We had the good fortune of connecting with Irene Kong and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Irene, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
I’ve thought about starting my own brand in college—it was an idea that floated in my mind quite often as a result of my love for consumer products. After I started working though, the thought subsided until the idea of MANTL came up a few years ago. It was scary to leave the stability of a full-time job to build my own business and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly. Ultimately, I asked how my future self would feel if I never tried due to fear, versus if I tried (and maybe failed) to start my own personal care brand. It was a risk, and it still is, but it’s also 100% worth it knowing that I am giving my utmost effort to build MANTL every day.
At that point, I had been in the start-up world for about 7 years as well—I knew that starting my own business would bring on new challenges and learning opportunities, and that played a crucial part in my decision-making.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
MANTL is a line of skincare products for the face and scalp inspired by bald folks but designed for everyone. We were inspired to build a brand that celebrates our differences, and that also means embracing bald and balding as a natural part of the human experience. MANTL’s mission is to offer support, a sense of community, and to challenge the distorted stigma that being bald is less than. My co-founders are Netflix’s Queer Eye host, Karamo Brown, and my Honest colleague, Pete Ricci.
Out of everything, I am most proud of my reason for building this brand. My dad started to bald when I was about 6—it was a difficult change for him and he tried everything to prevent and/or hide it. His loss of confidence was palpable and as his daughter, it saddened me that he didn’t see himself the way I did. I didn’t know how to articulate this back then—so now, as I build MANTL each day, I dedicate it to him.
We also launched MANTL right before the pandemic in February 2020. To say that it was challenging is a vast understatement, but I stuck to my mantra—”where there is a will, there is a way.” Instead of giving up, the team pivoted and tenaciously sought solutions to our obstacles. By June 2020, MANTL was awarded Men’s Health Innovation of the Year and we launched in Nordstrom.
I’ve learned a lot this past year, but one lesson that I’d like to share is to remember to celebrate the small wins. There’s an endless to-do list when you’re building a business and there’ll always be another fire to put out. Taking time to celebrate the small and big wins has forced me to be a bit more present and to reflect on my entrepreneurial journey.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
When friends come to town, brunch is always on the itinerary, of course. We’d start the day with a workout class (some of my favorites are F45, Rumble, Y7 Hot Yoga) or a hike at Malibu State Creek Park, where there is fantastic people watching at the rock pool. My favorite brunch spots are Lunetta, Met Her At A Bar, and Margot. Another great option for lunch is a picnic at Palisades Park, overlooking the ocean—pick up food nearby at Bay Cities or Sugarfish and head over with a blanket.
I love the Broad Musuem and will always suggest a visit to my out-of-town friends. The Arts District area is also one of my favorites and a great option to walk around and grab a beer afterwards.
My top dinner spots are Rosaline, Dama and Majordomo, followed by a nightcap at a rooftop bar or Apotheke.
Lastly, I would suggest a couple nights at Joshua Tree. I love the desert and it’s a unique park to explore for out-of-towners.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are so many individuals that have helped me along the way. On the top of that list is my father. At a very young age, I witnessed how far integrity and work ethic can take you. He showed me that determination is an integral part of overcoming obstacles—to this day, my favorite quote is “where there is a will, there is a way.” My dad is the inspiration behind MANTL.
Additionally, my time spent at start-ups (Honest Co and Dollar Shave) was invaluable to my entrepreneurship journey. It provided me with the foundation needed to start a multi-channel CPG business.
Lastly, as a women entrepreneur, I must dedicate a huge shoutout to any and every person who has encouraged women to take up more space and not to apologize for being outspoken. This advice has helped me through my career and serves as a constant reminder that it’s okay to be myself, be unapologetic, and that I am more than capable.
Chris Blackwell, HMVD Studios, Kelsey Fugere