A research project for Vicky Tsai's Harvard Business School internship became a nightmare. It wasn't until a trip to Japan, and an unexpected meeting with a geisha, that Tsai, 37, found relief--and the idea for her San Francisco-based startup.

--As told to Burt Helm

I was interning at one of the big beauty care companies. Part of my job was competitive benchmarking: trying all kinds of products, getting facials. In the process, I really messed up my face. Acute dermatitis. My entire face was bleeding, blistering, scaling, cracking. My lips and eyelids too.

The second year of business school was not fun. It was not, "Oh, she's got bad skin." It was, "Oh, something happened to that person." I was interviewing everywhere looking like Quasimodo.

After graduation, I got a job at Starbucks, where I helped launch its consumer products business in China. Every two weeks, I flew from headquarters in Seattle to China, with a layover in Japan. There I discovered blotting papers--this lightweight paper women use to blot the oil off their skin.

I'd never seen anything like them. I wanted to learn more. I wrote the small company that made them, and said I was interested in bringing them to the U.S. The owner was, like, not interested. I said, "Can I just come visit?" He agreed.

Blotting papers were originally used for hammering gold into gold leaf. I couldn't understand how a byproduct of that process became a beauty product. The owner said, "Geisha and the Kabuki actors have been using them for hundreds of years. You'd have to ask them." I was like, "Are geisha even real?"

They are. He introduced me to my first geisha. She was exquisite. Like living art. Her skin was phenomenally smooth. I asked her if she could tell me about her beauty rituals. She showed me where she gets makeup--this beautiful little apothecary.

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I came home with this collection of powders and waxes. I found I could use them. After four weeks, the smoothness of my skin started coming back. And in eight weeks, my skin looked normal. Not perfect, but back to normal. The doctor had told me it wasn't going to happen.

I started going back to Japan. The first geisha introduced me to others. I asked them all: How do you take care of your skin? Their beauty rituals are completely different from what we do here--so much simpler--but unless you're a geisha, you would never have known, because they don't write it down.

I hired a full-time translator and researcher. We found that in 1813, there was a book printed with a complete record of geisha beauty rituals. We translated it. Tatcha is pretty much that brought back to life.

Today, we're in Barneys. We were a rising star at QVC last year. We're in Sephora. My skin looks, by and large, perfect, but it still gets inflamed very easily. When I'm testing a new product, I know immediately whether or not it works. Our products aren't tested on animals. They're tested on a Harvard MBA.