Angela Jia Kim has never missed a night of washing her face. Seriously — not once. It seems impossible, sure, especially considering how many of us can’t even go a week without at least one night of falling asleep with makeup on, but for Kim, it’s just another byproduct of the fierce discipline and focus that has run through every facet of her life since the day she was born.
Kim grew up in Ames, Iowa, as the first-generation American daughter to immigrant parents. However, her early years were far more informed by her Korean roots than by her Midwestern surroundings. “My parents value education very highly, so my childhood was very structured,” she recalls. Every day, she’d wake up and practice an hour of piano before elementary school, then after school, get a 15-minute break before practicing violin, doing all her homework, practicing piano again, cleaning the house, and then going to bed. All those hours playing “Moonlight Sonata” paid off, though, when Kim wound up pursuing a career as a concert pianist. “I lived a very artistic life, where I would just practice all day, go on tour, and sometimes, I would zig-zag from town to town up to 8,000 miles in a month,” she says.
One night, while getting ready for a performance, she reached for a bottle of “natural” lotion and applied the cream all over her face and body. Within minutes, Kim — now onstage in front of hundreds of people — started to break out in hives from head to toe. “I’ve always had very sensitive skin — rashes, eczema, itchiness — and breaking out was kind of normal for me,” she explains. This time, though, her bumps had an audience. When she looked at the ingredient list to determine what she could be reacting to, she was shocked to discover how many chemicals were in the formulation. “It was supposed to be natural!” Kim exclaims.
She started doing some research on making her own organic anti-aging cream, and began experimenting in her kitchen, whipping up over 1,000 different formulas. “Being a concert pianist really gave me the skills of excellence, perseverance, discipline, and the idea that if you fail, you keep going,” she says. That hard work paid off: she started giving out her creams as gifts to friends and family, who quickly started asking for more for their own friends and family. After one friend requested 13 jars of product, Kim decided to create a website so that people could continue to buy her products even when she was on tour.
Shortly after Kim’s daughter was born in 2010, however, she decided to stop traveling and start a new chapter in entrepreneurship. “I felt such a creative force when my daughter came into my world,” she recalls. “A month after, I just said to her, ‘Let’s do something together, Sienna.’” Kim called up the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park and booked a kiosk, where she and her one-month-old daughter began selling her handmade products. She noticed that a lot of her customers were from the West Village, so when she decided to open up a small store a few months later, she knew exactly which neighborhood to look in. “I went on CraigsList® and saw someone asking for a subletter on West 11th Street, so I sublet the store there,” Kim recalls.
Yet, despite expectations of being packed — her storefront was sandwiched between two Michelin® star restaurants — no one was coming in. “I had just signed this two- or three-year sublet lease, so when someone came in and asked if we did facials, I looked at her and said, ‘Yes! Come back in two days,’” she remembers, despite the fact that they were only going to be a retail location. Two days later, the West Village shop was offering facials. “The first three months were rocky, but we started to get really amazing Yelp® reviews,” she says.
Now, nearly 10 years later, Savor Beauty® has expanded to three brick-and-mortar spas in New York (the original West Village location, the Upper West Side, and the Hudson Valley, respectively), and has grown into a globally-recognized brand with over 40 employees. From cleansers and toners to masks and peels, the Korean-inspired, organic beauty line is sold in stores around the country, and Kim has established herself as an industry pioneer and leading businesswoman. The path to success hasn’t been easy, but a decade on, Savor Beauty and its founder have big plans for the future — and even Sienna (who is now 10) has some ideas! Read on to hear all about Kim’s journey to the beauty biz, how she balances motherhood and entrepreneurship, and how she turns a shower into her own personal spa.
Spotlyte: How did your childhood shape your understanding of beauty?
Angela Jia Kim: My mom and her creams really sparked my interest in beauty. My mom and her sisters were very into these creams, and my aunts would send her some from Seoul, Korea — made with gold flakes, pigeon poop, anything — and she would always open them up and treat them like absolute treasures. By osmosis, I really loved them. I was so fascinated and would play with them. She was always telling us to wash our face at night, and I would see her taking really good care of her skin, so I always just thought that’s what you do.
Spotlyte: What have been the biggest challenges in starting and growing a beauty company when you didn’t have a background in the industry?
AJK: The easiest part for me has been the products, and just having people fall in love with them. The hardest thing was building a team. The one skill that really wasn’t transferable [from my previous career] was that I was a solo pianist — [now], I had to know how to manage a team. I didn’t understand the difference between leading a team and showing up as a professional yourself.
I decided two years ago that I just didn’t know how to run the business without it draining me. A good friend of mine, who’s a cellist, said, “Why don’t you run your company like a chamber orchestra?” She told me that in a chamber orchestra, there really isn’t a leader that dictates — they all have a passionate say in how the artistic vision works. She said that some people want to be a part of that visionary and creating process. That changed my life, and that’s when things started to shift for Savor Beauty. With a lot of failure and lessons learned, I finally feel like I’ve built an amazing team and I have a hang of it.
Spotlyte: Obviously, from the beginning Savor Beauty has focused on having natural and organic ingredients, but how do you think your brand really differs from other natural beauty brands and other players in the K-Beauty space?
AJK: We’re Americanizing K-Beauty. All of our ingredients are 100 percent vetted by me, and I make the ultimate decision of what goes into each and every formula. And you know, we have spas, so our estheticians have a say as well, [and also] a lot of our product ideas come from our guests. I always call it the minimalist K-Beauty, because we’re also made in New York; the skincare is made fresh daily.
We also number our bottles because guests would come into the spas and ask when to put each product on, and I would physically write numbers on the bottles. Then finally, as we were repackaging and rebranding, I decided that we’d just put the numbers there to simplify it for everybody. It’s done-for-you beauty. So, we teach our customers how to wash your face the right way, how to savor their self-care. And then, the way we differentiate ourselves from natural beauty is that we have that Korean beauty influence, and we try to make it minimalist.
Spotlyte: Why do you think K-Beauty is so popular in the States?
AJK: Because it really is authentic in Korea. I have so many memories of seeing my aunts, my mom, and my grandmother, and how much they loved all of these beautiful products. I’ve done a lot of research into why Korean society is so into skincare, and it really dates back to the B.C. era, when the Korean philosophy that prevailed was that your inner wellbeing resides in your outer body — the more your face is beaming, the healthier you are, and the healthier your soul is, too. So, I think the products are an extension of that philosophy. And, on a more superficial level — and this is definitely something I noticed when visiting Seoul — everything in Korea is so cute and so Instagrammable.
Spotlyte: Since you started Savor before K-Beauty really seemed to take off here in America, do you think that the rise in popularity has been a help to your brand or a hindrance?
AJK: Remember, I was a concert pianist, so competition runs through my veins. Competition is healthy — it keeps you on top of your game, and also helps you become better at perfecting the value you add. The brands that really don’t have anything authentic to add to the conversation are the ones that fall off. I welcome competition and I’m very happy to see it. The truth is, I used to get really annoyed when other brands would copy us, but they can’t copy your soul or your authenticity. If you’ve really built your business organically and from a place that means something, they can’t copy that.
Spotlyte: What is the ongoing relationship between the spas and your retail brand, and how do they each influence each other?
AJK: Everything is an extension of the product line. The spas give us the opportunity to really talk to women and hear what they’re saying. Like the numbering system, which was born out of a real need. K-Beauty can be very complicated, so we’re hearing, “This is just too much; I’m not going to put more than three products on my face.” Just listening to that helps us become the solution.
Spotlyte: You now have three spas in New York. Do you plan to introduce any more spas in New York or elsewhere?
AJK: We’re actually partnering with other spas — a lot of women entrepreneurs, boutique spas, women estheticians — and providing the backbar for their facials and the retail, and then we’re also providing the training. That’s another thing that’s really an extension of my concert pianist years: I’m a big proponent of training and growth of our employees. We have an extensive training program for all of our estheticians. A lot of spas are hearing about it, so they’re contacting us and asking us to train their estheticians.
Spotlyte: How do you maintain Savor Beauty’s natural approach to beauty in your own day-to-day skincare?
AJK: I’m a minimalist at heart. I really believe that you have to reduce, reuse, recycle. Almost every Saturday, I take a box and get rid of, donate, or recycle something. If I haven’t touched it in a year, it’s out. Also, I really think that purging anything toxic in life is crucial, even relationships — making sure your relationships are clean and providing high-vibration experiences. I like to do business with businesses that I really resonate with. It’s really important to be very mindful of where you’re spending your money and your time.
Spotlyte: How do you keep your skin so glowing in the midst of what sounds like a hectic schedule?
AJK: I wash and double cleanse my face every single night, and I make sure I’m always very hydrated. These are all things that my mom taught me from the age of probably two onwards. I get regular facials, of course, and keeping stress at bay is really important, because stress can wreak havoc on anybody’s skin. It’s really about a holistic way of living that starts with self-care every morning and night, and just trying to be as mindful as you can. Everything is reflected in your skin, and that actually goes back to that Korean philosophy I shared earlier.
Spotlyte: What products do you use at night?
AJK: In the evening, I do our Step 0, the Coconut Jasmine Pre-Cleanse Oil, which I love. I mean, the scent is coconut, so it just takes me to a tropical island, and I really love the way it makes my skin feel. It detoxes my skin, and it actually really softens it as well. And then, I layer that with our Pearl Cleansing Cream, Step 1. That also smells like a spa in a bottle. Then, I love to mist my face with a rose toner. I just love the way it feels — it’s anti-aging and alcohol-free, so it doesn’t strip my skin of the oils it needs. And then, I usually choose one of three night serums.
Right now, I’m obsessed with our Raspberry Nourishing Serum. It has raspberry seeds in it, so it protects your skin and gets rid of all the free radicals during the night. So, I massage that on and then layer on top the Truffle Face Cream, which is loaded with lots of vitamin B, and I just feel like that really gets my skin very soft and smooth. And then, sometimes, I roll my face with a beauty oil that we’re experimenting with. We’re always experimenting with new oils, and I like to use our rose quartz roller and roll under my eyes to keep them from drooping.
If you take blood thinners, talk to your doctor before using a gua sha or rolling tool.
Spotlyte: What about in the morning?
AJK: That’s when I do my exfoliating and masking, because I do everything in the shower. I’ll use either the Manuka Honey Mask in the shower, so the steam lets the honey melt into my skin, or sometimes, I’ll do a pumpkin lactic acid peel. That’s when I like to turn the shower into a spa sanctuary. Skincare is just the entry to self-care. It’s proof that nourishment works.
Spotlyte: Whom do you trust with your skin?
AJK: The Savor Beauty estheticians, because we’ve trained them. I also let my daughter do my facials every once in a while, so I guess I trust her! She started the business with me, so I figure she can slap it on my face any time.
Spotlyte: Have you tried any medical aesthetic treatments?
AJK: I’m scared of lasers, because I’ve heard they really hurt. I’m not saying that I’d never do it, but I have a friend who does lasers, and she always says that I would just die because my pain threshold is super low. Maybe I’m a scaredy-cat, but I’m just a little bit nervous. Never say never, but I haven’t tried any of that yet.
Editor’s note As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new treatment.
Spotlyte: What are your thoughts on injectables?
AJK: I would say that probably 20 to 30 percent of our customer base does injectables. I haven’t ever done them myself, but I’m 40-something, and I don’t know what will come with gravity. But I really believe in the natural way for myself.
Spotlyte: How have you balanced motherhood with your career?
AJK: It’s a constant juggling act, and the lie that women tell ourselves is that we can balance it. It’s just about creating experiences and moments with your family that are tech-free. One thing that we have every single night is family dinner with no technology, so that’s something I really, really cherish.
Guilt is honestly just part of it. In theory, balance is great, but in practical life, you’re never going to be 100 percent balanced. What’s really important for our daughters and sons to see us do is live authentically and live in our biggest and best power. I’m always asking Sienna what she’s learning from me; the message you’re sending is really important for children to absorb.
Spotlyte: Is there any advice that you’d give other working moms, especially those starting or running their own businesses?
AJK: Treat your business like you would a baby. When you first launch a new idea or a new business, you just never know what you’re getting. You can have a plan for your baby, and you can say, “This is how I want my kid to turn out,” but if you’re a mom, you know that’s just not your call. Business is like that too: If you raise it with a lot of love, passion, and intuition, and you keep nourishing it with work and surrounding it with the right people, and you listen and adjust, then you’ll succeed. Have plans, but you need to know when to let go of those plans and when your business is needing to grow in a different direction.
Spotlyte: Is there anything about beauty specifically that you hope to teach your daughter?
AJK: How to wash her face the right way. My mom came over the other day, and she was sitting there with my two-year-old nephew and Sienna. I could hear my mom already lecturing her. She was saying, “Sienna, your face is dry. You’re not washing your face,” and I thought, “Oh wow, that’s how I grew up, listening to those skin lectures.” And here I am now, running a beauty company.