June 17, 2024

How This Business Mogul Used Travel To Transform Her Life

Toni Ko’s journey from a first-generation immigrant to a self-made beauty mogul has been nothing short of remarkable. When she moved to the U.S. at age 13, she knew no English. A dozen years later at age 25, she launched her first cosmetics empire, NYX Cosmetics, eventually selling the company to L’Oreal for a staggering $500 million.

After a five-year non-compete period, Ko returned to the beauty industry in 2019 with Bespoke Beauty Brands, an innovative incubator fostering niche brands in collaboration with influencers and personalities like fashion designer Jason Wu and the Korean American drag queen Kim Chi. She was just named to the Forbes list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women for the seventh year in a row.

“Toni is a true example of an outstanding human being. She’s a great example of how a business person should be,” Kim Chi told me in an interview. “She’s constantly highlighting, nurturing and uplifting talents from the Asian community. Her bubbly spirit is infectious to those around her.”

Ko’s story of success and resilience is a testament to her unyielding spirit, but what has truly expanded her horizons? A year of transformative travel. Leading up to her recent 50th birthday, Ko decided to embark on 12 months of extraordinary adventures, which she named the “Year of Yes.”

“Even though I’ve achieved the pinnacle of success, I was still a very closed-off person inside. So I gave myself a year of just saying ‘yes’ to everything—literally, everything. And I did it so that I could make friends with my fear, expand and transform my life for the better,” Ko told me in an interview.

This daring decision led her to breathtaking destinations and thrilling experiences, each leaving an indelible mark on her personal and business mindset. From white river rafting in the Grand Canyon to summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro to daredevil escapades like air combat and skydiving, even salsa dancing, Ko fearlessly explored the world, both personally and professionally—never saying “no” during her Year of Yes.

“Toni’s Year of Yes is an incredibly inspiring journey that showcases the transformative power of embracing life with an open heart and an unwavering willingness to give every opportunity a chance,” Jason Wu told me in an interview. “Witnessing someone who I deeply admire break down barriers and expand their horizons through wholehearted acceptance is truly inspiring.”

Ko says the experience was truly transformative. “My physical and mental strength and endurance have expanded so much. I am a much better person now. I am a lot more patient and accepting,” says Ko. “My understanding of nature, my connection with people, my love for the world—everything is heightened. It’s like I was an iPhone 7 before and now I’ve been upgraded to an iPhone 14.”

For those seeking their own transformative journeys, Ko says that inspirational travel doesn’t require grand budgets or exotic destinations; it can be as simple as trying new experiences close to home. “Just leaving the front door of your house—that’s where the journey starts,” she says.

Ko encourages people to challenge themselves by going to dinner alone, watching a movie solo or taking a hike without companions. “Just pick anything that you are afraid of,” she says. “If it’s a rollercoaster that you’re afraid of, go ride on a rollercoaster. If it’s eating a food that you have phobia over, take a bite. You’re scared? Take another bite. Life itself is a journey, and every moment can be an opportunity for growth and enjoyment.”

Here, Ko shares some of the adventures she had during her Year of Yes and what she learned.

Grand Canyon: A seven-day white river rafting trip through the Grand Canyon presented an opportunity for Ko to break free from her comfort zone. Being the only solo participant amid a group of families and couples, she faced several fears. “It knocked off three things on my list of fears: being around strangers, sleeping in the open and sharing a toilet with others in nature,” says Ko.

Immersed in nature and bonding with fellow rafters, she discovered the beauty of human connections and learned to embrace the impermanence of relationships. “It was so beautiful to experience a human bond,” she says.

Mt. Kilimanjaro: From the heights of entrepreneurship to the heights of mountains, Ko’s journey was an ode to the transformative power of travel. Summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, was a life-changing experience: Climbing above 19,000 feet, she tested her mental and physical limits. “It pushes your mental capability to the next level, your endurance to the next level—to an unthinkable level,” she says.

During her experience climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the guides taught her a valuable lesson about climbing that also applies to life: “Go slow, don’t think about anything else—just put one foot in front of another foot. Blind your mind—your mind is your worst enemy.”

Extreme Adventures: To fully embrace the Year of Yes, Ko ventured into adrenaline-pumping activities like air combat, skydiving, rock climbing, a Tough Mudder contest and more. These daredevil experiences challenged her to embrace fear and let go of inhibitions. “I really wanted to self-expand, break out of my own box that I had built for myself,” she says.

A Silent Retreat: One of Ko’s most profound experiences was a silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock, a meditation center in California, where participants surrender their phones, entering a world of silence. No talking, reading or writing is allowed, and eye contact is avoided. Meditating for up to 10 hours a day, Ko found the experience refreshing and cathartic. “It is such an amazing experience, and I wish as many people as possible can experience the calming, loving feeling that I experienced,” she says.

Touched by the experience, Ko set up a scholarship at Spirit Rock to sponsor 33 participants per year, paying 100% of their lodging. She plans to continue this commitment for the next three years, and perhaps even for a lifetime. According to Ko, the scholarship helps reflect her deep love, respect and gratitude for her own upbringing and the Buddhist rituals practiced in her family, in addition to the moving experience she had at Spirit Rock.

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