Lisa Sun, Project Gravitas, Woman Entreprener

imgresLisa was introduced to me through Erin Newkirk the entrepreneur behind Red Stamp.  She was in town and was interviewed by Lisa for Gravitas Woman.  The post is great and you can read it here.  Erin and I got together and she thought I would love Lisa and we should meet.  She made an introduction.  Ends up that at basically the same time I am invited to an event to celebrate Dana Cowin’s (editor of Food and Wine) cookbook and it is taking place at Lisa’s apartment.  So I get to talk to Lisa in the morning and actually go to her apartment that evening.  This goes under the one degree of separation/small world heading.

After speaking to Lisa for about 30 seconds I got what reason why both women adore Lisa.  She is smart, funny, savvy and her story is the ultimate of a first generation immigrant.  Project Gravitas is Lisa’s desire for the perfect dress for business and pleasure.

Lisa grew up in desert of California near Bakersfield.  Her parents are from Taiwan.  Her father who was the second son in the family had strong women role models.  His father had his own import/export food business and when he died his mother took over the business until she died.  In Taiwan, when both parents die the entire estate goes directly to the first son.  Since he was the second son he got nothing.  He went to work in another food business where the secretary was a young woman from a very wealthy family who he fell in love with, Lisa’s Mom.  He convinced her that after watching so many Yul Bryner movies that they should take their lives into their own hands and move to the United States.  They did and her family stopped talking to her for almost a decade.

When her parents got to CA her Mom went to work on a hamburger food truck as a line cook.  Her father went to work on a loading dock of an import/export seafood business which he understood because that was his families business in Taiwan.  They saved up enough money to open up a Chinese Mongolian BBQ place that became quite a large business.

Lisa grew up working in the family businesses.  Her father decided in 1992 that owning a restaurant was not the way to send their kids to the top universities so he sold the restaurant and began a scrap metal business.   Lisa had graduated high school at 15.  Two years early and made her way east to Yale where she got a degree in biology and international political science.  She wasn’t clear on what she wanted to do.  Her Mom wanted her to be a forensic scientist and her Dad wanted her to be a lawyer because he so believed in the power of immigration.  She had even won the Westinghouse award in high school.

During college she would come home in the summers to work in the scrap metal business.  One summer her mother took her to Asia to see how metals get recycled.  It was 1997.  She learned a lot that summer about what makes a good entrepreneur.  It was when the yen was being devalued and factories were being burnt down.  Lisa asked her Mom why their factory was not being burnt down.  Her answer made sense, we are paying our employees $1 more than the other factories and we give them health care.

In her senior year of Yale she took the MCAT, LSAT, GRE and GMAT leaving all her options open.  Then everything changed.  Her Mom was diagnosed with cancer.  Lisa graduated and came home to take over the family business by helping them to get it ready to sell.  Her Mom and Dad moved back to Taiwan because her Mom wanted to use eastern medicine to heal.

Lisa’s brother is 7 years younger than her and her parents want him to stay in the states. After selling the business Lisa bags the graduate school options and takes a job at McKinsey in DC.  She moves both her and her brother out there.  His brother enters 9th grade and Lisa goes to work.  The DC office was very understanding of Lisa’s responsibility towards her brother so she did not travel that often. She worked with the development group.

Four years pass and Lisa’s brother goes to NYU.  McKinsey asks Lisa what is it that you want to do now and she tells them that she wants to be in fashion.  Lisa was really overweight in high school and lost a serious amount of weight in college.  There was something about that experience that drew her into the fashion world.  The next eight years Lisa spends as the head of Global Luxury and Fashion at McKinsey.  She lives in Europe for a time and travels to Tokyo, China, Latin America, Brazil, Peru and Columbia.  Once she got her brother into college she felt the freedom to really pursue her own thing.

One day her former client hands her the keys to a family house in Greece and tells Lisa to go and stay in their house.  She is totally burnt out.  It is June 2012 and she had not taken a vacation in 13 years.  Literally that night she books the plane and five days later finds herself sitting in a house in Greece without a phone, internet or a car and twenty books.  Her only communication is to basically text her Mom daily to let her know she is alive.

Lisa has six weeks before the family comes for their Greek vacation.  While she is there she writes down the 5 most important events in her life and a business plan.  After she leaves Greece she flies to Taiwan to spend a month with her parents.  On the last week of her holiday her Mom says to her “Lisa you can not live here, you need to find a job.”  She asks her how much money has she saved.  Lisa tells her Mom and her response is “good thing, you can bet on yourself.”

The next morning Lisa wakes up with ten emails in her box from lawyers and accountants.  Her Mom has authorized half of her own savings account to go to Lisa to start her own business.  Lisa comes in for breakfast and asks her Mom why did she do that.  Her Mom says “you need to start your own company.”  And so she did.

Lisa takes a plane back to the states and lands in NYC.  She pulls out her paper that has the 5 most important events in her life out with her business plan and goes to see a lawyer the afternoon she lands.  She had learned that you are the first person you have to please when you look in the mirror in the morning.  That is how she came up with the name Gravitas.  You earn gravitas through experience you aren’t born with it.

She had this idea for a long time because of her constant fluctuation in her weight.  She wanted to design clothes for women so they can feel confident in who they are.  She buys a factory and then creates this dress that has a special shapewear built into it.  Think Spanx for a dress.   There is a functionality to the dress with an emotional call to action.  She wants people to feel good about buying a dress on Gravitas.  Every month they write about inspiring woman, like Erin and give 10% of the purchase to the charity of the buyers choice.

Lisa launched in July 2013.  Oprah gave her two pages in the magazine and the business has taken off ever since.  There are 30 ways to wear a dress and Lisa says they have a functionally different product and an inspiring message.  Feel confidence when you wear this dress.

It has been about a year and a half now.  She is manufacturing the product in NY.

Lisa’s personal story is amazing.  Obviously smart as a whip.  Her relationship with her Mom is amazing.  Life is funny.  It takes a lot of turns that you are not expecting.  Lisa embraced all of it with gusto.  She has a hearty laugh and a quick wit.  I am pretty confident that the dresses will lead to many other interesting paths and products.