Yu-Chen, On Being an Asian Female Founder

To start our celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we sat down with Yu-Chen Shih to learn more about her experience as an Asian female entrepreneur and founder of Orcé Cosmetics.

Here, she bares all with equal parts confidence and vulnerability. We hope that in sharing her lessons learned since launching the brand, Yu-Chen’s story can inspire your success story, too.

Who inspires you?

My mentor Sarah Lee, founder of Glow Recipe!

How does your cultural upbringing inform the way you run the business as a founder, and how you lead your team?

I was raised by a Taiwanese mother who taught me to always consider the feelings and experiences of those around me. The phrase she used was 將心比心, which means to put yourself in other’s shoes. As a founder, whenever I’m designing a product or finding ways to improve our service, I tap into my own experience as a beauty consumer and invite my customers to share their honest feedback in order to create a customer-centered experience. I’m all about the thoughtful little things that can bring greater ease to the lives of my customers.

I lead my team with the same principles. As a first-time founder, my experience as an employee is still fresh in my mind. Prior to Orcé, I was fortunate enough to work for a company where I felt valued and loved. I looked forward to going to the office and remember thinking this was the company culture I wanted to recreate if I ever started my own business. It is of utmost importance to me that my team members feel happy and appreciated at work.

There’s an expectation on people of color — especially immigrants and women — to do it all on their own (and silently, at that). At what point did you realize you needed more help to grow Orcé?

Orcé was a one-woman show for a long time! I have that Asian work ethic where I’d much rather do everything myself than ask for help, and also that Asian fear of imposing on others. Back then, my only hire was a consultant to help me with product development. Other than that, I juggled everything from customer service to marketing to operations.

About 2 years into building Orcé, I started to burn out. I had spread myself so thin that I wasn’t actually doing anything well anymore. I was so stressed that I often cried in my car while driving home from my office, and I began wondering if I had what it takes to run my own company. When I began entertaining thoughts of giving up, I realized that it was time I brought on my first employee to grow Orcé with me.

Tell us about a full-circle moment since launching Orcé.

We recently launched in Singapore, where I grew up! I sat down with editors who asked me about my childhood and if I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. To be honest, I didn’t have the easiest time growing up in Singapore. I often got in trouble at school for being too outspoken and different. I also did not perform well academically, as the “memorize and regurgitate” approach to education did not agree with me. Teachers told me that I would never achieve anything in my life, and one even laughed at me when I told him I aspired to attend UCLA. (Because of this, I ended up not even applying to UCLA, but it worked out as I absolutely loved the education I received at Pepperdine.) Branded a bad kid and a mediocre student by teachers in Singapore, I never thought I had it in me to start my own business. I only began realizing my potential at Pepperdine, where the curriculum was structured around fostering entrepreneurship. Being interviewed by Singaporean media outlets about my “secrets to success” felt like a full-circle moment — I’m not sure if those teachers remember me, but I sure hope that seeing my press coverage would make them realize that they were wrong about me after all.

What advice or feedback are you glad you didn’t listen to?

“It’s too risky to start your own business. Don’t do it!”

When I first decided to dedicate myself to building Orcé full-time, a couple of close friends were concerned and advised me not to make such a risky move. They felt that starting a business was a huge gamble and encouraged me to take the safer route of climbing up the corporate ladder at a beauty conglomerate. Naturally, I shared the same fears as a risk-averse Asian female. I struggled with this internal conflict for a while and even asked my father, a seasoned serial entrepreneur, “…but what if I fail?”

His response was, “In business, sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail. But if you don’t try, it will always be in the back of your mind that you wish you did.”

What’s an unexpected piece of advice you wish you’d known sooner?

Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. The key to longevity is effective delegation.

What’s the best way for people to support the AAPI community — not just this month, but always?

Call out inequality and discrimination wherever you see it, attend bystander intervention training because there is still rising violence against the AAPI community despite the lack of news coverage, and support Asian-led brands and organizations.

What’s next for Orcé?

This fall, we’ll be launching exciting new shades of our serum-foundation to serve more diverse beauties whose complexions have been overlooked by the beauty industry.