After honing her marketing talents at such blockbuster brands as L’Oréal, Benefit Cosmetics, and Huda Beauty, Susan Kim stepped into her first CEO role at Kopari Beauty in September 2020. “I wish it hadn’t been during a global pandemic and a supply chain crisis,” she joked — though neither seems to have stood in her way. Since taking the helm at the skin care and body care brand, Kim and her team have achieved many impressive feats: According to the latest statistics from Circana, Kopari Beauty is the fastest-growing prestige skin care brand in the U.S. (among the top 100) and the number-one prestige body SPF brand. Kopari Beauty also has the number-one body SPF product, Sun Shield Body Glow Sunscreen SPF 50 ($42), and the number-one body oil, Golden Aura Body Oil ($39). The brand’s last major round of funding came in 2019, from L Catterton, and no additional fundraising is planned at this time. “I’m a big believer in determining our own future,” Kim said. “We hold the reins of our future in our own hands.” Here, she spoke with CEW about strategically building upon their success in the ever-changing world of clean beauty.

CEW: How involved in Kopari Beauty are the founders?

Susan Kim: We have four founders [Bryce and Gigi Goldman, Kiana Cabell, and James Brennan], and they’re all still very active [in the brand]. Bryce, who was the original CEO, brought me in because of my beauty experience. Kiana contributes on creative projects. Two of them are on the board. And we’re all based in La Jolla, California, so we see each other at the farmer’s market!

CEW: Do they still own any part of the company?

SK: Yes, they’re still the majority owners.

CEW: Who runs product development?

SK: I do, along with a packaging manager and a formulation manager. We are the three amigos. We also get marketing inputs from Kiana, and she contributes to creative iterations. We’re actually planned out through the first half of 2027.

CEW: Impressive. Is there wiggle room for deviation from the plan?

SK: Oh yes. We’re small and nimble, and it’s really a balance. You need to give people what they say they want and leave space for what they didn’t know they wanted. In 2027, we know what SKU slots we’re looking at, whereas 2026 is more fully baked. And sometimes, there are just things we see that we love, and those become our side projects.

CEW: Can you give us an example of one of those side projects?

SK: Our Golden Aura Body Oil [which is now the number-one body oil, according to Circana]. It has real flakes of 24-karat gold that melt right into your skin, plus hyaluronic acid — and it smells incredible. We just felt really passionate about it.

CEW: How does the Kopari Beauty community fuel product development?

SK: They influence so much of it. The first thing I did as CEO was get the passwords to all our social platforms. I’ve always felt that closeness to our customers is a real advantage. We read every review and complaint and respond to them. That fuels product development. And we transferred a Slack channel to a closed, invite-only Facebook group called The Kopari Crew, who get to see things like initial ads and creative. [The members are among the most active on the brand’s direct-to-consumer site.]

CEW: What else did you do, or see as an opportunity, when you joined the company?

SK: I’m a strong believer in articulation of DNA, and Kopari Beauty has a strong DNA. It delivers moments of paradise. [The brand is also known in the industry as a coconut-powered premium lifestyle brand.] So, it was about articulating who we are for, and who we are not for, and developing plans for Nordstrom and Ulta, our core retail partners.

CEW: What are your goals for Kopari Beauty?

SK: We have an incredible DNA and customer base, and passionate employees. I really believe we could be a top 10 skin care brand that encompasses skin, body, and sun. We could have a seat at the big brands’ table.

CEW: Is there anything coming down the pike that you can tell us about?

SK: I’m so excited for what we have coming up this year — they are things we’ve been working on for the last couple of years. Since we were clean beauty pioneers, we have permission to play in different categories like hair and personal care, for example. Though we’re not going into hair, you will see a new category [from us] this fall.

CEW: Now that sustainability, clean formulations, and inclusivity are table stakes, what do you see as the next big mission for cosmetics companies to embrace? 

SK: Yes, those three things are table stakes, but there’s so much more work to be done. Sometimes we’ll walk on the beach during breaks, and there are microplastics all over the beach here in La Jolla. Our industry is part of that, so there’s still a lot of work to be done. There’s also a lot of work to do in inclusivity, not just as it pertains to ethnic diversity, but also diversity in skin type and age. We are clean, cruelty-free, and vegan in our DNA, but those are not differentiators. We need to make sure we’re doing them at 150 percent. Typically, we have a black list of 200 ingredients we don’t formulate with. When new research comes out, like it did over covid with PEGs, we go back and clean up our formulas. We stand by what we say: we’re doing the work to meet the most current expectations of clean [beauty].

CEW: Who do you admire as a leader? 

SK: The beauty industry is such a tight-knit community, I just love it. I love Kory Marchisotto, the CMO at e.l.f. Beauty. She is a mastermind at marketing. Danessa Myricks of Danessa Myricks Beauty is authentic to her core. And Annie Jackson [the co-founder and CEO] of Credo, she’s a winner at being a great human.

CEW: What advice would you give to other CEOs and aspiring CEOs?

SK: Make tough decisions faster.

CEW: How do you inspire your team?

SK: As a baseline, I am authentic and transparent. We also have core brand values around a customer orientation mindset. I think of my team as my customers: how do I service them and help them do well at their jobs? Also, half our team is in La Jolla and the rest are remote, so we don’t get to have those water cooler conversations. So, for every launch, we make sure everyone is a part of it. For example, when we launched the vitamin C line, everyone got not just the products, but also a tropical fruit box. Annually, the team gets together at an offsite. We just got back from Cancun. We did karaoke and swam in the ocean — and talked about our back-half launches, of course!