Episode 65: Charlotte Cho, Co-Founder of Soko Glam

If you’re a fan of sheet masks, you have this week’s guest to thank. Charlotte Cho, founder of Soko Glam, was your typical SoCal girl—tanned skin, beachy hair and a no-fuss beauty routine—until she moved to Korea. It was there she discovered the highly detailed, skin-first Korean approach to beauty that, unlike America at the time, it was incredibly accessible, affordable and fun.

In this episode, hear how a side-hustle bringing Korean skincare to the States snowballed into one of the biggest trends of the last decade: K-Beauty.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® hosted by Jodi Katz, Founder and Creative Director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jody KatzHey everybody. Welcome back to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®. I'm sitting here with Charlotte Cho, she's the co-founder of Soko Glam. Welcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®.
Charlotte ChoThank you for having me.
Jody KatzI'm excited to have you here. I want to tell everyone how we met. Because I love those sort of origin stories.
Charlotte ChoYeah.
Jody KatzIt was Jessica Hanson, who was a guest on our pod a few months ago, and after she did the pod she thought, "Oh, I really need to connect the two of you together", which I just love so much.
Charlotte ChoRight. Yeah, it was really nice of her. She is amazing so far. She's been a Amourepacific for a couple of months now, and she's just like full steam ahead. I see so much positive change, with the brand, and I'm excited to see what's coming up.
Jody KatzYeah, she has a really strong vision, you can see it.
Charlotte ChoFor sure, for sure.
Jody KatzSo, I wanted to mention also that it's not our pod, people that bring people together, but also the criss-crossing of sessions, so after your session today another session will be coming in and you'll meet whoever that person is, and what's really cool is the magic that happens in the hallway, when people that never met each other get to connect just for a few minutes, and get to know each other, and realize they actually have a lot in common, so.
Charlotte ChoWho's coming?
Jody KatzIt's Kristy Ingles, she works with company that is like if you're ready to expand, they're going to be your mobile sales force, they're going to be your mobile trainers, they're going to be everything, so it really helps smaller companies get that scale.
Charlotte ChoScale, nice.
Jody KatzSo, they become experts in your brand, and your product,-
Charlotte ChoGot it.
Jody Katz... and take that on the road. Yeah, it's pretty impressive. They do a lot of other cool things too, but I meet her through another of my podcast guests.
Charlotte ChoOkay, I had to introduce you to someone too then.
Jody KatzOh, good, awesome. I love it. So, you've been traveling quite a bit?
Charlotte ChoYes, I just came back from LA, just two days ago, and then before that I was in San Francisco, and then Korea, so crazy.
Jody KatzDoes travel ever get lonely for you?
Charlotte ChoI'm actually pretty independent, so I'm not that lonely. I take that back, actually when I am in Korea for weeks on end, so last time I was in Korea I was there for about a month, I do get kind of lonely just because I'm by myself. I do have team members out in Korea, but I don't see my husband for a whole month. A lot of my friends who I grew up with in Korea, in my early 20s, they now have families, they have kids, so they can't really come out as often.

So, I find myself eating dinner alone by myself several days in a row, and so those are the times when I do get lonely.
Jody KatzA month at a time is long time to be away.
Charlotte ChoYeah. Its such a great time to be exploring, and I feel very fortunate to have that long time, but at the same time, yeah it is pretty long.
Jody KatzI read an interview with Jen Atkin, you know she's Find me the Way, and Me and Annex, and she's like a supremely awesome social media star.
Charlotte ChoRight.
Jody KatzAnd she talked about the fact that she's always traveling. She's always on the road, that the social media community is her friend when she's away.
Charlotte ChoTotally.
Jody KatzAnd you can see that in the amount she posts, how intimate her posts get, that its her way to feel connected to human beings when she's in places, basically by herself.
Charlotte ChoRight, for sure, and it's so nice to have that community, and they're everywhere. I'm in Korea and they're like "Oh are you going to have a meet up? Are you going to ... let's meet and do something. I'm right across the street from you", and it's so insane how small the world is.
Jody KatzHave you ever done that? Have you ever just met fans?
Charlotte ChoOh yeah, definitely. I mean, I have small meet ups. I've done it in Korea, I've done it in New York, California, LA, Irvine. I've done it in so many places, and it's seriously crazy how small the world is, when you have one and just people come out and they chat about how they discovered Soko Glam, or how their skin routine has changed. It's really encouraging.
Jody KatzAnd are these impromptu? Or are these planned events?
Charlotte ChoSometimes they're planned, sometimes they're impromptu.
Jody KatzThat's so cool.
Charlotte ChoYeah.
Jody KatzTell us what you're going to do with your time today.
Charlotte ChoToday, well I came back from a long business trip so I'm just catching up now, and it's so nice to see all the faces in the office. I really like being at home, I really do like being in New York. We have so many new people in the office I've never met before, new interns, new full-time team members, so it's good to catch up.
Jody KatzHow many people are part of Soko Glam now?
Charlotte ChoCurrently we have 37.
Jody KatzThat's awesome.
Charlotte ChoYeah.
Jody KatzThis has been fast growth.
Charlotte ChoIt has been, yeah, it's so crazy. I never would have imagined it growing this fast. In June we'll have another eight people joining the team.
Jody KatzThat's amazing.
Charlotte ChoYeah.
Jody KatzSo, you're at this stage now where you actually don't know everybody, anymore.
Charlotte ChoNo, no, that's not true. We're still small enough for me to know everyone, but maybe 2019 it'll change.
Jody KatzAnd how does that feel? Knowing that change is coming?
Charlotte ChoIt's pretty daunting, but I do know that we have an awesome team in place, and we're so lucky. Everyone gets along with each other, there's no cattiness, there's so many really hardworking, smart people on the team, and so it's so comforting knowing that everyone is such a go-getter, and everyone just gets it, and everyone's working hard for the same mission.
Jody KatzAnd have you every had one of those bad apples situations, where someone does join the team and they're maybe really negative, or kind of caustic person, that really changes the atmosphere and the dynamic?
Charlotte ChoHonestly, like I said earlier, we're so lucky that everyone gets along, and it's been so positive. I've kind of been like bracing myself for that moment when there is someone that's really negative, but luckily we haven't. So, I think our people ops team, for creating a really good culture, and really focusing on that.

Obviously, not everyone's going to be happy, but at least we have anonymous surveys in places and formats for them to actually voice their opinion.
Jody KatzThat's great. It's very hard when everyone feels like a family, and newcomer comes in who isn't the right fit-
Charlotte ChoRight.
Jody Katz... who doesn't really understand that culture, or came from like a really like maybe-
Charlotte ChoYeah, different. It's just different.
Jody Katz... yeah, complicate place, right?
Charlotte ChoRight.
Jody KatzAnd either they'll get with the program and realize they can relax, loosen up, and they don't have to be on the defensive, or they just won't work, and it hard when its that first time, when you have to be confronted with that.
Charlotte ChoAnd, totally. And as we get bigger and bigger, sometimes it's harder for people to context, and what decisions are being made, because not everyone's in the same meeting, and sometimes you just need to trust the team as leadership, and then just make sure everyone's aligned, and on the same page.

So, that's what I've learned in the past year, it's been kind of interesting seeing the growth, and luckily like I said, the people ops team, they're very seasoned, they're very, they know what to do, and also Dave my husband, who's a co-found of Soko Glam, he comes from a management background. So, he kind of understands how to facilitate everything, and make sure everything runs smoothly.
Jody KatzWell let's talk about why you both started this company, give us the origin story.
Charlotte ChoYeah, okay, so basically I was born and raised in California. Didn't have much of a skincare routine, was not a skin expert. And, I pretty much loved sunbathing, without any sunscreen, on the beach, because I was from California. And then, I had this amazing opportunity to live in Korea, and this was right after college basically. And I was so excited to get out of Irvine, where I went to UC Irvine, and I just was so excited for that big city life.

So it was either New York or Seoul, and I chose Seoul, thank God. And then I literally picked up and left, didn't really have many friends. I didn't have any relatives really, I had an uncle and a cousin, but wasn't really familiar with them, and so all my friends were kind of worried "Oh, what are you going to do out there? You don't know anyone", but I had no strings attached in California, this is my time to just go.

So I'm so glad I did, and then I absolute loved the culture there. The people, the food, the beauty. I was pretty much blown away. And then everything changed for there, I adopted a Korean skincare routine, because all my colleagues from Samsung taught me how to take care of my skin. I learned about essences, exfoliation, saunas, everything, and I just feel in love with it, and then every time we'd come home, I would tell my friends all about it. And they started getting into it. And then I started sending them products, and then it just snowballed from there.

And my husband were like "Hey, this is an awesome way to stay connected to Korea", because we knew our time in Korea would come to a close eventually. And so, basically, we said "Hey, let's put our entrepreneur hat one, and the let's just do this fun side project where we introduce our favorite products to the US, to our friends in the US, and then see where it goes".

And it was so crazy to see it really explode from the very beginning. And we were really lucky, timing was perfect, digital was starting to pick up, social skin care started to be more exciting, because it could be shown visually on social media, and yeah, it was very serendipitous and very awesome staring point for us.
Jody KatzSo let's go back to your time working at Samsung, and your co-workers indoctrinating you into skincare, did it happen gradually? Or was there one moment when they're all like "Oh, you don't do this?", and you're like "No, I don't do this", like what was that kind of ah-ha moment for you?
Charlotte ChoOh well, they kind of essence shamed me, because they were talking about essences, and then I was like "What's an essence?", and they all turned and looked at me, they're like "You don't know what an essence is?", because that's like the heart of their skincare routine.

And then also another time my friends came over to my apartment and they looked at my vanity, and they're like "Where's your skincare?", it had like one moisturizer, and I had like a bar soap in the bathroom. And that's when they're like "Oh my God, we have to teach you everything about skincare because you are 23 years old, and you don't know anything", they were so shocked.

And, yeah, so they kind of made fun of me the whole time. I had like beachy, California waves, and they're like "Why's her hair so unruly", and then "We need to calm you down". I mean they have their own perception of beauty, right? And I don't have to follow everything they say, but I did learn a lot about skincare, and so that was fun.
Jody KatzAnd so, the essence shaming is what really drove you learn more, get curious.
Charlotte ChoAnd then all the beauty shops, everywhere in Korea, they're just like literally in the subways there'd be beauty shops, so I'd be like waiting for my train, but there'd be all these beauty shops, so it's like, you never see that in New York, right?

So it was just, and every corner, it's like a Starbucks. Every corner you'd see a beauty shop, so it's like hard to miss, and then they're so affordable. So your not feeling like you have to invest like a hundred bucks for one creamer. You're spending two dollars here, five dollars here, ten dollars, twenty dollars, and its so fun and discoverable, that I had so much fun with it.
Jody KatzRight, so are there any brands in Korea that really are like the $200 serum?
Charlotte ChoOh, yeah, for sure when you go to the department stores, they do have the higher end price points, but for the most part it's very accessible.
Jody KatzRight, so people are as comfortable buying skincare as they would buy a pack of gum.
Charlotte ChoRight, or a subway p ... yeah, exactly. It's pretty just fluid, easy, you just don't even think about it. And then you gift them, you just have a pack of masks, sheet masks, in your house. Everyone does. It's pretty fun.
Jody KatzAlright, so did you meet your husband in Korea?
Charlotte ChoYeah, so he was serving. He went to West Point, and then he got stationed out in Korea. That's his last duty station before he left the Army, and so we're both from California, so it's pretty crazy to have met halfway across the world, in Korea. We met through mutual friends, and then he actually has a very extensive skincare routine, so his stories a little bit different from mine. While I didn't have any skincare routine, I had to learn it in Korea, his mom had taught him everything about sun protection at an early age. You know, cleansing, and she had all these really nice products that she gave him early on.

So, he definitely added more steps as we got to learn about KPD together, but he definitely had a great foundation and a base from his mom.
Jody KatzAnd how interesting, so when you met, were you in ... was this after essence shaming? Like, had you already [crosstalk 001214] to him?
Charlotte ChoYeah, I had already adopted it, and then we met. And then I was like "Oh, wow, you have a pretty good skincare routine. Well I have a few tricks up my sleeve". I taught him about a few things, but yeah, he would tell me stories about being in Iraq and he'd be putting on sunscreen religiously, because it gets super hot in direct sunlight all the time. And he's friend would be like "What are you doing?", and they would be shaming him for taking the time to put on sunscreen.
Jody KatzRight, did he shame them, that they're not wearing it?
Charlotte ChoI think he was just like "Oh you guys should do this, but I know I'll never convince you". But now, a lot of people email him, message him on social media, and be like "Hey, what do you do? Because, I want to start picking it up".
Jody KatzRight, I would imagine that his devotions to skincare would be as interesting to your fans as yours.
Charlotte ChoOh yeah, definitely, he's written a post on the [Klog 001819] about his skincare routine, and it got so much pick up. They're like "I'm forwarding this to my dad. I'm forwarding this to boyfriend or husband, because I want them to know how important it is, and you're from the military, so you could actually pick it up too". And it doesn't have to be about this like girly, vain, like it's a ritual-
Jody KatzRight.
Charlotte Cho... it's a ritual that takes care of your skin, and he gets so many compliments on his skin, all the time, even with me to be honest.
Jody KatzI think it's part of your healthcare, right?
Charlotte ChoDefinitely, yeah, and skin cancer. There's the highest rate of skin cancer in the US. I wonder why? There's just this culture of being exposed on the sun, not protecting it, and just and then you get skin cancer, it's crazy. And the lowest skin cancer rate is in Korea.
Jody KatzOh wow.
Charlotte ChoAnd in other parts of Asia. Yeah, I found that super fascinating.
Jody KatzAnd are people there wearing SPF?
Charlotte ChoOh yeah, they're not only wearing SPF and reapplying, but they're also just staying out of direct sunlight. Like, we'd go out to a park and I'd notice that everyone would be huddled beneath a tree. Like, they just don't want exposure, period. And then all the kids out there, they'd have these really nice carriages, but like super protected.
Jody KatzLike, giant like canopies?
Charlotte ChoYeah, canopies, and just they'd tell me it was UV filter, because not all my class will cover UV filt-, UV rays, so they would have this special UV cover. And you know the women would have these visors, and they'd have these arm sleeves, and they would have sun umbrellas. They were just staying out of sun exposure, the sun.
Jody KatzRight? It's a totally different mindset here, where people are just like stand out and want it, right?
Charlotte ChoYeah, yeah, yeah.
Jody KatzSo, you've become a huge skincare expert to community and beyond. You had to work hard to get there, what steps did you take to keep re-enforcing your expertise? And keep learning?
Charlotte ChoSo, after I started Soko Glam and it started taking off, David and I did everything. We packed boxes, we answered customer service inquires, so as I was mainly doing the customer inquiries, and people would ask me very in depth questions. I could definitely set them up with a routine and tell them how to use the different steps, but I wasn't well versed in the biology of the skin. So what I decided was while I'm running Soko Glam I'm going to take esthetician courses.

And so, I went to the Dermalogica, right here-
Jody KatzOh, cool.
Charlotte ChoIt's no longer there, sadly, but I loved their approach. It was very skin focused. I know other cosmetology schools, or esthetician schools, they focus on waxing or makeup, or you know, there's all these different parts of the service, but I loved that Dermalogica focused on ingredients, the biology of the skin, and just skin treatments.

And so, I went to school there pretty much for a year, and then graduated, got my license, and that helped a ton, because when people have skin issues, it's so related to biology. It's so related to science, and then I was able to back up everything I said with that, and so then it helped me write my book as well.

So it was really hard to do both, but I'm so glad that I did it.
Jody KatzSo Soko Glam is a destination for K-Beauty.
Charlotte ChoRight.
Jody KatzIs it only in the US? Can you only purchase it here in the US?
Charlotte ChoNo, there's certain countries that we do ship to, but mainly the US, like 99% is from the US.
Jody KatzSo, when you enter this business, there weren't as many players in K-Beauty and this marketplace, and now there's a ton. So, is that your focus, sort of, day in and day out, is how to be different? Jaded? How to maintain authenticity, when there's so much noise around K-Beauty all around you?
Charlotte ChoYeah, that's a great question, so when we started, literally no one was talking about Korea beauty. One of the editors I reached out to, and just cold emailed, and then we met, I was like "Oh, I want to teach you about Korea beauty", and she's like "Oh, Kardashian beauty?", like that's how no one knew. Like seriously, no one really talked about it.

And no one knew what it really was, it wasn't defined, they didn't know about the brands. I think that they knew in Asia there was these cute brands, they would reach out, and none of the brands would get back to them. So there's no spokesperson for K-Beauty, and I kind of was there at the right time to talk about it.

And, yeah, it was very easy to talk about it, because no one else was talking about it. Now that there's a lot of noise, there's a lot of people in the space, and we don't really focus on our competitors, because you could just go down a rabbit hole if you do that.
Jody KatzRight.
Charlotte ChoBut for us, we really focus on content, because that's how we started from the very beginning, and that's how we continue to find a lot of value. Lot of people are, like me, didn't know anything about skincare, want to get into it, and to feel very overwhelmed. Because it is every customed to your own skin type. So we have the Klog, which is our sister site, and we focus so much on content, we have a whole team involved around introducing people to different techniques, skincare routines, all these commonly asked questions.

And then even on Soko Glam, we do focus on a lot of content there. You have something called "Faces of Soko Glam" we just launched, and we have people from different age brackets, and different backgrounds, first getting into skincare, and we kind of guide them on their journey.

So, it really has been about just kind of putting our heads down, doing what we do best, and just moving forward from there.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

Want to sponsor the pod?

Available On:

Apple Podcasts