Alicia Yoon of Peach & Lily: Bringing Korean Culture and Beauty to the U.S.
Who loves beauty products? (✋) How about K-beauty products? (🙌) Us too! That’s why we’re so excited to now offer sheet masks, moisturizers, lip balms, and more from Peach & Lily, a premier K-beauty line. Founder and chief curator Alicia Yoon travels to Korea monthly to talk to locals and meet with top R&D labs to discuss the newest must-have Korean skin care products and scientific developments in the works. Only 5% of the products Peach & Lily tests makes it into their collection — which means they believe deeply in everything they offer.
We had the chance to speak to Ms. Yoon about what got her interested in skincare, who inspires her the most, and what she does to recharge.
Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what your childhood was like?
I grew up in Manhattan and Queens in New York city and then moved to Seoul, Korea when I was twelve.
My childhood was filled with lots of diversity living in the melting pot that is New York City. In school, most of my friends were from all backgrounds and my best friend was Jewish, so despite my being Christian, I would tag along to Hebrew School with her after school to hang out with her. On the weekends, as my parents attended a Korean church, I grew up with a lot of Korean American friends as well.
Then when I was twelve, I moved to Korea and I had a moment of major culture shock. Going from a heterogeneous melting pot to a homogenous society, not to mention, totally different societal norms in some ways, I found myself even as a twelve-year-old surprised by the differences. I was so young, though, that I adapted really quickly and found myself exploring the new equally fast-paced landscape of Seoul with enthusiasm.
I then moved back to New York City for college where I attended Columbia University. It was culture shock all over again. People were so much more outspoken and direct, and there was less deference to teachers/professors, which threw me off in the classroom environment.
I read this book about third culture kids — kids who grow up in two different cultures who need to negotiate for themselves which set of norms resonates with them. They end up seeking their own set of norms and often times question the status quo. They can adapt well, but tend to stay independent-minded. This book resonated with me so much, and I’m thankful for all the back and forth as it’s really allowed me to be bi-cultural and bilingual, expanding my world view and informing who I am today.
I love that working on Peach & Lily means I can bring a bit of Korean culture back to the U.S. and also share more about my American side with partners in Korea. Plus, my parents still live in Korea, so it’s a great way to see them super often!
Have there been any women in your family or your life in general who have been particularly inspiring to you?
My mom! She’s a combination of so many incredible traits. I feel like I learn just through osmosis watching how she navigates life. Her selfless love and unconditional support are the backbone of what has allowed me to take risks and follow my dreams.
But also just who and how she is, in general, is what inspires me. She’s entrepreneurial — having had no business experience, she picked up a part of my grandfather’s business at the age of 50 and centralized operations, and built tremendous growth in that business with gusto. She’s calm under pressure or crisis moments — she’s the one everyone seeks out when no one knows what to do as she’ll always keep a level head and use what she always says is anyone’s best asset: common sense.
She’s also a riot! She always keeps her sense of humor and great perspective, reminding me to always do my best but ultimately keep the bigger picture in mind. And she likes to quote Thomas Edison — “Genius: 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” — and has always shown me that hard work and dedication can beat the pants off talent unaccompanied by effort.
Your mom sounds like amazing! How about beauty school? What was that like? What was the most valuable thing you learned? And the most surprising?
Beauty school is very methodical in a lot of ways. You study the entire systems of the human body and not just the skin. The most valuable lessons come from knowing holistically how skin works versus just studying the skin itself. The most surprising part, especially in my school in New York, was the hands-on expression of what we learned. I have eczema and diet has a lot to do with flare-ups so we would literally take field trips to the grocery store together to pick out foods for me. This isn’t typical for esthetician school, so I feel thankful to have had teachers who were also holistic healers and focused on overall wellness.
What did you do before you started Peach & Lily?
I was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and a management consultant at Accenture and the Boston Consulting Group.
How did you decide to start your business? Was there a particular moment?
I knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurial one day. My grandfather is a serial entrepreneur and his life has always resonated deeply with me. I just didn’t know the when, how, or what.
After graduating from Harvard Business School, I went back into consulting and would always brainstorm what kind of company I might enjoy starting. And one day, when I was consulting for a global beauty company, one of the cosmetic chemists stopped me happenstance, and told me Korea had some of the most advanced beauty formulas. I would get a lot of feedback from friends and family I gave facials to — which I did as a hobby outside of my full-time job — and they would always say they loved the Korean products I gave them. I thought it was because I just gave them a great facial and also gave them very specific products that were hand-selected for their skin concerns.
As soon as I heard the science was that much ahead in Korea versus beauty labs elsewhere, I had my aha moment. Why weren’t there more Korean beauty products in the U.S.? In 2012, there were only a few brands available widely. Who doesn’t want the most advanced, results-forward formulas combined with natural ingredients? I went to HR that day and let them know that I had to leave the company after this one last project to start my own Korean beauty company. BCG made it easy for me. They had an open-door policy back then, so in 2012 I took the plunge!
Where does the name Peach & Lily come from? How did you come up with it?
I wanted to have the name of my company hint at something natural, radiant, in full-bloom, and refer to motifs found in Asia. Peaches and lilies can be found in a lot of Korean artwork! I came up with it by literally locking myself in my apartment for two days with some paper and pen and Google (the name had to be available, too!) and brainstorming away with those themes in mind. Funny story — at first, I landed on Lily & Plum and when I Googled it, it had a similar name to a sex toy, so onto the next fruit that was equally beautiful and loved in Korea. ;)
[Laughs] I’m tempted to Google “Lily & Plum” but will resist. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced running your own business?
Managing scarcity! There are never enough resources, especially time. This means there has to be relentless and incisive prioritization. And you also learn as you go — some things seem like they won’t take up much time or money, but they do.
Then you have to calibrate for the future. Running a fast-growing company means lots of calibration on how to prioritize. And that’s an ongoing challenging. I heard a funny story of a super-mom saying she always hits “1:11” on the microwave instead of “1:00” because she prioritizes by the second. I’m not there yet, but when I heard that story, I thought, point taken! Little secret: I actually keep a five-minute hourglass on my desk at work because most meetings, calls, or tasks when done with total focus and efficiency usually only need five minutes. Or maybe 15 so then I turn it over three times. A mentor of mine told me about this trick and it works like a charm!
What’s been the most unexpected experience you’ve had with starting your own business?
Working with my husband, Ed! I started the business alone and five years into it, he joined. We met at Harvard Business School and he had a little time on his hands, so I asked him if he could help me hire some key executives. His background is in biotechnology and he has done everything from mergers and acquisitions to strategy to running a P&L of a large biotech company division, and I thought, he’s obviously hired a lot of incredible people before, I trust him completely, so why not! That one month of help has turned into a year and a half and we’ve never looked back. I never expected this to happen and it’s been an enormous blessing. Love and work can mix!
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far?
Always celebrate the milestones. Building a company is a journey and adventure. Without acknowledging the milestones, I think I would have burned out. Also, celebrating the milestones means that strategic guideposts are set up keeping the business on track and built with intention and vision. It helps you say no to the distractions and run full force toward the milestones with wonderful celebrations along each guidepost that the team reached together.
What advice would you have for someone starting their own business?
Pick something that you really love doing because it’s an all-immersive experience. There are times that you’ll want to give up, but at the end of the day, when it’s something you genuinely enjoy, it’s that much easier to remind yourself that you might be doing this anyway regardless of whatever goals you’re trying to accomplish. I sometimes think of Peach & Lily as a super intensive hobby rather than a job or building a company. I love sharing about skincare, curating new products, formulating, and connecting with others about skincare and wellness. It’s fun and empowering, and I can’t imagine putting in the effort I do with Peach & Lily, if it were a topic I didn’t find exciting.
What do you do to recharge and get inspired?
Micro breaks for me mean quiet time alone with thoughts meditating or just reflecting, always with tea in tow. I take short walks around the office. I have a meal with Ed or a friend and take a break, which means phones down!
Longer breaks to recharge usually involve travel to a beach or desert, both of which I love. And short weekend getaways where I can truly unplug go a long way.
Our Peach & Lily collection is available at our Chelsea Market location and on our website.