Be proud of who you are and where you come from. Think about your own international background as an asset, rather than something you should try to hide, because different experiences and perspectives make you more special and unique!
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Iwona Ordon, Founder & CEO of TØY, an organic, sustainable yet functional baby clothing brand.
After spending over 3 years away from her husband who lived in the United States, Iwona Ordon left her job at Google in Europe to follow her heart and moved to the U.S. in search of a career path filled with passion and purpose.” She felt strongly that whatever she did next, she wanted it to matter. While awaiting a work visa and with a little inspiration from her family and friends, Iwona realized that the baby clothes industry could use a little TLC. With her passion for sustainability and Nordic design, she decided to translate that into baby clothing. After a year of research and interviews with parents and rounds of prototype testing to perfect the design, TØY was born. TØY, inspired by Scandanavian style in connection with Iwona’s Norwegian upbringing, offers a minimalistic design to parents who are searching for aesthetically clean-looking as well as clean-manufactured clothing. A newborn’s skin is 30% thinner than adults, which is why all of TØY’s clothes are designed and manufactured with a baby’s safety and sensitivities in mind, making her brand truly an organic and sustainable option for parents who have both their child’s wellness and the planet in mind.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in a small city in Poland called Gliwice. When I was still a child my mom took a leap of faith and moved with me to Norway in search of a better life. We moved to an area just outside of Oslo, where my mom was working, and I spent the whole first year in Norway learning the language and integrating into the Norwegian culture at a local school. Then, before I knew it, I suddenly felt more Norwegian than Polish. My mom’s decision to move to Norway inspired me to keep exploring the world, so as soon as I turned eighteen I decided to create my own international journey, which is when I really started “growing up”. I moved to Brazil, then came back to Norway to study tourism management and marketing. It didn’t take long before I moved again, this time to Sweden for my first marketing internship, after which I moved back home again to finish my degree and start my first proper job at a digital marketing agency. In 2016 I received an opportunity to join Google in Ireland, which was my last stop before moving to the US. To be honest, I feel like every country I’ve lived in has taught me something different about myself, so I don’t feel like I have stopped “growing up” yet, and I think that’s actually a good thing.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
Even though I haven’t fully emigrated to the US, there is definitely a story behind my move here and it’s a story fueled by love. I met my Chinese Australian husband in Sweden in 2013. I was living there and he was living in New York City at the time, so because of the long distance we didn’t even try to make it work at first, but then a year later we met again, and this time our connection was just too strong to ignore it, so we decided to give the relationship a try. We were lucky enough to be able to see each other frequently during the next 2 years, then we got engaged and decided that living in the US would make the most sense for both of us. In 2016 I moved to Ireland to join Google, hoping to later get an internal transfer to the US, but unfortunately immigration rules had changed after I joined the company and Google stopped sponsoring visas for most applicants. After over 4 years of long-distance relationship and over half a year after our wedding I decided to just quit my job and moved to the US to finally live with my husband.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I was moving to the US after living in Ireland for 1.5years, so the move itself was very simple. I packed into the few suitcases I moved to Ireland with, brought my dog with me to the airport and 11 hours later we had arrived in San Francisco. What came next was the frustrating part. Moving to the US without a work transfer meant that I had to be classified as a “dependent” on my husband’s visa, which didn’t allow me to work. I couldn’t even apply for a work permit at first, because of constant uncertainty about rights for spouses of H1B visa holders, so we were forced to look into other visa options in order for me to feel like an independent person again. When I finally could move forward, getting work authorization was an extremely lengthy process; instead of 3–6 months as it was supposed to take, it took over 11 months to get it. Luckily, I came up with a business idea in the meantime, which I had to do a ton of research for, so it kept me busy during all that downtime.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My husband has always been very supportive. He knows very well how much I love working, so he understood how big of a sacrifice it was for me to move to the US without being able to work for a while. He did everything and anything to help make up for it. He enabled and supported me to follow my ideas of how to make the most out of my break, from helping me study for the GMAT to practicing driving with me and allowing us to continue to live in San Francisco when I wanted to take business courses at Stanford to help me develop my business idea.
So how are things going today?
Things are going well! After finally getting my work permit last year I was able to launch my own eco-friendly baby clothing brand, TØY, and we just celebrated TØY’s first birthday! We are still a small company, but with a big heart and an even bigger mission. We want to make the most comfortable and functional clothes and accessories, but without sacrificing our planet. I want TØY to be an example for other companies in the fashion industry, showing that it is possible to be sustainable and profitable at the same time. Since the beginning of 2020 our customer base has been growing at a very good pace and after bootstrapping the business myself for over a year, I am now in the process of raising some external capital to accelerate our growth and simply take over the industry — in a sustainable way, of course!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At TØY we do what we can with the resources we have to bring as much goodness to the world as possible. We are frequently holding our “Imperfect” sales, during which we sell imperfect but repairable products at heavily discounted prices, to allow families of all income levels to be able to purchase our buttery-soft and functional organic products. Our samples and unsold “imperfect” (but repaired) products are being donated to organizations like Homeless Prenatal Program, which helps homeless families in San Francisco, and we are also encouraging our customers to donate their babies’ outgrown TØY clothes on their own. All of our customers can get a discount towards their next purchase if they can prove to have donated their TØY to a non-profit or a family in need. We also experiment with donation campaigns to raise awareness about chosen non-profits and help raise some extra money for them. Last year we had a “give or get” campaign for Black Friday, where we gave people the choice of getting a discount or donating the equivalent amount to Project Night Night, a non-profit that gives childhood essentials to children in homeless shelters. In between these activities we are also actively using our communication channels to educate people about sustainability, unnecessary chemicals, how to make more eco-friendly everyday choices and we help promote other eco-friendly businesses. Last but not least, equality, diversity and inclusion are important to us, so we are actively trying to make all of our content and collections as inclusive for everyone as possible and we only design gender-neutral pieces to reinforce the message we believe in, that all genders should have equal opportunities.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
1) Allow all spouses to get their own work permits — without threatening to take those “privileges” back — and especially if they’re trying to start new businesses and employ other people.
2) Speed things up. The processing time for any application takes way too long.
3) Bring back the old internal transfer rules, so talented people can still move to the US. The corporate world in the US is missing out on so much talent without these visas.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Network. No matter how strange or uncomfortable it might feel, you just have to learn how to network in this country.
- Find your passion. If you can turn your passion into a viable business, that’s awesome. If you can’t, come up with a viable business idea and incorporate your passion into it!
- Be open-minded. Anything and everything (for example a pandemic) can happen when you least expect it, so it’s important that you stay flexible and are able to pivot if necessary.
- Keep moving forward. Sometimes things won’t go as planned and you’ll be challenged, but don’t get discouraged and quit if you can’t solve everything at once. Instead, take it step by step and focus on simply making progress and solving one problem at a time.
- Be proud of who you are and where you come from. Think about your own international background as an asset, rather than something you should try to hide, because different experiences and perspectives make you more special and unique!
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- Females in important roles! It’s so exciting to see that even though the US hasn’t had a female president yet, we are seeing more and more females very close to the top of the ladder. We still have a long way to go, and the percentage of female CEOs of Fortune500 companies is still in single digits, but I feel optimistic that in the future the US can and will achieve gender equality.
- More companies offering maternity and paternity leaves! It’s so important that everyone gets a chance to bond with their newborn(s), and while this is not standard practice at every workplace yet, more companies are starting to offer it.
- Opportunities! The US market is enormous and constantly changing, so the opportunities here still are and I think always will be pretty much endless.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
There are so many people I admire and would love to meet in person one day, but if I have to pick only one person, I’d say that I’d love to have a breakfast or lunch meeting with Elon Musk. I often joke about how TØY is the Tesla of baby clothes, so now that Elon has a baby I’d love to pick his brain on sustainability in the baby clothing department 🙂
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I don’t like sharing too much of my private life on social media anymore, but everyone is more than welcome to follow TØY @toeybabyclothes on Instagram / Facebook / Tiktok, and if cute babies are not enough, you can follow the IG adventures of my two crazy French Bulldogs @sonya.and.cesar
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!