Soko Glam's Charlotte Cho Was "Constantly Underestimated," but Her Passion Kept Her Going

Courtesy of Charlotte Cho
Courtesy of Charlotte Cho

Too often, the best beauty stories go Untold, solely based on a person's skin color, religion, gender expression, disability, or socioeconomic status. Here, we're passing the mic to some of the most ambitious and talented voices in the industry so they can share, in their own words, the remarkable story of how they came to be — and how they're using beauty to change the world for the better. Up next: Charlotte Cho, co-founder of K-beauty retailer Soko Glam and skin-care brand Then I Met You.

I was born and raised in California, but I had zero role models growing up who looked like me. I felt like a wallflower; I was a little insecure. After college, I had the chance to move to Korea, halfway across the world. I really wanted an opportunity to get outside of my bubble, so I took a leap of faith and moved there without knowing anyone. It was just a true adventure in my early 20s. Before I went to Korea, I was uninspired and felt very lost. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life; I was just figuring things out. I ended up falling in love with the culture. I learned so much about myself and simultaneously developed this passion for Korean beauty.

I learned about the Korean skin-first philosophy, and I learned that caring for your skin is not considered a chore there, but it's something that can be enjoyed. I want to share it with the rest of the world, so that's when I decided to start Soko Glam in 2012. My husband, Dave, and I decided to curate my favorite Korean skin-care products on a platform and, through that, help people understand all the techniques and knowledge that I had learned while I was in Korea.

Where I was from in California, Korean skin-care products were only available in these mom-and-pop shops in Korean supermarkets in immigrant communities. They didn't have any English writing on the products, so you couldn't decipher it unless you spoke the language. There wasn't anyone to speak about these techniques in a way that would help me understand and be excited about it. So I ended up playing that role. I ended up bridging the gap between Korea and the US and being a spokesperson for Korean beauty.

When I had first started introducing the concept of "K-beauty" to people in the US, I would ask people, "Have you ever heard of K-beauty?" And they'd say, "Yeah, yeah, K-beauty, it's a Kardashian beauty thing, right?" In the beginning, it wasn't clear to me that people would be into fermented sheet masks and cushion compacts and all of that. But in only a few short years, everything from Korean sleeping masks to pimple patches exploded. Whether it was oil cleansing balms, double cleansing, sheet masks, fermented ingredients, essences, cushion compacts, pimple patches, the list goes on, people embraced it, and the US skin-care industry had to completely pivot and catch up.

When I started Then I Met You six years into my Soko Glam journey, I really wanted it to be intentional. I wanted the message behind Then I Met You to be about something that I was passionate about because I didn't want to just create any skin-care line. I personally felt passionate about sharing this concept of "jeong" — that's the ethos of the brand. Jeong is a Korean word that describes a deep and emotional connection you can have with someone. I have jeong with Korea; I developed that over five years of living there. I also have jeong with my husband and co-founder. There are all of these relationships around me that have made me who I am today.

I am largely influenced by my passion. If I had not been motivated by my passion and this desire to teach people and to educate people about my culture and about Korean beauty, then maybe Soko Glam wouldn't be what it is today. Asian founders, we are constantly underestimated — and on top of that, I'm a woman. Women are given so little funding opportunities, whereas white men are not only given more opportunities and more money, but they're more likely to be judged on their potential versus what they've accomplished in the past. But luckily, I was lifted up by the editors and media in the beauty industry. A lot of people rallied around Korean beauty and were very supportive of my entrepreneurial journey.

Companies need to have open and honest discussions so that their Asian employees feel comfortable and supported. There are so many microaggressions that Asians face every day.

That was really an awesome moment as an Asian-American, but it's important for the beauty industry to keep growing. That means being an ally to Asian-American founders and consumers, speaking out against the anti-Asian racism, violence, and hate that we're seeing, especially as a result of COVID-19. Companies need to have open and honest discussions so that their Asian employees feel comfortable and supported. There are so many microaggressions that Asians face every day.

Part of that is giving credit where credit is due; honoring traditions, talking about the inspiration. A beauty brand can create, say, a sheet mask with ginseng in it, but they should be acknowledging the inspiration behind it and the fact that ginseng is an ingredient historically used in Korean and Chinese medicines for generations.

The beauty industry isn't perfect. We at Soko Glam aren't perfect. No one's perfect. But I'm glad we're having this discussion — it's about education. Through these conversations, we can have a little bit more empathy and humanity. We can keep learning from each other. It's really important to help push this narrative along and to help combat racism through stories.