Meet Lea Chen, a Young Entrepreneur Breaking the Model Minority Myth Through Fashion
Asian style has been known worldwide for its unique designs and patterns in its heritage way. It has recently been the center of attention, both positively and negatively, the former being due to the rise of K-pop and the popular Chinese street fashion TikToks, and the latter being the appropriation of Asian culture (specifically the fox eye trend and Kim Kardashian’s maang tikka).
However, there are still very few Asian designers present in mainstream Western fashion. This is possibly due to the “model minority myth” — a phenomenon that has boxed Asian Americans into solely professional careers.
BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview Lea Chen, the CEO of the start-up company AA BATTERIES, which prides itself on being a brand that is “for and by Asian Americans.”
The recent Wharton Business School graduate said that the journey leading to the creation of this passion project was not an easy one. However, the result of this tough journey was a company that will make a difference in mainstream media.
Tell us about the name “AA BATTERIES.” What does it represent?
The “AA” part represents Asian Americans. I actually started this brand four years ago in college, and I only recently rebranded it to AA BATTERIES in the end of March or April. That was when I wanted to do something very focused on the Asian American community. This is coming from someone who didn’t really feel pride in her identity growing up.
I feel like I didn’t see designs that were reflective of our culture and heritage. I wanted something that was not only representative of us, but that fueled us and made us feel proud — that recharged us, essentially.
I think it was perfect because I knew I wanted “AA” or “AAPI” in the name to represent us as Asian Americans. On top of that, AA batteries are already a thing, and I wanted a brand that really energized our community.
How did your relationship with your AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) identity evolve into what it is today?
I grew up in Edison, New Jersey. I was definitely fortunate growing up around a bunch of Asian Americans. Growing up, I really resented my Asian American identity. When I was a little kid, I would ask my parents if they were sure that I was one hundred percent Chinese. “Are you sure I’m not, like, Irish?”.
Growing up in Edison, I was always labeled as another Chinese girl. I had expectations set on me, and I didn’t always fit into them. I think when I went to college, my relationship with my identity changed. I met people who grew up in a very different background than me. They had grown up in very White towns and had always longed to meet other folks from the AAPI community.
I think it really opened my eyes to feel more grateful for the town I grew up in. It helped meeting some really creative Asian Americans who really wanted to make an impact and do something different. My journey started with me growing up in Edison not really loving being Asian American, then me going to college and really educating myself about the community and really loving it.
You started with Lovelea. What made you want to create your own apparel brand that focuses on Asian American representation?
When I first started out, I was running on the adrenaline of “Oh, it’s so exciting to run a clothing brand, regardless of the name or what the designs’ reviews are.”
That was really exciting and it did teach me a lot, but it came to a point, maybe about a year and a half in, where it kind of reached this stagnant point.
It was at this time when I was looking back, or just sitting back and looking at the brand and thinking, “You know, what is this brand really about? I’m not super passionate about it, so how can I expect other people to be interested in it?”
It’s really an investment of a brand and a mission that they believe in. So if I’m asking that of people and I don’t really even see the value of the company, I don’t expect anyone else to support it. I had that moment where I just needed to reset this whole entire thing. And so I thought about, like, “what am I super passionate about?” and “where is there a gap?”
I know a bunch of Asian American illustrators and designers and creatives just from personal relationships and digital groups. A lot of people are so talented in this community, but either they don’t really pursue it seriously or they just see it as a hobby. They don’t necessarily think they can make money off of it.
Since rebranding, I’ve always been way more invested, excited, passionate, and fulfilled from it, but I also think I can really see the community response also just increasing as well.
As you know, there are hardly any Asian American creative entrepreneurs in mainstream media. This is possibly due to the fact that the Asian American community encourages stable professional careers such as medicine, law, and engineering. Did your family have any hesitations with the idea of you pursuing a career in the fashion industry?
I think the biggest hurdles were sort of those external comments. I remember I would go to these Asian family parties, and we would go down the line and each kid would go down the line and say what we’re interested in.
I would always say that I’m interested in fashion and business, and other parents would just kind of raise an eyebrow and look at me and say “Oh that’s cute, but fashion’s just a hobby, what are you actually studying in college?” I was super fortunate that my parents were supportive.
My mother works in a more creative industry, so they really pushed me to pursue what I was passionate about. It was definitely a frustrating time to hear people in the community speak this way. I even had some acquaintances my age question my passion and interest just because it wasn’t a stereotypical path that Asian Americans typically take.
It helped that I was taking a business perspective to fashion. I knew I wasn’t necessarily going to fashion school. I was going to business school, so it didn’t directly limit me in terms of my industry. I think that probably made them feel more at ease.
I also think with running AA BATTERIES, something that I’ve just been lucky to have with it is that I don’t look at it necessarily as a clothing brand that has to make a profit. From day one, I started it because I wanted to learn as much as I could about entrepreneurship and about this community.
Ultimately, I just call it a passion project that happens to have customers and bring in profit and have a community around it. It’s just really a passion project at the end of the day. When I describe it that way to my parents, it also helps them feel comfortable.
What advice do you have for young BIPOC women who would like to start their own business?
This is gonna sound super cliche, but know that taking the time is super valuable and that you only get to launch once. I remember when I started my clothing brand, I was a freshman in college. It was over winter break; I was super naive. I launched within four or five days from having the idea.
I essentially launched because I was like “Oh my gosh, I can print a shirt, this is amazing,” and I just put it out there, put like six designs; there was no cohesive mission. The name was really bad. The website looked kind of janky.
I remember I was so excited about it, but I didn’t do that much research into the best manufacturing that could have been done or if these were really the best designs. I was just very insular and just thought about like, “I’m so excited about it, so other people are just naturally going to be excited about it.”
Then there were so many mistakes and things I had to fix that I had to do after I had already launched. Not only do you only get to launch once, but your reputation in potential customers’ minds is set once you have it there.
First, it’s very very hard to change your first impression. So there are a ton of people, I’m sure, who saw my brand four and a half years ago, and maybe they don’t even realize I’ve rebranded. They don’t realize I’ve changed my printing production partners and manufacturing process, or my whole website.
I’ve noticed that your website has a vast range of collections. What inspires the creation of each collection?
The collection vision and theme is really driven by the artists that I collaborate with. I think my favorite part about the brand is the fact that we collaborate with these artists. These Asian American artists are so talented — their work deserves to be showcased and also financially compensated. That’s a huge part of our motto.
There are other Asian clothing brands out there, but I personally have never seen one that collaborates with artists and financially compensates them in the way that we do in our business model.
When I collaborate with an artist, it is to give them respect and do them justice. I want them to feel comfortable with the collection and their product. Therefore, I don’t mandate, like if it’s a Korean artist “you have to do one of our vintage Seoul.” I’m more like “What do you want to bring to the designs that you have? What do you think would work?”
It’s a super collaborative process, which is awesome because we’ve been able to work with a number of Asian American artists. A lot of those collections are really driven by the artists and what they’re looking for.
What is your advice for an Asian American designer who wants to design for AA BATTERIES?
We love seeing every single artist that submits work. We’re always open to seeing their work. We’re never going to reject artists on the basis that we have too many artists right now. I think the collections that work best with our customers, as well as our whole brand and mission are ones that feel cohesive as a collection.
There are some artists who have individual pieces but lack the cohesive look of a collection. Pieces that sell well are typically an artist’s ethnicity or something related to their identity. That’s why a lot of collections are from Seoul, Japan, or the Desi collection.
I think those functions feel, at least to me, like the most authentic. I have a Japanese artist creating Japanese designs for clothing, and only they can really tell that story. I think that’s when the designs to me feel most successful.
AA BATTERIES not only sells apparel but advocates for important issues such as the Model Minority Myth, Asians for Black Lives, and Asian mental health awareness. Tell me a bit about that. What made you decide that you wanted to bring awareness to that?
I collaborated with Dear Asian Youth, this student-run organization full of economies of Asian American youth. I actually reached out to Dear Asian Youth to do a collaboration before the George Floyd murder happened and before The Black Lives Matter protests started.
For Asians for Black Lives, for every purchase, 30% of the profits go to an organization tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. It might be Black Lives Matter itself, or the NAACP, or the Black Visions Collective.
It was just the perfect timing because they were like, you know, we want something that not only looks good on clothing but really advocates for a specific mission. In the Asian American community, there is this anti-Blackness rooted in generations in the United States, like my grandparents and even my own parents.
A lot of it is just unfounded in the sense that it’s just rooted in a lot of fear. I think that comes from the immigrant struggle or the model minority myth. I don’t think my parents are malicious, but there’s just like this lack of knowledge and understanding. There’s just a lot of misconceptions.
For example: In the beginning of COVID, there was a phobia against Asians. Therefore, when Black Lives Matter stuff happened, a lot of Asians were speaking up, saying “We were being attacked in the beginning of COVID and no one spoke up for us, so why do we really need to speak up so loudly for the Black community?”
However, our community would not be where it is today without so many leaders in the African American civil rights movement. I think there was just this education piece and gap there. So by having this collection, one it was really perfect timing, but two, it allowed us to take a mission and put it on something tangible and really let people show that this is something that’s important to them.
What are some challenges you’ve faced as a young Asian American Entrepreneur?
One of my biggest challenges that I think is a challenge for any brand starting out is just really building your customer base and really building that community of people that will follow you. I really had to lean on whether other Asian American organizations or groups were Instagram- or social media-driven.
My main question was “How do I tap into their network and their community?” That’s still something I think about every day, like “how do I really build this follower base?”
I’ve been lucky to manage other social media accounts, just because it’s my day job. It’s definitely interesting running an account that’s for a brand where you sell products versus an account that’s all about empowering and community-driven.
At the end of the day, people are like, “Oh, yeah, we’re passionate about Asian Americans,” but they’re like, “you’re trying to sell me a product.” I think messaging is super key. When people wear merch and buy stickers, I love it. But ultimately I just really have AA BATTERIES to foster this committee. Building this is a tangible way to show off how I’m proud of Asian Americans.
If someone comments on my Instagram post and says “Oh my god! This is so enlightening! I learned a lot!” that honestly might be more valuable than producing a product. The messaging was pretty key, and that was a challenge. I also had a rebrand, so I had to build this new customer base — tell people who I was and also prove that you can trust our brand and who we are and our authenticity.
Who are some of your greatest influences in fashion?
A lot of my influences are not necessarily fashion brands, but just Asian American creators. Gold House is an organization that I really aspire to be like. I think they have a class to them that just elevates the community. They’re more focused on entertainers within Asian American space, but I think they do a great job.
There are so many cool people in the Asian American community who are really speaking up lately. Those are the people that really inspired me to want to create AA BATTERIES. The theme here is that it’s beyond the products and just the physical items for me. I’m trying to foster this kind of environment.
Another clothing brand that I looked at in the beginning was Asian American Girl Club. It was started by actress Ally Maki.
Design-wise, Asian American Girl Club hasn’t been really the inspiration, but more so how she’s fostered this community. It’s cool that people are happy to wear those designs, because on every t-shirt it says “Asian American Girl Club,” and people are proud to have it on their shirt.
What are your plans for the future of AA BATTERIES?
Over the next few months or next few years, I really want AA BATTERIES to be representative of the whole Asian American spectrum. For example, having the Desi collection was super important to me. Growing up in Edison, I was so fortunate so many of my friends were Indian American.
For most Asian Americans I know in college, they assumed that when I said that all my friends were Asian in high school I meant East Asian. However, it wasn’t like that for me.
I’ve noticed a lot of my collections are from East Asian designers and that’s still cool, but something I’m really trying to work on is having more representation of the South Asian and Pacific Islander experience.
It started when I had the Desi collection. I was super excited, but I feel there’s still so much work I could do in terms of having more of those designers and making them feel like they’re part of the community as well. I often reach out on digital forums asking if anyone knows any South Asian creators I can collaborate with.
I want to make sure that my media content is representative so that when people see AA BATTERIES, they’re like, “Oh, yes, this is actually an Asian American brand.” Stay tuned for when we do have another South Asian collection in the future.
I want to continue working with as many other types of Asians as I can, so I definitely want that for the future. But I’m really glad that the Desi collection is there.
Can you give us a sneak peek for the collections coming up?
We have recently released the “taiwan on the streets” collection. This Taiwanese artist’s style is kind of this color block graphic style of Taiwanese street food, which is cool. Another one that’s coming in the works is an artist. I believe she’s Chinese American. She created these Mahjong-style earrings and I sold them on this Facebook group.
This will probably come out maybe next month or the end of this month. Another one that I want to do is something that’s a little bit more focused on social justice. I’m not sure exactly how it will look yet; either it will be a text-based collection or drawings of Asian American icons or something more like the vibe of “we’re not your model minority myth.”
Recently, one of our posts blew up. The post says “Yes, I’m Asian. No, we’re not all basically the same thing.” Over 80,000 people have seen that post, which is crazy. I posted that at least over a week or two ago, but people will still — like, dozens of people — will still like it every day.
And I’m like, there’s something about that post. I think it’s just something about this very blunt text in your face, talking about who we are as Asian Americans and breaking down these myths and stereotypes that people dislike. That was kind of the inspiration behind why I want to eventually do this text series.
Mother of Four Who Dies After Childbirth Donates 12 of her Organs
Kathleen Thorson passed away after suddenly falling ill earlier this month following the birth of her fourth child, Teddy. Though she had already brought four lives into the world through childbirth, Thorson grasped her chance to save many more through her own organ donation.
Thorson was rushed to the emergency room when she suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage less than a week after Teddy’s birth. Despite several surgeries, doctors were unable to save her.
Because of Thorson’s diligence in the matter, the doctors were able to donate 12 of her organs to people who desperately needed them.
In order to raise funds for the medical bills necessary for such a donation, a GoFundMe campaign was created by Richard Stubbs, a family spokesperson. The campaign was set up five days before Thorson was rushed to the hospital. As each day passed, the gift of life became more valuable than ever.
“There aren’t many words to be said except that we love her, and we will miss her with every breath we take. Through all of this hardship, her love, life, and magic are still felt,” wrote Richard Stubbs, the organizer of the GoFundMe campaign.
As of Febuary 18, the GoFundMe campaign had raised more than $96,000. The money is funding the Thorson family’s medical costs, funeral expenses, and to make up for the lost wages of Thorson’s husband, Jesse.
Extra money raised was set up to go towards another one of Thorson’s dreams of building a garden for her children. The campaign ended after raising a total of $130,385. Thorson’s dying wish came true when it was revealed that she qualified as a viable donor for all of her organs.
“The nurse told Jesse the chances that someone is a candidate of this magnitude is less than 1 in a million. But anyone who knew Kathleen already knew that. We are so pleased to announce that Kathleen will be able to provide the prayed-for miracle for nearly a dozen individuals who are anxiously waiting for an organ donation,” Stubbs wrote on the GoFundMe campaign.
People from all over were able to donate to Thorson’s cause. Her story was brought to the attention of actress Kristen Bell‘s baby line, HelloBello. Kristen Bell shared Thorson’s story on her Instagram page as a true inspiration.
The Thorson family was also highlighted in the company’s weekly ‘Tuesday of Giving.’ And awarded a year’s supply of wipes and diapers to aid them in taking care of their newborn son.
“Before she passed earlier this month, Kathleen said she wanted to save as many lives as possible and donated an almost unheard of 12 organs, including her heart and lungs,” Bell wrote in her Instagram post, honoring Kathleen.
The family was also given a medallion in memory of Thorson’s selfless organ donations. Thanks to Thorson’s kind gesture, several people have another chance of life. Thorson turned a family tragedy into a life-saving miracle.
“We would happily do anything it took to bring Kathleen back to us. But we are so grateful that someone else’s mother, daughter, father, friend, brother, sister, son or love will be coming home thanks to Kathleen’s ultimate sacrifice. We love her, and we miss her. We always will.”
Comedian Raises Money to Send Young Austrailian Boy to Disneyland
A young boy in Australia was ruthlessly bullied at school for living with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. Yarraka Bayles was upset to see her son, Quaden, come home from school crying due to the bullying of his peers.
Wanting to spread awareness of how bullying can affect people, Yarraka posted a video of Quaden’s heartbreaking response.
Since the video was posted, it has been shared over 20 millions times. It gained the attention of people all over the world, garnering support from all types of people. Seeing the story, American comedian Brad Williams set up a GoFundMe for Quaden to send the young boy to Disneyland.
In just three days, it raised $465,463 from more than 20,000 donors. This far surpassed the $10,000 goal. The comments of the GoFundMe are filled with an outpouring of support for Quaden.
“I donated because Quaden and his mom deserve to know that the world is not populated with bullies,” one donor stated. “I’m sorry for what you’ve been through and hope the rest of your life is filled with love and kindness,” another one said.
The money raised covers the entire cost of the trip to Disney, and the rest of the money will be sent to anti-bullying charities, including the charity Quaden’s mother set up, Stand Tall 4 Dwarfism. The goal of Stand Tall is to stop bullying with Quaden now the face of the charity.
Some notable people have taken note of Quaden’s story. Australian actor Hugh Jackman tweeted out, “Quaden – you’ve got a friend in me.”
The National Rugby League’s Indigenous All-Stars team also showed their support for the young Australian boy. Quaden led the team out before their NRL pre-season match against the Maori All-Stars in Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Indigineous All-Stars fullback Latrell Mitchell gave Quaden some inspiring words to help him through this emotional time: “Just want to wish you all the best brother. We know you’re going through a hard time right now but the boys are here, we’ve got your back. We’re here to support you, bud.”
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