To watch Charlotte Cho in action now, it’s hard to imagine someone more at home in her own luminous skin. Speaking to an audience of beauty executives about how she shifted a $532 billion industry, opening the first brick-and-mortar outpost of her uber-successful e-commerce company Soko Glam, twirling in front of a camera in a Danielle Frankel dress, Cho appears not only beautiful but competent, cosmopolitan, and rooted in the Korean American identity from which her burgeoning beauty empire stems.
Growing up in suburban Los Angeles, Cho was the picture of first-generation success: co-captain of the cheerleading squad, the lead in school plays. Internally, though, she struggled to locate herself. When people asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she drew a blank.
“I didn't have any direction as a kid, because I felt I wasn't particularly good at anything,” she says.
It’s not what you expect to hear from an entrepreneur who, at 34, is credited not only with helping introduce Korean Beauty to the United States — a category that now brings in an estimated $50 million in annual sales — and changing American women’s whole orientation toward cosmetics but also by moving that market, smuggling inclusivity into an industry that has historically clung to a single beauty ideal.
By Cho’s account, her early sense of inadequacy wasn’t just personal, it was cultural. In that delicate phase when teenage girls page through magazines for clues about what they have to do to belong, Cho devoured tips on how to get Jennifer Aniston’s classic California girl look, knowing all the while that she never could.
“It was a standard I could not achieve,” Cho says. “It was always so out of reach.”
Meanwhile, even in the late '90s and '00s, “there was nothing on TV or in the media that represented an Asian role model, which compounded my feelings that I wasn't capable,” she says. Her primary example was her parents, who worked tirelessly running the small market and liquor store that they opened soon after arriving in the States and still own today. Based on their own experiences, their parenting lessons were long on hard work and humility, short on praise.
Her years of grappling with the Korean and American halves of her identity led her to take a job in Seoul out of college. She had never been to South Korea; her parents hadn’t visited once since they immigrated more than 40 years ago. Korea was “culture shock,” Cho recalls. “I wanted to be in a big, bustling city and learn more about the culture my parents were raised in,” she says, but she was 22, “lost and unsure.” The job was a good one, working in international public relations for Samsung, but “I didn't feel I had found my calling,” Cho says.
"I loved how the beauty standard was about skin, which everyone has, versus features like round eyes or a high nose. It was just 'skin is skin' — it doesn't matter what color or what age."
She also needed to up her self-care game, co-workers informed her. “My Korean friends came over to my apartment and saw that I barely had any products on my vanity,” she says. “They were shocked to hear that I didn't use sheet masks, never exfoliated my face, and was scared to use a cleansing oil.”
Recognizing an emergency, these friends took Cho under their wing, teaching her “everything they knew.” With their help and the regular visits to facialist and dermatologist that are a regular part of Korean life, Cho found her own routine and was amazed at the results. That’s when it clicked: Not only was Hollywood not the ultimate arbiter of beauty, an entirely different beauty paradigm was thriving across the Pacific.
“I loved how the beauty standard was about skin, which everyone has, versus features like round eyes or a really high nose,” says Cho. “It was just 'skin is skin' — it doesn't matter what color or what age.”
The idea is to care for the face you have rather than try to resemble someone else’s, which results in Koreans valuing the time and effort you put into your skin as much as the outcome. Cho was obsessed. Over the next five years, she grew to love Korea — not just the face masks but also the people, the culture, the food. It deepened her understanding of her parents’ lives and her own upbringing.
“After living in Korea, I realized how difficult it must have been to leave a place that is home to chart a new beginning in a place [where] you do not speak the language and have very little community to lean on,” she says.
And she met her husband and co-founder, Dave Cho, another Southern California expat, on a blind date in Seoul. Meanwhile, Cho began to think about what it would be like to introduce her newly adopted beauty philosophy — this Korean concept that skin care should be treated not just as a priority but also as self-care — back home in the States, where the skin care on offer consisted of mass-market cleansers and luxury moisturizers heralded by actresses or French Girls™. What if Cho found a way to offer Americans the vast array of Korean skincare products that no one in the United States even knew existed?
“When I first started speaking about K-Beauty, people assumed it stood for 'Kardashian Beauty.'”
In 2012, with Dave’s help, Cho launched Soko Glam. They had no idea what they were doing, she admits — they didn't even create a business plan. Funding wise, they bootstrapped the business. (Cho only sought a seed round from family and friends in 2016.) The opportunity to offer Americans brands like Laniege, Etude House, and Innisfree also proved a major challenge. Cho was introducing Korean skin care to Americans who likely had never in their lives used even the basics of every Korean women's skin routine.
“When I first started speaking about K-Beauty, people assumed it stood for 'Kardashian Beauty,'” she says. “I had to start from the ground up.”
And since Soko Glam was an e-commerce site, there wouldn't be an opportunity for people to touch or feel the products before buying them. Selling beauty products online was still a novelty; even big brands weren’t prioritizing e-commerce at that point, and the marketing power of Instagram influencers was years in the future.
“Everyone said that it wasn't going to take off,” Cho says.
“When Charlotte has her heart set on something, there's not much that can get in her way,” says Dave, who serves as Soko Glam’s CEO and handles finance, operations, and strategy, while Cho focuses on the brand, products, marketing, and relationships. "Back in 2012, when no one was educating and selling skin care online, Charlotte was determined to start Soko Glam, even in the midst of everyone telling her she would fail.”
"I remember how great it felt to be complimented on my skin, because it was inherently me."
Cho not only launched Soko Glam, she began a separate, standalone skin care blog called The Klog to further educate people about skin care, outside of just selling products. To bolster her expertise, she got her aesthetician license.
The sites got some traction, but it wasn't until 2014 that Korean Beauty got on the industry’s radar. Cho introduced the 10-Step Korean Skin Care Routine — a term she coined in an Elle article — and then discussed it with Into the Gloss. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know more.
“At a time when skin care was about efficiency, ‘feeling the burn,’ squeaky cleanliness, and fix-it-all creams, she introduced a revolutionary guideline which elevated the way we use skin care,” says Renée Chow, the skin care expert and vlogger better known as Gothamista. Thanks to Cho, Chow says, Americans were able to finally learn “how to cleanse, hydrate, mask, moisturize in a gentle way that can be as involved or simple as we need or want.” At the very least, Chow adds, Cho's 10-step routine helped showed consumers the correct order for their toners, serums, and facial oils, and the reasoning behind using any of them in the first place.
Korean Beauty exploded. You couldn't scroll through Instagram without seeing Korean sheet mask selfies or reading an article about beauty trends without a mention of double-cleansing. The beauty conversation began to shift from makeup-heavy YouTube tutorials to the importance of a complete skin care routine. It also became less about how the products made you look and more about how they made you feel. That confidence people gained as a result of a proper skin care regimen was the one thing Cho wanted K-Beauty fans to really hold onto.
“I like promoting healthy skin versus something else that’s dependent on where you come from. And I really like highlighting Asian beauty traits or beauty routines.”
“I remember how great it felt to be complimented on my skin, because it was inherently me,” she says. “I felt super passionate about that, and I wanted to spread [the] knowledge that you, too, can achieve good skin if you're armed with the right education and tools. And you don't have to spend a lot of money.”
Focusing on skin — all skin, any skin — was a way to address the alienation Cho felt as a kid. “I like promoting healthy skin versus something else that’s dependent on where you come from. And I really like highlighting Asian beauty traits or beauty routines,” she adds.
In 2015 Cho published her first book, a basic guide to K-Beauty called The Little Book of Skin Care, to further spread her skin-first gospel. She was quickly securing her place not just as an expert in the Korean Beauty space but also as someone who was shifting the entire beauty industry. Publications weren't the only ones who took notice — big beauty brands started re-strategizing.
“One of my friends told me that she was in a meeting and the chairman of one of the largest companies in the world for beauty mentioned that Korean Beauty was changing consumer behavior and that the 10-step skin care routine — that term which I coined — was something that [they] needed to embrace,” Cho explains.
Her friend also told her that Cho's photo was included in the presentation, and they had mentioned her and Soko Glam by name. That was the moment Cho realized that Soko Glam was more than just a passion project or even a small business — it was a game-changer.
In 2014, Korean beauty exports totaled over $1.7 billion. By 2017, they had grown to nearly $5 billion, according to a CNBC report. The same report also found that skin care has become the fastest growing product category in the beauty industry, as well as the largest product category.
“[Skin care has] been the strongest performer over the past couple of years,” Larissa Jensen, NPD Group beauty industry analyst, told CNBC.
In the past year, Cho’s trajectory has accelerated. Last October, she and her husband launched Then I Met You, a line of double-cleansing products aimed at encouraging users to “go deeper” and spend more time with themselves during their skin care routines. In a now highly competitive landscape, Soko Glam is still the largest Korean Beauty site in the United States, Cho says, and the brand opened a “Soko House” pop-up in New York’s Soho neighborhood this month, its first physical store. At the end of a two-floor experience executed in neon, modular shapes and multiple shades of pink, customers tried Soko Glam’s highest rated products in private dressing rooms and assemble skin care routines with the help of a Soko “concierge.” Cho is constantly on tour, talking about the shift Soko Glam has engineered in the beauty market but also the mission, which she never leaves out of the narrative. Perhaps inspired by her travel schedule, she’s writing another book, slated for publication in late 2020 or early 2021, about how to incorporate Korean self care concepts into your daily life and career.
“When you’re going through the motions of life at 100 miles per hour, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s meaningful,” she says. “At 34, I [want more] meaningful connections, tangible experiences, and substance.”
Cho is still learning to take compliments, but looking back, she can take in what she’s done. “I'm proud that Korea has become synonymous with innovative beauty products. Globally recognized beauty companies [have] realized they need to not only [sell] Korean beauty products, but they need to create and produce their products in Korea to be part of the innovation,” she says. What makes the years of work and drive worth it is seeing people find connection — with themselves or others — through beauty, which once made so many people feel so other.
“We've gotten emails from people who share that they use it to bond with their daughter. Or someone is dealing with a terminal illness, and this has become their hobby,” she says.
"K-Beauty is not just about the product. It's not just about the brand. It's really about changing consumer lifestyle and mindset, no matter what age you are, what gender, or what color your skin is.”
Photographer & Director: Brooke Nipar
Stylist: Gabrielle Prescod
Hair: Yukiko Tajima using Oribe @ See Management
Makeup: Joy Fennell using MAC Cosmetics
Videographer: Fiorella Occhipinti