How can we think about skincare as a way to care for ourselves rather than fixing imperfections? How can we reimagine beauty routines as community building practices? What does it mean to create a company grounded in intersectional feminist principles?

In Episode 49 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Adeline Koh about her journey from tenured English professor to entrepreneur, how she puts her postcolonial feminist training to work at her company Sabbatical Beauty, and the challenges and surprises of settling into a new life as a business owner.

Guest: Adeline Koh

Adeline Koh is the founder and CEO of Sabbatical Beauty, a skincare company created with a political and intersectional feminist vision that manufactures Korean-beauty-influenced products in small batches. Adeline started Sabbatical Beauty while on her own sabbatical from her tenured academic position and eventually left academia to run the company full-time. In a former life, Adeline was an Associate Professor of English at Stockton College and the Director of the Digital Humanities Center, and has held fellowships at Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania and the National University of Singapore.

We chatted about

  • Adeline’s path to creating Sabbatical Beauty (2:09)
  • Adeline on mentoring as an employer rather than as a professor (5:47)
  • Some advice on transitioning out of academia and becoming an entrepreneur (7:34)
  • Adeline on the most surprising changes in her life outside of academia (11:07)
  • Adeline’s thoughts on overlapping skills as a business owner and former academic (12:45)
  • The pleasures and challenges of running an intersectional feminist company (14:37)
  • Imagining Otherwise (18:44)

Takeaways

Sabbatical Beauty’s beginnings

“I started Sabbatical Beauty while experimenting with making my own skincare products while I was on sabbatical. That’s why it’s called Sabbatical Beauty…I had been unhappy in academia for a quite a long time and I was looking around for things that I could do other than academia. I tried web design, I held webinars, and things like that. When I went on sabbatical, I started fooling around with making my own skincare products…I made up my mind that the only way I could really have products that I could really test whether they work on my skin was to make them myself.”

Mentoring and being a boss

“Mentoring is important to me because I think it’s important in terms of helping people in the community on giving each other a leg up. Mentoring came kind of naturally because I was a professor and that’s what we generally do with our students. I was a professor at a liberal arts college where we work very closely with undergraduates, so in some ways I felt it was carrying over from what I had already done…Mentoring a student is very different from mentoring an employee. When you’re a professor, the main goal is not that the student produces fantastic work for your class but that the student has a fantastic learning experience. It’s all about the student’s learning experience, with the employee it’s that you have tangible things that you need to produce. It’s not so much about the employee’s learning experience, it’s about whether they are doing their job or not. This is something that I’m still continuing to work on.”

What Adeline would say to her younger self

“There are so many really intelligent, really smart people outside of academia. Work outside academia can also be extremely intellectually challenging and fruitful, and can also mix with politics. That was one of my biggest lessons and it’s a lesson that I’m continuing to learn every day. One of the things I would probably say to my younger self is that academia is not the only place where smart people live.”

Transitioning out of academia

“There have been a lot of changes, but I think the most striking change to me is that I am a lot happier. I’m a lot happier and a lot more content. Academics work on these very intangible large projects that go on forever and there’s never a good system of feedback on whether you’re doing a good job or not. Outside of academia, I have something tangible. How are my sales doing? How is my community doing? I have a tangible target that makes me feel like I accomplished something at the end of the day. I think what surprised me is that I never knew that I could be so content.”

Sabbatical Beauty on Self-Care

“Sabbatical Beauty isn’t trying to sell you products because you should feel inferior or you should feel inadequate for whatever reason because of your skin. It’s supposed to be selling you this concept of taking care of yourself so you can take care of others around you. It doesn’t necessarily need to be about beauty products, even though our beauty products do work. It’s more about taking that time for yourself, and not thinking that time is selfish, to relax and recharge in order to be able to do the rest of your life better…You don’t do self-care alone, you do self-care with other people.”

Imagining Otherwise

“Is it possible to have a company where people feel happy coming into work, and not alienated by their work? Is it possible to have a company build community that isn’t just profit driven but also driven by the needs of the community, the emotions of the community, and care of the community? In a lot of ways, I feel like Sabbatical Beauty is my experiment of putting my ideas from academia into practice. It’s in no way perfect and it’s in no way finished, but trying again and making mistakes and making more mistakes is my contribution towards putting my ideal world in practice.”

More from Adeline

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:23] This is episode 49, and my guest today is Adeline Koh. Adeline is the founder and CEO of Sabbatical Beauty, a skincare company that manufacturers Korean-beauty-influenced products in small batches. Adeline started Sabbatical Beauty on her own sabbatical from her tenured position as an associate professor of English at Stockton College, and she eventually left academia to run the company fulltime. Sabbatical Beauty was founded with a political, intersectional feminist vision, and we talk quite a lot in the interview about how Adeline rejects the misogynist—and I would add femmephobic—assumption that beauty is frivolous, instead viewing it as a form of creativity, self-care, and a way of caring for ourselves that allows us to better care for the people around us.

In a former life, Adeline was associate professor, as I mentioned, as well as the director of the Digital Humanities Center at Stockton College. She’s held fellowships at Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and the National University of Singapore.

[01:2] In our interview, Adeline and I chat about her transition from academic to entrepreneur, how scholars can draw on their training to build careers beyond the academy (particularly important these days given the current academic job market), the challenges and rewards of running a truly intersectional feminist company, and how mentoring future generations helps her imagine and build new worlds.

[to Adeline] Thanks so much for being with us.

Adeline: Thank you for having me.

Cathy: So you are the founder and CEO of a really fantastic company called Sabbatical Beauty, which you actually created while you were a professor of English. I’d love to hear about the origin story of that. How did you start Sabbatical Beauty and what made you interested in starting a company?

Adeline [02:09]: I started Sabbatical Beauty by experimenting with making my own skincare products while I was on sabbatical. That’s kind of why it’s called Sabbatical Beauty. But it was also the name was given to me by one of my friends Annamarie Pérez, who was enjoying some of my products. I had actually been unhappy in academia for quite a long time and so I was looking around at things that I could do other than academia. I tried a number of different things. I did web design, as you know because I was your web designer for a while. I did a whole bunch of other things. I held webinars and things like that.

When I went on sabbatical, I started fooling around with making my own skincare products because I had gotten addicted to Korean beauty a few years before that I really liked what it did for my skin but I wasn’t really happy with what was available on the market.

[03:11] So after a lot of research, I made up my mind that the only way I could really have products that I could test whether they worked on my skin was to make them myself. But I really didn’t want to make them myself because it was a huge effort and commitment. I had to buy all these different kinds of equipment like weighing scales and things like that. But my other friends who were really into Korean beauty, especially Dorothy Kim who is a professor at Vassar, she encouraged me to make my own products because she also wanted high-active-ingredient products and she didn’t want to make her own. And she was like, “okay, why don’t you make them for me?” Thanks Dorothy! And she was like, “oh your kitchen is so clean, you are doing such a good job!”

[04:00] That got me started. So since I was on sabbatical, at first I treated it as like a reward for writing. After I wrote a chunk of something, I would buy my equipment. But then I just got really carried away doing it. I really enjoyed it and it was very different from academic work because it’s working with your hands and in academic work we don’t work with our hands at all. I found it very therapeutic and I enjoyed it. I made a products that made my skin look a lot better and then my friends said, “I want those products!” (like Dorothy). So I started selling the products at cost in a little corner. Then they said to make an online shop for the products.

[04:54] I made online shop and then we had a whole bunch of media and press features in Slate, and Shape magazine and it kinda ballooned from there. Because it was actually turning into something that I could see as viable, I asked for an additional year of leave without pay from Stockton, which they were not very happy about. During that year, which I am currently finishing out, I resigned. So I resigned as of January 2017 and I just finished my final exit interview last week. So I fully quit. I’m doing Sabbatical Beauty full time

Cathy: That’s quite a shift from academia to running a company, right?

Adeline: Oh yeah, definitely. I never imagined that would be doing that.

Cathy [05:45]: You do quite a bit of mentoring through the company. I mean you do it in a Facebook group and the community of folks that has grown around it, but you also work with a team. It’s not just you—you also work with others who help get Sabbatical Beauty products out into the world. Why is mentoring so important to you and do you have a particular approach to it?

Adeline: Mentoring is important to me because I think it’s really important in terms of helping people within the community and giving each other a leg up. Mentoring just came kind of naturally because I was a professor and that’s something that we generally do with our students. I was also a professor at liberal arts college where we work very closely with undergraduates. So in some ways, like I felt that it was carrying over from what I had already done.

[06:37] It’s also probably something that has made me, I think, in some ways a less effective employer. This is something that I’m trying to work on because mentoring a student is very different from mentoring an employee because as a professor, your main goal is not really that the student produces fantastic work for your class, but that a student has fantastic learning experience. It’s all about the students learning experience. But when you’re an employer, you have tangible things that you need to produce and it’s not so much about the employee’s learning experience. It’s about whether they’re doing their job or not. So this is something that I’m still continuing to work on: how to be a supportive mentor and boss at the same time, how to be an effective boss and manager.

Cathy: You’ve written quite a bit in various publications about how your transition out of academia and into running a company or entrepreneurship required a great deal of soul searching and identity transformation, which all of us who transitioned out of the academy have had to wrestle with in some form or another. Could you share with us a few pearls of wisdom that you’ve gathered along your journey?

Adeline [07:46]: When I went into academia, that I wanted to become a professor was very ironic. My parents actually wanted me to go to business school in my 20s and I refused because I thought I was a intellectual, a political activist. So I refused to go to business school and instead went to grad school because I care about ideas. What I didn’t realize then and what I realize now is there are so many really intelligent, really smart people outside of academia and work outside of academia can also be extremely intellectually challenging and fruitful.

[08:51] That was one of my biggest lessons and I’m continuing to learn every day. One of the things I would probably say to my younger self is that academia is not the only place where smart people live. I would tell myself not to be so stuck up about the intelligence and the relevance of people who are outside of academia and in industries. Everything is not black and white. It’s not like they’re evil capitalists on Captain Planet, that old cartoon show.

[09:40] It’s not so cut and dry but a lot of times academia kind of encourages a culture of thinking these things. I would tell myself to spend more time learning about things outside of academia and trying to find more respect for them. I still see this with academics, especially in the humanities (which I was from) where there’s this automatic disdain of people in professional positions. For example, the business school: every time I would talk with my department about trying to do something that would make our graduates look more employable, I would get pushback saying, “oh, this is something that they do in a business school and we don’t think much of the business school.” I think that’s really flawed because we have a lot of learn from each other in terms of different fields, but we have a lot of intellectual snobbery within our silos and that doesn’t help us to learn from one another. I think a little bit more humility in every direction would be helpful. This is something I would tell my younger that I probably would not have liked to hear as well, but that’s something that I’ve learned and continue to learn.

Cathy [11:06]: I’m curious about the contrast between your life in academia and your life running a company. What have you found particularly challenging or maybe surprising about running a company that you didn’t have to run into in academia?

Adeline [11:23]: I think the most striking change is that I’m a lot happier. I’m a lot more content. Academics work on these very intangible, large projects that go on forever and there’s never really a really good system of feedback to tell you whether you’re doing good job or not. But outside of academia I can ask, how are my sales doing? How is my community doing? I have a tangible target that makes me feel like I accomplished something at the end of the day.

I think what surprised me is that I never knew that I could be so content. I thought I was content in academia and I never knew that stepping outside of it would make me as content as I am now.

Other than that, because of the nature of my business, which is a physical product business, in my day-to-day life (if I’m helping out with production) can be a lot more physical than it normally was. Unlike as an academic, I’m not sitting in a chair by the computer writing essays. I’m up and about making product and shipping product and labeling product and so in essence, it is a lot more physical.

Cathy [12:42]: Cool. Have you found particular skills or experiences that cut across both of those realms, your academic life and your life at Sabbatical Beauty?

Adeline [12:54]: I talked about this in this talk that I gave at the Digital Pedagogy Lab last week. The biggest thing that I found most useful is that I learned how to learn really quickly and effectively as an academic because that’s kind of what the humanities are. We read a ton of research, we summarize it, we see similarities and trends across it, we extrapolate from that. And we don’t know how useful that is outside of academia. That translated in to me being able to do what I do at Sabbatical Beauty because I didn’t just need to learn enough cosmetic chemistry to start making my own products. When I start realizing that this could be something viable, I started taking a lot of business development and strategy courses online, as well as doing a lot of reading around the subject and learning around this subject. So I learned a lot of things really quickly and if I hadn’t been trained to learn so quickly and effectively, I don’t think I could do what I do currently.

Cathy [14:08]: I found the exact same thing when I left academia to run Ideas on Fire. I found that that ability to learn a huge amount of brand new skills really, really fast was invaluable.

Adeline [14:21]: Right? And I think that people who are outside of academia, they don’t quite believe that you can actually dealt with that. They think that you must have cheated. But it is something that we’re trained to do.

Cathy [14:36]: So you mentioned briefly before in our conversation that you created Sabbatical Beauty explicitly as an intersectional feminist company and you’ve done a lot of work in the Sabbatical Beauty community, in your various public writings, in the talks that you give on things like feminist labor politics, the racialization of beauty norms, what gets to count as beautiful, and how that is reflective of power relations. I’m curious how you see your work on those issues combining your activist impetus, your creative side, and your academic training.

Adeline [15:19]: Good question, because my attempt to realize all of this really boils down to how I envision the company culture and brand of Sabbatical Beauty. So one major thing for example is how Sabbatical Beauty as a brand envisions beauty. It’s not a community that’s trying to sell you product because you should feel inferior or you should feel inadequate for whatever reason because of your skin. It’s supposed to be selling you this concept of taking care of yourself so that you can take better care of others around you. It doesn’t necessarily need to be about beauty products, even though our beauty products work, but it’s more about taking that time for yourself and not thinking that time is selfish. Taking that time for yourself to relax and recharge in order to be able to do the rest of your life better.

[16:15] You don’t do self-care alone. That’s why I said our Facebook group is so important. You don’t do self-care alone, you do self care with other people. That’s why we do a lot of online events. We do Sabbatical Beauty parties once a month where we all get together online and consume our favorite beverages and masks together and talk about silly things online. People can win prizes just by talking about what they are doing during their day. That builds a sense of other people out there who care about me, who want to have a conversation with me, who don’t necessarily need anything from me other than to be myself. So that for me is how I see a radical feminist community: having a community of people who just want to support you and get along, rather than compete with you. We’re not in for the stereotypical heterosexual male gaze. It’s beauty because it’s about caring for yourself and caring for one another in a community.

Cathy [17:23]: What are some of the goals for the future of Sabbatical Beauty? What do you have coming down the road?

Adeline [17:29]: Well, honestly I’m trying to figure those things out myself. First of all, I want to grow the company and Facebook community. I don’t just mean in sales, but also in terms of a community of people. A big part of Sabbatical Beauty is its Facebook group and people who are ardent Sabbatical Beauty fans are telling me they get a lot out of the Facebook group because it’s a feminist, intersectional space where people support one another. People help each other with their everyday lives and it’s not just about beauty. So that community aspect has been a really important thing for my conception of the company. I’m trying to figure out ways in which I can grow not just a company in terms of sales, but also in terms of the community. I’m not sure where it’s going to end up yet, but that’s my goal: to not just see beauty as a thing and of itself, but as a community-building space.

Cathy [18:41]: So this brings me to my last question, my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at the heart of the work that you all do in the world. That’s the question of that world that you’re working towards when you create your products, when you step in front of a classroom, when you create the things that you create in the universe. So I’ll ask you what might be a scary question, but I think is a good question that we should ask each other more of. What’s that world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?

Adeline [19:10] My answer really can be exemplified by how I see realizing Sabbatical Beauty and growing Sabbatical Beauty. I want to see of it possible to have a company that isn’t an exploitative. Is it possible to have a company where people actually feel happy about coming into work? Is it possible to have a company build a community that isn’t just profit-driven, but is also driven by the needs of a community with emotions? I feel like Sabbatical Beauty is my experiment and I’m trying to put a lot of what I felt very strongly about in academia into practice. It is no way perfect. It’s in no way finished. But I’m trying and figuring it out, making mistakes and trying again, and making more mistakes. That’s my contribution to trying to put my ideal world into practice.

Cathy [20:11]: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing a little bit about your journey and how you imagine otherwise.

Adeline [20:18]: Thank you Cathy for having me. It’s been great.

Cathy [20:25]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud,  Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]