Recovery from the Pandemic
Join Jane and Michelle as they talk Nunchi and Covid-19.
In this year's conference, Jane and Michelle were invited to discuss the impact of the pandemic on Asian companies in the US and how that intersects with Nunchi's mission for social justice.
Released on 3/3/2021
[Interviewer Yuta Inoue] Jane and Michelle founded Nunchi during the pandemic. I would like to ask you two questions.
First, could you share how the fashion retail industry has been affected by the covid 19?
[Michelle] It's no secret that the fashion retail industry has been completely shaken up by Covid-19, across the spectrum. Overseas manufacturing took a huge hit, from staffing and shipping to rising tariffs. We saw major retailers around the world furlough thousands of workers each, many of whom unfortunately lost their jobs in the end, and several of those big name institutions filed for bankruptcy or shuttered their doors for good. On the other hand the sudden shift to a predominantly e-commerce industry became a leg-up for firms that had proactively adopted retail technology strategies, but it also left many legacy/mom-and-pop/strictly brick and mortar businesses in the dust. I saw this shift first hand working at Apple this past summer with their Global Small and Medium business team and that is a really tough pill to swallow- each business closing was more than a name - they often represented years if not decades of saving and hard work and previous difficult times that they’d overcome. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however, with a resurgence in entrepreneurial activity - a lot of which has been in response to the societal and environmental focus we’ve honed in on with Nunchi.
[Yuta] Could you share what made you start Nunchi during the pandemic? What kind of opportunities are you seeing?
[Jane] Michelle and I have been close friends and also in the retail business for several years - we’ve always sort of dreamed of having a passion project that merged our experiences in retail with giving back to the community in some way. Because I was furloughed, I was able to focus the time and energy to brainstorm with Michelle that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. With the ongoing pandemic, the demand for accountability in the fashion industry, the birth of social movements like Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and more recently End Anti Asian Hate, it seemed more than ever consumers are shifting their behaviors toward conscious and ethical consumption. That includes shopping sustainably, being fiscally responsible, evaluating the impact of a company on consumers, their employees, and their communities. Out of safety and health concerns, consumer spending has shifted online, there is a greater emphasis on healthy and local, and luxury brands are experiencing a disruption in loyalty as consumers start navigating toward lesser known brands. These are opportunities that exist now from Covid-19 and will have lasting impacts on the retail industry. From that realization, we started asking ourselves why not now and began creating a retail space that would also serve as a platform for social justice and the greater good. We started small and local. We began purchasing unused fashion jewelry from local immigrant and family owned businesses in NYC that were struggling and repurposing them into new multi-functional mask chain and body chain accessories that were body-inclusive. And that was the starting off point toward our evolution into fine jewelry and developing collections like Be the Change that donates proceeds to organizations committed to an equitable society. Our purpose is to show our customers that when they’re buying our products, they’re also investing in making a difference.
[Yuta] You are envisioning that Nunchi is becoming a platform that people can actively respond to rising social injustices and economic inequities.
How do Asian communities can work with other minorities or communities to improve US society?
[Jane] From personal experience and growing up as a first generation Korean American, I know that there is tension and underlying racism both outside and even within Asian communities. The media has often pitted minority groups against the other and has been successful in doing so - you can see and feel this resentment passed down from generation to the next. I think it can be daunting to start aiming to completely eradicate and unravel these roots. So maybe we start merely by listening. In times where misinformation and a resistance to opposing viewpoints are becoming prevalent, empathy and understanding are key to actively building change. Listening, fostering a culture of participation, and stepping up as allies for other communities are all ways to dismantle systemic racism. Participating in localized organizations are also a great way to get involved and have a direct impact on your community.
[Michelle] We recently shared a post on our business page on this very topic, it was ‘7 Asian American accounts to follow that are actively working to combat Anti-Blackness.’ We had no idea how well received and widely shared it would become, and to be honest this started as an internal text share between Jane and myself. After posting it, several of the incredible activist accounts we highlighted reached out to thank us personally for sharing their work and we received a slew of private messages from both old followers and new thanking us for using our platform in this way. It was honestly overwhelming and so reassuring that we are on the right path.
[Yuta] As an entrepreneur, would you feel you need a different skillset under the pandemic? If so, what advice would you give to the students?
[Jane] Being an entrepreneur means that you are constantly adapting and evolving. I wouldn’t necessarily say that you need a different skillset during the pandemic but it certainly challenges you to quickly respond to societal and cultural shifts. Merely treating a startup as one initial idea isn’t enough - my entrepreneurial advice is to keep actively learning, being aware of change, and being able to respond quickly to that change. As for general advice, traditionally there is a culture of silence among Asians, encouraging shouldering burdens without complaint. To do so is often considered honorable and has been a source of resilience. However, in light of the rising xenophobia and violence against Asians, I believe it’s more important than ever to fight silence. Inflammatory rhetoric can be discounted as just words but we’ve all begun to see firsthand how these words can incite acts of hate and assault. As a community, we need to work together to transform ignorance and hate into action.
[Yuta] For prospective MBA students/FY MBA students, what would be the best way to leverage their MBA experience in the current unique situation (remote/racial injustice movement)?
[Michelle] I know that so many of us are in a rush to be a part of the change, but we have so far to go on educating ourselves on the complexities of such a systemically engrained issue first. That being said, there is a seemingly endless list of book clubs, information sessions, conferences, documentaries and more right at our finger tips. There is really no excuse to rely on ignorance to absolve you from fully grasping the gravity of this movement.
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