After a decade-long career in digital marketing, Clare Ngai found herself feeling unfulfilled and searching for something more. As social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #StopAsianHate were gaining more media attention due to the uptick of anti-Black and anti-Asian violence, the COVID-19 pandemic swirled, disproportionately affecting low-income communities of color. Ngai, who is Chinese-American, could no longer sit idly by. She decided to bring together her childhood love of jewelry and passion for supporting communities of color, creating kitschy jewelry brand BONBONWHIMS.
Originally, the Y2K-inspired brand was supposed to be a short-term way to raise money for BIPOC communities affected by racial violence. Almost two years later, the brand has skyrocketed in popularity, with celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Doja Cat wearing Ngai’s vibrant designs. But even now, supporting charitable efforts remains a central part of the brand identity.
Here, Ngai chats with Bustle about the importance of building community, imposter syndrome, and manifestation.
What is the most rewarding part of owning your own business?
I still get a lot of messages from young Asian and Asian-American girls who would say “I started a business because I found you on Instagram” or “I love that you’re respected in your space and that makes me feel like I have a role model to look up to.” That is something so special to me. Opening that door a little bit for other people to feel like they could have a seat at the table, that is really important to me.
Have you faced any struggles unique to being an Asian woman business owner?
Early on — when I was trying to find my footing in the jewelry space — I would find myself in situations where it felt like there was some competition. I couldn’t help but wonder if these [situations] were microaggresions. When you get certain comments or treatment from people who are not minorities, you are sort of gaslighting yourself, like: “am I being too sensitive? Is this because I’m Asian or…?” That is a burden a white founder doesn’t have to think about. A lot of times the female founders who are in the limelight come from privileged backgrounds. It’s quite rare to see a woman of color-owned business in the same type of limelight.
It’s great that you started with the charity component from the beginning.
It was always a part of the brand DNA, just as a person of color. I really wanted to create joyful, fun jewelry for people to escape from reality during the pandemic. But also, a lot of brands are not minority-owned — I’m an immigrant, so I wanted to be that role model for the next generation. Last March, [after] the shooting that happened in Atlanta, we launched a ring called the Ling Bling. We donated 100% of the proceeds to benefit the victims’ families and multiple Asian charities, such as the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). And when our website launched in November 2020, a portion of the proceeds went to Send Chinatown Love, which is a charity that sends hot meals to Asian elders in [NYC’s] Chinatown area.
I love that you integrated Black Lives Matter and #StopAsianHate. As a Black person, it’s very personal to me — seeing the two communities coming together at a time when we’re both being affected by violence.
Uniting the two communities together is really beautiful. I wish more brands would do that. But I think that if you are not a minority-owned business, it doesn’t come naturally or authentically.
What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?
Learning how to tune out the naysayers is really important — just having confidence in yourself. I still really struggle with that. The highs are really high and the lows are really low. Find that anchor in yourself and be resilient, because there is going to be a lot of people who won’t believe in what you do. I would also add: finding a circle that celebrates you, that rallies around you.
What are common mistakes you see on job applications from people trying to enter the fashion industry?
Right now we are getting into the summer internship season, so I am getting a lot of DMs about internships and a lot of very informal emails. There is a difference between when you are a customer and when you are an applicant for a job or an internship. So when you are applying, you shouldn’t be sending me a direct message saying “hey, are you hiring?,” [you] should be sending me a proper email with a resume attached. I think people have too much of a relaxed mentality when it comes to applying to a fashion-related job.
In the vein of resumes, any tips?
If you are applying to work for BONBONWHIMS, it doesn’t matter if you [don’t] have fashion experience. If you worked retail, just try to tie it into the job you are applying to. For example “I think I would be a good ambassador for the brand using the people skills I learned from my previous experience.” Connecting the dots is important, so I don’t feel like you just blasted this to 500 different people. And every cover letter is tailored to the person who is receiving it.
Are there any celebrities you are manifesting to wear BONBONWHIMS?
I think from a Y2K perspective, Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid. Obviously someone like Rihanna or Beyoncé would be epic for me personally, so manifesting that. There was a time that I was listening to Ariana Grande literally all day everyday. I feel like I put the message out in the universe and then she wore it. Manifestation, plus hard work, equals results.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.