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Community Highlights: Meet Irene Kong of MANTL

Today we’d like to introduce you to Irene Kong.

Hi Irene, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I am a first-generation Chinese-American, born and raised in New York. I moved out to Los Angeles about 8 years ago for work, which introduced me to the world of start-ups.

The goal since my sophomore year of high school was to work in the CPG industry. There was something alluring about creating products people use daily. I went on to major in Chemical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with the hopes of developing personal care products. My internships with GE manufacturing and General Mills R&D further confirmed my strong interest in Consumer Goods — but I also wanted to learn more about other parts of the business. So after graduating, I decided to work towards an MBA to diversify my technical background. After some time at Pepsi R&D and UBS, I accepted an offer at The Honest Company. At the time, Honest had just launched 11 months prior and was very much in the early start-up days. But that was what attracted me to move cross-country — this start-up environment meant I got to work on different parts of the business. I learned about e-commerce, launching in retail, the importance of each function, etc. This experience ultimately gave me the foundation to start my own business, MANTL.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Yes and no. It’s been a smooth road in the sense that I knew my passion was in CPG from a young age. And because of that, I knew I wanted to major in Chemical Engineering, get my MBA, and ultimately end up in the personal care industry. But I graduated during the recession and opportunities were limited. I ended up at UBS banking for a year and a half. It was not where I wanted to be and I was extremely concerned that I would be stuck in banking. Luckily, I came across the opportunity at Honest. After Honest, I landed at Dollar Shave Club for close to two years. The idea to co-found MANTL came up and while I was excited, it was extremely risky too. I struggled immensely with the decision to quit my full-time job and put everything I had into an idea. It took a lot of support from my loved ones and also confidence in myself to take that plunge.

Appreciate you sharing that. What should we know about MANTL?
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 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 behind 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 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. He’s an honest and accomplished man who came to the US, learned English, and built multiple businesses all while raising five kids. He made me so proud to be a child of an immigrant. I didn’t know how to articulate this back then — so now, as I build MANTL each day, I dedicate it to him and his balding journey.

Who else deserves credit in your story?
No one deserves more credit than my father. His integrity and work ethic has inspired me since I was a child. No matter how many hours he worked in a day, he never complained and always came home to his kids with a smile on his face. He overcame so many obstacles and I’ve learned a lot from him. My four siblings are my biggest supporters and I wouldn’t be here without them! From my grade school days to launching MANTL, they are always there to celebrate the small and big wins. Lastly, I want to give credit to every woman who has given the advice for us to take up more space and not to make ourselves smaller in order to make others feel comfortable. Whenever I hear this, it’s a reminder to myself to push harder, not to doubt myself, and to be unapologetic.

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Image Credits:

Christopher Blackwell HMVD Studios

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