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AUGUST 14, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 6

Just The Right Shades
Susan Yee didn't find cosmetics for Asians in the U.S., so she made her own makeup—and a fortune
By MARGARET NELSON and JOANNE FOWLER Anoka

It was an opportunity too good to pass up. Susan Yee and her sister Jane were on a shopping spree in Los Angeles in 1993 when they were offered a free makeover at a department store. After giddily submitting to the 15-minute pampering, the sisters forked over $150 each to buy new cosmetics. But as they stepped into the daylight, their delight turned to despair as they realized that the reddish hues in the makeup didn't suit their yellow-toned skin. "We looked like clowns," recalls Jane.

That diappointment proved to be an epiphany. Long frustrated by the dearth of makeup in the U.S. for Asian complexions, Susan decided to fill the void. "We didn't want to change our skin color," Yee, now 39, says from her office in Anoka, Minnesota, outside Minneapolis. "We wanted colors that complemented our skin." So with $100,000 in pooled savings from her parents and five sisters, along with some advice from a local chemist, Yee launched Zhen, the first American makeup line specifically for Asian women. (Zhen means "genuine" in Mandarin.) Six years later, the company boasts a staff of 23 and sells 150 products (priced from $10 to $25), including tinted moisturizers and eye, lip and cheek colors in the rich (not pastel) hues that flatter Asian skins. Available at 33 JCPenney stores in the U.S. and on the Internet (www.zheninc.com), Zhen products racked up an estimated $8 million in sales last year. Yee expects to have her cosmetics for sale in Malaysia and Hong Kong this fall and to make them available across Asia via aonline.com.

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To fans like Betty Inouye, a Fort Lupton, Colorado artisan of Japanese descent, the products are a godsend. "I had a problem with makeup for over 20 years. It looked phony and garish," she says. "With Zhen, I feel better about myself."

Yee's work ethic was honed early. As a sixth grader in Columbus, Ohio, she began waiting tables at the Chinese restaurant owned by her parents, Art and Pui, whose families came to the U.S. from Guangzhou province. "I used to hate it," says Yee, in her characteristic rapid-fire speech. "But I learned a lot about running a business." After whizzing through high school—she graduated in 1976 at age 15—she decided to take time off before continuing her education. She worked a sales job at a local leather store, but when the buzz of retail proved addictive, Yee shelved plans for college. She moved to Chicago in 1986, where she eventually became manager of a high-end clothing store. While on a business trip to Minneapolis in 1990, she met marketing executive Larry Weinberg, now 48. "He was the nicest man I ever met," she recalls of the soft-spoken Weinberg. "He reminded me of my dad." Then came the shopping episode in Los Angeles and the light-bulb moment that turned her into a businesswoman. After a three-year commuter courtship, Yee moved to Minnesota, and in 1995 the couple wed. Weinberg is now Zhen's vice president.

Although no longer actively involved in the business, Yee's sisters—Gail, 45, Teresa, 43, and Elaine, 41, all Columbus postal workers; Jane, 33, a customer service rep; and Leigh, 21, a college student (brother Gary, 50, is a bus driver)—often play guinea pig as Yee tries out new products. Early on they also served as models for Zhen's first catalog. "Growing up, there was never an Asian face on TV or in magazines," says Yee. "That's why it was important to use my sisters. Besides," she adds, "they're beautiful—and they were free."

—From PEOPLE

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