Nov 24th, 2020
Sara Ku is the founder of Kaya Essentials, a skincare and lifestyle company based in Koreatown, Los Angeles. The seeds of the company were planted when Sara was a young girl and would make coconut hair masks with her mother. Her research on fair trade coconut oil inspired her to turn those early experiences into a company, which not only creates amazing products but gives back to the Filipino community. She recently expanded the company by partnering with female Filipino artisans to bring their one-of-a-kind pieces to a global market.
More about Kaya Essentials.
Learn more about The Passionistas Project.
Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to the Passionista Project Podcast, where we tell the stories of empowered women who are following their passions to inspire you to do the same.
We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. And today we're talking with Sara Ku. Sara is the founder of Kaya Essentials, a skincare and lifestyle company based in Koreatown, Los Angeles. The seeds of her company were planted when Sara was a young girl and would make coconut hair masks with her mother, her research on fair trade coconut oil inspired her to turn those early experiences into a company which not only creates amazing products, but gives back to the Filipino community. She recently expanded the company by partnering with female Filipino artisans to bring their one-of-a-kind pieces to the global market. So please welcome to the show, Sarah Ku.
Sara: Hi guys. Thank you so much for having me.
Passionistas: What's the one thing you're most passionate about?
Sara: I'm most passionate about making a social impact, you know, focusing on how on the individual level each and every person can make a difference and the importance of small steps, small acts of kindness that together have a big impact when you bring community together. And that brought me to create my business Kaya Essentials.
Passionistas: So, tell us about that.
Sara: Kaya Essentials is a clean organic coconut skincare line, and we recently expanded to a lifestyle, um, with artisan goods, but it really started, you know, um, about five years ago when I was first introduced to the concept of a social business. And that was when I was in college, I was studying history. Um, it's something that I wasn't really passionate about doing, but I was so nervous as to what my career was going to be.
So instead of going to art school, which was always my passion growing up, it's really funny how, when you look back and look at your most memorable, enjoyable times, um, you know, it's really the things that you know, that you're passionate about, but you never really realized that, you know, that's going to bring you the most purpose in life. Um, so I ended up studying history and I really knew that I wasn't in the right space. I was trying so hard to, you know, succeed in, in my studies and, and you know, it wasn't something that came naturally to me, but at the same time, I was studying Asian history, which I was really passionate about because I'm half Filipino, half English. I was born in Hong Kong. So I have a very international background, kind of a third culture kid to the max. Um, so I was born in Hong Kong, lived there for 10 years, lived in India for two years, um, Istanbul in Turkey for three years, and then finally moved to the UK and, and lived there for five years before moving to LA.
So yeah, I was really passionate about studying Asian history, getting to know my culture in more in depth, and I saw on our career bulletin board that there was a talk on a Filipino nonprofit called Gawad Kalinga, and the founder was going to talk about entrepreneurship and social business. And I had, had never heard of the word entrepreneurship or social purpose, social impact, um, but being a Filipino nonprofit, I was really interested. And so that's when I attended that talk and he really, you know, spoke about the communities that are most in poverty and their lack of access to diversify crops, for example, in the Philippines, because we have very fertile land. And so for example, we've had Cocao farms for centuries yet there was no Filipino bean to bar, um, Filipino chocolate company. And he was saying, you know, there's really a missed opportunity here.
And it dawned on me that Philippines has a very big import culture. And so they had an internship opening and I immediately applied and I was a research assistant at first. And then, um, after college I continued my work with them. And I specifically helped with in facilitating European business students to help with their social businesses that they created at their farm. And that was everything from, like I said, the chocolate company to using our local dairy, which is from a Carabao, which is our local cow and using their milk to make ice cream. Um, and also from mushrooms, for example, because mushroom, wasn't a big staple in Filipino cuisine, but with the rise of international restaurants, you know, restaurants in the, in the main city was needing it more. And so they worked with farmers from different local communities to diversify their crops and add more value.
So I was helping with that. And then at the same time, as you mentioned, I was my mom. She was a very big DIY or like she would make her own cleaning products. She would use ketchup, vinegar, vinegar. We always had so much vinegar in the house. And also with, um, her skincare, she would always make her own lotions, deodorant and everything. And so one thing that we did religiously was, um, make a coconut oil hair mask. And in the summers, when we were in the Philippines, we would scrape the coconut meat from the, from the actual coconut and then boil it into an oil and then apply that into our skull, you know, to, to promote like growth and get rid of dandruff to our, to the ends of our hair. And at the same time, I also learned that 60% of coconut farmers in the Philippines lived below the poverty line and the particular jar that I was using, I, um, was a French brand called Latuda Anjell.
And then when I turned it over in small letters, it had said made in the Philippines. And then that's when it really sh… you know, struck me that this was going to be my lifetime passion. This is when I say my coconut dream came to life when I really wanted to create a clean coconut skincare brand that, you know, really promoted the Filipino coconut oil as a point of pride for Filipinos and for the rest of the world. And I knew that coconut oil, um, especially from the Philippines dominated the beauty and skincare market, and even, you know, with coconut food products, you know, we have it in everything and coconut sugar, coconut flour yet, you know, I really wanted to break that disparity and promote fair trade farming. Um, and so through, um, the nonprofit that I was working for Gawad Kalinga I connected with their fair trade coconut farm, and really that's where it all started, that I had the first jar of coconut oil.
And the first idea that came to mind was to make lip balm actually. And the reason why was because lip balm was something small, it was something that everybody needed. I wasn't even thinking from a business mindset so much at that point, I was thinking it's for men, it's for women. It's for all ages, it's for kids, I can sell it to everybody. And with each one, we would donate a school meal back to the local community. And that part was really important to me, going back to what I'm most passionate about. I think that with change that we want to make, it can seem very overwhelming. So I really wanted to show that small acts of change, small acts of kindness can really make a big impact and to have something in your everyday life that you would use that, you know, contributed into making that change.
So I started with lip balms. I had two flavors at the very beginning. One was lemon grass, and the other was calamansi. And calamansi is a Filipino lemon that only exists in the Philippines. It's a very light citrus. And that was the second moment where I knew this was meant to be because I had found a family business in the Philippines that made this into an essential oil, because, you know, you need thousands of calamansi to make any essential oil. And when I first made that lip balm, I thought I loved it because I was Filipino. So of course I'm going to love it. But, you know, after sharing it with friends and family, you know, people were very excited to also try something different and, you know, try the taste of the Philippines in a very unique way. So those were the two first lip balms that I had.
Passionistas: What are some of the other products that you offer now, as time has gone by?
Sara: My first pop-up market, I actually only was selling lip balms. And so before I even had a website, I started looking at craft markets, farmer's markets, and I had my lip balms there. And for the lip balm tester jars, I had them into small jars and several customers that were trying the testers were saying, can I buy this jar? Can I, can I, because I use body balms, I use this all over my body. I use it for my cuticles and for my elbows. And I didn't even think about expanding into different products first. And so really that's where the idea came first to get into body balms. And it was also really the idea to have a very minimalistic approach to your skincare so that, you know, you can, you can have something clean and organic and something that was really affordable as well that was really important to me because what I realized in the beauty world is, you know, I would kind of steal some jars from my mom, you know, in her skincare when I was growing up, because, you know, it was, it was for like, it was very luxurious and I would only use like a little pea sized amount and only use it on the weekend and, and only use it when I really needed it. And really skincare is your life is supposed to be part of your lifestyle. Something that you, you, you can use every single day without feeling bad about the price tag that's attached to it
Passionistas: Talk a little bit about the working conditions and the financial situation of a lot of the farmers in the Philippines. Why was it so important for you to work with those people specifically?
Sara: So, it was really important for me to work with fair trade farming, because I think that in the last decade, there's been a strong focus on organic ingredients, which is really great, and we're moving towards the right way because we know that what we put on our skin absorbs into our bloodstream. But the way that I like to explain it is that how these organic ingredients are grown, isn't necessarily grown in a very organic way with the people that they employ. And so that's where fair trade really comes in. Is that it really ensures that the working conditions are safe and that they know their rights. And also that they're not overworked. That was a very big thing that I had learned from the nonprofit that I worked with, that, you know, especially a father who was a farmer and had two or three children and had to, you know, pay for bills and schools and everything would end up working, you know, 12 hour days, 16 hour days, not knowing when their breaks could be not having, you know, sick days, you know, sick pay days. And, um, so that's where the fair trade, you know, really comp like adds onto the organic. And I really love connecting with different customers that really care about this advocacy in supporting fair trade ingredients as well.
Passionistas: What does Kaya mean? Why did you choose that as the name of the company?
Sara: That's the first question I get a lot, um, in pop-ups is, is your name Kaya. Hi Kaya. And I love the Kaya, but my name is Sara, but Kaya in Filipino means we can do it. So, um, Kaya koa in Tagalog means I can do it. And it's really a personal affirmation back to, you know, what I'm most passionate about is, you know, focusing on the individual level that each person can make a difference. And so it's that affirmation and really that when you come together as a community Kaya, nothin, which means we can do it, you really see that's where changes made. That's where the biggest impact is and the power of the people as well. You see in that. So I knew I wanted it to also have a Filipino name because in the Philippines, there's this strong notion that anything that is high quality has a very Western name. And I really wanted to bring that point of pride to Filipinos that, you know, a love for our culture and our ingredients and our language as well.
Passionistas: You use a lot of Filipino phrases in your branding. Why did you want to do that?
Sara: It was really important for me to honor where the, where we're rooted out, which is in the Philippines. And, you know, that is where we source our coconut oil from. And something that we launched this year in 2020 is our artists and goods collection. And really that was my connection to the nonprofit. I've been connected to all these artisan communities that was upcycling fabrics, creating, you know, beautiful jewelry, beautiful home pieces. And going back to my mission, which with Kaya Essentials, it's a lifelong business, it's a lifelong passion. It's not, I'm not here to have an exit strategy and really looking at how, where can I make more of an impact? And so that's where we launched our lifestyle line. And that was really difficult for me too, because I had introduced Kaya Essentials for the last three years as a skincare brand. And I kind of, you know, was scared to kind of go out of my comfort zone or, or, or be put into a different box. And I realized I was limiting myself. And then I realized, wait a second, I'm the founder, I'm a solo entrepreneur as well. I own a hundred percent of the business. Why can't I do this? And so that's where, um, I began, you know, really connecting with the artistsan communities and figuring out the best pieces to first introduce the collection.
Passionistas: We’re Amy and Nancy Harrington and you're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Sarah Ku. To learn more about Kaya Essentials, visit Kaya Essentials.com. Now here's more of our interview with Sara.
So, what are some of the challenges you face starting your own business?
Sara: So, as I mentioned, I'm a solo entrepreneur, so that it's really difficult when you have to be your own cheerleader and your biggest critic at the same time. And there's not really, you know, strong markers of success because you don't have a template to follow. You don't have goals that you've set with a team. And so really you have to have a lot of discipline. Um, and especially at the start, when you're doing everything, you're like every single part of building your business is a whole new template for you to learn. And so there was a lot of Googling. Luckily I'm very autodidactic and would connect with any expert in one particular field, but it really got to me because a lot of days it felt very slow. And I realized I had to lean into those slow days and realize that, you know, slow progress is the best progress because I really wanted to focus on getting this right, and really having an organic growth that would last for decades to come.
But, you know, it's hard. It was hard to, especially at the start, have that motivation had that belief in myself. And so, yeah, that was the biggest challenge. And also, you know, imposter syndrome is very real. And for me, I don't have a business background. I lean towards more of the creative side. So in building the product in, in coming up with my marketing materials or anything that never came from the point of view of, okay, what's the trend right now in skincare? What, what are consumers, you know, gravitating towards? And it really just came from an artistic approach. And so that was really difficult when for example, I would share it with different communities, different people and not having the strength to really believe, um, to, to hold that up. And I really, um, really loved when I heard Sara Blakely. Uh, so she she's, uh, she pronounces her name, Sara, um, the founder of Spanx, the first self-made female billionaire in America.
And she said, when she had the idea for Spanx, she didn't share it for the first year. She didn't even share it with her own boyfriend or her family. And she said, when something is an idea, so close to you so that your, so that's your little baby it's that you're so passionate about. You have to really take care of it. That really made an impression on me. And so I learned the hard way to be careful in, you know, what I would share, how I would grow and, you know, really finding the confidence in myself and carrying that through, even in the very slow days,
Passionistas: What are the challenges of working internationally?
Sara: Luckily, I have a business partner here in LA and we source our coconut the fair trade coconut oil together, which, um, you know, when you find, I really believe in the law of attraction and we were both connected to the Filipino nonprofit Gawad Kalinga. And when that happened to be, it, it was just, it laid it all out. Um, but you know, there's a lot of planning ahead. And for someone who, I'm a type of person who wants instant gratification, and also I have a huge attention to detail, which I really think that your best qualities can also be your worst qualities. And so it is really great, especially as a solo entrepreneur, because, you know, getting your website, ready, doing packaging, doing customer service, everything it's, you know, it's good that, you know, I have my lists and everything, but at the same time, especially with international, um, orders, for example, in sourcing the ingredients, you know, there is that, you know, that over time where you have the waiting period and also that period of uncertainty sometimes, and not only from the international side of things, but just in the business side of things that I personally find really difficult.
Um, and so again, it's just, you know, going with the flow, going with the ride and realizing and accepting that, you know, every single day something's going to come up, there's going to be things that are short-term focuses for the next month. And then, you know, some things that are long-term, but, um, you know, carrying that through is, is a challenge, but it's also really exciting and really, really, um, gratifying as well to challenge yourself, um, and see what you can do.
Passionistas: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business and maybe in particular working international?
Sara: Yeah. So with this COVID-19, I mean, for everyone, you know, especially small business owners that have a face-to-face, um, element, you know, we've been put out of stock and for key essentials, that was mainly our pop-ups our farmer's markets, our, um, you know, craft markets and everything that is where a lot of our businesses from as well. And also with distribution too, you know, we're in over 20 boutiques all over the US um, you know, unfortunately they've had to close as well. And so, um, what we've been doing is kind of, you know, putting our focus into our online community and recognizing that, you know, social distancing doesn't mean that it's a time, you know, to shut off and really finding ways to connect with one another. Um, so that's been our main focus during this time. And we, um, launched a program this week where for every single body bomb we sell, we are donating a body bomb to the front lines and seeing how we can best, you know, make an impact again, during this time. Where, where possible
Passionistas: Tell us a bit about your production process? Do you make everything yourself?
Sara: Yes. So, uh, everything is handmade by me in my studio. So everything is made in small batches and really where I started, which was in the lip balm that took me over a year to formulate. And even though it's three simple organic ingredients, it's [inaudiable], mango, butter, coconut oil, um, all the different levels of the texture of butter and how that works in, um, you know, in the heat when you have in your bag to when it's cold and the coconut oil and how that blends in. So that took me a really long time to perfect, but from there, it gave me a base to create our body balms. And also our body balms are all infused with essential oils. And that was really important for me too, because one of the biggest chemicals in skincare is fragrances and fragrances is basically a chemical construct to smell like a certain things.
So for example, anything that smells like a banana isn't from a banana, it's impossible to get it from a banana. Um, so it's all chemically formulated. And so that's where essential oils are really great because they come from the actual herb or flower. And yeah, so everything is made in small batches. And that's really important too, because we don't use any silicones. So that's where the formula, um, you know, to get a very smooth formula silicones provides that gel consistency. But for us, we make it in small batches so that we don't have to use any silicones.
Passionistas: You talk about the cold centrifuge, virgin coconut oil? So tell us what that is and what are the benefits of it?
Sara: Cold centrifuge, coconut oil is a spinning process that spins the coconut meat out from the coconut oil. And as it's the spinning process, it doesn't use any heat to boil the coconut oil out. And really that gives a more refined coconut oil that has that retains more of its antioxidants, vitamins, nutrients, and really is coconut oil for your skincare that goes directly onto your skin or your hair, which is different to coconut oil that you cook with, where they boil it, because you're going to heat it up anyway. And it's much faster for production, um, to heat it up and really in the Philippines they've been using this type of process, um, for coconut oil for decades. And, you know, that's something that, that differentiation, not a lot of people know about. And so I really wanted to share, you know, their specialty and how they take care in processing this coconut oil that takes over three days to process from the coconut meat to the oil.
Passionistas: What's your dream for the future of Kaya Essentials?
Sara: My dream for Kaya Essentials is really to focus on how more we can make an impact. So something that we also launched last year was our Conscious Coconut Club. And really that came from the idea of bringing community together to give back where I recognized that there was a space for galas and, you know, those, these big events, but usually the, the cost for, you know, a meal ticket. Wasn't a, and I really felt that there was a lot of people that wanted to be part of giving back part of this initiative. And, you know, they weren't able to take part in something like that. And so we hosted a dinner where each person, you know, came together. We had a meal and we provided a meal back to the Philippines and something that we've also introduced is providing school meals back to our local communities in the US and that's our partnership with no kid hungry. And that really came from our community as well. That really wanted to take part in giving back locally to, you know, now with this new lifestyle line that we have, um, it's also just looking, you know, expanding our brand, um, but always focusing on where we can more make an impact.
Passionistas: What's the biggest risk you ever took and how did it pay off?
Sara: I think the biggest risk I ever took was really focusing on what success meant to me and canceling out the noise and not comparing myself to others. And I say that because, because when you don't have that business background, when you are every single day, not knowing where the template is, and, you know, even just being an entrepreneur is a risk in itself. It, it, you know, um, it's not the easy path. It's not comfortable. You have to find the comfort in the uncomfortable situations, and that's a big risk. Um, but like any risk, you know, it's very satisfying. It's very, um, it's great to put yourself out of your comfort zone and after having lived all over the world and also, you know, having parents that are, you know, that take a lot of risks. My dad left England when, you know, he was in his twenties and lived in and is a civil engineer and worked in Africa, worked all over Asia. I think that just from a young age, kind of just going over the cliff and just going for it is, is, is the way that I've operated. Um, but I would say that's the biggest risk.
Passionistas: You just mentioned finding out what success means to you. So what is your definition of success?
Sara: Definition of success is really in a business sense, looking at what is my mission, where I want to make, where I can make the most impact and how that all fits with the rest of my life. I think balance is so important and I know balance gets thrown around a lot, but really crafting recognizing that you are the one that crafts and cultivates your life. And so you are in full charge of that. And, you know, really living the life where, you know, you don't want to look back and have regrets. And really trying, you know, as the most, you know, trying, despite having any fears, um, you know, to me, is living a very successful life.
Passionistas: Is there any particular trait that you have that you feel has helped your success?
Sara: I would say the particular trait that's really helped me succeed with Kaya Essentials is being very frugal and scrappy and not afraid to get into everything. I think that first had the idea for Kaya Essentials. I was in my early twenties. I didn't have a lot of savings or any savings actually. Um, and it was an idea that I had that I said, okay, that's going to, I'm going to do that. Maybe in my early retirement. That's how far ahead I was thinking, because I didn't know, you know, what you, like, I thought you needed so much investment and, you know, capital to really start a business. And also not trusting myself that I would be able to learn all the different areas. And so, as I mentioned before, being autodidactic, and just not afraid to learn everything from building a website on Shopify, to researching all the different packaging. That's something that I underestimated as well in building a business is how much thought and care has to go into packaging and how, you know, that really depends on, on so many things.
And, um, I, my friends will always say that I am the most frugal person that they've ever met. Um, and it's just something that always came naturally to me. My mom was a domestic helper. Um, when she was 17, she moved from the Philippines to Hong Kong. And, you know, she, she grew up in poverty in the Philippines. And she worked, um, you know, under the table with, with her mom, with my grandma, um, in the factory because my grandma was paid on the quantity of snacks that they were producing, that they were packaging, you know, without an hourly wage. And so she brought her daughters, um, you know, to help out. And my mom always taught me, you know, to have a really strong work ethic and, and not being afraid to, you know, do the tasks that are, you know, um, that are very time consuming as well.
Because I think that when you start a business, um, you really have to do every single part. And so, for example, like I mentioned, I, um, crafting all of our products and also packaging as well. And with each package, I write a personalized note to our customer. And that's something that I never want to let go of because for me, someone who's joined our community and given me their hard working dollars to, you know, part of this, you know, it really means a lot. And so, um, you know, I really love connecting with my customers in that way. And so that's something that I'm never going to stop doing, but yeah, not being afraid to be scrappy. And when I talk to other female entrepreneurs that have an idea that are starting out, um, you know, I really say that there are so many different ways to grow a business and, you know, do what feels right to you.
It's really good to know every single pathway and whether that's going down the investment route, route, you know, having angel investors or, you know, um, whatever it is and knowing your strategy as well. So is that going to be wholesale? So do you need a manufacturer? How much quantity do you need? Do you want to be able to produce and breaking that down as well? Because you know, your profit in the end is different for all of those outcomes. And really focusing on what makes sense for you not being afraid to start small either. I always share that, you know, the lip balm formula took me over a year to perfect. I was selling it, you know, first with just friends and family. And then with, you know, in pop-up markets, farmer's markets before I even had a website, because I couldn't even, you know, put that on my plate to begin to think how it would look like to have a Kaya Essentials website, you know, and I, and I still cringe at the first iteration of the website, you know, and I love sharing that because I say, you know, taking your time organically going through it, um, you know, is the best way because I learned so much that I couldn't rush. Um, so not being afraid, you know, be frugal scrappy and take your time and define your own success as well and how you want to build your passion.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast, and our interview with Saraj Ku. To learn more about Kaya Essentials, visit KayaEssentials.com.
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