Talking Shop: Entrepreneurs Tina Chen Craig and Michelle Lam on identity and representation in beauty and fashion
Founders almost always have stories about why they launched their businesses. For entrepreneurs Michelle Lam and Tina Chen Craig, those founder stories are rooted in their identities as Asian Americans and as women.
After founding the fashion blog Bag Snob in 2005, Craig was inspired by her grandmother’s skin care tips to launch skin care brand U Beauty. “I wanted to simplify my routine. I wanted to cut down on cosmetic confusion,” says Craig. “Once you identify a problem, you really seek a solution.” And thus, U Beauty was born.
Lam, founder of lingerie brand True & Co, which she sold to Calvin Klein in 2017, was among the early adopters of online fit quizzes, where women can answer simple questions to get the right size of undergarments, enabling them to shop for bras more easily online.
This past year has also brought diversity into sharper focus, particularly as women of color are being increasingly represented in the beauty and fashion worlds. “One of the most wonderful things for me over the last 10 years has been seeing that definition of beauty change and become more inclusive,” says Lam. “More women of different shapes, sizes, and backgrounds are accepted into the public sphere, and I credit that in large part to social media and to online communities.”
Check out their discussion to hear about their efforts to bring more AAPI representation to the table, how they support BIPOC small business owners, and how they see retail changing in 2021 and beyond.
Tina Chen Craig: I'm Tina Chen Craig, I am the founder of UBeauty and Bag Snob
one of the oldest running fashion blogs.
And I'm really excited to be here with you today. Especially someone who
I've read about and admired for a long time
and really excited to get this conversation going.
Michelle Lam: My name’s Michelle Lam
and I built a lingerie company called True&Co in my living room.
We sold our company to Calvin Klein in 2017.
Michelle Lam: What I really wanted to do after years of working for blue chip brands
was to create a brand of my own.
And one that catered to women and to the idea of female identity.
And so I bought 500 bras on my credit card
and I put them up in my living room
and I asked about a hundred women to come over in small groups
and try on these bras in an effort to listen to what women wanted.
And that was really the beginning of True&Co.
I’d love to know how you started UBeauty, particularly since,
you had been a television personality before and a popular blogger.
Tina Chen Craig: A lifetime of skincare tips and advice from my grandmother
fed that healthy obsession.
I wanted to simplify my routine,
I wanted to cut down the cosmetic confusion.
Once you identify a problem, you really seek the solution.
And for me, it was linking up with my business partner
and a clinical grade lab in Italy to develop U Beauty.
They had developed a technology that does allows you
to micro-target where your skin is most compromised and to only
deliver active ingredients to where your skin has damage,
but they had never brought it to life.
They didn't know what products they want to put it in.
They knew they didn't want to private label and give that technology away.
But out of a hundred people we had tested,
it was different skin color, different skin types, different age groups, different lifestyles.
And from that, we were able to develop the brand.
Tina Chen Craig: I immigrated here when I was eight and a half
My name is Chen Shang Ting, but they were like, "Xiao Ting."
And then my family called me "Xiao Ting", which is "Little Ting," right?
And they were like, no, one's gonna be able to say that, call her "Tina."
So my name was changed.
And so I felt like I never really addressed this because growing up
it was like, okay, I'm Tina now.
And I remember feeling so strange when I would hear Tina, Tina.
And I'm just doing my homework, you know, writing whatever.
And I realized, Oh, wait, that's me. It's my new name, okay.
Michelle Lam: I also remember being in rooms where there were 50 leaders in the room
and I was the only Asian.
And that's still happening today,
we're not talking about 15 years ago, we're talking about now.
And so, you know, what have you experienced
in particular, the events over the last year?
How has that led you to either confirm or change how you felt
about being an Asian American in business?
Tina Chen Craig: Now I've been really reflecting on 2020.
I feel like I've learned so much about myself.
Just finally hearing stories from other Asians in the community.
I just thought my imposter syndrome came from this sense of insecurity somewhere,
this lack of self confidence.
Michelle Lam: For me, it took me a long time to understand the notion
that my face would never look like the faces
of most of the other women that we see here in North America.
But one of the most wonderful things over the last 10 years for me
has been seeing that definition of beauty change
and become more inclusive as more women of different shapes, sizes and backgrounds
are accepted into the public sphere.
And I credit that in large part to social media and to online communities like yours
and to voices like yours, out there saying like,
"Hey, there is, you know, someone like me and I've got a product out there for you."
And so, I’ve carried that with me kind of as this bright spark of hope
that things are going to change and things are going to get better.
Tina Chen Craig: It’s great that we're seeing more Asian models on runways.
We're seeing more Asian models on covers.
We didn't have that growing up.
Our features are beautiful
and I think celebration of that by the brand
to show it in the ads as well,
but also behind the scenes hiring Asian voices,
not just to fulfill a checkmark of diversity,
but really giving them a seat at the table
as decision-makers where they can speak up.
Michelle Lam: It’s certainly something that, we as a brand at True
made a much greater effort to do after BLM.
Because it just shined a spotlight on how structural these problems were.
And so, the team went through and created a 30 point plan
on how we could address diversity in all aspects of the business.
One of those things was to support small business owners
who were Black, Brown, and Asian, so BI POC,
and to also look at our hiring practices
to make sure that we would hire more people who looked like that
not just even in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well.
Tina Chen Craig: Michelle, this has been such a fantastic conversation.
I love that we were all able to share our stories
because Asians are not a monolith, we all have such unique stories to tell.
And Michelle and I may have the same, or similar Asian features,
but our stories are completely different.
Michelle Lam: The first thing I would say is to be your most authentic self in this world
who is more and more accepting of different voices,
different faces and different ideas.
And that's just going to continue because people like us are going to continue.