You can sense the passion when David Chung speaks about his life and his work. He’s an entrepreneur, and launching companies is a never-ending source of drive and energy. You may know his skincare brand Farmacy, which was acquired by Procter & Gamble (P&G) in December of 2021. His makeup-melting product “Green Clean” has become a veritable cult classic and was the number one selling cleanser at Sephora.
This entrepreneurial spirit was planted in him at a young age. Chung came to the United States in 1971 following his mother’s lead. Judith Ehm started Cici Pharmacy and Gift Shop in 1974 and was one of the first Korean American businesses on West 32nd Street in New York City, now known as Koreatown.
The store became a focal point for fashion, accessories and electronics. Cici Pharmacy became a trilingual department store, servicing customers in Spanish, English and Korean. She invested deeply in the Korean American people in the region and worked hard to build up the community. Judith passed away in February at the age of 92.
David Chung has followed in his mother’s footsteps as an entrepreneur for this generation. He says he wants to continuously build something that is meaningful and special for society and for the community. But it’s not just the past that has influenced him –- Chung is on a mission to help the younger generation as well.
Presently, Chung is launching three more brands, including two skincare brands and a haircare brand. He’s expanding his reach, always finding ways to highlight the Korean American community and even has his eyes set on opening up a restaurant in New York City.
Jane Kim: You sold your company to Procter & Gamble in 2021. What is Farmacy Beauty and what made it so attractive to P&G?
David Chung: We sold the company to P&G on December 31, 2021, the last day of the year. I started the brand six years before in 2015. We had no name but we wanted to do something clean, natural, something in that direction. So we met with Sephora and talked about farm-to-table concept in skincare. Extract from the farm and create skincare and take out all the ingredients that are not supposed to be good for you. That was the concept. We came up with Farmacy because “farm” is what it is and “pharmacy” combines the concept of science. It’s natural but activated by scientists. A mix of both. That was the concept.
P&G is focused on building a portfolio of responsible beauty brands. So Farmacy fit into P&G’s future-looking agenda to work with brands and develop brands that are good for the earth. We fit their model. They’ve been around 150 years and they were thinking about the next 100 years. They want to be a very responsible company. So their future is in clean beauty.
In a Forbes article, you mention that entrepreneurship takes sacrifice and hard work. What kind of sacrifices did you have to make to bring your businesses to where it is today?
As an entrepreneur, you really need to have passion about what you do and no matter if it’s Farmacy, 3LAB, iLABS, many many companies over the years that I started and sold. You work a lot of hours. At the end of the day you have to make it happen, so working 24/7 is what an entrepreneur does.
So when I say sacrifice, when my friends go out and play golf and drink, I work. But I work because I enjoy it. I work because I really enjoy building something. Even today, I’m expanding and opening up three more brands. I’m also doing something for the Korean American community and I’m looking to open up a restaurant in NYC. So I’m doing all these things even though I really don’t have to work.
I just sold my company to P&G and I don’t think I could ever spend all the money. I could retire, travel the world, go on vacations and play golf every day. But that’s not fun for me. That’s like waiting to die. So for me, it’s not the money, it’s building something and creating jobs and creating something special for society and for the community.
At the end of this life, I can’t take my money with me, so I need to figure out how to give back. I enjoy building businesses and tackling challenges. And when you sell the business, you get a chunk of money. What do you do with that money? You gotta figure out a way to give back. I enjoy doing that.
Can you tell me about your background, what did your childhood look like and how did it help you in business?
My mother passed away on February 9 of this year. She was 92. She was a pioneer in our community and she was a true entrepreneur. If you’ve been to NYC, on 32nd and Broadway is Koreatown. My mother had the first Korean store on 32nd Street in 1974. And then other Koreans came, so in a way, she created K-Town and was a great teacher and inspiration for me.
You created iLABS, can you talk about how it’s like the Airbnb of the Beauty Industry?
Before iLABS I had a company called Englewood LAB which I started in 2005. It was contract manufacturing where we manufactured for over 100 different brands from L’oreal and Estee Lauder to small brands. I took that company public in 2016 and I sold my controlling shares in 2018 to a Korean company. Then when I started iLABS I realized there are so many people around the world who would love to have their own brand. They might be influencers, celebrities, housewives, anyone. And now with social media, anyone could do anything and that has changed the beauty industry.
Whereas years ago you had to have 100 million dollars to start a brand. Today you can start a brand with $20k. What I learned was that there was so much demand to start a brand and there was zero supply supporting that demand. When I look at iLABS, we’re gonna manufacture for big brands and small brands, but we’re also going to design what we called miLABS, which is the one that supports all these small beauty brands. People who want to specialize, we come and help you and you don’t have to buy 20,000 pieces per SKU [Stock Keeping Units] which is the normal order quantity, you can buy 200 pieces. I developed this concept for miLABS.
How did this concept change the industry?
When people wanted to market skincare the traditional way, they advertised in newspapers, magazines, tv ads, radio ads, and those are very expensive. Today we don’t need that. We use content on TikTok and Instagram. Social media is not that expensive so when that happened it changed the beauty industry.
What they need is R&D and innovation support so they come to miLABS to get that support. We do it for the big brands so it’s not that different. It’s like any business. Even in the clothing business someone makes a small collection of clothing and advertises on social media. Leather goods and handbags. If they can have someone create 50 pieces of bags even 10 handbags, they design it with your logo and that’s what’s happening in the industry.
What are some products you came out with at iLABS that you are proud of?
We’ve made so many incredible products for the brands. All the products for Farmacy. We’re very proud of the innovations. Sunscreens, acne creams, incredible formulations. Innovations in efficacy.
Tell me about what it’s like to create a business that will be attractive to conglomerates like P&G.
I think when you build your brand and you have a certain DNA and brand story. There are strategic buyers out there that will find what fits their need. The trend right now is sustainability, clean beauty, so I think we had the right trend. Estee Lauder is looking for different types of brands, and L’Oreal is different from P&G and Unilever. I think when you put your brand out there you’re thinking about that.
So I think when you build a brand, I recommend that you don’t think about an exit strategy. Just think about building something special, building something unique. Something that has efficacy and build it with passion. Then the buyers will be lined up. They want that very special brand. So I recommend not thinking too much about crossing that bridge. You’ll have that.
It’s like people who want to open up a restaurant, I’m a foodie. But even in the restaurant business, we don’t want to think about how many customers are gonna come in, just create a restaurant that has amazing food at a reasonable price. We’re gonna make a lot of money because they’re gonna wait outside, and wait two months to get a reservation because there’s so much demand. Just think about making incredible food. That’s where you focus. Otherwise you’re gonna forget the purpose of why you are doing it.
I know you are based in different countries, are there specific characteristics when it comes to being marketable to different audiences in different countries?
I think when you create a brand, different countries have different interests. If I created a brand that was focused on ginseng extracts, then the Chinese will understand this better than the Americans. If I create Hanbang cosmetics, and the formula and ingredients came from Korean herbs and Chinese herbs to create beautiful products from Hanbang, it will sell better in China and Korea. Americans don’t really understand Hanbang yet.
Farmacy was a global, clean farm to face brand. So those brands do very well in countries like Germany, Japan, the United States and the UK. In China, they are not quite there yet. Sustainability doesn’t resonate in certain countries.
You mentioned you wanted to start a Korean restaurant. What are some of your favorite Korean things?
Today, I feel very proud to be Korean. With what is happening for Korea around the world. BTS for example. I think the food now in New York City, Korean restaurants are right now in high demand. The HMart CEO is a good friend of mine, and I just had dinner with him last night. We talked about how 60-70% of his customers are non-Korean but they are buying bibimbap and different things like gochujang.
So I want to open up a restaurant not with the typical Korean food like doenjang jjigae, but more like temple food. More vegan-type Korean food.
I’d love to see Korean American successful entrepreneurs and business people who make millions and billions of dollars come together to support the community. The reason I say that is because the hate crimes against Asians in this country have gotten really bad.
Some of my Asian employees who come here every day have to watch their backs as they walk to work from the subway. Even inside the subway, they have to watch out. And I ask myself why do we have to live like that? I realize that Korean Americans need some sort of power in the government whether it’s the Congress or Senate or even President of the US. I feel that we have to get there.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Jane Kim broadcast news reporter who has a passion for interviewing people about issues that matter. A member of the Asian American Journalists Association, Jane is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.