Lisa Sun: “There is no light at the end of the tunnel, just skylights along the way”

My hope is that all of this leads to a wave of innovation that makes our world safer, healthier, kinder. And I want NYC to lead and pioneer that innovation. We’ve come back from so many things, stronger, tougher, and better. Very proud to be New York tough. As part of my series about people who […]

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My hope is that all of this leads to a wave of innovation that makes our world safer, healthier, kinder. And I want NYC to lead and pioneer that innovation. We’ve come back from so many things, stronger, tougher, and better. Very proud to be New York tough.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Sun. Lisa is the Founder & CEO of GRAVITAS, a company whose origin story dates back to Sun’s first professional review. The feedback that changed her life? Being told that she “comes across as young and overly enthusiastic at times,” that she “lacked gravitas,” and “should go buy a new dress, big jewelry, and great shoes.” With those words in mind, an understanding of the transformative power of clothing, and a determination to create a game-changing company, Sun secured the global patent to build shapewear directly into dresses. She launched GRAVITAS as a “confidence company” that offers innovative apparel and styling solutions designed to makeover women from the inside-out. Two months after launch, GRAVITAS was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, PEOPLE, and The TODAY Show in the same month. Prior to founding Gravitas, Sun spent 11 years at McKinsey & Company where she advised leading luxury, fashion, and beauty brands globally on strategic and operational issues. Sun has always had a passion for style and for helping people look and feel their best, having been a size 22, a size 8, and now proudly a size 12. At every size and age, she has found creative ways to show off her style, having been named one of Washingtonian Magazine’s Best Dressed Women. Sun graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University with distinction in Biology and Political Science.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in Fontana, CA, a small town where we had a ticker-tape parade the day we got a Wal-Mart, a Claim Jumper, and a Price Club. I started my life in the company of entrepreneurs. I am the daughter of Taiwanese, college-educated immigrants. My father is a Bing Crosby fan and thought America was like a musical, so he decided that he and my mother would be the only 2 people from their families to leave Taiwan. They came to the US with very little money — my mom worked on a hamburger truck and my father worked on a loading dock. They saved up enough money to own convenience stores and restaurants (Mongolian BBQ — 4.95 dollars lunch buffet, 12.95 dollars dinner all-you-can-eat where I worked every summer). It was very important to see how they built something from nothing.

When I graduated from Yale, I took the MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, GRE — I applied to law school, medical school, English grad school. My parents were in poor health, so ultimately my father said, “Come work for me.” I worked in my family’s scrap metal yard in Fontana, CA and helped my parents retire. From there, I went to McKinsey & Company, where I spent 11 years and learned from the world’s leading executives and thinkers.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

My parents learned how to speak English at Toastmasters. One of the books that their Toastmasters group considered very important was Dale Carnegie’s How To Make Friends and Influence Others. My father got me a copy of it at the swap meet when I was in high school. It’s a simple book, but it still resonates with me today — smile, be genuinely interested in others, remember people’s names. Essentially be a warm, nice person, and treat everyone well. It set the tone for how I treat others at an early age.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I often say, “There is no light at the end of the tunnel, just skylights along the way.” As an entrepreneur, I think there’s no light at the end of the tunnel — you’re not in it because of the destination; you’re in it because of purpose and passion and belief. The tunnel is really dark, and we make a lot of mistakes and learn and stumble. Every few miles there’s a skylight that reminds you that blue sky is above. And with those little skylights along the way, you’re just really grateful that whoever carved out that skylight for you, you thank them for reminding you there’s a sky, thank you for reminding you there was a small way today.

Part of my whole mentality is being an entrepreneur is a really hard job, it’s really not a fun job. And fundamentally, it’s a tough job. I actually wouldn’t wish it on many people. We eat glass and stare into the abyss. We eat glass because we deal with stuff no one else wants to deal with, and we never know where the next dollar is coming from. Who would choose this life? I only choose it because of the little skylights in a very dark tunnel.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

When faced with the disruption of the pandemic, I channeled my mom’s advice to act selflessly (not selfishly), do something (not nothing), and do the best we can for as long as we can. Our team took stock of our resources and we pivoted our lifestyle and fashion company, GRAVITAS, to create and distribute PPE to frontline workers, from hospital gowns to face masks, in the heart of New York City. I call it a “pivot with a purpose” — not with profit in mind — because profit is the last thing we should be thinking about. It’s communities, frontline workers, and our team that is first and foremost in my mind.

I also believe we are helping reshape the next normal with our cloth face masks. Not only were our face masks tested by The Today Show as being as good as hospital/surgical masks, but we are offering these in colorful patterns because we want people to be able to show their smile underneath. One of the most important shifts we need to make re: face masks is rather than being a fear-based tool that protects us from others, we are wearing masks to protect others from us. The face mask can become a feeling of connection to our community, that we are sacrificing something for the common good. An essential that prompts joy.

Our face mask product allows us to re-enter the workplace and public settings with that sense of common good — plus we’re giving back to NYC’s Garment District (New York Tough is an understatement!) and frontline workers. We’ve made 30,000 masks in the last 3 months — 15,000 donated to essential workers.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

Being a hero means being of use when your community most needs it. I believe that heroes are forged in fire. It’s easy to be a good person when times are good. In tough times, we see who steps up.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero?

  1. Selfless

2. Action-oriented

3, Self-confident

4. Innate positivity

5. Open-hearted/Inclusive

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

My mom has a saying that when tsunamis happen, some make speeches, and the heroes clean up the beaches. That is, someone has to step and just start getting things done, otherwise, nothing will ever happen. Ordinary people step up because they don’t have a choice and they care.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

In early April, a number of friends reached out asking if my team could support making PPE. They weren’t able to get hospital gowns and face masks. At that point, my mother told me to do something rather than nothing to make a difference, because we have the resources to contribute. It’s not about profit — we don’t think any company should even be thinking about the “p” word these days. It’s about our community and teams. Where it all begins and ends.

We are very lucky to be of use right now and years from now, we will remember what we were doing. In my case, we haven’t taken a day off in 100 days and I walk 2 hours round-trip every day in NYC to our office to get this done.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

My mother. Frontline workers. Healthcare professionals. My teammates, like my head designer who hand-cut 10,000 masks himself with a handsaw.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

People who don’t take it seriously and don’t (act as a) role model for other respectful behavior. Selfish people who are not able to put their own wants aside for the good of others.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain why?

Kind people give me hope for the future. In April, as we started to make cloth face masks for the frontline, I was deeply saddened and frankly, scared. And then one morning on my 3-mile walk to work, I was listening to Hamilton and heard the lyrics:

Look around, Look around
At how lucky we are to be alive right now!
History is happening in Manhattan and we just

Happen to be
In the greatest city in the world

In the greatest city-
In the greatest city in the world!
Work, work!

I cried for 20 blocks of my walk to work that day. It was what I needed to hear to remember how resilient New York City is. We couldn’t find elastic for our face masks, and there was 1 store — Panda Trim — that seemed to be still servicing the Garment District. I knocked on the window, and Deborah & Veronica Kim answered and offered to help us. They didn’t price gouge. They were just kind. They made me feel hope — that kind person exists and win. Here’s a great piece about them:

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

Inspiring: Generous people who weren’t trying to profit from the pandemic (like the Kim Sisters at Panda Trim).

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

Not really. I believe people are essentially good. And even more so in times of crisis. A former client of mine from McKinsey (the VP of the global supply chain for 2 decades of a major luxury brand) reached out to me on LinkedIn and offered to pick up and drop off hundreds of yards of fabric for us. It’s amazing the people who come back into your life when you most need it.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

My hope is that all of this leads to a wave of innovation that makes our world safer, healthier, kinder. And I want NYC to lead and pioneer that innovation. We’ve come back from so many things, stronger, tougher, and better. Very proud to be New York tough.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Don’t overthink it. The more you plan and over-think, the less you are doing. You will not get it right — everything is iterative. The best way to have an impact is just to do less talking and just start walking!

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have something I like to call the “Inner Child Challenge.” I believe we are born fully self-confident. And over time, we lose that self-confidence because of insecurities and doubts. Think of how fearless we were as children. Instead of giving advice to your younger self, what would your younger self tell you? Perhaps to take that leap, believe in one your innate talents, feel good about a win? If we all operated from a place where we felt abundant in our individual gifts, think how much we could accomplish.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Is it too cliché to say, Oprah? ☺

How can our readers follow you online?

@GravitasNewYork (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook)

@LisaLSun (Instagram, Twitter)

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you for the opportunity! ☺

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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