When women enter the workforce, we are taught to hold our tongues and look up to the glass ceiling that confines us. I thought I’d “made it” when I was working for a private equity investment firm in New York City. Months into the job, I’d learned there wasn’t really a place for me, an immigrant woman of color, to grow. While no one directly discriminated against me, my experience has led me to believe there’s unconscious bias in the field’s business dynamic. And that bias is what thickens the glass ceiling for me and other women in similar industries.
I wasn’t nominated for a leadership role until the company wanted to invest in fashion/retail. No one knew what to do or where to begin. I knew this was my way in—I’ve always been obsessed with fashion and even kept a blog as a side-hustle for years, amassing a large following in my home city of Hong Kong. Despite how nervous I was to take action, I told myself, don't think about not being fully prepared for the opportunity, just grasp it tightly! I took the chance, and I ended up leading a fashion retail aggregator IPO case. The opportunity put me in a position to shine above my male teammates, as I understood both the market and customers better than they could.
Through the success of said opportunity, my firm considered further investments in the fashion world. In fact, a founder of one of the fashion companies even pitched an idea for us to go into business together, and start our own retail-tech company. He said I impressed him with my understanding of the fashion industry, from downstream (merchandising, financing & inventory) to upstream (marketing, brand perception).
As flattering as his pitch was, and despite the negative feelings I had towards my current job, I declined his offer. I think the core value of fashion is to be a creator, not a broker. If I wanted to found a fashion-based company, I would want to build a brand that would promote my core values and way of living to society.
It wasn’t until my job had me on yet another last-minute business trip overseas, and the strap to my luxury tote bag snapped at the TSA security checkpoint. As my compact mirror, laptop, makeup, and everything else in my bag scattered across the floor, I realized this job was not worth the stress and lack of sleep. Especially if you are working 100 hours per week, suffering from burnout, still with no potential for growth in sight.
It was then that I realized that in order to unlock my true potential as a woman in business, I had to get out of the man’s game and learn to play by my own rules. And my broken bag was a sign that I should found the very thing I’ve been looking for all this time: a handbag that compliments the hectic lifestyles and careers of corporate women.
I knew the market. I knew my audience. All I needed was the courage to quit my job.
And I found it, the moment I found my co-founder: Tracy (I’ll tell you how we met in my next blog). She and I made a vow that we’d quit our jobs together and start over, together. Once we did, we immediately conducted market research on whether this pain point of finding a core work bag was a common struggle amongst all other professional women.After interviewing 20 of our professional contacts around the world, working in finance, accounting, private equity, etc., we then selected five to shadow. Tracy and I took notes not just on the jobs our subjects had, we literally followed them everywhere to learn their lifestyles. In that time, we found our four components of the working woman’s ideal handbag:
2. Fits thick corporate laptops (HP, Dell, Lenovo, etc.)
3. Scratch Resistant/Water Resistant
4. Neutral Color Palette and Minimal Design to fit the style
We found many women struggle to find bags that carry their 9-5 needs in a compact manner. Especially in industries where presentability matters, they need bags that look and feel as luxurious as they are functional. When shadowing the five women I mentioned earlier, a key thing I noticed is despite the way they dress, their busy lives keep them from wanting to change their bags on a daily basis. That meant neutral colors like cream, beige, and black were their favorite colors to match with their work attire.
It’s been 3 years since Tracy and I founded OLEADA together. It makes me look back on every meeting we had with potential investors, and their same question: Does the modern professional woman really need another bag? Our answer remains the same: we’re not looking to just build a bag, nor just a brand. We want to offer a solution to the hectic lifestyle of modern women. Moreover, we’re looking to create something that both inspires and connects a community that offers help and builds a sense of belonging.
And it seems we’re on track to doing exactly that. One woman bought five bags as a group order for Mother’s Day this past May, addressing each one to all the special women in her life. Another said “I want to be in the position that this bag requires,” and uses her purchase as motivation to land her dream job. I couldn’t be more elated with the way these handbags are connecting women around the world, because all those connections give hope and power to all women in business to be their own warriors: fighting for their place on the corporate ladder, building their empire, and knowing they are not alone.
For those of you who don’t know, the term “OLEADA” is Spanish for “waves”. I love the name because, to me, it represents the wave of change in my life. From being a small fish in a big pond, to now giving myself access to the open ocean, I want all women out there to know this: despite how thick the glass ceiling may feel, even if you change small things, there is always a big wave pressing against the glass. And one day, the pressure will make it crack.