What some may not know is that Ayoung Chee is an accomplished entrepreneur who has started not one, not two, but an astounding eight businesses.
And even fewer would know the catalyst to pursue her dreams was the tragic loss of her younger brother.
Sunday Newsday chatted with Ayoung Chee last week about her career and being nominated for Emerging Entrepreneur of the year for the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce and Industry Champion of Businesses 2016. She described being a finalist as a “massive honour” adding that for most of her career she has been recognised as a designer and not for her entrepreneurial projects. She said that looking back she has been an entrepreneur from the beginning.
She recalled that as a child when they played “house” she would always be a cashier and loved being a proprietor. She said that subconsciously she knew she wanted to be a leader of something and in the position of owning something.
She said that both her parents are entrepreneurs and her grandparents own a shop.
“I don’t have anyone in my immediate family circle in a nine to five job,” she explained.
Ayoung Chee said that she divides her life into two parts: before her brother died in 2007 and after.
“I kind of woke up after he died.” Her brother Pilar was in a car accident when he was 18 and he died along with for other teenagers.
“It just occurred to me that they didn’t get to live their dreams. They were sort of cut off from going further in life and living. I didn’t even know what (Pilar’s) dreams were, I didn’t know if he ever fell in love. He may have, but at 18 there’s only so much that you have lived. And I felt that I really owed to him and myself to pursue something real to me. Something that I was passionate about. Something that I felt like I was alive doing,” she said.
“I was very conscious I wanted to live up to his legacy,” and she decided to become a fashion designer. She went to local designer Meiling and asked, “Would you mentor me”.
That was the beginning of her journey.
In 2008 she began her first business Fuse, which was an advertising and talent management agency. The following year she started lingerie line Anya de Rogue and women’s clothing line Pilar, named after her brother. She explained that being an entrepreneur came from a desire “to own my life”.
She wanted to be in control of her life - how she worked and where she worked. She currently works off of her phone and can conduct business anywhere in the world.
After she won Project Runway she had a desire to work with other people for a sense of community. In November 2013 she started cANYAval, which began as an e-commerce platform for Monday Carnival wear utilising a community of designers.
She said that cANYAval was her first very conscious entrepreneurial project and she knew that she was building a business, isolating a need for a niche market.
“I had a conversation with...
the main designer who I worked with and we both identified what was so great about that moment is that we knew we were doing something new, doing something fresh, knew we were fulfilling a need. And I think that is where entrepreneurship is really exciting to me. And everything that I have built or attempted to build since then fit into that category.” She said it started as a side project but evolved into an events company. For this Carnival season she is also looking at doing some non-commercial projects as she is interested in what Carnival “really means to us”.
For the past six years she has been designing for mas band Tribe as part of a variety of Carnival- related projects. This year she collaborated with designer Sandra Hordatt and directed the design for the section “Husky”.
NOT BEING AFRAID TO LOOK AHEAD As a new entrepreneur her first and most consistent mistake was trying to do everything herself. In October 2014 she co-founded HO ME for creative industry professionals to feel “at home” and also to collaborate, have events and sell clothes.
She added that there was nothing like food to build community and she teamed with the “best young chef ” she knew, Brigette Joseph and HO ME was her “baby”. This led to catering and to more events. The St Clair site has remained a space for creative professionals, while the food aspect is continued with the spin off H Caf? on Ariapita Avenue.
By the time she started HO ME she knew she needed a partner with expertise that she did not have.
She said in the beginning she was too controlling, but now she loves having a team and it was great for her seeing an idea carried out by someone else.
With her team she liked to identify what they are passionate about and put them in charge of it, and that became a driving force for every project.
“So being an entrepreneur has evolved from loving the fresh ideas and loving to identify a need and fulfil it to then being able to inject entrepreneurial spirit within other people,” she said.
She spent some time in Amsterdam attending THNK post graduate programme; THNK is a school of creative leadership. There she met some of the “most incredible people ever” from all over the world and in various fields, and she now belongs to a community of 5,000 people who are in invested in social change in their own field.
She said that she learned a lot and considers it a punctuation mark in her life since winning Project Runway.
For her the course provided an opportunity to reflect on what she had done already, new ideas in technology and innovation practice and ways to develop business that aligns with her core values and principles.
“Which essentially just comes down to doing what my little part is in making the world a better place through the lens of fashion,” she said.
On how she keeps balance, Ayoung Chee explained that she meditates and she tries every day to write down what she is grateful for.
This keeps her centred and aware of why she was doing what she was doing.
She has also learned to trust her instincts and just “do it”. She said, however, that predicting what may happen used to scare her, but having opened eight companies she now finds it equally exciting to predict what may happen and chart a map where she wants to go.
She said it is not restricting but manifesting and this is the value of experience.
In January 2015 she started Exhibit A, a showroom for young local designers to retail their collections. She currently has about 30 designers from all over the Caribbean doing retail.
On her next project she said that it is a merger of what she had done before, digitally and in the fashion arena.
She is also a spokesperson and consultant in her mother’s group Tallman Foundation, which provides opportunities to young people from underserved communities, in particular young men, to discover and realise their creative potential.
Her other work include the AFROP UNK FEST , which is youth driven punk movement that originated in Brooklyn but has expanded to Atlanta, London and Paris, and working with Amsterdam based group Re-vest Life, a refugee organisation that transforms used life vests into clothing and other items.
She said her work has been moving into being able to leverage her experience to access certain communities, and to give as much of her own resource to other people and herself.
She has shifted to looking at how people can be empowered to have the tools and resources to access what they want to create adding that creativity is the essence of being human.
Her hope for the future is that it will be happening on a global scale and she will be a part of it.
Her advice to potential entrepreneurs is her mantra - “risk being yourself fully”. She also advised that they put away their phone for three hours and go someplace where they feel peaceful (for her it is the beach) and by the end of that experience something will emerge.
She said that being an entrepreneur does not mean that you risk everything, and it can be done simultaneously with your life.
She predicted that if everyone had the opportunity to be their true selves then the world would be better.
She firmly believes there are many entrepreneurs living among the “nine to fivers”.