With an MBA from Harvard, a buzz-worthy beauty invention, and a fearless attitude, Grace Choi is poised to become one successful #girlboss. The 31-year-old inventor-entrepreneur is the genius behind 3-D makeup printing, a concept she debuted last year with her own portable makeup printer named Mink. The device takes the idea of DIY makeup to a whole new level — namely, replacing iffy concoctions over your kitchen sink with a desktop device — leaving some questioning the future need for trips to the beauty counter. With customizable lipsticks and eye shadows available on demand, getting ready just got WAY easier.
While instant access to new makeup is amazing, we're equally inspired by Choi's strides in tech, an industry where she's heavily outnumbered by men. Read on for Choi's story — the genesis of her idea, how she's changing the beauty industry as we know it, and the challenges and opportunities of being a female inventor. Then, head to Gap for more insights from this industry shaker.
"Mink is a desktop printer that prints makeup. It takes an image and instantly transforms it into a wearable color cosmetic, so any phone, camera, or laptop essentially becomes an endless beauty aisle."
So, if I snap a photo of, say, a flower in the Mink app, how do I turn that image into a lip color?
"As soon as you take the photo, you click 'next,' and the app extracts all of the colors in the image to help you find the shade you want. (You can also take screenshots from your favorite websites or Instagram feed and import the image via the gallery button.) Once you select it and press print, the Mink app sends instructions over to the Mink printer and dyes a powder the selected color. Simply remove the powder, and mix it into your desired medium — be it an eyeshadow, lipstick, or gloss."
Is this something everyone can do, or does it take a certain level of expertise?
"We just launched our test pilot program, Mink for Makers, with 250 printers available for pre-sale to be shipped in September. It was created with creative professionals in mind, like makeup artists, DIYers, and budding beauty entrepreneurs who typically have some experience with formulation and mixing products. They need freedom and flexibility, since they're often on the road — something I kept in mind when I designed the product. It'll be smaller than the current version (approximately 12" x 7"). The consumer version, which will come later, won't require expertise."
What else is next for Mink?
"We’re working towards a cloud printing option, which would function like a subscription service, with unlimited cosmetics products on-demand. And, there will be an app where you snap a photo, upload it into the cloud, and get your cosmetic via mail. For that option, you don't even need a printer."
Got it! How do you win over beauty traditionalists or folks who aren't as open to this new technology?
"The selling point for me is that Mink puts beauty in the control and power of the consumer. It enables you to dictate every aspect — you're able to create the definition of beauty. Our demographic is younger; its members don’t necessarily have habits yet and tend to be more experimental."
"In a few ways. I want to open up the market and see what everyone can build from the concept. I think we'll see more at-home printing concepts and lots of apps. Overseas manufacturing can come back on shore, too."
Should big beauty companies be worried at all?
"The makeup industry should be very excited. There’s potential here to save them a lot of money. Now you can mass-produce a lot of makeup for a lower cost. Shipping rates from overseas are crazy; this should help with seasonal and short-run items. Also, the beauty world hasn’t really changed in the last 50 years, but different revenues and growth areas could potentially come from 3-D printing."
"It'll take time. Maybe in the next five years or so, once the design, marketing, and price point are right."
On a more personal note, what challenges have you faced as a female entrepreneur?
"In my category, I think being a female is powerful. I understand my consumer."
Do you consider yourself more of a beauty person or a tech person?
"I have a cosmetics company, not a technology company. I'm a beauty person. It just happens that there’s technology involved. Technology is in the fiber of society. Everyone needs to know tech — it’s a part of life."
Totally. Technology — especially technology like Mink — is all about streamlining and simplifying. Do you apply that idea to other areas in your life?
"I think my minimalism actually comes from my artistic side. I prefer to use all my creative energy on my work. I think it’s uninteresting to spend it on myself — I only do it under very special circumstances."
You actually don't wear much makeup. So, what sparked your interest in 3-D makeup printing?
"Yeah, in the lab, I wear goggles and a dust mask every day, so I typically keep my face pretty bare for work. But, I’ve always been really fascinated by makeup, as well as the beauty industry — what it can do and how it can make someone feel."
What's the best advice you've received while concepting and producing the Mink?
"I’ve gotten a lot of advice, all good and from very smart people, but at the end of the day, as an entrepreneur, it’s your job to figure out the best method for success. The answer is that there is no best method to bring [your product] to market.
"You are going to make a lot of mistakes, and the first time is probably not going to work out, but if you don’t give up, you’ll make it through. You won’t be perfect all the time; if you try and don’t get the result you want [and give up], that’s not entrepreneurship. I think people have that misconception [of immediate perfection] because all they hear are success stories. It’s more about failures and finding your way."
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