Alicia Yoon on Her 10-Year Career as a K-Beauty Founder

Alicia Yoon

Alicia Yoon / Design by Tiana Crispino

Alicia Yoon is a skincare savant. She's been a leader in the industry for over a decade, making her mark as a licensed esthetician and founder of the Korean beauty e-commerce site Peach & Lily. Yoon's passion for skincare dates back to childhood as she struggled with severe eczema. She enrolled in a skincare program in high school to better understand how to soothe her skin. During college, she continued studying the skin and became the go-to facialist among her friends and family.

Though her interest in skincare continued to grow, Yoon never imagined she'd become a beauty entrepreneur. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an Olympic diver. When an unexpected injury put those plans on hold, Yoon was forced to reimagine her professional path. While attending Columbia University, she pursued finance internships and eventually launched her career at Goldman Sachs as an analyst in 2004. Nearly two years later, Yoon pivoted into management consulting and found success (and happiness) as a consultant at companies like Accenture and Boston Consulting Group. However, in 2012, Yoon felt called to return to her skincare roots and launch the ultimate K-beauty digital destination. And that's when Peach & Lily was born. 

Ahead, Yoon discusses her struggles with eczema, pivoting from a career in finance to beauty, and her summer skincare tips. Keep scrolling to get to know Alicia Yoon.

Growing up, what were your interests?

I loved sports growing up. I grew up in the United States, and we moved to Korea when I was 12. I eventually returned to the States for college, but many of my formative years were in Korea. As a child, I was a platform diver and trained six hours a day. However, I have severe eczema, and it worsened because I was in the pool all day. But, I loved diving so much that I didn't care about how bad my eczema was. My mom was the one that was adamant about taking me to doctors to figure out what was going on with my skin. Trying to figure out what was going on with my skin also led me to enroll in skin school during my last year of high school.

Did you plan to pursue diving as a full-time career?

My goal was to go to the Olympics, but I had to quit because the intense training caused stress fractures. I was in a wheelchair for a while. Doctors told me I wouldn't dive again, and they weren't sure what walking would be like for me. I received physical therapy but couldn't practice for more than a couple of hours daily. I was training with the Korean National team at the time, and my coaches told me I had six months to get my scores back to where they used to be. At that point, I decided to make diving just a hobby.

Alicia Yoon

Alicia Yoon

What was it like having to pivot?

It was interesting because I had to reinvent myself. When you're a teenager, you think you know everything. I would have endless debates with my parents, telling them, "I know for a fact I want to dive for the rest of my life." My parents would say, "We respect that, but you're young and might find other things that interest you."

When I stopped diving, it was a blessing in disguise. I was very sad for the first six months, and it felt like I had hit rock bottom. I went from being an athlete to not even being able to go to the bathroom alone because I couldn't walk. I felt very demoralized, but I don't regret my diving history because it taught me many things like discipline, teamwork, and visualization that help me today.

What were your college years like?

My legs were fully healed when I was in college. I thought about diving again because Columbia has a well-respected diving team. I went to talk to the coach and dove for him. And then, he reminded me that joining the team would be a big-time commitment. After a year or two of not diving, I realized there were other things I wanted to pursue. At the time, I was excited about the core curriculum at Columbia and fell in love with a class about contemporary civilization. I decided to major in philosophy and East Asian languages and cultures.

Did you know what you wanted to do professionally after graduating?

Investment banking was a big deal when I enrolled in college in 2000. I remember the upper-level students discussing preparing for their big investment banking internships. I wasn't familiar with the financial industry and didn't know there were different things you could do within it—like banking, management, sales and trading, and research and analysis. I started to gravitate towards it; throughout college, all my internships were in finance.

After college, I was at Goldman Sachs for a couple of years. However, I remained most passionate about skincare. I just didn't know how to turn my hobby into a career. I did appreciate my time at Goldman Sachs because I learned skills that were helpful when I started Peach & Lily. But I was working 80 to 100 hours a week. Then, I started interviewing for jobs with private equity funds. After one interview, I realized I didn't want to do this anymore. I called my dad in Korea to tell him, and he said, "Oh, my god, you're in your 20s. It's okay to switch."

What did you want to do next?

I wanted to do management consulting. Unfortunately, management consultancies weren't willing to hire me because they were looking for recent college or business school graduates. I had two years of work experience, so I didn't fit the criteria. I told these companies they could pay me like a college graduate, but they wouldn't budge. I eventually found out Accenture was hiring people with a finance background for their corporate strategy group. I studied for a month for that interview and landed the job. I fell in love with the role.

Was there a particular project you worked on at Accenture that excited or challenged you? 

I thought I was going to get fired during my first project. This company was contemplating if it should enter an entirely new business vertical. It was going to cost them $2 billion to do so. I was the only analyst on that project. They wanted me to build a hyper-complicated model to determine the decision. I didn't know how to build that model and called everyone I knew to figure out how to do it. After a month of sleepless nights, I finally figured it out.

Accenture then put investment behind the model and turned it into a software asset they used to pitch to other clients. I also won this fancy award that they only gave three people out of thousands of consultants. It was a very high-profile thing that happened for somebody very early on in their career. I just remember crying out of happiness. 

Alicia Yoon

Alicia Yoon

Around that time, you decide to attend Harvard Business School. What prompted that decision?

My boss at Accenture told me I should go to business school. He was really encouraging. After getting my MBA, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I went back into consulting afterward at the Boston Consulting Group. But after work, I kept meeting with a friend to discuss different startup ideas. I always wanted to do something on my own because of my grandfather, who was an entrepreneur. Finally, it dawned on me that I should do something with skincare. People would always come to me for facials and ask questions about Korean skincare products. I recognized that these incredible products weren't available in the States. That's when I knew I had to start this business.

What were the early days of building Peach & Lily like?

I started Peach & Lily in 2012 and didn't have a business plan. I just had passion and dove right in. It was rough—I didn't pay myself for a few years. At one point, I had $7 in my bank account. I was debating whether to get pizza or a MetroCard. I was hand delivering all the packages in New York to save money. I almost got evicted a few times. I started taking sponge baths at one point because my bathtub had to be storage space. But through it all, we began building an incredible community that kept leaving reviews that moved my heart. After seeing that, I knew that I couldn't stop. We finally got our first small office in our third year. It was not a nice building, but I was happy not to store boxes in the bathtub anymore. 

What's been one of your proudest moments as a founder?

The Peach & Lily site is 10 years old. Our two skincare brands, Peach & Lily and Peach Slices, are only about four years old. Peach & Lily launched with Ulta Beauty in fall 2018. Peach Slices launched with Ulta Beauty only 12 months ago. Today, Peach & Lily is a top 10 prestige brand, and Peach Slices is a top 10 mass brand at Ulta Beauty. Dave Kimbell, the CEO of Ulta Beauty, called us out in their earnings release. I cannot believe we started on these end caps in 250 test stores, and now we're in the entire chain. It's been incredible to see. 

I have to ask about your summer skincare must-haves. Can you share some of your favorite products?

You need a great moisturizer. Our Glass Skin Water-Gel Moisturizer ($40) is amazing for all skin types. It's very light, provides long-lasting hydration, and can help calm the skin. My next summer must-have is the Glass Skin Veil Mist ($29), which is always sold out everywhere. It's incredibly hydrating, and you can use it before makeup, between makeup layers, and after makeup. It gives you a subtle, glass skin finish. 

I also love the Glass Skin Refining Serum ($39). It's a year-round product, but I love using it during the summer. It has madecassoside in it, so it helps to soothe skin. It also has hyaluronic acid, peptides, and antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect against free radical damage from the sun. And then, of course, the final summer staple is SPF. I don't like to get too prescriptive about what SPF to use because it depends on your skin type, sensitivity levels, and skin tone. The most important thing is to find one you will use. 

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