Branding Powerhouse: Mel Lim, 38, is CEO & CCO of Mel Lim Design. At age 13, she learned the art of women in business by watching her mother command the room filled with Asian CEOs and close international business deals over XO and karaoke. Holding down three jobs, she saved up $1500 and launched her first business in 2003 designing greeting cards. Today she consults on innovation strategy and design to Fortune 500 companies. Here she speaks to Vanity + Trade about building a branding powerhouse, the importance of possessing old-fashioned integrity, and finding her voice again.
You’ve had an amazing story with struggle, tell us about that.
My parents were entrepreneurs in Malaysia. Neither of them had a tertiary education. They were self-made people. My sister and I lived through and survived many days where we were hungry, and then there were the days of “glory” where we enjoyed the successes of our parents’ ventures. As a family, we experienced a fair share of bankruptcies and successes.
I came to the U.S. when I was 19 with a suitcase of clothing and an art portfolio bag. It was my first time in the U.S. My only knowledge of America was watching Beverly Hills 90210, Dallas, and MacGyver. I didn’t have any relatives or friends here; therefore, I had zero safety net. Within six months of my arrival, my parents went bankrupt due to the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis. I was left with no money to pay for tuition, rent, or food. I had two choices: I could return home to Malaysia, or I could find a way to pay for school and stay in the U.S. I chose the latter. As an international student, I was granted a work permit under economic hardship and I worked three part-time jobs and one full-time job, an average of 100 hours of work each week. Between my work, scholarships, four hours of daily sleep for four years, ramen noodles, and new friends and mentors in the U.S., I graduated with highest distinction from the Art Center College of Design.
I’d figured at an early age that I really didn’t need much to survive. By the time the 2008 recession hit, I’d already experienced numerous episodes of starting from zero. My parents always instilled the mantra “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
It seems like your mother was also your professional mentor. What was one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from her?
My mother taught me from day one to be independent and to not depend on anyone to make me happy, to buy me things, or to pay for anything. I didn’t realize how potent her advice was until now, at age 38. Today I fully understand what being an independent woman means. I saw an interview with Diane Von Furstenberg who said, “The most important relationship you can have is with yourself.” I believe that wholeheartedly. It’s a relationship that must be honest and non-delusional. Only then can I can bring value to the relationships I have with my children, my family, my community, and my clients. That way, as Diane puts it, everything else is a plus and not a must.
When I was five years old, my father left the family. It was a rude awakening for me. I watched my mother support us while growing her business. She put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and was there for us whenever she could be and knew how. My father became a mentor to me later on as I came into my own. He taught me humility, forgiveness, and being present.
I was also raised by an old granny/nanny who recently passed away. She taught me unconditional love, respect for others, and empathy. Together, she and my parents shaped my life, my career, and what I do today for clients and businesses, and HOW I do it. Our methodologies in helping others create and design their businesses/lives are very much intertwined with my upbringing. Perhaps the most important piece of advice all three of my elders ingrained in me is that business is always personal.
Tell us how you turned $1500 into owning your first company?
I can still remember how when I was five years old, my sister and I gave our late father our piggy bank money so that he could buy a bus ticket to go seek a job in another town. That incident is forever etched in my memory. My father went on to build a multi-million dollar real estate development company.
I started my company in 2003. It was not because I wanted to. It was because I was burnt out after six years of designing malls, stadiums, casinos…and I was 26. I felt tired and worn out on many fronts of my life then, after being given pink hard hats at job sites, after being told I should be more than happy to make what I make because I would not have made that much money in the country I came from, after someone suggesting that I was a terrorist because I grew up in a Muslim country, and on and on. I was exhausted.
I took whatever money I had left, after tapping out my 401k to move my ex-husband and I back to Los Angeles, and I tried to decide what I wanted to do next. I started sketching and drawing, and took my designs to a trade show in Los Angeles. I paid for a booth, rented a minivan, and with the help of my ex and my sister-in-law, set up a display at a gift show. I walked away with 100 new retail accounts and founded a product design and manufacturing business, which I ran as long as I could until 2008. Then everything took a tumble when 90% of my retailers filed for Chapter 11. It was a really difficult time for everyone, big and small businesses alike. But as with any other setback, we all learn to move on.
In 2010, I pivoted my business back to consulting and have never looked back.
Tell us about your latest project, your book, “Turtle Design in a Rabbit Age”? What is the significance of this book to you?
Oh what a journey this book writing has been for me and for my ghostwriter. This book is essentially about reframing our approach to value creation — looking into the relationship we have with time and money, and how to design meaningful lives and experiences for companies and people through craftsmanship and mindfulness.
I started writing this book about 12 months ago and was told by my then editor, that life would happen, and when I revisit my manuscript a year later, that I would have completely different viewpoints on the book messaging. Well, it’s been a year, and much has happened indeed, where I’m being forced to evaluate not only what “designing life” means, but also what happiness, purpose, marriage, my children, and my business mean to me. I have been using my own tools and methods to write my next life chapter. The process has been rewarding, uncensored, testing, and revealing all at once. This is a book about craftsmanship, about being willing to risk failure and view it as a learning opportunity. This is a book about listening deeply, going within and discerning core truths, pursuing one’s passion, taking responsibility, and always doing one’s best. It isn’t always easy, but for me, it is always necessary. I believe in walking my talk.
This journey has opened up opportunities to establishing new relationships with like-minded people — people who are trying to make sense of how to balance the use of technology with building something with their own hands. I am deeply interested in how that process impacts them, the relationships they have, not only with their community but with nature, and how they make sense of the control, or the lack there of, that they have on their own lives.
It’s not everyday, that a person gets to write a book, be a published author, and share with the world. I’m still on cloud nine. The book should be available end of the year.
What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned thus far (in business and in life)?
Nothing in life or in business is permanent. All we can do is learn how to live fully in the now. And that can manifest in many forms. As a small business owner, I have tremendous respect for anyone trying to create and design their own future, whether they are a small business owner, an entrepreneur, service providers etc. We all face challenges running a business — cash flow, making payroll, competing, scaling, innovating, culture, business development, the list goes on. I admire people who are able to approach their labors with a sense of joie de vivre, in spite of any turmoil that may occur behind the scene. They make it look easy. They make you feel at ease. They inspire you despite their daily challenges. It’s because they live in the now. They appreciate whatever comes their way, both the positive and the negative. They are able to navigate with ease, integrity, with respect for others, because they are mindful of everything around them. By being aware of the impermanence and what it means, I take every second and breath with gratitude.
This mindful approach to business and life is also how we design for our clients. We ask the whys, not only the hows. We ask ourselves, what would it take to make an experience meaningful for others. And because I want my team and me to be present throughout the process, I give them time — time to think things through, time for them to perform their best, time to immerse, be empathetic, to allow them to have their sensories provoked so that we give our 1000% in everything we do. Of course the challenge is to get the client to agree to our process — and most of them do. And it is my job as the CEO and my senior managers to manage our projects where we can perform our due diligence and not compromise quality.
What was a career defining moment for you?
I attended the invite-only Forbes Women’s Summit in NYC and felt humbled to be amongst women leaders in finance, politics, business, arts, medicine, and technology. How exciting it was to be surrounded by these amazing, high-powered CEOS, from Sara Blakely, Jessica Alba, Chelsea Handler to Ivanka Trump. I had a moment of elation. Then I began to wonder why Moira Forbes invited me to the conference. I am not famous or wealthy. I am not a big design agency. I am not Paula Scher. I am just a Malaysian-born Chinese immigrant who happens to be a designer. All of a sudden, I had this weird feeling in my stomach. For a brief moment, the imposter syndrome crept in and engulfed me.
It’s not unusual for people who have achieved great things through their own diligence and hard effort to feel like frauds. Even well-known public figures like Tina Fey, Sheryl Sandberg and Meryl Streep admit to having experienced the imposter syndrome. I decided I was in good company, and my anxiety eventually dissipated. My success is not defined by how much money I have, or how many social media fans I have. Rather, it is about the positive impact my work has on others, on businesses, and on people at both the micro and macro scale. That moment of self-doubt disappeared as soon as Nancy Pelosi gave a powerful short speech about POWER. She said, “KNOW YOUR POWER….and BE READY.”
I knew then that the 200 of us present at that conference were there for a reason. We had something to learn from each other, to teach others, and to share. We were there because of our life experiences, and how despite all the adversities we’d encountered, we’d gone on to achieve remarkable things in life. Now it’s time for us to pay-it-forward in some fashion or another.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Be yourself. As a branding expert, I must say, with all the noise, data, makeup, photoshop, advertising dollars, celebrity news, social media content, and everything in between, the only thing that can shine through is our unique personality. You can choose to be like everyone else, or you can choose to be … YOU.
Secondly, be ready to taste some bitterness. Like my old granny used to say, it is only after you’ve tasted bitterness, that you will know how to appreciate sweetness. Be ready to fail, succeed, fail again, and bounce back.
Bonnie St. John, a paralympian, gave a really remarkable speech once. She said the difference between a gold and a silver medalist could be that 0.01 second. That .01 second is how fast we bounce back and recover and thrive after a setback or failure. I remember that analogy every day. So every time I fall, the faster I get up the next time.
Being a female entrepreneur and also working with an all female staff, what are some of the mistakes you see often women make at work?
Oh I don’t think it’s a woman or a man thing. I think we all make mistakes. To err is human. It is how we handle sticky situations that sets us apart. I’ve seen my team very eager to please our clients. They go the extra mile. And they are very apologetic when it comes to owning up to mistakes — verbally and via emails. I am very watchful of that. Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s a wonderful and necessary thing for anyone to own up to his or her own mistakes, but I am very sensitive about how we deliver those apologies, without looking too eager or too desperate. I’m very resolute with my team and my clients. Once we recognize something is broken, we own the mistake, and we come up with solutions. Then we circle back to see how we can be more proactive in preventing a reoccurrence. We do discuss internally how to handle nasty emails, rude clients, interruptions, unsolicited advances, etc. We watch each other’s back and we make sure we maintain our professionalism at all times.
Describe your signature style? What is your “power suit”?
Pants and a blazer with my 4-inch pumps or boots.
Who are your current favorite designers?
Fashion Designer: Ann Demeulemeester
Architecture: Zaha Hadid
What item can’t you live without?
My mom’s 1990 vintage Chanel jumbo flap handbag. I carry it with me whenever I go on business trips. It’s as though she is there with me cheering me on.
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