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Immigrant Hustle: “I was nearly thirty by the time I arrived in America. It felt like I was starting all over again” – interview with Lisa Yong.

Interview with Lisa Yong, cofounder of Y Studios, on her path pursuing the American Dream.

Please introduce yourself and your business.
My name is Lisa Yong and I’m co-founder and research director of Y Studios, a San Francisco-based product design and research consultancy that has designed everything from TiVo to craft coffee brewer to China’s most advanced smart speaker. We thrive on diversity and take a unique Culture-Driven approach—creating future-driven products and brands that are useful, beautiful, and meaningful.

Growing up in multi-ethnic, multicultural Singapore and immigrating to the U.S. have vastly influenced my perspective—and fueled my passion for diverse viewpoints and discovering the why’s of human emotions. I’m a cultural translator, connecting emerging cultural movements with social changes to design products that ignite global consumer passions.

In July 2018, I was featured in Forbes, “How to Break Into The Male-Dominated Worlds of Tech and Industrial Design”. I discussed how my personal and professional experience helped overcome gender stereotypes and break into this male-dominated industry.

Y Studios is internationally recognized with numerous design awards including the IDEA, Red Dot, iF and GOOD Design. We’re extremely proud that our design for the Sonos SUB has been inducted into Henry Ford Museum’s permanent collection. 

Please tell us about your life before immigrating to the US… 
I’m originally from Singapore. Growing up in this tiny city-state has shaped many of my fundamental beliefs, especially the inclination for hard work and resilience. I grew up in the company of strong, older women—my siblings were decades older, my mother was a businesswoman, and I was cared for by my grannies and nannies. I loved being immersed in their stories of hardships and overcoming life obstacles.

My parents (both creatives) were thankfully not traditional Chinese parents who expected their children to follow the conservative path of becoming doctors or lawyers. They were receptive to me pursuing my passion for design. But while they accepted and gave me the freedom to pursue my dreams—it hasn’t been easy that I’ve lived abroad my entire adult life.

I felt from a young age that Singapore was too small for me. I always felt something was missing and had this unexplainable feeling that America was where I belong. I knew in my heart I had to make it happen or I’d never be happy.

Please tell us about your life after immigrating to the US…
I was 28 when I arrived in the US in 1997. It was sheer determination and tenacity that I wanted to make it to America, one way or another. When I first left Singapore, I was completely on my own; far away from my family and the sheltered life I had always known. It was challenging, as my younger self was shy, cautious and self-conscious. After a long, convoluted path—from England to Europe, and back to Singapore—I was nearly thirty by the time I arrived in America. It felt like I was starting all over again, embarking on a fledgling design career in a new company and learning to live with a new boyfriend and not drive each other crazy! That’s a lot of new experiences—it was exciting, but incredibly overwhelming.

After graduating with an Industrial Design degree in England, I was recruited by Philips Design in the Netherlands as an industrial designer and researcher. It gave me the opportunity to work around the world—including Hong Kong and the San Francisco Bay Area. Another opportunity took me to Boston where I worked with Motorola’s Advanced Design Group. These experiences educated me on all facets of running a design firm—and also fueled me with ideas on how to do it better. That said, it was still terrifying when I finally made the decision to quit my job and join my now husband/business partner, Wai, to start Y Studios in San Francisco.

Please tell us about your entrepreneurial journey and about any struggles or successes you experienced in business. 
From an early age, I had a deep curiosity for wanting to understand people and cultures. And through my design career, I discovered that research was the best medium to channel this passion. At Y Studios, I always strive to design with empathy—to understand the undercurrents of human behaviors before we can make beautiful products that are delightful to use and connect in a meaningful way.

Y Studios was created out of necessity during the dotcom crash when Wai lost his job. We had to put our marriage on hold while Wai grew the business in California and I stayed in my Boston job to help us scrape by. It was a crazy tough time—finances were tight, we were apart for long stretches, we didn’t have a life outside of work and were saving as much money as possible to make our dream a reality.

Coming from Asian families, we were taught to save, and thank goodness we were frugal. It took us almost 10 years to save up enough money to buy our first home where we started and grew Y Studios from scratch. There was no time to plan, we just had to learn along the way and adapt quickly to survive. With just one employee and countless freelancers coming and going all day, it was a nightmare to manage personal and professional lives.

Starting Y Studios was a huge leap! The first few years were the most challenging and stressful – the “not knowing what’s next “ – not having a steady income, not knowing if we’d have enough work to keep going. There were plenty of sleepless nights. The biggest challenge was overcoming “fear of the unknown.” I still haven’t conquered this completely, but planning out what-if scenarios has helped ease stress.

Mental health, stress management and staying positive are important factors in entrepreneurial success. What are some things you like to do when you feel overwhelmed or down?
I’ll take a deep breath and go for a walk around San Francisco—where we’re blessed with good weather most days. Just stepping outside, breathing in fresh air and sunshine—it doesn’t take long to feel better. I also find journaling a good way to manage emotions. I can then look back and evaluate thoughts with a fresh perspective and find better ways to handle things differently.

Looking back, why do you think you have been successful? Was there any specific decision, event or encounter that skyrocketed your success? Also, what advice do you have for newly arrived immigrants that want to pursue the path of entrepreneurship?
Y Studios has been going strong now for 18 years. We continue to thrive and reinvent ourselves. But there are no shortcuts to success. It’s about being true to your core values. We believe in what we do, and others have responded in kind because they believe in us too.

My advice for newly arrived immigrants? Be ready to work hard and seriously get to know the market you’re pursuing. What you think you know from your home country might not be translatable or even relevant in America. Ignorance and arrogance are both detrimental to success. Be curious and ask the right questions.

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