Before I Made NYX Cosmetics Successful, I Had My ‘Pretty Woman’ on Rodeo Drive Moment

I was clueless and naïve when I first watched Pretty Woman, fantasizing and lusting over the romance of the movie. I realize now that my 17-year-old self only saw the fairytale love story—I was mentally skipping over the less lovely parts, like when Julia Roberts gets turned away by the snooty saleswoman on Rodeo Drive, simply because she didn’t fit the bill. “Big mistake… huge!”

Fast forward to 25-year-old me and there I am, living that exact situation—my very own Pretty Woman moment, though much less glamorous than parading around Beverly Hills. I had just started NYX Cosmetics and was attending a trade show in New York. I was cruising the floor and saw a product I liked, so I walked into the booth and asked the saleslady for a quote. It went a little something like this:

Me (very nicely with a big bright-eyed smile): “Hello there, how much is this?”
Her (with a dismal look of pure annoyance): “Sorry, but we don’t sell one piece. We only sell by the carton.”
Me (with my tail between my legs): “Oh, that’s fine. I have my own brand of makeup and can purchase by the carton.”
Her: (snorted, rolled her eyes, then walked away)

I was just left standing there, completely baffled and totally confused. What just happened? This was a huge moment in my life, the blatant rejection, a feeling I will never forget.

Later, after I’d left the convention center, I sat in my hotel room dissecting the day’s event. I realized that I did not get the service I deserved because I didn’t “fit the bill.” I was treated that way because I was a young minority woman, and that saleslady had never seen a minority woman who was also a business owner. Even more, I knew my young age made me a true odd (wo)man out.

Thankfully, today’s landscape is different than it used to be. There are so many young entrepreneurs making huge waves in the business world, and being a young business owner is widely accepted, and admired. But back in 1999, 20-somethings did not start businesses—much less 20-something minority females. That was just unheard of!

That night I decided that I had no other choice but to accept this incredible challenge. I vowed to prove that young people can start a business and succeed, that a female can run a successful company, and that minorities can compete and make it big.

I’ll be the first to tell you that it was no walk in the park. But I defined all obstacles. I might have emigrated from Korea when I was 13, not speaking a word of English, but I didn’t let that stop me. At 25, I had very little money, no connections and no experience running anything, let alone a company, but I launched NYX anyway. The only driving force was my personal will and my ginormous dream.

It was hard work and absolute sweat equity. But it was worth it, because what started out as a 600-square-foot showroom, a brand selling just one product—eye pencils—grew to be a 120,000-square-foot headquarters in Los Angeles, with additional warehouses in Europe, Canada and Australia, generating $2 million in sales during its first year.

I recently sold my entire business to the world’s biggest beauty company, L’Oreal, and it was one of the largest sales in the beauty industry. At the time of the sale, NYX had revenue growth of well over $100 million and was available in more than 70 countries.

Try Pretty Woman-ing me now.

Find out how to deal with critics and rejection. Hint: Sometimes your opinion is the only one that matters.


Toni Ko is the founder of the multimillion-dollar cosmetics brand NYX, which was recently acquired by the largest beauty company in the world, L’Oreal. Discovering a gap in the cosmetics market between prestige brands sold in department stores and mass brands sold in drugstores, Ko created NYX in 1999 with the goal of delivering professional, richly pigmented products at affordable prices. She impressively generated $2 million in sales during her first year and quickly grew to become a leader in the color cosmetics industry.

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