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)


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 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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