How Entrepreneur Toni Ko Became One of America’s Richest Self-Made Women

  • Intro By: Kristen Mitchell
  • Story By: Allyson Fulcher

Entrepreneur Toni Ko launched NYX Cosmetics in 1999 after noticing a need in the market for quality beauty products at drugstore prices. At age 25, Toni built her business with $250,000 of seed money out of a 600-square-foot showroom in California with one employee: herself. By 2014, she had built the business into a mass market brand and sold it to L’Oreal for $500 million. Forbes estimates her net worth at $260 million and recently named her to their ranks of America’s richest self-made women. This month, she appeared on their cover alongside eight other women, including Spanx’s Sara Blakely, Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso, and Stitch Fix’s Katrina Lake.

Here, Toni talks with us about her new business endeavor PERVERSE, work/life balance, and how she continues to shatter the glass ceiling as a female entrepreneur.

Age: 43
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Current title: Founder, CEO, and Chief Creative Officer at PERVERSE sunglasses
Education: Glendale College

You immigrated from Korea at a young age. Can you tell us about your childhood and what immigrating to the United States was like?
I was born in the Korean countryside and was a true country girl. I would not trade my childhood for anything in this world. My siblings and I were raised in the fresh air, ate everything organic and ran around like “barn animals” in the field. I think that healthy lifestyle contributed to my success today because I have the stamina and energy to outwork my competitors. 

My family moved to Seoul when I was in second grade and after that we made our major move to the U.S. When my parents told me we were moving here I was overjoyed with the thought of going to Disneyland. (YES!) I didn’t speak a word of English, so the biggest challenge for me was the language barrier. I didn’t understand the teacher or my textbooks, which forced me to become extremely aware of my surroundings and learn by observing others. The biggest culture shock was seeing the amount of freedom students were given. In Korea, we were all very obedient and could only respond “yes” to whatever was asked of us, but in the U.S. students actually had voices and opinions, which I LOVED!

How do you think those experiences shaped you as a person and an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurship is in my blood. My grandfather was in the textile business and was an incredible businessman. He taught me a lot of the basics of running a business and shared so many wise words. I can remember a few of his best quotes:

1. The best marketing strategy is word of mouth. (Sell good product at a good price and people will do all the advertising for you.) 

2. Even if you sell hotcakes, sell them at a corner with a lot of foot traffic. (Location, location, location!) 

3. Debt must be paid, even in your grave. (Referring to credit and credit debt)

Now that I think about it, these three pieces of wisdom are essential to running a successful business.

My mother is also an amazing businesswoman. This might be strange, but we LOVE talking business at our family gatherings. It’s practically our hobby! 

What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
I never had a job! I worked in the family business until I started my own, NYX Cosmetics, in 1999.

Can you tell us about the start of NYX?
NYX was built on pure sweat equity. I started the company in 1999 from a 600-square-foot showroom in the California Mart and had just one employee: me, myself, and I. I wore every business hat imaginable: secretary, receptionist, stock, delivery, design, marketing, PR, CEO, and accountant. It was hard work but I LOVED every single minute of it. Looking back, those three years were the most fun years of my entire career. Of course, I had fun throughout the next 15 years that I owned NYX before selling it to L’Oreal in 2014, but those first three years were the absolute best. 

NYX has become a favorite drugstore product of consumers, makeup artists, celebrities, and basically anyone who can get their hands on it. Why do you think it has garnered such loyal fans? 
Customer loyalty is all about the quality vs. price. NYX is the perfect combination of both, which results in value. No other product in that price point could compare to NYX’s quality, and that marketing strategy almost 100 percent guarantees success.

Since selling NYX, you’ve started a new company, PERVERSE. How did you come up with the idea?
I planned to retire after selling NYX to L’Oreal in 2014, but I was insanely bored by day two of my “retirement.” I had no clue what to do with all my free time and it felt like I was wasting my time away.

I also felt that I had lost my self-identity when I wasn’t working, so I needed to get involved with another business. I absolutely love the beauty business, but my non-compete clause restricts me from working in that industry for five years, so I had to look into other options. It’s imperative that an entrepreneur starts a business in field he or she loves, so I made a list of all my passions and narrowed it down to sunglasses. And here we are! 

How do you handle competition in the sunglasses space and make sure that PERVERSE stands apart from the crowd? 
I’m going to implement the exact same business model as I did with NYX: sell really great products at a really great price point with really great customer service, and build a desirable brand based on those three principles. 

We’ve already started to see these uber-cool shades on all our favorite celebrities. What is the best mix of marketing for a new product? Social? Celebs? Word of mouth?
A great marketing strategy combines all of those, however, social media is the modern day “word-of-mouth” marketing, which is the oldest and most effective marketing strategy. The only difference is that social media is word of mouth on hyper mode! Instead of telling one of your friends, you’re now reaching one million of your friends. That’s the incredible power of social media

What tips can you offer for picking the perfect pair of shades? Especially when ordering online?
Don’t be afraid to try new shapes and new styles! PERVERSE has a “no questions asked” return policy, and we dare you to try something new. Plus, the price is so affordable that you may even want to gift them to your bestie. 

Can you talk about a few mistakes you made in the beginning of your career that you were able to avoid this time with PERVERSE?
I was incredibly intense with my first company, but now I’m older, wiser, and much more relaxed. I made countless mistakes with NYX, but I never look at them as failures. It can only be a failure if you make the same mistake twice. Learning from your mistakes and improving yourself is a very precious life lesson.

What has been the most challenging aspect of owning your own companies? 
SO MANY! I don’t even know where to start. Owning and running a business is no bed of roses. It’s not glamorous, regardless of the industry you’re in, including the fashion and beauty industries. I find the human resources side of business to be most challenging.

And the most rewarding? 
Surprisingly, the reward is not the cheese, per se. The reward is in the journey. After I sold NYX I felt very empty and realized all the fun was in the chase. So, I want everybody to enjoy these moments right now, regardless of how difficult it might be. I guarantee you’ll look back one day and say, “How fun was that?” 

What does a typical workday look like for you?
Everyday is a workday for me. As an entrepreneur, my mind never wanders off business no matter where I am or the time of day. My day begins with a 6 a.m. workout followed by breakfast. (Of course I’m on my phone following up with emails the entire time.) Most days I have lunch and dinner meetings scheduled. Since I have to eat anyway, I figured I might as well use those times for meetings! I know, my days are super boring. 

As a leader and CEO, what is important to you when it comes to your relationship with your employees and the company culture?
Open-door policy and company bonding go hand in hand and are so very valuable. I always practiced open-door policy and anyone from the company was welcome to come and have a conversation with me at any time. It’s the exact same with PERVERSE sunglasses. In fact, it’s even more open now because my desk sits in the main hall with no walls. I hate walls and partitions. 

What do you look for in potential employees? What stands out from a sea of resumes and interns?
I usually go with my gut feeling and know if I want to hire someone (or not) within the first five minutes of us meeting. First impressions are everything! There’s definitely one resume I don’t even bother to look at, and that’s the resume of a perpetual job-hopper. I am fully committed to my business and I want employees that are equally committed to my company for many years to come. 

Being a constantly moving boss lady must mean you work ALL THE TIME. How do you balance all your responsibilities with your personal life and leisure? Is there ever really a balance when you are hustling to get a new company out in the world?
This is the part of my life that I finally made peace with. I always wanted that work/life balance and I sold my company so I could have a life away from work. But after I sold the company I realized that work is my life and I truly only feel whole when I am working, producing, and adding value. In a nutshell, I have no balance, yet my whole life is a balance. 

It can only be a failure if you make the same mistake twice. Learning from your mistakes and improving yourself is a very precious life lesson.

How has the concept of “having it all” that you envisioned in your 20s evolved to now? 
I take nothing for granted. Everyday I wake up and am grateful for everything I have, especially my health, my family, and my friends. Over the years I’ve made it a point to make donations to sponsor those who are less fortunate. Every time I went through a difficult moment, I sponsored a child in Africa through World Vision. I’ve sponsored 24 lovely children to date and have also sponsored multiple water wells through Unicef. I know if I put positive energy out into the universe, the universe will give that back to me. 

According to CNN, women only hold 5 percent of CEO positions. What unique experiences have you had or lessons have you learned from being a woman running incredibly successful companies? How do you think women can shatter the glass ceiling?
Stand your ground and demand what you deserve! But this cannot be done without proving yourself. Throughout my years with NYX (and even now), I made it a point not to allow male employees to carry my luggage or open the door for me. I don’t want to receive any treatment that qualifies as “ladylike.” I do all the heavy lifting myself and take part in everything “men” would do because I never want to hear, “She’s a woman.” I want it to be an equal human-to-human relationship, not a man-vs- woman relationship.

What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
My biggest piece of advice is to not care so much about what others may think of you or your actions. This does not mean it’s okay to be rude or selfish, but when I was 23 I was incredibly self-conscious about what others might say about me, so I was never really myself. It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I learned to let go of this idea. Most of the time people are very self-involved and no one really cares much about what others are doing.

What advice would you give young female entrepreneurs?
Stand your ground! Don’t let people, your surroundings, or events intimidate you. Speak up, speak loudly, and be demanding of what you want. BUT, as an entrepreneur, this is all meaningless if you are not delivering the quality and intensity of work that’s required to succeed. You have to be so outstanding at what you do that you naturally command your ground. 

Toni Ko is The Everygirl…

I wish I knew how to…
Play piano like a professional pianist. 

Favorite way to spend a day in LA?
My toes in the sand at Zuma Beach in Malibu.

3 things you never leave the house without?
My iPhone, red lipstick, and American Express card.

Favorite way to treat yourself?
Shoes!!

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Sheryl Sandberg. Lean in!

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