Hi Hope, tell us your origin story!
I always joke that I’m from the airport. It’s a lot easier to say that than any one particular place. I was born in the UK, but I’m from Nigeria. I grew up between London and Lagos and after a few years, my mum won the US green card lottery and we moved to the States. My home is where my suitcase is. In the past few years I’ve spent quite a lot of time in LA so I’m a combination from all 3 places. From how I speak to how I self-identify, they’ve all had a large influence in who I am.
I wear a few different hats. I write, produce, and act. Which is a bit odd because I started off as a pre-med microbiology student but I had this opportunity to work for a production company and I got really excited and passionate about storytelling.
I co-own a multimedia production company that handles all sorts of things from mobile apps, animated projects to film and television development. I also have a partnership with an independent studio in Los Angeles, called Cinema Collaboratorium. Our focus is on taking the fear out of filmmaking. The idea of making a film or being a part of this industry can be so overwhelming because there are so many gaps in what we know. It takes literally a village to bring a film to life. We’ve built a community of filmmakers from every type of crew member to people that provide post services or actors and writers.
We’re launching a script-to-screen contest where we pick one short film script and giving an opportunity to an aspiring filmmaker by giving them all of the resources of our studio and bringing sponsors on board.
Was there ever a time where you felt discouraged but believed in yourself and continued on?
Being a part of this industry has been really cool but also very eye opening. It’s one of the few areas where you are allowed to openly discriminate because there’s always the rationale of ‘Oh that’s not what the story calls for”. I still experience this constantly where people’s ideas or expectations of who you are or what’s possible for you are really limited to a box.
I’m not the cookie cutter type so I often find myself the ‘wild card’ choice or the ‘interesting’ choice. They often want to play it safe. I might go in for an audition and they’ll say ‘Be yourself’ but they just want things to look like the pre-packaged image of what they think a person should look like. As a woman and as a woman of color, it can be very frustrating to have to politely tap them on the shoulder to say “I am a person. I am real. Perhaps the issue here is that your world experience is a limited.”
In many ways, I’ve had to come to accept that as the norm but I refuse to. I had a manager once who had issues with my hair being in braids saying that it’s not relatable and therefore making it harder for me to be cast. How can you say that’s not relatable? I’m a person, and if you look at the African diaspora there are probably more women wearing their hair in braids than not. It’s really bizarre that by being yourself, you’re being told that you’re unrelatable. I’m a human being.
There have been times where I find that I have to turn an opportunity down because it’s too cliche, stereotypical or frankly embarrassing. For me it’s been really challenging not to sit and complain but rather take some initiative. I’m very actively producing projects that challenge ideas of what people think what an ethnic character should be. The industry continues using the same ethnic tropes which is a bit sad. Why is it unusual or weird for a black girl to be nerdy?
People respond to all types and it’s moreso about developing compelling characters - not whether the person is white or black or whatever. We’re able to relate to all sorts of people from any color any background it’s just about how well the character is presented. That’s the key.
We’re making some progress but there’s still a lot to do. We have to step away from tokenism and include people thoughtfully. You can’t just do it to pacify fans or check the diversity box.
How did you feel about our #NUDEFORALL campaign?
I responded to this campaign so much. There are so many little ways that women of color are told that we’re just not the norm nor the standard. Even in something as simple as picking out a pair of nude underwear or make up. Certain brands still don’t have a wide range that covers all different skin tones. Even something as silly as emoji, we only just got ethnic emojis a year ago!
For years, we’ve just accepted that we’re not represented. You’re constantly pecked at that you’re just this odd exception. Seeing this campaign was a breath of fresh air. Finally, the media, advertising, and products are starting to evolve into being inclusive and that’s exciting to see.
What superpower would you give all women and why?
A sense of self worth. That is something that gets chipped away quite a bit. For your sense of value not to come completely from exterior perception. To approach things coming from a place where you value yourself. Not in a vain or conceited way, but just saying ‘Hey, you know what? I have a perspective, I have life experience, I bring something of value to the table.’ Not needing that to be validated by anyone else. Trust that. It can make a huge difference.
I would want girls to be confident by what they’re curious, motivated and driven by rather than what they are told they should be or what box they fit into.
What’s an interesting adventure you’ve had?
I was recently in Indonesia with friends, there was a terrorist attack in January and I was just down the street from where it happened. I had been headed exactly where the explosion took place that morning. The only reason that I hadn’t left was because I got a phone call for an audition.
The explosion happened at a Starbucks and everyone that knows me, knows that the very first place I would have gone would be Starbucks! To have had a call from the States from my manager about an audition, for that to be the thing that kept me from going into harm’s way was really surreal. It was very strange.
I still had an amazing holiday, I have amazing friends there and nothing will keep me from going back but it put things into perspective. The one thing I love the most is that my friends are all over the world. I love connecting with people that at first glance you’d imagine you wouldn’t have anything in common with but I take real pleasure in having a fun hodge-podge of interesting friends.
What’s a note to self you’d like to be reminded of?
That I’m still learning and growing and it’s ok to figure things out in my own pace.
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Hi Maks! What is your origin story?
I was born in Bangladesh and came to LA with my family when I was four. My parents moved here for better opportunities. I grew up and have always lived on the West side of LA, either in Westchester or by Marina del Rey. My childhood was really traditional, like most foreign parents would raise their children. But on top of that, my parents are also strict Muslims. I guess everyone goes through an identity crisis as they’re growing up. Most people go through that in their teens when they don’t know who they are. But when I was younger, it was apparent from day 1 that I wasn’t like the rest of the kids at school. I was not American nor white so I had to go through that discovery much earlier. I wasn’t sure which side to pick or rather I had to ask myself “What am I? Am I more Bengali or am I American now?”
In LA, there’s a significant Bengali society, my parents have a lot of Bengali friends. When I’m around them, I dress traditionally, I speak in Bengali and I have to put on, not an act, but I have to play that role. When I was at school I wanted to be cool and I wanted to fit in. I wanted to wear shorts or dress like an American. Life had always been like that - not balancing - but having these two separate lives.
I was 18 when I started working at American Apparel. I was just in love with the clothes. At that time, it was a cool, hipster company that came out of LA which represented a sense of freedom. With American Apparel, they really valued individuality. It was all about being natural and being yourself so I connected with that a lot. My co-workers all came from very diverse backgrounds. I started at the 3rd St. Promenade store in Santa Monica some of the friends I met there I’m still friends with today. It was a great experience.
Since I left, I took 6 months off to really figure out what I liked doing. I decided to get my yoga license to help others and spread the healing powers of yoga because I was so passionate about it. It made me feel good about myself and it helps me gain a sense of balance. Everything you learn in the yoga room mirrors and reflects outwards in your normal everyday life. I think everyone should try it. It’s a good feeling.
So speaking of trying out things, you were a part of our #NUDEFORALL campaign - how do you feel about it?
I love it. It came out so amazing. I already thought the idea was great. Promoting diversity and natural beauty, supporting strong women and women that come from different dynamics is everything that I believe in.
I think it sends a really good message especially in this day and age where the media tells us there’s only a certain type of look that’s accepted and your body is supposed to be a certain way. By doing this this campaign, I felt really empowered and proud. Not everyone has great boobs or a great butt and not everyone looks like a Kardashian. Using real women instead of models in this shoot showed their strength - there was something unique about everyone in the shoot. I’m really happy with how it came out.
How was it for you personally speaking to be a part of a lingerie campaign wearing just a bra and underwear? I know this isn’t the first time you’ve modelled somewhat nude.
Growing up, my parents suppressed me from many activities because of their religious and cultural beliefs. I wasn't allowed to wear shorts or show my full arms and bathing suits were out of the question. I couldn't ever spend the night at a friend's. We weren't allowed to celebrate any American holidays (even the non-religious ones) and much more. All I wanted was just to be a "normal" American girl.
My parents’ marriage was arranged and almost everyone else's in my family, so my parents have always hoped that for me. But growing up in America, I know I have my rights and don't have to settle for a husband to provide for me.
Finally, I was able to embrace and exercise my freedom and beliefs through an American Apparel ad that ran after the Rana Plaza collapse which killed over a thousand garment workers. Although the ad had much criticism and nearly banned me from many Bengali societies, I am proud of standing up for my beliefs.
I think all girls should grow up feeling empowered and not fearful in this world because of religion or their cultural background.
That seems like it was a break out moment for for you but are there any other mountains you’ve moved that you’re especially proud of?
I’m proud of myself everyday that I’m able to live the life I live. Just this morning, there was an article about a girl in Pakistan that was burned to death. Her family killed her. She was only 18 years old and burned to death because she ran away with a man that she loved. That happens all the time in Middle Eastern and third world countries. I’m grateful and happy that I’m not in that environment.
I’m proud of being able to represent the message that just because you’re Muslim and have a really strict, conventional background, you can still do what you want to do and be yourself.
Was there ever a moment you felt that you were discouraged from doing something but because of that belief you went ahead anyway?
Since I was a kid, I was discouraged to not be too American. My parents wanted me to respect our culture and to respect the fact that I was Muslim when the majority of the country is Christian.
He would say remind me that we’re not like that so I was always discouraged from fully being able to express myself. With the American Apparel ad, my parents almost disowned me but I’m so glad they’ve taken me back. My parents they love me of course but I was discouraged by them and all the negative attention by everyone from Bangledesh. I read a lot of blogs and articles written about it. The whole country was very upset with me for representing the nation in a bad way. They thought that I was exploited or that it breaks all of their values because we’re supposed to be covered up. They assumed that I was dissing the culture and talking negatively about being Muslim. There was a lot of discouragement.
My parents aren’t huge supporters of my pursuit of yoga teaching. They want something more safe. They don’t think yoga is going to give me a future or that I’m not going to be able to support myself. They’re just thinking about my financial security. If it were up to them they would want me to finish school, because I dropped out of college, and they’d want me to have a desk job. That would mean adulthood to them.
But it’s all good, I’m going to do what I’m going to do to make me happy. This belief has to come from inside. From your soul. From your truest of true hearts. You could lie to yourself and say ‘Okay fine, I’m going to listen to my parents, I’ll just do what they want me to do.’ or ‘Okay fine, I’ll just listen to society’ but that wouldn’t have made me happy.
I’m American but really, I’m Californian. I just want to be myself. I don’t want to listen to anyone else’s conventions or the rules that they have for their lives, I want to follow my own.
If you were to give other women a superpower, what would it be and why?
Having the inner strength and self awareness. Having the strength to go on, fight and not give up. Do what you believe in. I’m not saying never listen to other people or that you shouldn’t listen to your parents. Listen to if it also makes you happy or if you’re still following your dreams.
Tell us about an adventure you’ve had?
My parents did not want me to go to my senior prom but of course I still did. I told them I was working on something else, a project that I had to do. I went behind their backs got a dress and shoes and made it to prom. I was so happy that I had that experience because I would have been really bummed out if I didn’t.
I travelled a lot through Europe when I was working at American Apparel. There’s this train that goes from Amsterdam to Paris called the ‘Red Train’. I loved it. It passes through so many countries, I really enjoyed seeing all the diversity and everyone while riding it. It's really beautiful.
What is something like a note to self that you like to remind yourself of?
That everything is okay. I’d like to remind myself that I should be thankful even if I’m having a bad day or if I want something and it doesn’t go my way. We’re given so many opportunities so be thankful and grateful for what we have.
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Hi Minji, tell us your origin story!
I’m a Bay Area girl, I spent my entire life up until the last 2 years living there. Go Warriors! I was always very proud to come from the Bay because of its progressiveness. There’s a lot of culture and diversity that I was really lucky to grow up around. I feel like I was exposed to a lot of amazing arts, technology and different types of people from a very young age. I think that definitely influenced my comfort with different people and shaped my world view.
My parents came from Korea in their early 20s so I am the first generation in the states. When I was 13, we moved to another part of the mostly diverse Bay Area called Pleasanton. At the time it was a very white neighborhood so it felt different to experience being ‘the other’ during a really formative time. I was never treated negatively but I was noticing how different I was from everybody else.
As a teen, I dealt with intense self-esteem, body, identity issues in positive and negative ways. I was really involved in school and became a super leadership nerd. In my private life, I was dealing with it in a really painful way in the form of a toxic relationship that lasted for many years until college. I had to learn about my own value and self-worth.
Since college, I’ve worked in the public health and corporate world and now I’m doing pretty much my dream job which is acting and working in the non-profit world running Kollaboration. We are a grass-roots movement to support and elevate Asian-American artists.
We’ve been around for 17 years, from a very humble beginning from one show in Los Angeles. I've been a part of it for 7 years now. We put on showcases to discover Asian-American talent and bring the artistic community together at our events. Now we have 14 city chapters, 103 shows under our belt and a growing digital imprint.
Out of all your accomplishments, what is an achievement that you’re especially proud of?
Being able to shake President Obama’s hand last month. May is Asian Pacific Islander Heritage month, which is something that started under the Obama administration to acknowledge Asian Americans in the U.S., address their issues and to bring light to the culture. Over the years, Kollaboration has been established as one of the leading organizations in the API artistic world. Through my role as executive director, I got connected with the White House Asian Pacific Islander Initiative group.
I was invited to go to the Champions of Change event celebrating artists and storytellers, which was incredible because it meant that I was invited to the White House. I nearly peed my pants as it was just such a great feeling to know that the work that I'm doing is really something special and can make a difference. That it’s valuable for our whole community.
There was a gala that night where Obama was going to be the keynote speaker. My good friend, who was also a Champions of Change honoree, Jenny Yang, and I hustled to the front and watched him speak 15 feet away. It was incredible. Both of us shook his hand. The paparazzi behind us got a photo of me making this ridiculous awe-inspired, swoon face where my expression just screams “OMG it’s President Obama!” For me, his presidency changed the world for the better.
It was always a risk for me to pursue Kollaboration as a full time job or to pursue acting. I wanted to be an artist instead of a doctor which was my original plan - that was what I studied in school. It’s a great profession and I have so much respect and admiration for them but it just wasn’t for me. That’s why Kollaboration exists - it’s not a common thing for Asian youth to go off the beaten path and they need support. It’s not normal or encouraged for them to do something that they’re really passionate about unless it’s within a certain range of careers. Get passionate about law or computer science - those are ok. Art? Not so much.
Taking on this job and to have the opportunity to meet Obama, shake his hand and to be in a room full of leaders who are doing amazing things was definitely a great achievement. I knew I’d chosen the right path and it felt really, really good. I feel proud and insanely humbled at the same time.
Was there ever a moment you felt discouraged from doing something but you believed in yourself and went ahead and found success?
I felt that for a large part of my life, oddly. There were a lot of small things that accumulated to tell me that I’m not particularly 'normal'. I’m outspoken and ambitious but there are different words that my parents would use to describe me.
There are all these preconceived notions of what girls are supposed to be, what they’re supposed to like and how they’re supposed to act. In some ways, I completely aligned with it, and some ways I didn’t. There was always a part of me that was trying to figure out my identity and also just being ok with it.
I was in a relationship that was really controlling, he was constantly trying to alter who I was. He tore me apart every day for years and that was very difficult to overcome, but I have, thanks to all the love around me.
Korean people can be very obsessed with how you’re supposed to look a certain way. I would get nit picked about my weight, my eyes, my nose, my features when I was young. That built up a really poor sense of self. Even though it might have been well-intended it’s ultimately really, really negative reinforcement. My grandma wouldn’t be mean about it but she’d be like “Oh, you’d be so pretty if you got eyelid surgery” She was telling me something is wrong and that I’m not pretty as I am - that's what mattered most.
I’ve had a lot of discouragement in passive aggressive ways with my parents about what I wanted to do. I joked about being an actor, and I got yelled at. My mom basically told me that acting is unacceptable and that it’s an inappropriate job. She and my dad are conservative Christian Koreans. This really saddened me because my mom is the one that has always supported me. Although I’ve had a rocky relationship with my parents at times, I really love them and I want them to be proud and happy with what I’m doing.
I came clean about wanting to be an actor in very small increments and it took a long time to be honest, but I had to stick to my guns. Luckily, I've always had incredibly supportive brothers and friends. Going to the White House and things like that make my dad tell me ‘Get a real job’ less. He still says it just to give me grief, but I don’t think he really means it anymore. It’s taken them many years for them to even start to see where I’m coming from and why. I know they're on my team now, and there may be bumps ahead, but I'm very grateful.
You said you stuck to your guns, what was it that helped you do that?
My mom. She is a very, very strong woman. She's so loving, patient, and resilient. Her love for me, affection, kind words, and encouragement in other areas definitely gave me a fundamental sense of self that helped me be ok with who I am.
Positive women. Music and film have always inspired me since I was a young kid. Seeing strong women gave me this hope and belief that there are people doing exactly what they want, being themselves, being loud, successful and being ok with it.
There are so many traits like family, respect, and honor that I’ve learned from being Korean paired with a strong sense of independence and go-getter-ness from my American upbringing. Both of which fused together to make me, me.
You talk about drawing a sense of self from women before you, if you could give all women a superpower what would it be and why?
Forgiveness of self is so important. I’ve had so many conversations with amazing women, I don’t know what the root cause of it is but I think women experience a lot of guilt for many reasons which I don’t think are reasonable or that I wouldn’t want to instill in my daughter. I would never want her to feel sorry for who she is or what she feels. It’s such a shitty, empty place if you can’t feel confident because you’re too busy feeling sorry all the time. I can't measure how universal it is but I have heard it from many women, especially Asian women, that we are psychologically conditioned to always think of others first.
I sometimes feel guilt and sadness towards my mom and her generation because I’ve experienced all things that I want, especially in the last few years. It wasn’t really an option for her with the way she grew up thinking she could travel the world, date, or explore. It was always ‘find a husband and do everything you can to keep that husband and provide for your children’. Which I think is super beautiful and admirable in one aspect and really limiting in another.
It was always, if you think of yourself, you’re being selfish. You're selfish if you think about what you want, your needs, your ambitions, taking care of yourself, taking time for yourself. You know, self-care. That term is so new. It was this new-age hippy term for crazy feminists, but I want it to be embraced, praised, and practiced by all women everywhere.
I want women to feel appreciated and feel comfortable with who they are and not feel bad about it.
How did you feel about participating in our #NUDEFORALL campaign?
It was amazing and I just feel honored to have been part of it. I think there’s an element of destiny in this because I was the last one to be brought into this campaign as someone had dropped out. I went with it because I’m at a point in my life where I say ‘Yes!’ to things.
It meant a lot to me as I was facing a lot of personal demons and I was definitely challenging myself. I still have a lot of body and beauty issues. I just got back from Korea and it really hurt me to see how much of an obsession with beauty there is there. All the plastic surgery and what not.
To do this campaign was very liberating but it was also terrifying. When people tell me that it was brave - I appreciate that, because I was definitely terrified.
Overall, I was so happy about the message and the aesthetic. It it gorgeous. But when I actually saw the campaign, I cried. I had a little bit of a meltdown. Not immediately, but my heart sank because it brought me back to my 12 year old, middle school self, judging my body in the mirror and comparing myself to others. It was total exposure therapy. Like if you have a fear of being naked, then you go and be naked in front of thousands of people. That’s essentially what I did. I don't know with what level of consciousness.
When I saw the campaign where it’s not just about my face, it’s my body and it’s billboard sized in a public space. It definitely shook me a little bit. I needed a day. Or three.
I think the campaign is so gorgeous and it re-surfaced all of that pride from the day of the shoot. Look at Atima and look at Nisha and Kelly - they look so good!
You look so good!
Yeah, my friends say ‘You look so happy!’ and I was so happy because I wasn’t looking at myself, I was just in the moment doing it! I was excited about the campaign but not about myself.
As an actor, rejection is part of the business, that definitely sucks, but it just becomes normal. Seeing myself on camera helped me a lot in moving forward with my self-confidence. OK, this is how I look. That’s fine. Sometimes you look pretty, sometimes you don’t, but that’s part of the job, to express human emotion so really, who cares. I thought I had made huge leaps in being comfortable with looking at myself and just having it be less of a priority.
But when I saw the campaign photos, I was like ‘OMG, I look so fat. It was a bad day, I didn’t have any time to work out because I was brought in last minute’ I was defending myself and getting mad and sad. Then I got annoyed with myself like ‘Really Minji? Shut up. It’s not a big deal. You got to be in the most amazing campaign with incredible women - why are you crying about it?’
Since then I've gotten over it. I’m really proud and over the moon.
The reaction to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s interesting to compare the perspective of seeing yourself in underwear vs. what other people see. Whereas I might point out things I don’t like about my expression or body, my friends just think ‘WOAH! This is so cool!’ Other people don’t see the same things you see, they’re proud of you.
Lastly, do you have a note to self you’d like to remind yourself of?
Be happy. Breathe easy, you got this.
Hey Atima, tell us your origin story!
I am a Sudanese-American, a very proud Black feminist born to an immigrant to America from Sudan and an African-American mother from Detroit raised in Topeka, Kansas. I ended up going to boarding school in Boston then studying business in college in St. Louis. I fell in love with entrepreneurship and started my own business when I was in college. I ran a full service hair and nail salon. I also fell in love with technology and did some internships with Google and Youtube and eventually found myself here in Boston at Harvard Business School studying marketing and working on my own business with my very best friend. Our business is focused on redefining the color nude in fashion so it was a great opportunity to be a part of the Naja campaign - I’m so excited for this movement we’re seeing in the industry and Naja is at the forefront and I’m happy to a part of it.
So how did you feel about our shoot together and the #NUDEFORALL campaign?
I think Naja is so groundbreaking in so many ways from empowering women who produce the products to being eco-conscious and friendly and then also the way that the brand is marketed. That it’s not the ‘traditional marketing to men in hyper-sexualized’ lingerie. When I saw this campaign, it was just another dimension in which Naja is pushing the envelope of what we think of when we think of lingerie and when we think of ads for underwear for women. You see all different body types and of course all different skin tones. I’m so excited to be able to say “I’m a lingerie model” even though I don’t have the typical dimensions of one, and that was so beautiful and what I also loved about it was the realness about it. I feel that you captured each of our true personalities, it was so fun, being on set, getting to know each other, we all connected on social media so I now have this group of friends of different women. You can see our happiness and our growing friendships in the campaigns.
Congratulations on your graduation from Harvard Business School! I saw that this happened just this week. What is a mountain that you’ve moved that you’re especially proud of?
It’s interesting, I think my biggest accomplishment is one that didn’t come with any medals or honors or external gratification but rather one that came internally. When I was in college I really embraced my identity and my particular aesthetic as a very dark skinned Sudanese woman. I cut off my hair and I’ve had my hair short ever since and that really marked the beginning of me not looking to the outside beauty industry, which I really can’t rely on, to tell me that I’m beautiful. That’s why I love this campaign - it’s one of the first times that a product has been made with my complexion in mind. For me I think it’s the mountain that I’ve moved of self-love, self-care, self-confidence, and feeling that even though I wasn’t getting that from the beauty industry and from the fashion industry growing up.
That makes a lot of sense. It does take a lot of bravery to be like, “I’m not going to rely on someone else or mass media to tell me that I’m worthy of the label of being beautiful”. I really appreciate you sharing that. In any of your journeys, was there ever a moment where you felt discouraged but you believed in yourself and said, “I’m going to do this anyway” and found success?
One of my majors in college was marketing and I always really wanted to do that because it’s creative and it adds the fun of the business with the artistic aspect but I was told that you could only have a marketing career if you have an MBA. I have one now, but I really wanted to work in marketing straight out of college and everyone told me that wasn’t possible - that I first had to follow this cookie cutter path. I totally rejected that notion and ventured on my career search on my own. I ended up working for a Walmart in marketing without an MBA and really fell in love with retail at the time. I think if I had to think of a word of advice or a big lesson learned from that experience it would be that there may be paths or a set way of doing things but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right way for you. If you believe in your heart that you want to study something or you want to go do something go figure out a way to do it. There is a door that can be opened, you can make it happen.
Speaking of life lessons, if you could give all women a superpower, what would that be?
It would be to see the positive in everything even the bad things that might be going on. I guess another way of saying it would be to always see the glass half full. I think I found my greatest moments of empowerment when I’m able to speak positively to myself even when I’m feeling down about something. Imagine how powerful we as women could be if we saw ourselves and saw situations that we were in as positively as men do. If you’re rejected by something, not seeing it as “oh my gosh I’m not good enough” they think “if not now, it’ll happen later”. Imagine if whenever you gain a little weight and instead of thinking “oh my gosh now I’m no longer attractive” think “look at these cool new curves that I’ve got I’m gonna rock these” I think that that would help women.
Tell us about an adventure you’ve had recently!
One of the things I loved and was so grateful for in Harvard Business School was the number of International Students that we have. I feel like I went to school at a mini United Nations. One of my classmates was South African and he organized a trek for about 20 of us to all go to South Africa. We all went into one of the world’s largest platinum mines and saw what the working conditions are like. As someone who is African-American who was born in the U.S.,, it’s so valuable to go back to my homeland and have that pan-African experience of getting to know where I come from. It was a good moment of self-discovery. As I go through life I can’t help but think about all the African and African-American people who have not had the same opportunities that I’ve had or who have fought really hard for me to be able to even go to Harvard Business School or work at top companies. To be able to dream and essentially be free. Being in an Apartheid museum was an amazing adventure. It’s a privilege even as a black person to know my history and be able to explore my history so up close and personal in that way given that it’s not easily accessible and not part of our standard system in the United States.
Is there a note to self you would like to be reminded of?
Enjoy the journey. Enjoy the moment. I’m positive that a lot of the wonder women that you’re highlighting are achievement oriented. They might get to some achievement, enjoy it for a day, and start killing themselves and grinding real hard to get to that next achievement level but the journey is so freaking awesome. So putting down your technology and sitting there and feeling the gratefulness as you go through your experiences and knowing that the negative ones are the ones that shape you the most and are going to help you emerge even better in those moments. Those are my notes to self. Enjoy that journey.
Someone told me recently “the way that you spend your days is the way that you spend your life” and I think if you remember that each day is going to be another day of your life then you appreciate each moment.
With shrewd business savvy and a competitive streak, Helena Rubenstein was one of two New York based women who catapulted the beauty industry by marketing glamour as a must-have.
Understanding women was key to her success. She knew women wanted to treat themselves and insisted that massive mark ups on her creams would make her products more desirable for purchase rather than deter. Ladies loved the idea of luxury and pampering themselves.
Beauty required creativity and innovation. Striking up a bit of a rivalry with another make up maven and neighbor, Elizabeth Arden, Rubenstein pushed to provide products that were ahead of the curve.
We have her to thank for the first ever waterproof mascara formula which she had introduced in 1939 at the New York World's Fair. So you can cry if you want to without messing up that pretty face.
Even then, mascara had been a sloppy mix of petroleum jelly and coal in a pot. Therefore, in 1957, Rubenstein invented the brush, wand and tube mechanism for the essential lash products that we use today.
Before Eat, Pray, Love inspired far-flung journeys of self-discovery, there was the book, Around the World in Eighty Days. Journalist, Nellie Bly, took this fictional work as a challenge and set off sail in November of 1889 from New Jersey to parts of Europe, Asia and back.
Her voyage had set a world record by completing the 25,000 mile trip in only just 72 days. In her book chronicling her travels, she calls out her naysayers for discouraging her.
"It is impossible for you to do it. In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this."
"'Very well,' I said angrily, 'Start the man, and I'll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.'"
And so she did.
Taking just one dress, £200, some toiletries, and several pairs of fresh undies (because everyone needs new knickers), Bly met with the original novelist in France, bought a monkey in Singapore, took a train across America and came out ahead of a competing magazine's female reporter on the same global race.
One woman with a will and a way - that's worthy of the front page.
We love when you tag #lovenaja on social media! One of our Naja customers, the incredible @ERINUNLEASHES caught our eye! Born disabled but strong, passionate and determined, she inspires us to break down barriers and #BeAnything
Hi Erin, we spotted you in our instagram #lovenaja tags and couldn’t help but be inspired by your spunk! Tell us your origin story!
I think it all started when I dyed my hair red. I can’t really remember a lot before that hahaha.
I’m originally from Canada in a small town in Northern Ontario on the border between Ontario and Quebec - English and French-speaking Canada. My family lived in trailers in a highway town and I grew up around a lot of black spruce trees.
At the end of high school, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do and who I was going to be. Somebody in the lunch room showed me an ad for a non-profit organization that sent non-professional volunteers to developing countries. I signed up and got placed in Kenya when I was 19 and was supposed to stay for 3 months. I kept going back until 6 years had passed and I had spent most of that time living in Kenya alone.
That kickstarted me on roaming, travelling and being raised by the world. I lived in New York for a while and performed aerial acrobatics there with a friend of mine which was one of the most amazing and fun things that I’ve ever done.
Then I tried out different cities, coming to Spain to train with an aerial rope specialist and loved it here. Now for the next year I live in a small town in Catalonia in Spain!
I also started a magazine, travelling is where I get my stories from.
Recently, my friends who own a studio in town are competitive pole dancers and they said ‘You should try pole-dancing!’ It turns out that I’m really good at it. I’m now working on a pole routine for a competition in September. There is no other disabled competitor, so I am already the champion of myself which is the story of my life!
What are some mountains that you’ve moved that you’ve been especially proud of?
Not physical ones. People think my challenges are physical and they aren’t. I was born strong and agile. Not being able to walk is not really that big of a deal. It’s part of my sensory experience so it’s relevant but it isn’t the major obstacle nor the major accomplishment. I was born with it there was never a challenge for me. For other people, it’s a paradox that I use a wheelchair to get around but I’m also very strong and capable. That to me is an issue for society to deal with - it’s not really my problem.
For me, my creative projects are more interesting and I’m more proud of them because they’re harder, riskier. They take actual bravery. My biggest mountains are very internal - emotional and psychological.
What stops me from saying the things that I want? What are the fears that I have about going certain places or trying certain things?
I’m the most proud of the fact that my life is what I want it to be. I had dreams, impulses, inspirations and I just kept going. The tiny moments of my days are pleasing to me and I made that out of nothing. That is what I’m most proud of.
Being a pole dancer is just something I do on Saturday afternoons because I can. It’s other people who think ‘Oh! Well you’re in a wheelchair you can’t do that’.
Was there ever a moment where you felt discouraged from doing something but you believed in yourself, you went ahead and did it anyway and found success?
Pretty much every time I have a new idea. The starting point of ‘This is too big for me, who am I to do this?’ is always there. What are you going to do? Not do it? Go anyway, do it anyway! Because the alternative is you don’t, and that is never better. It’s easier, but it’s never BETTER.
I’m surrounded by incredible women who do things in their own way. I look around and see how much possibility there is.
I wanted to live in Spain. The process was really complicated and I didn’t have a really good reason for why. It wasn’t like I had a job that I was moving for or my boyfriend was there. There was no anchoring reason except that I felt connected and at home in Spain. I had a year’s worth of gathering government documentation and paperwork and being told I hadn’t done things right. That year was really difficult. I remembered why I wanted to do it and it was enough. It felt right - that’s a good enough reason even if it’s something you have to work really hard for.
You can just have a whim and follow through. When I was on the cusp of giving up I took in the support I was given and kept going. Always do that.
If you could give all women a superpower what would it be and why?
Curiosity and desire without shame. I think I’ve done everything that I’ve done because of my curiosity and desire feeding off of each other. I would give that to all womankind. If they can feel their desires and follow through with them without shame or hesitation. The idea of roadblocks is cumbersome and unnecessary. Things don’t have to be a hardship even when they’re not pleasant.
Be more curious and connected to what you want, regardless of why you want it. Just the feeling of wanting it is enough.
What is an adventure you’ve had?
I wanted to do a Via Ferrata. A Via Ferrata is really common here. There are mountains here and someone goes ‘Let’s take the most impractical way from one side of the mountain to the other and while we go, we’ll install metal hardware so the next person who decides they want to pass the least efficient way possible has a slightly easier time.’ This is my interpretation.
Via Ferrata means ‘Iron Way’, you are making your way across sheer rock face, dangling over nothing in a harness and a metal handhold.
My friend whom I call my personal Adventure Professor has a masters degree in outdoor education. He figured out the logistics like ‘What do I know about climbing, what kind of situations can we get in and what are Erin’s capacities?’
The whole time I’m thinking ‘How much am I going to cry? Can I cry the whole way?’
He said “Yes, you can.”
The first leg of it was really intimidating and intense I was really terrified and feeling so scared to die deep in my bones. When we got to the first rest period and I cried my face off and was immediately ready to go for the next segment.
This is like a condensed intensified microcosm of what life is like for me.
Whenever we were switching safety lines hanging on by a literal thread, Adventure Professor Ben would say “You’re on you now.” I thought what an amazing mantra for life that is. When you are transitioning and everything is new “You’re on you now”.
You got it, you just have to know you are safe.
So besides “You're on you” from your Adventure Professor what is a note to self that you would like be to reminded of?
“Be more you”. The times when I am feeling unsure or I’m hesitating to move forward the thing that always works is to remember to be more me. Everything else can go fall away. Asking myself ‘What am I curious about? What do I want?’ Do more of that.
Find Erin on:
Girls can code! In fact, the very first programmer was none other than today's Wonder Women feature, Ada, Countess of Lovelace.
Born in 1815 as the daughter of great British poet, Lord Byron, Lovelace's mother was adamant about Ada's schooling in mathematics and science to counteract the flamboyant reputation of her father's. Often bed-ridden throughout various childhood malaises, Lovelace was first inspired to put her theoretical skills into practice through attempting to fly. She wrote a book about her findings and illustrations having researched construction of wings and flight paths entitled Flyology.
Lovelace began working closely with Charles Babbage as a teenager. Babbage developed the Analytical Engine, a machine that used punch cards and pegs to program arithmetic functions. This would become the basis of all modern computers. Lovelace transcribed Babbage's lectures on the primitive computer's usage and added extensive notes and instructions of her own. She created a calculation for Bernoulli numbers which became the first algorithm to be processed by a computer. Now, THIS is what a computer scientist looks like!
The original queen of memes, Dorothy Parker, was a writer and poet best known for her acerbic wit and quick quips. Such as:
"To me, the most beautiful word in the English language is cellar-door. Isn’t it wonderful? The ones I like, though, are 'cheque' and 'enclosed'."
"Tell him I was too f*cking busy - or vice versa."
While quotes like these would be right at home in a present day instagram feed, Parker was dishing out zingers since the 1920s. She started as a staff writer at Vogue, later moving on to Vanity Fair and becoming one of the first editors of The New Yorker. She wrote numerous short stories, many volumes of poetry, contributing to most major magazines of her time as well as penning 2 Oscar-nominated screenplays.
Over lunch at a historic Manhattan hotel, The Algonquin, Parker and her pals Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood, began a daily meet up of the early century literati. Over the span of ten years, the dozen or so writers, journalists and actors would spar in sarcasm, exchange wise cracks and play word games. Known as 'The Algoquin Round Table', this clever crowd would come to inspire the likes of legendary authors, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Even in her death she found humor and did it her way. Her epitaph reads "Excuse my dust" and her estate was bequeathed to none other than Martin Luther King Jr.
Necessity, ever the mother of invention struck Mary Phelps Jacob in 1910 when she just couldn't take cramming her chest into another constrictive corset to the ball anymore. With two handkerchiefs, pink ribbon, and sewing skills the first bra was born.
Her contemporaries all vied to get their hands on this new invention, much softer and free, separating and supporting each breast unlike the 'monobosom' effect of the corset. The bra complemented emerging fashions of the time showing off necklines and cleavage. In 1914, Jacob received the first patent for the 'Backless Brasserie'.
What we would now call the style of a bralette, blossomed into a her own business registered under female ownership and employed two female sewists.
By now Mary Phelps Jacob had married several times and was known as Caresse Crosby. Circling amongst wealthy socialites, she continued her colorful and sometimes scandalous history within the literary world. Later running a publishing house, writing and editing many poems herself, and founding the pro-women, pro-peace organization, Women Against War.
We have her to thank for freeing the boob and founding the industry through which Naja hopes to empower you!