Outliers: Adeline Koh of Sabbatical Beauty

Outliers is a new series that serves to spotlight underrepresented voices in the tech and entrepreneur world.

With entrepreneurship on the rise, it can be hard to find a place that spotlights the work done by incredible entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds.

Adeline Koh, associate professor of literature and director of the DH (digital humanities) program at Stockton University, could have just spent her sabbatical relaxing and researching new topics for her return to academia. Instead, she decided to take an entirely different route and launch her new business – Sabbatical Beauty, a cruelty-free skincare line that sells everything from skincare, makeup, and body products for all genders. In just a few months, she’s been able to grow her brand and customer base, focusing not just on quality products but with building community and encouraging wellness through self-care, especially for women of color. Here’s what she had to say about her journey so far and what’s next for Sabbatical Beauty.

How did Sabbatical Beauty come about?

Koh: “I started Sabbatical Beauty because I’m a skincare nerd who was frustrated by the available products out there. While many products are marketed based on their active ingredients (the ingredients that actually do the “work” on your skin), the majority of products have actives in extremely low concentrations. I wanted products that would actually showcase the active ingredient in a big way. There was no way around that other than to start making my own products.

So I did what every academic is good at doing: I started doing my own research on how to make skincare products, as well as reading about active ingredients in cosmetic science textbooks. Then I started practicing–first on myself. The moment my friends saw the effects of my products on my skin, though, they demanded I start making some for them. So I started selling the products to my friends in small batches in a little skincare co-op. Then my friends demanded that I start an online shop, so that they could share the love with their family and friends who weren’t in the co-op. The rest is history.”

How have you been able to merge your background in academia with creating products for SB?

Koh: “I would say my academic background has been integral to getting SB up and off the ground so quickly. I couldn’t do what I do without my research background. Although I don’t have a science background, I’m able to research the heck out of whatever I’m interested in (maybe due to my comparative literature training, which was really about being able to do a critical reading of any discipline), and I can do research really quickly. This helped me to get boned up on cosmetic science pretty quickly, as well as to learn a lot about business development and marketing.

My digital humanities background–in terms of web design and social media management–has been integral to my being able to style my own website and update it to my liking, as well as building a vibrant social media community. Also, my English literature background means that I’m able to write effective copy on my own–and my own press releases, which resulted in the Shape and Women’s Wear Daily features.”

In what ways do tech and social media practices play a role in SB’s success?

Koh: “Tech and social media have been essential to the founding and growth of SB. First of all, I learned the majority of how to create skincare products through stalking the Internet. Next, I started my little skincare co-op, I wasn’t selling to anyone local; everything was coordinated through Google spreadsheets! Having the skills to be able to code and brand my own website was also really helpful, as well as to add on functionality as I needed it.”

Community is so important for SB’s customer base. How have you seen it evolve as SB continues to grow?

Koh: “I’ve been interested and involved in creating feminist communities on social media for some time now, and I’ve applied it to building the Sabbatical Beauty Facebook group, which a lot of my customers tell me is a really integral part to the SB customer experience. Unlike big box skincare brands, your Sabbatical Beauty experience doesn’t end with you buying the product; when you join the Facebook group (open to anyone interested!) you get to tap into a community of likeminded people who love the same products you do, and can offer advice about how they hack products in their routine, as well as offer support in self-care rituals.

Since it’s evolved, I see the group taking on more autonomy in terms of prominent figures stepping up to welcome and advise others on skin care and self care rituals. I hope that it will continue to grow in this direction!”

One of the things that’s also important to Sabbatical Beauty is encouraging self-care. How has self-care transformed your own life, and how can it positively affect other entrepreneurs?

Koh: “To be honest, I started becoming a skincare nerd because I desperately needed selfcare, something that was disconnected from my research and teaching so I could escape from both. Being a huge nerd I also needed something I could research to death, so really, cosmetic science was a logical next step. Starting my own self care rituals through skincare helped me to better modulate my life and career as an academic; it helps to take the edge off difficult days, and settle me into a space that’s just mine. I think we often neglect self care as something frivolous, but as I’ve quoted Audre Lorde before, self-care for women, especially women of color, ‘is not self indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ Bodies like ours take a ton of abuse and microaggressions from being in powerful roles because people do not think that we should be authority figures, and that stress is often emotionally and mentally toxic. This also means that we need self-care rituals even more than others, because of need to deal with this stress. By caring for ourselves, we allow ourselves to continue in these positions, thus paving the ways for others who look like us – I think that is what Audre Lorde means by ‘an act of political warfare.'”

What advice do you have for new entrepreneurs and startup founders?

Koh: “It’s not easy, but it is exhilarating. It’s so energizing because when something works, you’ve literally built something out of nothing–you’ve created something which did not exist before you created it, and could not have existed without you. It’s so unlike a regular job where no matter how well you perform, you’re just a cog in a wheel, because the infrastructure has already been set up for you. When you design your own business or startup, you get to reimagine everything from the ground up, and put it into action. It’s a ton of work, but I’ve never done anything more rewarding in my life.”

Disclosure: I studied under Adeline Koh while I was at Stockton University.

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Written by:
Cameron is a tech and culture journalist, comic book enthusiast, and lives near New York City. A graduate of Stockton University, she's using her words to shift the world of online journalism, one byline at a time. When she's not writing, she can be found reading sci-fi novels, collecting succulents, and planning her next obnoxious hair color. Cameron is an editorial fellow at Tech.Co. Send your tips to cameron@tech.co or tweet @BlkGirlManifest.
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