclaiming that time felt like such a step forward for our business, though I’m proud to say we are now expert box packers.
TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
SL: “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are our opinions, let’s go with mine.” —Jim Barksdale