Building confidence and entrepreneurship: A conversation with Lisa Sun
October 10, 2023
Have you ever found yourself pondering what it takes to build not just a successful business, but one that genuinely seeks to change lives and "catalyse confidence"? To go beyond profit margins and market shares to inspire and uplift?
Anna Frazzetto recently sat down with Lisa Sun, the CEO and founder of Gravitas, to unpack the essentials of her unique entrepreneurial journey, her upcoming book on confidence, and the mission that fuels her brand.
In the latest instalment of our AI to Z podcast, Sun delved into her journey from being the child of Taiwanese immigrants to scaling the corporate ladder at McKinsey before taking the ultimate entrepreneurial plunge.
She provided a behind-the-scenes look at the vision, sacrifice, and drive that went into founding Gravitas, a fashion company that is not just selling clothes but also advocating for a more empowered version of womanhood.
Listen to the full conversation below:
From immigrant roots to corporate success: The making of an entrepreneur
It's really a powerful thing to start your life, seeing the immense vision that it takes to be an immigrant. I do think it's quite powerful to be in the company of people who believe in something before they can see it and have real vision.
Sun's narrative begins with her parents, who arrived in the U.S. from Taiwan in the 1970s, each armed with a college education but void of social connections. The pair initiated their American dream through modest means—Lisa’s father worked on a loading dock, while her mother started with a job at a hamburger truck. They eventually coalesced their hopes, dreams, and hard work into a small business—a Mongolian barbecue restaurant.
Sun spent her summers working in the family business, observing her parents transform from immigrant workers to entrepreneurs. This early exposure to her parents' hardship, resilience, and ultimate triumph ingrained in her an understanding of the tenacity and vision it takes to be an entrepreneur.
An 11-Year journey at McKinsey
I think we are an accumulation of our lived experiences. So, seeing what it means to be an entrepreneur, I think that our culture celebrates entrepreneurs once they've succeeded, but they don't quite elaborate the years of work that it takes to get there.
After absorbing the grassroots fundamentals of business from her family, Sun ventured into the corporate realm. Her next critical learning ground was a lengthy 11-year stint at McKinsey & Company. Here, she discovered the importance of client service and the art of mentorship.
In an environment where most people exit after 24 months, Sun persisted for over a decade. McKinsey not only gave her the chance to work under the mentorship of globally-recognised leaders but also to mentor young teams that aimed for high-impact successes within tight timeframes.
These years fine-tuned her skills and professional philosophy in a way that would soon benefit her own entrepreneurial venture.
Starting Gravitas: The leap of faith
The third epoch in Lisa's journey was characterised by a sabbatical, a napkin, and a mother's ambitious vision. During her year off, Lisa embarked on a global sojourn. Inspired by Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs and a particularly impactful Stanford commencement speech, she connected the dots of her life while on a beach in Greece.
It was her mother who provided the final nudge. With a single email to all of Lisa's contacts, she announced that Lisa was going to start a company, thereby giving her no other option than to leap. Leveraging her life savings, Lisa launched Gravitas with the mission to "catalyse confidence" in women.
Clothes that build confidence
Gravitas transcends being a mere fashion brand; it serves as a conduit to uplift women's self-confidence. Stemming from a performance review Lisa received early in her career, the very name "Gravitas" encapsulates dignity and substance—traits Lisa wanted to imbue in her clients through both clothing and content.
The role of technology in Gravitas
We use a lot of online feedback. We are digital in nature and collecting that information, we look at the data that comes in around why people return something. We look very closely at feedback. So there is a digital component to how we harness those insights, surveys and whatnot. So I would say, first of all, what problem are we trying to solve? Do we have the most amount of information to prove that that is something women really need or something?
Embracing technology has been a cornerstone of Gravitas’ business model. From harnessing data analytics to crafting a user-friendly jumpsuit and developing 3D-scanned bespoke clothing, Sun is pioneering a technological revolution within the fashion industry.
Mentorship and early career advice
One of the things I learned was not to just ask for generic feedback. Instead, ask, "What's one thing I could do better?" Everyone has one thing for you. I would write these down in a notebook and as I mastered them, i'd cross them off. I'd then go back to the person who gave me that feedback and show them how I improved. This approach helped me find mentors who were not just allies, but champions for me.
Sun's mentorship journey came full circle when she became an entrepreneur. She advises young professionals to stand out and find mentors to accelerate their growth. She believes that feedback is a gift that provides the clarity and impetus to improve and excel.
The universal power of confidence
Sun emphasises that confidence isn't a trait we're born with but a skill that can be cultivated, much like any other. It's not the sole preserve of extroverts or those in leadership positions but is accessible to anyone willing to invest in themselves. In this sense, her journey, and the insights she shared, serve as an empowering testament to the transformative power of confidence.
It's not just about being able to speak up in a meeting or command a room; it's about understanding your worth, recognising your value, and expressing yourself in a way that makes others take notice. It's about the courage to take risks, the resilience to bounce back from failure, and the wisdom to know when to listen as much as when to speak.
In the grand scheme of things, confidence is about continuously evolving and embracing the myriad of challenges and opportunities that life throws our way. It's a quality that Sun believes should be nurtured continually and conscientiously for career advancement and personal fulfilment.
Confidence is multifaceted. It is not a one-size-fits-all trait but varies depending on the situation and individual.
Data-driven decision-making is vital. Use data analytics for business operations, personal growth, and understanding social phenomena.
Mentors play a crucial role in career development, and mentorship is a two-way street requiring proactive engagement from the mentee.
Self-confidence begins within. Dressing well or achieving professional milestones are just outward manifestations. True confidence comes from within and is about liking and trusting oneself.
This post was written by: Leanna Seah, Content Manager