Tina Wong Zysk: “Don’t be afraid to come in as an outsider”

Don’t be afraid to come in as an outsider — I didn’t have the past experience but the fashion industry is about being able to create something beautiful that people see and love. As part of our series about the 5 things you need to succeed in the fashion industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tina Wong […]

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Don’t be afraid to come in as an outsider — I didn’t have the past experience but the fashion industry is about being able to create something beautiful that people see and love.

As part of our series about the 5 things you need to succeed in the fashion industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tina Wong Zysk.

Tina is the Founder and Creative Director at Grace + Ivory, a modern curated brand of customizable, made-to-measure wedding dresses. Formerly working in foreign aid and business development in DC, Tina launched her bridal social enterprise in 2017. A firm believer that social enterprise is the future of good business, a portion of every dress purchase benefits women’s programs. A Chicago native and Loyola alumni with a global perspective (she roots for the Cubs and gets her deep dishes from Lou Malnati’s), she sought out and works directly with her dressmakers in China, cutting out middlemen to offer customizable gowns under 2,000 dollars. Tina wanted to give brides another option on how they shop for their bridal gowns. Today, Grace + Ivory is redefining the bridal experience with a try-at-home program that makes it possible for brides to order a sample to try in the comfort of their own home, on the dates of their choice.

Thank you so much for joining us Tina! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My own experience shopping for a wedding dress is what started me down this road. I love wedding dresses but felt that the wedding dress process and experience was not ideal for the bride — customer service was lacking, it was a stressful experience, the timeline was long, etc. I didn’t understand how made-to-measure wasn’t an option (custom men’s suiting is plentiful in options), and the prices didn’t add up to me. Timing was serendipitous for me; that same year I moved to Beijing and was able to seek out dressmakers that I trusted to make quality wedding gowns.

Launching my own social business was already on my mind, as I think social enterprises, companies that address social problems through a market-driven approach, should be the future of every business. Charities and the private sector shouldn’t be on parallel tracks, social enterprises are where they intersect. I also wanted to tackle an actual pain point, so when I recognized a gap in the bridal industry, I took the two passions and wed them together (pun intended).

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started?

The most amazing thing about my entrepreneurial journey, I’ve come to find, is all the amazing people I’ve found along the way. Personally, I was worried about my professional development and basic lack of social interactions as I set off on my own. I also simply love meeting new people, exchanging stories, learning from them, giving advice, and getting advice. The support system out there is amazing, if you’re willing to take a leap of faith. This led me into meeting with Mark Cuban’s China contact right after I launched Grace + Ivory — a friend had his contact, and I reached out, since the worst that could happen would be no response. Well, we ended up meeting for coffee, and that meeting really set into motion my whole approach for Grace + Ivory. I decided I would grow slowly and would build the company as I flew it, aka bootstrapping. I feel there are two paths — take your idea and then seek funding from investors, which is a full-time job in itself; or you take the longer, winding road, build it slowly, and adapt. I chose that road, based on the advice from that contact, which was, “Mark usually advises companies to grow slowly, get proof of concept, and adapt…see what works”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh, where to start? There are so many mistakes you make, some which you don’t even see as a mistake until you look back.

I’ve realized one of my biggest mistakes is not asking for help when I should have. What’s funny is I look back on various events and pop-ups that I’ve done, with me lugging around dresses by myself. I’m very independent and I have always done so much by myself, but that is not possible when starting a business. I felt bad asking for help, even from friends and family that offered, and that I wouldn’t be able to return the favor. A friend had a heart to heart with me and reminded me that it’s okay to ask for help. We’re social creatures, and we’ve essentially built the world we live in, together.

I still struggle with asking for help; I often have to sit back, take in the bigger picture, and try to move forward with the courage to ask. I’ve realized that many believe in my vision and want to be a part of it. I’ve tried to let go in some ways, let the waves take over, and let those that offer to help, help. I know I would do the same in return, so one day I hope to get that chance. Lesson learned: it’s okay to ask for help.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We want to be approachable. Our social mission and values are driving Grace + Ivory’s revamped business model. Here’s a true story behind it: A bride reaches out via email — we chat with her on the phone — she loves our quick response, friendly approach, and dedication to giving her the best bridal experience. More so, she likes our brand ethos and tells me how she values what we’re offering: customizable, made-to-measure wedding dresses under 2,000 dollars, at the same high quality you find elsewhere, with a portion of her purchase benefiting women’s programs, plus the support we give her from start to finish, and made on her timeline. It’s a mouthful, because we’re bringing so many appealing elements together. Perhaps it sounds cliché, but it’s what we’ve seen and heard — our brides like our whole package.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

My constant reminder to myself is to focus on balance, and to identify 3–4 skills/ self-care priorities in my life. When I first moved to China, I focused on the following professional and personal interests: I took time to brainstorm my idea that evolved into Grace + Ivory, studied the Chinese language, meddled with meditation, and prioritized my gym routine. I was burnt out from my last job — I loved my previous work, where I worked with amazing teams and traveled the world, but it was also coupled with late nights, and imbalance.

I know it sounds counterintuitive to then decide to start a company knowing you won’t be able to work 60+ hours a week on it (okay some weeks you need to, but you cannot, absolutely cannot do this the majority of the time). If I didn’t jump into this with the balanced approach that I did, then I think I would’ve given up much too soon. Plus, I reaped the benefits; taking the time to brainstorm (while reading Adam Grant’s “The Originals”) allows me to mold a concise but adaptable business plan and vision, learning Chinese allows me to better communicate with my suppliers, meditation practice allows me to re-center and bring myself back to focus, and a steady gym routine allows me to keep healthy, and not have my health get in the way of growing the company.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m excited to grow as a social enterprise, and I want Grace + Ivory to be a connector of great women’s programs that are out there — I want to raise awareness, educate, and help scale existing social programs that address women’s issues. We’re currently supporting Plan International’s the Girls’ Fund, which has programs around the world focusing on girls’ health, eliminating child marriage, keeping girls in school, empowerment, and community involvement. The statistics are out there: when you lift women and girls up, their communities benefit and prosper too. Grace + Ivory supports Plan’s belief that gender equality is central to achieving long-term change.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?

I wish I had something a bit more sophisticated, but my life lesson quote that has stuck with me over the years is the Dr. Seuss quote, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” This quote has a few different reminders for me, because I am a people pleaser. It reminds me that I’m never going to make everyone happy, that not everyone will agree with my vision, and to ensure that I communicate my thoughts and feelings with those that do matter to me. This plays out in numerous stories for me — it reminds me to “go for it” and put myself out there, even with the possibility of rejection. Ha, and as an entrepreneur, you will get rejected from time to time.

Do you see any fascinating developments emerging over the next few years in the fashion industry that you are excited about? Can you tell us about that?

I have been following developments looking into integrating technology to give a better and more personalized service in the fashion industry. From improving supply chains, to technology that provides better measurements for custom fits, to interactive dashboards that heighten the shopping experience — I think there is a lot of exciting developments out there.

What are your “Top 5 Things Needed to Succeed in the Fashion Industry”. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Don’t be afraid to come in as an outsider — I didn’t have the past experience but the fashion industry is about being able to create something beautiful that people see and love.

2. Reach out and take a leap of faith — whether it’s a new person, attending an event, or otherwise — the worst that can happen is nothing, and you’ll be right back to where you are now.

3. Try to learn best practices — and then question them. Is the “this is how it’s done” still the best way for something to be done?

4. Remember to balance — you might find that your other personal priorities will have a positive effect on your work.

5. Ask for help — others that want to support you and be a part of it will really take you farther and give you new insights and ideas.

Every industry constantly evolves and seeks improvement. How do you think the fashion industry can improve itself? Can you give an example?

Moving away from mass production and fast fashion. It’s unsustainable and harming the environment. A benefit of buying Grace + Ivory’s wedding dresses is that it is made-to-order and measure. Meaning, these are not mass-produced designs, there’s no overproduction of dresses that end up in a landfill, and it’s better for the planet. We’re “slow fashion” but fast for the wedding industry — since we are made-to-order, your dress can be made in 3–4 months. I think that the industry as a whole should move this way, for the sake of the environment.

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 would choose to start a movement where we can highlight existing efforts and progress, and help companies create actionable plans on moving towards gender equality in their workplaces. There’s a ton of awareness, statistics, and discussions — but we rarely hear about what progress has happened and what is currently happening. The US ranks 51st in the gender equality index, so there is progress to be made.

Let’s keep talking about it, and start doing more about it.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: @grace_and_ivory_

Pinterest: @graceandivory

Facebook: @graceandivory

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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