From the outside, Eunice Byun’s career path might appear unconventional.
After working for more than a decade in finance, marketing and business development, in 2017 Byun ’04 decided to quit her position as vice president of global digital marketing at Revlon to launch a kitchenware company with an old friend.
“After I had my first daughter I realized I don’t want to work for anyone else,” says Byun. “I don’t want to build this capital in support of someone else’s business and vision. I really wanted to create space for myself to explore the things that I love but that also have more meaning behind it.”
For Byun, that meant getting back to her roots.
“Family started to come into the forefront for me,” says Byun, who met her husband, Daniel Lee ’04, at Northwestern and now has two young daughters. “Both my co-founder Dave Nguyen and I come from immigrant families, and I grew up in a Korean American household where cooking was very much our love language.”
Byun saw an opportunity to channel the familial love she felt in the kitchen while growing up into a line of kitchenware that home cooks could feel proud of.
“Material is the business we felt was missing from the marketplace, not only from a category perspective, but very much from a values-driven perspective,” Byun says. “You’ve got to build a business that people trust, because if you’re being invited into someone’s home, that’s sacred space.”
Byun translated that thoughtful mindset into a sleek yet minimalist collection of kitchenware staples. She tested her products again and again before launching them, rejecting what she calls the “vicious cycle” of startups, where businesses try to grow as quickly as they can without actually creating something substantive. Instead, Byun has relied on old-school growth tactics.
“There’s a lot more noise and clutter in the startup world,” Byun says. “Word-of-mouth loyalty and retention are not sexy things — but those are really what help businesses scale over a longer period of time.”
The fierce loyalty of Material customers has been encouraging. “We spend very little money on digital advertising because we rely so heavily on word of mouth,” Byun says. “It’s been surprising — that people can help your company grow slowly because they really do love the experience themselves.”
Thinking back to her time at Northwestern, where she majored in learning and organizational change, Byun says Northwestern was a “playground for new experiences.” It’s been fascinating, she says, “to see all these theories of change and growth play out in real life. I feel like it gave me a really great framework and rubric for not only the fact that change happens, but how do you facilitate change and get people to move in a new direction? I experience that every day in owning my own business.”
Since its launch, Material has donated about $100,000 to organizations at the intersection of food and marginalized communities, including Heart of Dinner and Drive Change, which serve older East Asian Americans and incarcerated youth. Material features the organizations in its holiday campaigns and encourages customers to donate as well. “To have our community rally with us has been so encouraging,” says Byun. “It’s incredible just how many of them are donating well above and beyond what we’re asking of them.”
Byun has been particularly focused on combatting the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2021, Byun wrote an essay (published in Mother magazine) on the racism she and her mother have experienced and witnessed throughout their lives. “It was the hardest piece I’ve ever had to write,” Byun says, “because as a business owner … the line between professional and personal gets blurred, especially when you’re trying to connect with your audience or your community. They see right through the fake stuff. But I realized that if I don’t give voice to my story, I’d be doing a disservice to all the change that we’re trying to usher in. If I want to be part of the change, I need to be vulnerable and transparent.”
Diana Babineau is a writer and editor in the Office of Global Marketing and Communications.