Sara Ku Turned Her Childhood Passion into a Skincare Company
Sara Ku is the founder of Kaya Essentials, a skincare and lifestyle company based in Koreatown, Los Angeles. The seeds of the company were planted when Sara was a young girl and would make coconut hair masks with her mother. Her research on fair trade coconut oil inspired her to turn those early experiences into a company, which not only creates amazing products but gives back to the Filipino community. She recently expanded the company by partnering with female Filipino artisans to bring their one-of-a-kind pieces to a global market. Here is an excerpt from our interview with Sara Passionistas: What's the one thing you're most passionate about? Sara: I'm most passionate about making a social impact, you know, focusing on how on the individual level each and every person can make a difference and the importance of small steps, small acts of kindness that together have a big impact when you bring community together. And that brought me to create my business Kaya Essentials. Passionistas: So, tell us about starting Kaya Essentials. Sara: Kaya Essentials is a clean organic coconut skincare line, and we recently expanded to a lifestyle brand with artisan goods, but it really started about five years ago when I was first introduced to the concept of a social business. When I was in college, I was studying history. It’s something that I wasn't really passionate about doing, but I was so nervous as to what my career was going to be. It's really funny how, when you look back and look at your most memorable, enjoyable times, it's really the things that you're passionate about, but you never really realized that's going to bring you the most purpose in life. So, I ended up studying history and I really knew that I wasn't in the right space. I was trying so hard to succeed in my studies and it wasn't something that came naturally to me. But at the same time, I was studying Asian history, which I was really passionate about because I'm half Filipino, half English. I was born in Hong Kong. So, I have a very international background, kind of a third culture kid to the max. I was born in Hong Kong, lived there for 10 years, lived in India for two years, Istanbul in Turkey for three years, and then finally moved to the UK and lived there for five years before moving to LA. I was really passionate about studying Asian history, getting to know my culture more in depth. I saw on our career bulletin board that there was a talk on a Filipino nonprofit called Gawad Kalinga, and the founder was going to talk about entrepreneurship and social business. And I had never heard of the word entrepreneurship or social purpose, social impact, but being a Filipino nonprofit, I was really interested. That's when I attended that talk and he really spoke about the communities that are most in poverty and their lack of access to diversify crops. And it dawned on me that Philippines has a very big import culture. They had an internship opening and I immediately applied, and I was a research assistant at first. And then after college I continued my work with them. And I specifically helped with in facilitating European business students to help with their social businesses that they created at their farm. So, they worked with farmers from different local communities to diversify their crops and add more value. And then at the same time, as you mentioned, my mom was a very big DIY-er. She would make her own cleaning products. She would use ketchup, vinegar. We always had so much vinegar in the house. And also with her skincare, she would always make her own lotions, deodorant and everything. One thing that we did religiously was make a coconut oil hair mask. And in the summers, when we were in the Philippines, we would scrape the coconut meat from the actual coconut and then boil it into an oil and then apply that into our skull to promote growth and get rid of dandruff and to the ends of our hair. And at the same time, I also learned that 60% of coconut farmers in the Philippines lived below the poverty line.
The particular jar that I was using was a French brand called Latuda Anjell, and then when I turned it over in small letters, it had said made in the Philippines. And then that's when it struck me that this was going to be my lifetime passion. This is when I say my coconut dream came to life when I really wanted to create a clean coconut skincare brand that really promoted the Filipino coconut oil as a point of pride for Filipinos and for the rest of the world. And I knew that coconut oil especially from the Philippines dominated the beauty and skincare market, and even with coconut food products we have it in everything and coconut sugar, coconut flour yet I really wanted to break that disparity and promote fair trade farming.
So through the nonprofit that I was working for, Gawad Kalinga, I connected with their fair trade coconut farm, and really that's where it all started, that I had the first jar of coconut oil.
Passionistas: Talk a little bit about the working conditions and the financial situation of a lot of the farmers in the Philippines. Why was it so important for you to work with those people specifically?
Sara: So, it was really important for me to work with fair trade farming, because I think that in the last decade, there's been a strong focus on organic ingredients, which is really great, and we're moving towards the right way because we know that what we put on our skin absorbs into our bloodstream. But the way that I like to explain it is that how these organic ingredients are grown, isn't necessarily grown in a very organic way with the people that they employ. And so that's where fair trade really comes in.
It really ensures that the working conditions are safe and that they know their rights. And also, that they're not overworked. That was a very big thing that I had learned from the nonprofit that I worked with that, especially a father who was a farmer and had two or three children and had to pay for bills and schools and everything would end up working, 12-hour days, 16-hour days, not knowing when their breaks could be not having, sick days, sick pay days. So that's where the fair trade really adds onto the organic. And I really love connecting with different customers that care about this advocacy in supporting fair trade ingredients as well.
Passionistas: What does Kaya mean? Why did you choose that as the name of the company?
Sara: Kaya in Filipino means we can do it. So Kaya Koa in Tagalog means I can do it. And it's really a personal affirmation back to what I'm most passionate about is focusing on the individual level that each person can make a difference. And so, it's that affirmation and really that when you come together as a community Kaya, which means we can do it, you really see that's where changes made. That's where the biggest impact is and the power of the people as well. You see in that. So, I knew I wanted it to also have a Filipino name because in the Philippines, there's this strong notion that anything that is high quality has a very Western name. And I really wanted to bring that point of pride to Filipinos that a love for our culture and our ingredients and our language as well.
Listen to our full interview with Sara HERE.
Find out more about Kaya Essentials HERE.