Episode 227: Paul Baek, CEO of Matter of Fact

I recently had the opportunity to chat with former KPOP star and current CEO of Matter of Fact, Paul Baek about his inspiring career journey that has taken him from the Deep South to South Korea and beyond!

In this episode, Paul tells us about the tenacity that took him from his childhood home in the South to an internship in Korea pursuing a music career in KPOP! “I was like a moth to the flame. I needed to get closer to this music that meant so much to me.”

Talking to Paul it’s clear that his passion, whether it be music or skincare lies in the creating; “I love being in the lab making things. There’s a more lasting satisfaction that comes from creating things and being creative. The process of creating that can sometimes lead to success is much more satisfying in the long run.”

To hear more about Paul’s fascinating career journey, listen to this episode on your favorite podcasting platform!

Dan Hodgdon
Aleni MackareyHi, everyone, it’s Aleni. I am the Executive Producer of WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY™, and I’m happy to be back to chat with Jodi today. How’s everyone doing?
Jodi KatzHi, Aleni.
Aleni MackareyHi. How’s your week?
Jodi KatzBusy. I have spring break on my mind, even though it’s a few weeks away.
Aleni MackareyOh my gosh, that’s nice. Tis the season. I feel like all my Instagram ads, it’s like spring break fashion and everything happening in that whole world. Warm weather seems nice.
Jodi KatzYou speak of spring break fashion. So we’re gonna be at Disney, as usual. And I always aspire to be cute at Disney. But it’s just not realistic. I don’t know how people do it. I don’t know how you maintain a cute look all day long when you’re exhausted and on and off a ride.
Aleni MackareyRight. And hot and sweaty. I saw one Instagrammer, she has young kids, and she did a Disney trip just recently. She gets up at like 5:00 AM and does her whole hair and makeup routine. She’s like, “Even though it’s the most exhausting day, I just feel better when I’m put together.” And she looked really good by the end of the day, actually, so kudos to her. But seems tough.
Jodi KatzYeah. Maybe I will, if I can get it together, maybe I’ll plan for one day to have a real look, you know?
Aleni MackareyYes. Uh-huh.
Jodi KatzAnd then the rest of the time, I will definitely just be in my T-shirt and shorts.
Aleni MackareyAre you doing Rent the Runway for your trip?
Jodi KatzOh, that’s a good idea. Okay. Maybe I can have one Rent the Runway look. Of course I have to wear it with sneakers, because it’s the only thing to wear. But maybe I can engineer one cute Rent the Runway Disney day look.
Aleni MackareyLove it. Speaking of fashion and all things fashion, I feel like my feed has been even overpopulated with the Oscars and all of the amazing looks that we saw there. Did you watch?
Jodi KatzI did. I’ve actually never been a huge awards show person. But I did watch, and I’m so glad I did.
Aleni MackareyYeah. I actually – I don’t want from start to finish anymore. I feel like it’s so easy and so immediate to just see things on Instagram, so I usually will just see clips. And my mom usually sends me a ton of different things outfit-wise. But yeah, there were so many great looks. I think – and I’ve been scrolling and scrolling – but I think my favorite look was Angela Bassett in the purple with the big sleeves and the stunning color on her. I love purple.
Jodi KatzI met her once.
Aleni MackareyOh my gosh! That’s so cool. Where was that?
Jodi KatzWell, we’re not friends, but even once, which was really cool. And she’s gorgeous, as you would expect.
Aleni MackareyThat’s amazing. Did you have any favorite looks or moments from the Oscars?
Jodi KatzYes, and it’s a perfect segue to beauty, because Lady Gaga’s incredible. And her red carpet look was stunning. But I thought the most amazing thing was how she disarmed everybody by having an unlook when she performed, right? So it just totally ties in with that “Get unready with me” that we talk about so much at the agency. The fact that she was scrubbed clean of all makeup was incredible and so powerful.
Aleni MackareyMm-hmm. She’s so real and raw. And I feel like she loves that whole stripped down sound for her voice and her music. And then tying it in with her look was just – it really brought us all to that level of just really appreciating the sound. Amazing.
Jodi KatzAnd I loved how all the chatter at that moment was, “Wait, how did she get all this makeup off?”
Aleni MackareyUh-huh.
Jodi KatzI mean, I try to scrub makeup off.
Aleni MackareyRight.
Jodi KatzAnd it’s one of my least favorite things about wearing a full face of makeup, which I don’t do very often. But if I’m at an event, I will.
Aleni MackareyMm-hmm.
Jodi KatzI dread going home to try to scrub this all off. And of course, my eyes look crazy red afterwards and stuff. But she managed a real feat.
Aleni MackareyI know, yeah. I hope there is – I haven’t seen it. Maybe it already exists – but I hope there is behind the scenes footage of that process, because that is really amazing, for whatever makeup artist.
Jodi KatzSo much eyeliner on. I can’t even believe. Usually you get all the eyeliner crud still stuck on it in the corner of your eye.
Aleni MackareyRight. Mm-hmm.
Jodi KatzBut no, she was scrubbed clean.
Aleni MackareyShe looked amazing. So who’s on the docket for this week?
Jodi KatzOkay. This was such a fun episode. It was really kind of amazing. This is episode 227. And I keep hearing brand new stories, right? You’d think that I would hear the same thing over and over again at this point.
Aleni MackareyRight.
Jodi KatzSo this is Paul Baek. He’s the CEO of Matter of Fact, which is a skincare brand. And we spoke at length about his life before skincare. He has a fascinating story about being super passionate of K-pop. And somehow, which is so amazing, he finagled a summer internship in South Korea, just so that he can be boots on the ground in that country to be able to spend his weekends auditioning for K-pop companies. And Aleni, he got himself a five-year contact as a solo artist in Korea.
Aleni MackareyThat is truly incredible, and I need to know what t he secret sauce is, so I will definitely be listening to this conversation. Wow.
Jodi KatzYeah. He’s a super sweet, humble guy. He just loves to have his nose in books about skincare and skincare chemistry. And to have this backstory, I mean, it was so fun. And we played an amazing game. So all of our listeners, if you’re listening on a podcast app, you have to go to Instagram to see this game. Natasha, our producer, invented it. And I’m gonna maybe butcher the name of it. But basically, it’s “Is This a Lipstick Name or K-pop Song?”
Aleni MackareyThat’s so fun.
Jodi KatzIt’s genius. Okay, you ready to listen to the episode, Aleni?
Aleni MackareyLet’s jump in, yeah.
Jodi KatzOkay. So this is Episode 227, Paul Baek, CEO of Matter of Fact.
Welcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY™. We are a career journey podcast talking about what it’s really like to define success and reach for it in the beauty and wellness industries. Today we have someone who went from K-pop star to founder and formulator of Matter of Fact, Paul Baek. After a five-year music contract in Korea, how did he come to skincare for his next move? We’re gonna find out. I’m excited to learn all the details. This is episode 227.
Paul BaekHi, thank you so much for having me.
Jodi KatzI’m so glad that we’re here together today. This is gonna be very fun. So I want to start with my favorite question. It’s always my first question of guests. Since we’re a career journey show, let’s go back in time to your 11, 12-year-old self. What did you dream about being when you grew up for a career?
Paul BaekSo actually, my first love was painting and drawing. And so, I actually wanted to be an artist. And growing up, my family didn’t have much, but we did – you don’t need very much to paint and draw. And so, the backs of A4 printer paper that had typos or errors on it, and being able to paint and draw on those sheets. So that was what I wanted to be when I was a child, was an artist.
Jodi KatzDo you see any correlation between being an artist as a kid to what you’re doing today at Matter of Fact?
Paul BaekYes. I mean, I think definitely, there’s a similarity in that, painting and drawing, and then formulating skin care. It taps into the same basic instinct to create, to create something beautiful that other people will enjoy. And I do think that there’s something really transformative and life-affirming about creating something that’s beautiful, something that you covet and that can spark joy in other people. And so, that’s as true as it is for a painting or drawing as it is for a piece of music or a beautiful serum or cream.
Jodi KatzOkay. So let’s talk about what I think is so fun, that you had a whole career in K-pop before being a skincare expert and having a brand. We need to understand, how did this get started? I mean, you grew up in the US, right? You were a transplant to the K-pop world. So take us from the beginning.
Paul BaekYeah. So I mean, I was born and raised in the deep South to two parents who immigrated from South Korea before I was born. And we were around lots of warm, wonderful people, but there wasn’t much of a Korean community where I grew up. But I have an older sister. And she went to college in New York City. And she came back home when I was 12 on her winter break with CDs of K-pop music and music videos. And I remember just being sort of enthralled with it, right? And this was the last ‘90s, so this was before K-pop became sort of the global phenomenon that it is now. And I think something about seeing artists who looked like me onstage, creating and performing music that was across all genres – rock, adult contemporary, hip-hop, R’n’B, dance – that it was just, it was exciting. It was electrifying. And I think it reminded me that there was a bigger world outside of what I saw in my everyday life and made me hungry to get close to that music that was so meaningful to me.
So I sent in some tapes, demo tapes, the first year of college, during winter break, actually. And now I’m dating myself because they were VHS tapes. And got word back, and they wanted to see me in person. So I was able to get an internship in South Korea that summer after my freshman year, where I got my airfare and housing paid for so I could go, and then meet these music producers in person. And then I got my record deal the summer before my senior year. So I stayed in touch, and then that’s when I got the contract, a five-year, four-album contract. So that’s how that happened.
Jodi KatzSo, ti’s so much tenacity, Paul, to say to yourself, “I’m in school full-time, but I’m going to find a way to get an internship in Korea so that I can have a closer relationship to these record labels,” right, and be in front of them. It’s really wild to think that someone as young as you were would be able to engineer this opportunity to happen. What do you think was inside of you at that time that told you, “Go for it. You can do this. Why not?”?
Paul BaekI mean, I think it was that feeling of electricity, first and foremost. I was like a moth to a flame. And I don’t think I could have explained it at the time. It’s just, I needed to do it. I needed to get closer to this music that meant so much to me. And I wanted to make music that – or anything beautiful that might give other people that same kind of feeling of hope and inspiration. And so, I think it was just instinctual. Also, I was young. And so, there was probably more of a fearless quality that I had in youth. And so, I think, yeah, so those were probably the main factors.
I also think that when you’re young, you feel that you don’t have as much to lose, because it’s at the beginning of your life. And so, risks seem exciting, more than they do scary. And so, I just really, really felt compelled to get there, so that’s what I did. And I wasn’t properly trained vocally before I auditioned and before I went to Korea. But I just thought, let me try. What harm could there be?
Jodi KatzI love this tenacity. And I’m curious, did you tell the people in your lives what you were trying to engineer, that you were purposeful about taking a job in Korea so you could be closer to the labels?
Paul BaekYeah. So, that internship was actually with a mental health facility associated with the World Health Organization. So I was working with doctors and other clinicians. And such wonderful, smart, talented people that really – when they asked, “Okay, what are you gonna do this weekend?” It’s another week. “Oh, I’m going to go to downtown Seoul to an audition.” “An audition for what?” “To become a K-pop singer!” And they thought I was joking at first. And then they thought I was just very, very wild. But I was – I guess I didn’t… I guess because I was young and fearless at that time, I didn’t feel the need to feel self-conscious about it, I guess. And so, I was maybe more open then than some people might have been.
Jodi KatzI love this because there’s so much vulnerability in being honest about it, right? It would have been very easy for you to just sort of hide it and not be willing to be vulnerable. But it’s something I crave. I love being vulnerable now. But I wasn’t courageous enough to be earlier in my career. And I love hearing these stories. It makes me so happy to hear young people just putting it all out there and not spending all that time worrying about things that there’s really no reason to worry about.
Paul BaekUch, yes. I mean, sometimes especially when things are challenging, tapping into the instinct to create and to pursue can be very energizing and healing. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I don’t know, I’ve found it to be true in my own life.
Jodi KatzSo I want to stay in this topic because I do think that there’s so many parallels to what you’re doing right now. When you were in the world of K-pop, you were a solo act, right?
Paul BaekYes.
Jodi KatzThat is so much pressure. And I don’t know, obviously, firsthand the pressure. But I did see KPOP the Broadway musical. And I think it spoke to a lot of the intensity of having to – you’re not just performing for your audience, but you’re performing for all the people who are working on your program, right? It seems really intense. So take us back a little bit about what it was like to be a solo performer in this world. And also, you weren’t born there, right? And I imagine that there were some challenges or things people had to say.
Paul BaekOh, yes. I mean, there was a period of cultural adjustment. And not just to Korean culture, per se, but to the culture of Korean entertainment and to Korean music, right? There’s a specific culture and set of unspoken rules that you abide by in any industry or category. And I had been asked to learn more Korean, and also to learn Japanese, actually, while I was still a student after that first audition. And so, that’s what I did. And the Korean that I learned in the classroom was wonderful. And we discussed topics like global warming in Korean. But I didn’t know any of the slang or any of the music lingo. When I first arrived in Korea after graduating from college and doing music-full-time. And so, having to learn some of the lingo took some time.
And then also, and you alluded to this somewhat, right, and there are so many talented K-pop artists who are a part of that production that you were able to attend. When you’re a music artist, at least in Korea, and I imagine in all industries around the world, you’re not just a person, but you’re a product. And that can be tough. And so, learning to be both a person and a product, but also in a language that I had become fluent in but wasn’t my first language, it was challenging sometimes.
But I think it’s been so helpful in some ways because it’s like learning how to run on sand on the beach. And if you can run in sand, then running on a flat, solid surface is comparatively much easier. And so, yes, there were some challenges and difficulties. But I recently heard that sometimes, the more challenging an experience, the sweeter or warmer the memory, so.
Jodi KatzI love that. And it’s a perfect segue to moving into the world of being a solo entrepreneur. You were a solo artist in the K-pop world. You were a transplant to Korea, right, so an outsider, in a sense. So you’re moving into the skincare world, where you’re an entrepreneur, so a solo act. And also, you didn’t start your career in skincare, right? So also an outsider. So let’s bridge the gap between K-pop world and skincare world. How did you fall into the space of leading a skincare brand?
Paul BaekYeah. So I mean, it was a bit circuitous. But I’ve always had extremely, extremely acne-prone, and I still do have very acne-prone skin. And so, when I first went to Korea, I was being sent to the dermatologist, sometimes multiple times a week, because as the product, it wasn’t acceptable. The state of my skin was not acceptable, as judged by my management. And not having immediate family or friends in Korea, I felt that all of my fears and anxiety were apparent on my face. And that can feel very vulnerable. And this was back in 2008, so it was before we had all of these wonderful online skincare communities that we have now.
But just by chance, I, through searching online, found a little forum. And on this little forum, there was a veteran cosmetic formulator in Europe who was just volunteering her time to help people with their concerns and educate them about various aspects of skincare formulation. And she helped me get my routine in order fairly quickly. Back then, I think probably there were a lot of people like me, who thought if you could scrub away the acne or use – the harsher the treatment, the better. And I was using a cleanser that was way too stripping. I wasn’t balancing those anti-acne actives with more nourishing, soothing ingredients and products. And also, I wasn’t using sun protection, which thankfully was much more common in Korea than it was in the US at the time. So there was a lot of reinforcement from my environment as well. But that’s how my interest in skincare first started.
And spending my days in Korean music and Korean entertainment, entertainment is an area where sometimes, perception matters a lot more than facts. And so, being able to read this materials about skincare that this online friend, who later became my instructor in cosmetic formulation, was providing me with, was – it was comforting. It was comforting to read this textbooks and those articles that she would suggest that I read to learn more. And that’s where it started. So for 10 years, really it was just a wonderful, relaxing hobby. And I didn’t imagine that it would become my profession.
Jodi KatzIt’s so interesting that you’re describing reading textbooks and scientific articles about skincare product formulation as your downtime, your chill-out time. I don’t know that there’s many people out there who would say the same.
Paul BaekWell, I think – I don’t know. I’m an introvert by nature. And so, spending a lot of time with wonderful people in the recording studio, or out on the road performing, or doing performances for radio or television, it was something overstimulation. And so, I think that’s part of why it was fun and restorative to sit down with a book and just to read in bed.
Jodi KatzI love that. Okay, so you started to go down almost like the rabbit hole of skincare formulation. When did you decide this might be the next phase of your career?
Paul BaekOh, my goodness. I mean, after K-pop, and I went to business school and did a joint degree program, I thought I would go back into music, but on the business side. Fate had other plans. And I started learning about the startup space. That’s where my first job out of business school led me. And meeting wonderful founders who are trying to change their categories in the world in various ways, it was really eye-opening. And I had no formal background in business. So I was a fish out of water, trying to learn as much as I could in that environment as well.
But after, I think, two or three years of working with founders and working with startups, I had been encouraged by several friends and former colleagues to think about starting something of my own. And in business school, when we had to take aptitude tests, I scored dead last in entrepreneurship, I think which made sense. I’d just left K-pop. I had taken this big risk. I thought, you give me health benefits and a 9:00 to 5:00, and I’m good to go. And so, taking another big risk wasn’t really in my plans at the time. But thankfully, people were so encouraging. And I thought, well, the only thing that I’ve looked at for the past 10 years between 2008 and 2018 when I founded Matter of Fact had been my nighttime reading, had been my nighttime reading about skincare. And so, I thought, well, what’s the harm in trying?
And in the first two years, two and a half years, really it was a very, very, very – how should I say this? – bootstrapped operation. It was a team of one, and shared lab space in east LA, renting the space for a few hundred dollars a month and buying basic equipment, and doing as much as I could by myself. And I think part of that was, I was very painfully aware that this wasn’t the area in which I had spent many professional years in. And also, I thought, let me try to do as much as I can by myself with my own two hands before I ask other people to take a risk in helping me bring this idea, this dream to fruition. I thought that’s the least I could do before asking others to spend their time and energy with me, because those things are precious. And so, that’s how it sort of started.
Jodi KatzI want to go back to business school a second, because I imagine you’re probably one of the few people in your cohort who had a career as an entertainer in front of the camera. You probably – I would imagine your peers had already spent many years in business or other industries. What was that like for you, to walk into this brand new world for the second time in your life, right? You walked into K-pop for the first time in your life on your own, and now here you are in business school with a cohort that’s probably very, very much not similar to yours.
Paul BaekOh, it was very intimidating. And I had underestimated the amount of first culture shock that I experienced. Because I had spent five years in Korean music. And I had simply thought that I had learned new skills. I had added new tools to my toolkit. And I think in some ways, didn’t realize I had adjusted or changed during that five-year period. And so, coming back and being surrounded by really, really smart, talented folks who had spent three, four, five, six, seven years in the professional workforce, in finance, in consulting, in tech – it was intimidating. A lot of the coursework for me was new. And for them, it was more of a refresher.
And so, it was definitely very, very intimidating in many ways. And also, being asked to be the product for so long, my opinion wasn’t always valued. And so, being around type A, extremely smart, sometimes very straightforward peers, I could feel their frustration with me sometimes, which, “What are you actually thinking? Stop being so congenial.”
Jodi KatzBecause in the K-pop world, you probably had to be so measured, right? If you didn’t agree with something or it didn’t feel right, my guess is being measured and really thoughtful in the way that you approached getting from point A to point B was the only way that you were gonna be able to have an impact, right?
Paul BaekYes.
Jodi KatzThrowing a fit or being direct probably would’ve backfired.
Paul BaekExactly. And you also want to be sensitive to the wonderful people who are listening to and supporting your music. And for me, that spanned people in their early teens all the way to their parents. And so, that’s a very, very wide net. And you want to make sure that you make everyone feel comfortable, that you’re sensitive to all of their feelings.
Jodi KatzWell, I think that’s actually a perfect next step to the topic I want to cover now, which is your leadership and management style, right? So you were hyper-managed in the K-pop world. Then you met people who were just sort of going after whatever they wanted, probably it didn’t matter what gets in the way, in business school. That’s a lot of different points of view. How would you summarize your leadership and management style now running this business?
Paul BaekOh. I mean, I think first and foremost, very much a work in progress. This is my first time at this rodeo. But I think it’s hard to underestimate the importance of being warm and compassionate, because in music, to get a piece of music to market requires the blood, sweat, and tears of so many people. And it’s the same with a skincare product. And in order for people to do their best work, you have to foster an environment where people can be creative, where they can be cooperative and collaborative. And if it’s an environment of fear, those things get stifled.
And so, I think, first and foremost, I always tried to be sensitive and warm to the wonderful people I have the privilege of working with, so that we can come together and bring beautiful products to market, and give beautiful experiences to our customers. But that’s probably a big part of my style. I think sometimes, I still have trouble saying no. It’s a vestige of my time in music, I guess. But I have wonderful, wonderful teammates from whom I learn every single day, and who also model such kind but clear communication too. And so, that’s something that I feel so lucky to be surrounded by. And so, increasingly, as one of my wonderful teammates says, clear is kind. Try to lead with warmth and compassion, and then working on clarity. And sometimes when saying is no is the right thing, to be able to say that as well.
Jodi KatzSo the last topic I want to cover on the interview portion of our show is this idea of success being seductive. So after 225 episodes of the show, I’ve been a pattern in myself and our peers in the industry that when we get a little taste of success, we want more and more and more. And I would imagine this is very much true in the K-pop world, right? Fulfilling the needs of your audience, right, would lead to more success. I’m wondering how that seduction of success impacts you now. As you’re growing the business, I’m sure you’re seeing yourself reach your goals and then move the goalpost. So how does this affect you now, and how does it impact maybe your life outside of work?
Paul BaekThat’s a hard question. I think in many ways, the different chapters in my life have been so different from each other. Growing up in a small town in the deep South, going to a big university in New England, culture shock, right? Being surrounded by such brilliant, talented students. Then K-pop, and then business school, and then the startup world. I think one really big benefit from that has been learning that, as seductive as our ideas of success can be, it’s rarely as sweet and satisfying as we anticipate it being. And in all of these different environments and different cultures, and experiencing various episodes of some small successes, some big failures, that’s become clear to me. It’s one of the reasons why I so love being in the lab making things, because there’s a more lasting satisfaction that comes from the process of creating things and being creative, at least for me, in my experience, than hitting a particular milestone. Of course, we all have responsibilities to our families, our loved ones, people who take bets on us and support us. And we want to be able to create something that can benefit them as well. But I think that’s how I keep the seductiveness of success in check, trying to remember that the process of creation that can sometimes lead to those successes is much more satisfying for me, at least, in the long-term.
Jodi KatzRight. The journey is really where the fun is, where the memories are. And those goals, they’re just moments, right? They’re pretty fleeting.
Paul BaekYeah. And it’s dangerous to build your identity on them as well, because every success, given enough time, it fades. And what happens to your sense of self when that happens?
Jodi KatzIt’s just so seductive, you know? It’s like sugar. It’s like you have some, and your body needs more, and it craves it. And I find it a kind of fascinating phenomenon to set boundaries for yourself and kind of humble yourself a little bit.
Paul BaekYes, exactly.
Jodi KatzWell, Paul, this is such a fun conversation, interview. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with our listeners today.
Paul BaekOh, thank you so much for having me. And this is just my experience, so I hope that it may be helpful or insightful in some sort of way to those tuning in.
Jodi KatzSo, thank you all for joining and listening in. As always, make sure you’re following us on Instagram to stay up-to-date on our upcoming Lives and all the fun we have along the way. And Paul, thank you again for joining us.
Paul BaekYes.
Jodi KatzBye, everybody.
Paul BaekThank you. Bye.

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