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 e-commerce apparel brand 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. 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. Though I’m fortunate to have grown up around a bunch of Asian Americans (for context: my high school was 80 percent Asian), I resented my Asian American identity during my childhood. 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 or Spanish or anything else?”.
Growing up in Edison, I always felt labeled as “just 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 how cohesive the designs look.”
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 been way more invested, excited, passionate, and fulfilled by the brand, but I also see the community response increasing and that’s equally, if not more, important to me.
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 relatively narrow-minded and just thought, “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, the mission is to give them full respect and do their talent 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 do well typically reflect an artist’s ethnicity or something related to their identity. For example, we have collections inspired by Seoul, Japan, or Indian Culture.
I think those functions feel, at least to me, like the most authentic. For instance, 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 run by 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.
For example: In the beginning of COVID, there was a phobia against Asians. Therefore, when Black Lives Matter movements 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’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, AA BATTERIES is more about clothing, stickers, prints, and tangible objects. Our brand is about the feeling of pride and belonging in our AAPI community.
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. Another clothing brand that I looked at in the beginning was Asian American Girl Club. It was started by actress Ally Maki.
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.
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 be a part of this “club.”
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 from an artist, Valerie Lam. She created these Mahjong-style earrings and promoted them on a Facebook group for Asian creatives.
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.
Alicia White Leading Project Petals to Repair Communities
Nonprofit organizations are driven by a social cause. They help families in need, repair communities, teach children new things, and give hope to those who need it most.
Alicia White, the founder and president of Project Petals, had all of this in mind when starting her nonprofit. She is an advocate for all those living in low-income and under-resourced communities. Not only is she an entrepreneur, but she has also worked with the United Nations and done grant work with domestic justice civil rights issues within her community.
BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview White regarding her history with Project Petals and moving forward with her program.
1.) You started Project Petals with the vision to help low-income and under-resourced communities. Can you tell us a bit about what the process of starting up a new business was like? What were your struggles along the way?
The process of starting my organization has been rewarding, and I learned so much through the process. My organization started out as a volunteer-led project in Queens, New York. It was important for me to form an organization to improve the environment, support communities and future leaders.
It was challenging starting my first environmental project, and I wanted to make it less difficult for anyone coming after me. Also, to help youth learn the leadership skills needed to make an impact in their communities.
Starting a new organization for me had its challenge, but I learned so much along the way. I had to essentially learn what it was to set up an organization in what felt like overnight. Through extensive research, I had to file paperwork, create a website, the logo, the structure of the organization, and just typical start-up activities fell on my shoulders.
Like most black women founders, my biggest struggle was finding and securing funding. For example, in 2019, Black-led organizations received less than 4% of grants and funding. That percentage dwindles when you are a woman.
2.) COVID-19 has been challenging for many small businesses and has caused people within many communities to struggle to make ends meet. How have you seen this affect them and what has Project Petals been doing in response to this?
COVID-19 has hit the communications that my organization works, extremely hard. My organization had to change from working on the ground with large amounts of volunteers to working remotely, with fewer volunteers on the ground.
Through all of this, we were still able to support our community leaders and neighborhoods with the tools and resources that they need to improve their environments. Like every other organization, we have to abide by COVID-19 safety restrictions and guidelines to keep everyone safe while still actively providing the services that are needed to make an impact.
3.) Going forward with Project Petals, what do you envision with your company? Where do you see it going in terms of growth?
I see Project Petals eventually moving to a national scale. The need for environmental support and community development is needed now more than ever. With the climate crises on the brink of causing further catastrophe, it is vital that Project Petals is able to serve as many communities and leaders as we can.
4.) You have a program called, “Youth Builders Program.” Can you elaborate more on what it is and what sort of programs it offers? And how this program can be of help to those participating in it?
Our Project Petals Youth Builders Program helps young people gain the leadership skills they need to improve their communities and futures. Our program connects youth in grades 4-12 to engineering, architecture, urban planning, environmental science, tech, and design professionals who can offer mentorship, experience, internships, and inspiration through monthly workshops.
We work to catalyze the next generation of environmentalists, community leaders, and professionals in these fields. Our program inspires them to develop a passion for these fields, thus working to create a more sustainable, diverse, and equitable world. One hundred percent of all of the youth show great leadership potential. We believe by fostering this leadership and giving them access to a network of professionals; we will start to build more resilient communities.
5.) Before Project Petals, what sort of jobs were you doing? What led you to want to become an entrepreneur and what advice do you have for anyone also planning to pursue entrepreneurship?
Growing up, I always had ideas that I wanted to bring to reality, but as a young person, I didn’t know how to, and I didn’t think it was possible for me to do so. As an adult, social entrepreneurship gave me the opportunity to take my ideas and actually use them to make a positive impact in other people’s lives and the environment.
If I had to give any advice, it would be to have confidence in your ideas and in your skillset as you may face many obstacles, nay-sayers, and challenges along the way. Failure is par for the course and is a good lesson plan to succeed.
We hope that by understanding Project Petals, White, and how entrepreneurs can shape the future of the community around them, we can then better understand how to make our community and the world around us a better place. Thank you to Project Petals and White for this opportunity and we hope this program thrives in the coming years!
Using Instagram Art to Promote Anti-Racism: Meet French Graphic Artist Aurélia Durand
Instagram artist, Aurélia Durand, has been using the platform to promote her anti-racism art. She has a website on which she sells posters, stickers, and cards that she has designed herself. Her art is focused on celebrating diversity and equal representation. Durand’s dream is to help form a united community and an inclusive future for everyone. BLENDtw had the opportunity to ask Durand a series of questions about her current work on Instagram, the book she illustrated, and her goals for the future.
1. Who or what inspired you to start creating art? What keeps you motivated?
When I begin working on a new artistic creation, I listen to music to put myself in a zone where I feel good and am inspired to create a meaningful message. I find that music settles the mood and atmosphere around me. I create to stay positive, and staying positive is essential for my well being. I need to be creative; I am addicted to creativity; imagination, drawing, and seeing the idea evolve is exciting. The most fulfilling feeling is to see people interacting with my work.
2. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? What advice would you give to young black women with dreams similar to your own?
Create for yourself; don’t try to make the same as everyone else. Find your voice; follow your instinct.
3. What impact do you hope your art will have on our world today?
I hope my art empowers people and makes them smile.
4. In what way does art communicate with and reach people better than other means do?
It’s upon us; it happens because of many factors. I think that visuals are more impactful than words. It is universal, we see it, and we quickly react to it.
6. You just recently illustrated a New York Times bestseller, “This Book is Anti-Racist.” What inspired this project? What do you hope readers take away from it?
I hope readers want to take action for antiracism in there every day life after they read the book.
My publisher, Quarto, contacted me at the end of 2018 to participate in the book’s conception as the leading illustrator. I have never met the author; unfortunately, due to the current global pandemic and social distancing regulations.
The book, “This Book is Anti-Racist” was released in January 2020 and became a best seller in June after the Black Lives Matter movement spread globally. We sold more than 150,000 copies! The book has been popular in schools, but people of all ages are reading the book. It includes about 20 exercises for readers to do while thinking about how they can take action to build a more inclusive society.
7. Do you have any plans or projects you are working on? How can people help support your cause?
I am working on many new projects, but I can’t talk about them as they are meant to be a surprise. In October, I will be participating in several talks with Adobe, Ladies and Wine, and the AOI association. The projects are very exciting and I have confidence that they will have great success when they are completed.
Meet Steve Schwartz: Coaching Students Through LSAT Unplugged
None of us are strangers to the barriers that standardized testing poses to students. Most of us have gone through exams such as the SAT, ACT, or SAT II exams, which are notorious for being inherently abstruse to students without test preparation programs and similar resources.
Beyond these college entry exams, which some schools have made optional due to these reasons, there are also graduate school entry-level exams. Like the SAT and ACT, exams like the GRE, LSAT, and MCAT serve as gatekeepers to graduate school for many students for several reasons, ranging from financial difficulties to no access to preparation materials.
According to a study by Harvard scholars, the LSAT was linked to the marginalization of aspiring black lawyers.
Even so, individuals are working to alleviate these barriers; Steve Schwartz, one of these remarkable individuals, is making his LSAT preparation materials more accessible to all demographics through his blog and YouTube channel. BLENDtw had the pleasure of interviewing Steve about his journey to becoming an LSAT coach.
In your blog, you mentioned that a lot of other LSAT coaches tend to be geniuses that didn’t have to study for the LSAT for a good score. But, you worked extremely hard for your impressive score, and you can help others accomplish the same for themselves. How do you adhere to your promise to make LSAT prep and impressive scores accessible to all?
Well, it’s really about getting into the student’s mindset and seeing the questions from their point of view. Going back in time to when I was prepping, I would feel dumb sometimes; I wouldn’t always get it the first time, the second time, or even the third time. So, it’s really about adjusting to the way they think about it and getting them to understand it using their way or their approach.
In 2019, there was a study published that linked the LSAT to the marginalization of aspiring black lawyers. How are you working to alleviate this marginalization?
So first off, aside from my courses, I release 98% of my information for free via the YouTube channel, Facebook group, and Instagram. So 98% of my information is free, that’s a lot of information. That being said, I also have scholarship programs for my class.
Earlier this year, I ran a special interest scholarship, where all you had to do was submit a short video, really anything you want. I got over 100 submissions. I was initially going to give 10 students access to top tier courses for three months, but I got so many good submissions that I accepted 30 students for free.
Going forward, I have several scholarships I am running, through which you can get 50% off the classes if you have a fee waiver, are active or former military, and if you’re committed to practicing law in the public sector, you can get an additional 10% off. I am doing my part and always looking for more ways to make my materials more accessible.
How do you believe standardized testing gauges one’s abilities? What is your opinion on the belief that assessments like the LSAT are barriers to achieving one’s dreams?
I think standardized tests play an important role, but they’re also overemphasized in the admissions process. They have some validity, and they’re a better objective method than GPAs are because of grade inflation and variations among different kinds of programs; one standardized test plays a role in leveling that field.
But, at the same time, people can afford prep while others can’t. That creates barriers because some people have certain backgrounds that make it so that they can perform better in these exams. So, I wish that these exams didn’t have as much importance as they do. But, I still think they play a role. People should always be looking to make these exams better and more equitable.
You mentioned in your blog that you became an LSAT coach upon obsessing over it, achieving an impressive score, and wanting to help others to do the same. How did you reconcile your dreams of becoming a lawyer with your desire to help others surpass the “roadblock” the LSAT poses on the journey to law school?
First off, once I took this exam and became obsessed, my natural process of studying it naturally forced me to help others. So, since I was a political science major as a pre-law student, I had friends who were also looking to take the LSAT; it just felt natural to help them. I kind of fell into teaching the exam in that way.
At the same time, I was working on my law school application and personal statement, and that really is a journey to self-discovery, and you wonder why you want to go to law school and what you are doing here.
Through that, I realized I didn’t want to go to law school; all the things I loved about it was an idea I had created for myself. But, I loved teaching the LSAT, so I decided that it was really for me.
I discovered this by writing a personal statement. I started my blog a few years later, and it just took up from there along with the YouTube channel.
And from here, we really are just looking to expand mediums to get as much information out there for people to have.
What advice would you offer a college student on a predetermined path, like pre-law or pre-med, about not reaching a traditional endpoint?
I would say to talk to some people doing what it is that you want to do. I would say to do some exploration and talk to people in the field and ask them what they do. Maybe you can shadow them so you can understand what it is that goes on so you can get a clear idea and not just something you make up in your head. Talk to the professionals in the field and get their advice.
What is the most memorable or impactful coaching experience you have had thus far?
There are so many, it’s hard to think of just one. I have a lot of online coaching sessions; I even release them on YouTube where students get those flashes of insight. And whenever that happens, that’s really powerful. And, of course, due to COVID, there are more online classes. I play with different formats and the most interesting is group coaching.
In this format, the students support each other and present information to one another. It is an extremely powerful moment when students begin to support each other. It’s empowering to have someone learn by teaching others. I have learned a lot from teaching, but those moments where one student supports another and grow through that process, I think that’s the most powerful thing I have experienced.