Stanford e-Kawasaki Guest Speaker: Victoria Tsai, Founder and CEO, Tatcha
The entrepreneur and businesswoman spoke to students about how certain key experiences in her life influenced her path.
Stanford e-Kawasaki is an online course for high school students in Kawasaki City, Japan, that is sponsored by Kawasaki City. Launched in fall 2019, it is offered by the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) in collaboration with Kawasaki City. SPICE is grateful to Kawasaki Mayor Norihiko Fukuda whose vision made this course possible.
The two key themes of Stanford e-Kawasaki are entrepreneurship and diversity, and Stanford e-Kawasaki Instructor Maiko Tamagawa Bacha invites guest speakers with these themes in mind. Most guest speakers address one of the themes. However, when Victoria Tsai—a Taiwanese American entrepreneur who is the founder and CEO of Tatcha—agreed to speak, Bacha noted that she could not imagine anyone more qualified to share her insights on both themes. Tatcha was founded by Tsai to share the geisha’s wisdom with modern women everywhere, and to further the belief that true beauty begins with the heart and the mind. Launched in 2009, Tatcha is now one of the biggest skincare retailers in the United States.
While listening to Tsai’s guest lecture on February 5, 2021, Bacha and I were especially struck by her resilience, approachability and gift for empowering youth, openness to diverse perspectives, and respect for traditional culture. We both quickly realized what a great role model she is for all of the Stanford e-Kawasaki students but for the girls, in particular.
While sharing her experiences as a young professional on Wall Street, Tsai mentioned that she was 21 and was next to the World Trade Center buildings when they were hit by a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. She recalled, “We saw lots of people jumping and dying and then my husband got very sick and it made me question my purpose in life. And at that time, I didn’t know anything about ikigai [a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being”] but I knew that if I was going to spend the hours that I am awake working and not with my family and not playing, that I wanted my work to mean something.” After experiencing various jobs and going to business school, which “looked good on paper,” she decided to seek work with a greater purpose.
This led her to establish Tatcha. Tsai mentioned to the students that she hadn’t taken a salary at Tatcha for nine years. This prompted a student to ask about her motivation, to which Tsai replied, “When I think of my life’s purpose, I don’t expect it to be easy, but I do hope that it’s worthwhile. This work is my life’s purpose, so even when it gets hard, I just think, ‘that’s part of life.’” During the pandemic, I imagine that Tsai’s resilience really resonated among the students.
Approachability and Gift for Empowering Youth
I knew from articles about Tsai that she is a Harvard Business School graduate and an extremely successful CEO. Yet, by accepting the invitation to speak to the high school students in Kawasaki—some of whom are aspiring entrepreneurs—she demonstrated her desire to pass on her wisdom to the next generation. Prior to Tsai’s guest lecture, Bacha had sent her a list of questions that the students had written based on their reading about Tsai’s background. In her opening comments, Tsai noted, “You are much more advanced than I was. I could not compete with you.”
This comment seemed to quickly put students at ease. One of the students commented, “I think it’s wonderful that you found purpose in life and help people… A lot of young people like me and my friends feel lost in life, don’t have a dream or long-term vision of our lives, so I want to know how can we find our own purpose in life or dream.” This comment prompted Tsai to describe an activity that was devised by Harvard Business School’s Dr. Tim Butler, who has noted that as youth, they actually already have a hunch about what they want to be when they grow up, but just don’t know the specific names of the jobs. Tsai continued, “then, the problem is when you get older, you start hearing your friends, parents, and teachers saying, ‘oh, you should do that.’ And then in your head you can’t tell anymore if you really want to do something, or if you simply think you should do it because everybody else thinks you should do it.” The activity that Butler recommends is in two parts: (1) read articles that interest you, and identify patterns (specifically, areas of interest) in them; and (2) while keeping these interests in mind, write about what you envision yourself doing in ten years as you are the happiest that you have ever been—that is, completely focused and engaged. Tsai encouraged the students to try this, and some already have.
Openness to Diverse Perspectives
When a student asked Tsai about overcoming gender- and culture-related differences, she reflected upon three experiences: one on the trading floor on Wall Street and two in Kyoto with a taxi driver and geisha. Concerning her Wall Street experience, Tsai recollected, “When I first worked on Wall Street and I walked onto the trading floor, I was so scared. One, there were no women, and I couldn’t even understand what they were saying because they were speaking financial language… I remember being so intimidated. Then one year later, I could understand everything.” She came to the conclusion that “These people are not smarter than me. They’re just older, and the harder I work, the faster I can close the gap in knowledge. I have a great education, I have a decent mind, I have a very strong work ethic, I’ll just keep asking questions. So I figured it out.”
Concerning her experience with a taxi driver in Kyoto, Tsai noted that he is the one who taught her that there’s a difference between a job and a purpose. Through his actions, the driver taught her that his job is to be a driver but that his purpose is to make people happy. When he met Tsai for the first time, she was not feeling well and thus didn’t seem happy. After dropping off Tsai at her hotel, he went home to make CDs of images of Kyoto and delivered them to the hotel, thinking that the images would make her happy. They did and he felt only then that his job had been completed. Tsai reflected, “… and that just stuck with me and I did not know what omotenashi [hospitality that goes above and beyond the expectations of the person receiving the service] was back then, but then I felt it in my heart.”
Lastly, concerning her experience with geisha, who inspired Tatcha’s skincare products, Tsai noted “People in America don’t understand what a geisha is. The importance of a geisha is they were trained in a lot of the classical Japanese arts, such as dance, music, flower arrangement, and the tea ceremony. These are classical traditions that have very important meanings. I think that if you forget where you come from, then you don’t know where you are going. And so I try to hold on to tradition, because it matters. I just thought that’s a beautiful thing… I learned so much from geisha about entrepreneurship and about women’s empowerment through Japanese traditions.”
Respect for Traditional Culture
Her emphasis on Japanese traditions prompted a student to comment, “I was surprised that you made an innovation from old Japanese culture. However, there is a trend to discard old customs. So, how can we get a balance between new trends and old customs?” Tsai shared that what is so interesting about ancient civilizations like China and Japan is that “there is a lot of wisdom in this and something to learn from the past. What we try to do [at Tatcha] is to innovate within tradition, so I never tried to change the core of the tradition, because if it lasted 1000 years, there’s a very good reason for its continuity.”
What Does It Mean to Be a Global Citizen?
One very interesting part of Tsai’s presentation was to learn about Tatcha’s work with Room to Read, which seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in low-income communities in Southeast Asia and Africa by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. A percentage of each Tatcha purchase is donated to Room To Read. Despite the enormity of some of the challenges that these youth face, Tsai noted that “they have a dream and they show up every day and they study hard and they work hard because they want that dream to come true. Nothing that I will ever face in my life will compare to what these little girls are going through, but then I think if I do my job and I don’t give up, then I can make sure thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of those girls can have a different life, and then my life meant something.” This really resonated in Bacha, who is very familiar with Room to Read as her husband works for the organization.
Reflecting upon the session, Tsai noted “I learned about the concept of sekaijin [global citizen] when studying the writings of D.T. Suzuki, and I fell in love with the idea. As people who live between cultures, we have the opportunity to share the best of both worlds to advance society and uplift individuals. It was an honor to share my story of cross-cultural entrepreneurship with the students, who were inquisitive, earnest, and wise beyond their years. I believe that Stanford’s e-Kawasaki program is helping to nurture tomorrow’s sekaijin.” When I consider the question, “What does it mean to be a global citizen?,” Tsai immediately comes to mind, and believe that Tsai’s talk really encouraged the students to aspire to become sekaijin as well.
The SPICE staff would like to express its appreciation to Tsuyoshi Inoue of Kawasaki City and Hisashi Katsurayama from the Kawasaki Board of Education for their unwavering support of Stanford e-Kawasaki.