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Sharon Pak climbs up from $17 an hour to $20 million startup co-founder

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Sharon Pak, 32, a second-generation Korean American who grew up in a low-income immigrant family living on food stamps, has become a Forbes Influencer in 2021.

On January 17, the global fashion magazine Marie Claire featured Pak’s success story as the co-founder of INH (Insert Name Here) Hair, a vegan hair extension startup with $20 million in sales.

In 2021, Pak was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in Retail & Ecommerce with her co-founder Jordynn Wynn, at the age of 29. Despite her success ahead of her age, her life wasn’t always this way.

Sharon Pak

Pak’s parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in their 20s, settled in LA’s Koreatown, finding work as a truck driver and in a sweatshop.

“I remember, in grade school, sweating in a hot apartment because it was too expensive to keep the air conditioning on,” Pak told Marie Claire. “I sometimes ask myself how I grew up in a two-bedroom, where if relatives were to stay, there would be as many as seven in the apartment.”

When Pak was 13, her father passed away. Her family lived on government assistance and food stamps. “I was embarrassed to use low-income meal plans, which the government subsidizes, in front of my schoolmates,” she remembered.

“Encouraged by her mother, Pak pursued her education at Pepperdine University, where she experienced a stark disparity between the rich and the poor. “I was surrounded by kids in luxury cars and designer clothes, I saw a level of wealth I knew nothing about,” she told the publication, adding, “I mostly hid my past for fear of being judged as not fitting in with Pepperdine.”

One summer, Pak was shocked to learn that her boyfriend had told his friend that she was from a “single-parent and low-income family, so he couldn’t be together for long.”

“That night, I drunkenly called my mom and cried loudly, thanking her for everything she did for our family,” Pak told Marie Claire, adding, “His words lit a fire in me.”

After graduating, Pak landed a job at ColourPop, a cosmetics company, in 2014, earning $17 an hour. But her passion propelled her to a higher position. She soon became a marketing manager earning $80,000 a year, and by the time she left the company, Pak was overseeing the entire creative department, earning $120,000 a year.

In 2018, Pak co-founded INH with her ColourPop colleague Jordynn Wynn, with beauty investor Kevin Gould. She went from making $17 an hour to becoming a startup co-founder in just four years. INH grew rapidly, starting with $3 million in sales in its first year and surpassing $20 million in sales in August 2021, after launching in Ulta.

“I haven’t accumulated a ton of wealth, but at the age of 32, I’ve achieved a level of financial stability that I don’t feel stressed about. My success is my family’s success,” said Pak in the interview with Marie Claire. “I want to do it for them. It’s an inner burden but also my inner pride.”

BY SUAH JANG, HOONSIK WOO [jang.suah@koreadaily.com]