Learning at the Intersection of Business and the Arts: Jeena Chong, Founder of Cityface, and the Inspiration of the Big Ideas Course “Collaborative Innovation”

The UC Berkeley community spans countless disciplines and provides a unique environment for creation and innovation. “Collaborative Innovation,” one of the College of Letters & Science’s Big Idea Courses, seeks to foster that culture by bringing together the disciplines of business, theater, design, and art practice. Professor Sara Beckman (she/her) of the Haas School of Business and Professor Lisa Wymore (she/her) of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies have sought to create a space where the dreams of students from across campus can begin to manifest.

Undergraduate student Jeena Chong (she/her) is one such student. Inspired by her time in “Collaborative Innovation,” Jeena—who graduates in May 2022 with a Business Administration major and a Theater minor—went on to found Cityface, a city-inspired Korean skincare brand that provides affordable and accessible skincare for Gen-Z, by Gen-Z. The story of Jeena and Cityface exemplifies the incredible potential of interdisciplinary education and collaboration among students and faculty.

On February 16, 2022, Jeena sat down with her professors and mentors to discuss her experience as an entrepreneur, and how taking the Big Ideas Course “Collaborative Innovation” helped her along the way. Here are some highlights from their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity.

Lisa Wymore: Jeena, tell us about your company Cityface, and what it's like to live the life of an entrepreneur right now.

Jeena Chong: I started developing Cityface in March 2020, when I went back home to Seoul, Korea [at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic]. I was isolated from all my friends and had a lot more time on my hands. I was taking “Collaborative Innovation,” and I started thinking more about what I wanted to do in the future. I decided to take the time and the energy that I had to start working on this. 

I always knew that I wanted to create something of my own. A big part of what we were learning in class was to work with a pain point, empathize, and have a problem that you're solving, not just creating another thing for the sake of another startup. I always struggled with sensitive skin in high school. In college, I realized that a lot of my peers were dealing with the same issues. They couldn't find high quality, affordable skin care. That was the main problem that I intended to solve. Through researching, talking to people, and talking to other people that I met in this class, I launched the brand in December 2020, and I've been working as a full-time entrepreneur and full-time student as best as I can.

Lisa: What does it feel like to be an entrepreneur?

Jeena: It's definitely not what I thought it would be. I think a lot of people glamorize the life of a founder, and I was really drawn to that, too. I was like, I can create my own thing, just be as creative as I want, and have as much fun as I want doing something that I care about. And that's definitely a big part of what motivates me to keep going. A lot of the challenge is your personal life and your work life blurring. That is something I'm dealing with a lot right now. I run all the packaging, shipping, and delivering basically myself, so my Berkeley apartment is like my fulfillment facility. On a typical day, I wake up, pack some orders, head to class, come back, drop off orders at the post office. I also check in between my classes if different tasks are being completed, if I need to reply to emails.

It’s been hard, but I'm lucky. I have a lot of great mentors like Sara, and was fortunate to participate in the UC Launch Accelerator Program this past semester. I got a lot of support and a lot of advice for how I can balance my life.

Sara Beckman: Could you talk about how you've built your team, and how you decided what you needed help with and when?

Jeena: I started with the idea that I wanted to keep it fully students and fully Gen Z, because it was a brand for other Gen Z students. I thought that was a way to empower other students to pursue what they want to do and grow together. My first team member was a friend from high school. Then I was looking for a website developer and graphic designer—this was when I reached out to you to ask the students if anyone was interested in helping. One member in my cohort, Josephine, joined the team. We've been working together ever since, and she helped build the first website.

Sara: What is your dream at this point for Cityface?

Jeena: I am graduating in May, a year early. I want to fully commit to working on my startup, and I want to pursue acting. The brand Glossier was a big inspiration for me. It was the first time that I saw a female founder create this empire for herself. What Emily Weiss, the founder of Glossier, did for millennial makeup, I want to do that for Gen Z skincare: making it more accessible to everyone, a skincare company that young people getting into skincare can trust and start off with. I've also been looking into finding investors. I want to build more products and build the brand.

Lisa: What drew you to sign up for our class “Collaborative Innovation”?

Jeena: Art, business, and theater have always been a big part of who I am. Coming to Berkeley, I never envisioned being able to pursue those three things, let alone in a single class. I always thought that the connection between those three disciplines was something that only I was  aware of. When I saw that it was supported by the whole faculty team and other students were interested in mixing these disciplines, I was super excited.

Lisa: That's what the Big Ideas Courses program does. It brings together transdisciplinary fields, and people who have passion and interest in them, and people who are interested in teaching them and studying in that area, too. We're glad you found this place.

Sara: For faculty, it’s really fun. Lisa and I are not only from very different disciplines, we are also opposite in our learning styles. When I'm being really abstract, and I'm in my head, she's in her body. We learn a lot from each other's differences in perspective in the classroom.

Jeena: Yeah, exactly like I remember. I was familiar with it in theater, warm ups and everything, but not a lot of my business peers, right? So starting a class with a little warm up, I was so excited. I was like, Yes, I need the relaxation to be able to get my critical thinking going.

Sara: You said you came to Berkeley with some of these ideas. It isn't like “Collaborative Innovation” was the only impetus for your business, but in what ways did the course create the space to help you go forward with your venture?

Jeena: The class draws people who are interested in creativity, social impact, and business, but also people who are willing to stretch their beliefs about what's conventional. Through your class, I've met the coolest people on campus. I haven't been able to meet that kind of a diverse group of students in any other class. I still talk to a lot of them and they're all so different. Like an architecture student who was spending time exploring his passions, somebody who had their own hotel business, etc. And I'm an actor. Berkeley students can seem like they have very conventional paths. But seeing in your class that everyone had their own passions and were doing their own things inspired me to also be like, I have my own passion in beauty skincare. Why don't I try it out as well?

The “Design Your Life” unit in your class was integral to helping me narrow down what I wanted to do and externalize it. Saying it out loud and writing it down, mapping it out with images, drawing it out, physically doing it, is really influential. I didn't realize that until this class. At the core, [my dream] was being a female founder. At that time, I never believed that I could do it. But having it out there, and introducing myself with that, slowly started forming the confidence that I could potentially do this in the future.

Lisa: Not just thinking it, but drawing and making things and mapping and collaborating and networking—these layers of doing, in different ways, much more experiential.

Jeena: Yeah. Because of the class sizes at Berkeley and the lecture styles, I don't think I had a lot of opportunities to share my own goals and thoughts in a very open, supported manner. I'm not really comfortable sharing naturally. Your class really pushed me to do that. And each time we had different teams, so I was meeting so many people and had to share my deepest goals and motivations.

Sara: Lisa, I love the way you said that. In my mind I was thinking, It helps you articulate something which is still in your head and out of your mouth, and you put it all in other embodied ways. 

Lisa: To articulate for movers and actors is to actually articulate something at a bodily level. I do think that in universities it is more rare—though it’s becoming more commonplace—that there is space to explore in these ways that bring in the fullness and wholeness of who we are, our feeling, full, spiritual, complex selves into the space. And it's changing, you know. There are pedagogical shifts. This is one of the reasons I love this class.

Jeena: Sara and Lisa, what do you enjoy most about teaching “Collaborative Innovation”? 

Lisa: When I became a professor at Berkeley, taking on a big teaching load, it was so isolating. It was all about me being some kind of master, the professor, the one to give or share knowledge. I never felt comfortable in that role. I've always been a collaborator. I'm a twin! Then this class came up. I was thrilled to get to work with a team. I do learn generally when I teach, but with this class in particular, I've learned so much because it's not in my discipline. I'm always learning more about Sara, about her background in business and engineering, and all the experience she brings from working out in the world.

It's the transdisciplinary Where do we connect? Where we do not connect? Why don't we connect? What's interesting there? There's always so much to explore. Such richness. I think that helps translate excitement to the students. I love being able to teach a class where we get to honor the students more fully, get to know them really deeply, and have more time with them. It’s us helping hold a container. As a choreographer, I do that a lot. Here's our time. Here's our space. Here's what we're doing, but I'm not telling you how to do it. We're working on that together. When you produce dance and theater, you're always in rooms with lots of people. The containers, they're the time frame for what we have to do. But how we do it is unique each time. That's what this class feels like to me. It gets me in a great state of flow. It’s a great place to be as an educator, a place where you can learn and be teaching at the same time.

Sara: Lisa, I love all the things you said. For me, after teaching in business and engineering for a very long time and thinking that I was pushing boundaries in multi-disciplinary classes like new product development, which had business engineering, and California College of the Arts design students—but I never had a chance to work with theater and art. Design edges in that direction, but not to the extent that theater and art do. I've always had a sense that there was an opportunity to make the fields of business and engineering more human oriented. But I didn't know quite how to do that. I could never teach what Lisa can teach.

Lisa: And vice versa.

Sara: I don't have the comfort in my own body to go there. I don't have the language to go there. But I love facilitating students to have the opportunity to go there, in a partnership with people who can do that. It makes me grow and recognize my own limitations, when I'm standing outside the circle going, Maybe I’ll clean up some boards instead of doing the shake-out today. That’s fun for me. I love the chance to find a common language that integrates all of us. Like the learning cycle that we use to talk about innovation. We all do it, but we put different language to it, and we do it in different ways. And for me, getting out of my head and into the concrete world that Lisa lives in, and then finding ways to bring those things together, is really fun. 

Lisa: Yeah!

Sara: Especially when you’ve been teaching for a long time and you get into a space where you're so comfortable with it. This says, Oh oh, I can think about these things in a different way. I think the business world in which I've been anchored for most of my life could benefit greatly from reframing how we think about what we're doing, the role of business in society, the notion of customer centricity that you talked about, Jeena. But I think we need help from other disciplines—like theater, like art practice, like public policy—to do that reframing work. It makes me happy to think that people like you, Jeena, are going out into the world with that combined thinking, with that different mindset. Especially now that we've gone through COVID, we're redesigning how we live, how we work, how we learn, how we have relationships with others. And we have to do that with humanity at the center of it. 

I feel optimistic when I get to work with this class and meet all of the people like you, Jeena. I feel optimistic that we can design a world that we all do want to live and work and learn in. And I don't think that's possible sitting in one discipline.

Jeena: Thank you for creating the space, creating this class. I think you're opening up so many opportunities for so many students to think about the world differently.

Lisa: You know, I was going to suggest another quick thing, related to being a redhead. There's a lot of sensitive, red haired people, and I am drawn to your products because of the natural quality to them. So you might have a market there. 

Sara: And my 30-something daughters got the kits for Christmas, and they both love it! So it's appealing not only to Gen Z.

Check out Cityface here and here. You can follow Jeena on Instagram here, and on LinkedIn here. Here’s how you can follow Sara on Twitter and LinkedIn, and Lisa on Facebook. Read more about the Big Ideas Courses program here. And if you’d like to give to L&S so that our faculty and students can continue to do this work, click here.