Carolyn Li Meng Geh (“Li”) is the founder of Li Organics a skin care line inspired by Li’s South East Asian Roots and traditional methods of making skincare. Ever since she was a child, growing up in Malaysia, her skin was incredibly sensitive and she often had wild and frequent reactions to everything from bug bites, to dairy products. Her skin challenges continued into adulthood where as a runway and print model she experienced severe pain, days-long eczema outbreaks, and at one point even had epithelial thinning (thinning skin).
Desperate to resolve her skin problems, she went back to her roots and learned as much as she could about naturopathic medicine. She finally found a combination of various plants and herbal distillations, based on Asian beautify traditions passed down to her from her mother and grandmother, and Li Organics was born.
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month we spoke to Li about who her role models are, what it was like being one of only a handful of Asian models in the industry, and what an AAPI movement might look like.
Who or what inspires you? Do you have any Asian or Asian-American role models?
My grandfather and my mother have always been an inspiration to me for various reasons. My grandfather was a young adult during the Japanese occupation in Malaysia and life was always challenging for them. But he was fearless and such a wonderful and kind man. He supported not just his own family (my grandparents had 8 children) but his siblings and their children too which was 20 mouths to feed in total. As for my mom, I don’t know anyone as hardworking, determined, kind, patient, and resilient as her. She’s also smart as a whip and started trading stocks when she was 16 years old. She is such a hero to me and I feel like I’m constantly learning from her. She is constantly challenging, encouraging, and inspiring (not just me, but others around her too) to dream bigger and see the best in all things and all people.
As for the “what” in this world that never ever fails to inspire me is being in nature. To think that each flower, each snowflake, mountain, and sunrise is as beautiful and yet, also as unique as the next one is so mind blowing and overwhelming, in a very good way.
While you were modeling were there many Asian models? How did that make you feel and how has the modeling world changed since you first started.
When I first started, there were probably about 7-8 other asian models, but as the industry started to evolve and grow throughout the years, there would be more and more Asian girls. I do remember the early days when I would show up for a casting and I would be standing in a room of 50 models and I might be the only Asian girl. That always felt a little odd for me, but I grew to adopt the thinking that being different should not be any reason why I could not get a job, since isn’t it our differences that set us apart?.
Can you share your process on how you create?
I love starting with the end result of what I want the product to achieve, and then work from there- sourcing the raw ingredients that have the potential of achieving the results I have in mind, testing each one in various percentages, and in various formulas. I love the idea of what I call “synergistic formulas”, and the idea is that there are plants and raw ingredients that when used in concert together enhance the absorption and effectiveness of the other one present. One simple example in everyday life is how Vitamin C enhances iron absorption in our body. It captures non-heme iron and stores it in a form that’s more easily absorbed by our bodies. It’s the same with how ingredients interact together in a skincare formula, and how our skin is better able to absorb each ingredient in the presence of another specific ingredient, and how this allows each ingredient to express its maximal beneficial effect within our skin cells.
I also love the idea of using skincare to feed and nourish our skin. Our skin being a protective and detoxifying organ, it is constantly being subject to our environment, stress, hormone fluctuations and changes, the food we eat, and so much more. Everything affects it and my desire is always to approach creating a formula that feeds, replenishes, and nourishes our skin with the fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and agents it needs to thrive and be healthy. And when skin is truly healthy- it glows and radiates.
What do you think we need to do to inspire the next generation of Asian-Americans?
I think creating a culture of acceptance, embracing and celebrating the richness of our heritage and culture, encouraging, educating, inspiring, and challenging each other to constantly be better in anything that we choose to do with kindness and patience, regardless of what it is, is the way forward. We’re all born with our own unique strengths and talents, and I think if we keep focusing on the positives that we bring into the communities that we live in and serve each other with the gifts that we have, this will have a network effect of inspiring and encouraging others around us to do the same.
What does it mean to you to be Asian American?
I’m so, so proud to be Asian American, and yet in some ways, it’s also not something I think about often. I love my heritage and am so thankful for the rich culture in which I’ve come from and always drawing inspiration from it. But I also don’t want to be solely defined by my race, culture, or color of my skin. Just like so many others, I just want to be seen for who I am and not seen first as the token Asian girl or the new Asian girl, or the “fill in the blank” Asian. I’m also incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had over the years, first leaving my home country Malaysia to pursue an overseas education, for the career opportunities I’ve had here in North America, the friends and mentors I’ve made from various backgrounds and cultures, every lesson learned, and just the richness that life has had to offer here in America. I know that not everyone has the same opportunities, and I’m forever grateful for every single door that has opened for me and do not ever want to take it for granted.
What do you think an Asian American movement might look like? What issues do you think we need to address?
I’ve always been a huge fan of arming ones’ self with education, together with acting out of love and care for others. Also, i think it is important to speak up against injustices, but also serve in the communities we live in. Staying focused on positive goals, working hard with a humble attitude, and finally just being thankful for all that we have, no matter how little or how much. I don’t know if this could be called an Asian American movement per se, but i do believe deep down that progress start in our own homes and communities too, and it’s also in how we carry ourselves through our work and our daily lives that allows for mutual respect and kindness for one another to be cultivated over time.
As for current issues, It’s been heartbreaking to see recent assaults against Asian Americans last year since COVID and I know many of my Asian friends have been saddened by many of these incidents. COVID-19 is a public health crisis and of course, not a racial matter. The virus doesn’t discriminate along racial lines and nor should we. So, the more we look out for one another (not just our own communities, but outside of our comfortable circles too) , act out of love and not out of fear, educate ourselves, and keep ourselves and our families healthy and safe, I really believe that we can all move forward positively.