Phuong Mai was a management consultant who traveled—a lot—and was ruining her spine with every over-sized, heavy bag she lugged over her shoulder. A collar bone injury from yes, the weight of her bags, was the last straw. There had to be a better—and more stylish—way for business women to take along everything they needed without risking spinal injuries. And so, it was a no-brainer for Mai to start making her mission a reality and P.MAI, her line of luxury women's backpacks, was born.
“What I see these backpacks doing for hand bags is what ballet flats did to heels ten years ago," she explains. “Ballet flats in the work place were just smarter and more comfortable, but a professional alternative to the pump. When Tory Burch came on Oprah with her ballet flats, it was like, 'Oh that's genius.'"
Now that Mai works on P.MAI full-time, she's a true champion of female entrepreneurs as she's recognized that when brought together, they're a force to be reckoned with. Here, Mai shares her best tips, thoughts and observations for any woman currently in business for themselves—or about to take that leap.
What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned as an entrepreneur?
This is my first company and I've learned that female founders are a unique tribe. It's grown over the last few years with the Lean In movement, Girl Boss and this pride that women now have be more vocal about being a feminist all while taking calculated risks to pursue what they want. I'm all about that and want others to hopefully feel inspired to look inward and wonder, 'Well what would it take for me to do it too? How could I get started?' I've been very honest that it's not all glamorous and that's why I tend to ask other entrepreneurs about their initial struggles and how they dealt with them because I want people to have a very authentic impression of what it takes—but then also know they're not alone.
How do you recommend getting a business idea—and support network—off the ground?
Be calculated in the risk, be smart and understand what problem you're trying to solve. Start testing it out in small ways and be prepared for rejection. Every artist knows that they must be ready for criticism the moment they put a painting up. As an entrepreneur, it's the same way. Don't let it stop you but know it will happen and seek progress over perfection. It's okay if you're not perfect. You'll realize even the most put together people aren't put together at all. They say that in different moments, people are like ducks. They're calm and unruffled on the surface but really, they're paddling like crazy underneath. You'll find the more honest you are with yourself and the more willing you are to share your struggles—people not only relate but will genuinely want to help you—and it would be silly to turn your back on that.
You're a team of one—how do you stay sane?
Unfortunately, I don't have the luxury of my own team yet but it's certainly a goal of mine in the coming future to build that out. So, how do I bounce ideas and how do I keep sane as a founder? The answer is I have fellow entrepreneur friends that I lean on who I can always text for thoughts, advice and even quick pow wows. I'm active in female communities—no matter where I am.
I've lived in San Francisco for the last five years and that's where I have most of my entrepreneur friends. But, that doesn't stop me from reaching out elsewhere. Recently, I was in Toronto and I wanted to see what their start-up scene was like. Well, I had recently met this one woman in line at a Hillary Clinton rally who worked for a Canadian accelerator. So, I reached out to her, she just powered off like four emails and I ended up meeting with a couple of great women. It's just a matter of putting yourself out there. Ask for help and pay it forward.
Mid December with the holiday season on the horizon and having read too many pieces about social media addiction, I was ready for a break. Every time I reached for my phone, I had a Pavlovian instinct to click on the Instagram icon and that's when I knew it was time.