07/24/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
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. Giddy while they submitted to the 15-minute pampering, the sisters forked over $150 each for 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.
The moment 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 herself. "We didn't want to change our skin color," Yee, 39, says from her office in Anoka, Minn., outside Minneapolis. "We wanted colors that complemented our skin." So with $100,000 in pooled savings from her parents and five sisters but with no experience in cosmetics, Yee, working with a local chemist, launched Zhen (pronounced Jen and meaning "genuine" in Mandarin), the first American makeup line specifically for Asian women. Now, 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 and on the Internet (www.zheninc.com), Zhen took in an estimated $8 million last year.
To fans like Betty Inouye, a Fort Lupton, Colo., artisan, 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, now retired. "I used to hate it," says Yee, in her trademark 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 took 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, Yee met marketing exec 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."
After a three-year commuter courtship, Yee moved to Minnesota, and in 1995 the couple wed. Weinberg is now Zhen's vice president. Not surprisingly, shoptalk overlaps with pillow talk. "Sometimes Susie will wake me to tell me a new idea," says Weinberg. "I'll say, 'It's 2 o'clock in the morning! Tell me later.' "
Over the past year, Yee has flown more than 100,000 miles promoting the Zhen line and scouting foreign markets. Still, she says, her six-day-a-week, 12-hour-a-day schedule is civilized compared to the hours she kept in her single days. Now she takes time for kickboxing, hiking with Weinberg near their three-bedroom townhouse and discussing books (she reads three a week) with stepdaughter Alexandra, 17.
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."
Margaret Nelson in Anoka