The F-Word: Elim Chu
Meet Elim Chu—one part fashion stylist, one part social advocate, full badass. Elim has been doing her small part to change the conversation surrounding fast fashion. She passionately educates that less is more, pushes everyone to put more thought into their everyday purchases, and has a beautiful instagram feed (naturally). However as we got into during our discussion, appearances can be deceiving. Elim candidly shared with us about her bumpy road into entrepreneurship, the way failure can impact your physical health, and her tips for rolling with the punches when life throws you that inevitable curveball. Here’s my conversation with Elim.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN SELF-EMPLOYED AT THIS POINT?
Actually, January 15th of this year marked my three-year anniversary as a freelancer. And it was a really good gut check for me. I thought about where am in my career and the financial milestones I wanted to hit but didn’t.
And I also realized I’ve got things I want to accomplish in the next five years and if finding a full time job means doing that then let's try it. I can't let my ego get in the way.
WOW, SO SOME POTENTIALLY BIG CHANGES COMING UP. WHAT WAS IT LIKE, COMING TO THAT REALIZATION THAT YOU MIGHT BE GIVING UP FREELANCING?
It was hard. I’ve been thinking about it for months now and talking to Riley, my husband, about it. We have a really great partnership. He keeps me honest and he keeps me really grounded in reality. It was probably October of last year when he started asking me those questions like 'So...three years coming up. How do you feel about your about your progress, where you're going with this? Are you meeting all the goals that you set for yourself?' And the things that I've done have been really exciting, but something I had set was financial goals and I did not meet those. That really caused me to look harder at what that’s actually worth. So yeah, ego. Because then I started thinking about oh my gosh, who can I possibly work for. But actually, there are plenty of companies that I could maybe pitch a role to where I could apply my skill set in brand strategy or creative direction vs. purely styling.
SPEAKING OF WORKING FOR SOMEONE—BEFORE YOU TOOK THE LEAP INTO FREELANCE, YOU WERE WORKING FOR A LARGE COMPANY. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO LEAVE THAT WORLD BEHIND AND MOVE INTO FREELANCE?
Honestly? It fucking sucked. It felt like it happened all at once. But again with Riley, because he was seeing it from the outside, he actually pinpointed that it happened gradually over the course of a year. My last year working in a corporate setting, I was not happy. I was feeling discontent, both with the work I was doing and the direction that the company seemed to be taking. I didn't feel aligned anymore and I didn't really understand why.
I was thinking ‘Maybe I need a sabbatical or maybe I just need to quit and get a new job.’ And so I was already thinking these things when things started shifting around in the company. Departments were being re-organized and leadership was getting moved around. The department I was a part of was Brand and Creative. And I just remember getting an email from my manager on Friday afternoon saying she needed to talk to me on Monday morning.
On Monday morning, I had a moment with myself while I was brushing my teeth. I was looking at myself in the mirror and I just kind of paused and was like 'What are you going to do if you get fired today?’ And it was just a real moment with myself. I knew I was going to be fine. It would to be shitty, but I would be fine.
So I went into that meeting and she let me know that yes, there was a reorganization. They didn't know yet where the stylist team fit. They didn't know where my role sat. And so they were going to dissolve my specific position.
I had two options: one was to leave the company that week. And at that time I'd been with them for almost nine years, so that didn't feel good to me. The other option was to stay until the end of the quarter and discover if there was another role.
At the time, there were so many things on my plate and I also needed closure. And so I took a few days to think about it and decided that I would choose the latter—I’d take the two months until the end of quarter to not just discover whether or not there was a role for me, but to gain closure.
HOW WERE THOSE TWO MONTHS?
It was hard. It was the hardest thing that I can think of to date that I've done, like in terms of mental wellness and emotional wellness. The hardest thing I've had to do was to go to work every single day not knowing if I had a job in eight weeks and be smiley and energetic.
DID YOU FEEL LIKE YOU HAD TO PUT ON A FACADE INSTEAD OF SHOWING UP AS YOURSELF?
Yes. At the time, it totally like I felt like I couldn't be myself. Some of my coworkers knew something was up, but they didn't know what and I wasn't really allowed to talk about it. And so I didn't want to bring them into that. So I chose act like everything was fine and there was nothing to worry about. And that took a lot out of me.
HOW DID YOU END UP USING THE TIME YOU HAD LEFT? HOW’D YOU MAKE IT COUNT?
In that two months, I was really proud of what I did in that I took that time to talk and really engage with every single leader in the company that I had ever wanted to have a conversation with. And so that went anywhere from like the Director of Design all the way to the CEO. The CEO was actually the last person I spoke to. And I remember that meeting was I think a week and a half before end of quarter was up. I remember leaving that meeting being clear that my time there was done. This company is no longer the company that I thought it was, it's no longer the place that I fell in love with, and I think I've done everything that I wanted here. I think it's time to go. And so even though the circumstances were out of my control, how it ended was very much within my control. So I felt complete with that.
But it was hard. It was really, really hard. It was hard to not be blaming people for it or to be angry or to be sad. Well no, I was sad and I let myself be sad. But it was really hard to not be angry.
WAS THERE ANY PART OF YOU THAT TOOK THAT TRANSITION ON AS A PERSONAL FAILURE?
No; it was it was pretty easy to see that I wasn't the reason. I realized there was a lot going on. There was a lot of factors that I wasn't aware of. And I was glad that I took that time to have all those meetings and do my own due diligence to check under the hood and really see that it wasn’t me, that it was a lot of other things.
WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN EXPERIENCING FAILURE IN A LARGE COMPANY VS AS AN ENTREPRENEUR, WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE FOR YOU?
I’m sure the way people process stress is unique to everyone, but when something went sideways at my corporate job, the stress that I would feel was so heavy I would get sick. Literally. I think the last three years there were the most sick I'd ever been. And there was nothing physically wrong with me. I think a lot of it has to do with the stress that I carried. The best way I can frame it is that now that I've experienced freelance life and the kind of stress I carry there—freelance stress is a type that I feel more in control of. So it's almost like having that autonomy around failure has been healthier for me versus the lack of autonomy I had within a corporation.
LET’S TAKE A STEP BACK. ANY LESSONS ON LEARNING ABOUT FAILURE COME TO MIND FROM YOUR CHILDHOOD?
So I have a very vivid memory from early school. I think I was in Grade 1. That particular summer break, the school that I went to had a reading contest; it was something like read 100 books by the end of summer. I just fixated on this. And not only did I decide to do it, but I read above my grade level and I was so proud of myself. But I didn't win...I came in second place. And that pissed me off so much. There was only one winner and the winner was in Grade 5. I was like 'How could no one recognize the titles that I had been reading?' I guess I thought that were there would be recognition in the difficulty, that I had read books that were above my grade level. And that they weren't just storybooks; some of them were chapter books and that takes time.
And then with my mom and dad, it was piano. They put me in piano lessons really early on and I did up to Grade 5 in the Royal Conservatory, and the Grade 5 level was the one that we fought the most over. I didn't want to do the practice. I didn't want to do the work. I was no longer in love with piano and I remember doing just enough so that I could pass Grade 5 because that was the deal. But it wasn't in that moment that I felt failure; it was further down the road when I was like 15 or 16 years old. I was helping my mom clean out the junk room and I found the sheaf of receipts of all the payments my parents made to my piano teacher. I remember tallying the amount and thinking 'Oh shit.' That was a lot of money for my parents. That was a moment where I felt like I failed them, like I didn't live up to some sort of potential they saw in me.
HOW CAN FREELANCERS QUIET THE VOICES IN THEIR HEAD THAT COME UP IN THE FACE OF FAILURE? HOW CAN YOU TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE EQUATION TO SEE FAILURES FOR THE LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES THAT THEY ARE?
I think for me the shift came when I was able to see that it's business; it's not personal. And when that shift actually happened was when I was able to declare my value in dollars and feel really good about the money. In the beginning it was really hard for me to say 'Look—this is my hourly rate' or 'This is my project rate' and really stand behind it. And not just stand behind it but once I got paid I actually felt good about the payment. I didn't feel like I was undercharging.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING FREELANCERS WHO APPROACH YOU?
So in the last two or three years being a freelancer, I recognize all the amazing women who have shared their stories with me or mentored me. And I try to give back. One of the most frequent questions I get is about social media. I often say this: don't look at social media. Just don't. Because it's not representative of anything real; it is the highlight reel. And I realize that probably more often than not when I bump into old co-workers they tell me 'Oh my god everything looks so great.' And yes, things are great. But it's also really hard. And I don't know how to show that on my Instagram account. So you're not actually seeing it. And I'm not saying that freelance life isn't amazing, because it is. But it's not always going to look perfect and there's nothing wrong with that.
I would also just encourage anyone who's interested in working for themselves to have real conversations with people. If you want to learn more, looking at their Instagram feed isn't really going to give you the full story. Reaching out is also a great way to gauge authenticity in a relationship. Because I've come to learn that if it's really hard to get a hold of someone, maybe they're just not someone I need to learn from.
THAT’S SUCH GREAT ADVICE. AS YOU YOURSELF PREPARE TO STEP INTO THIS NEXT PHASE OF YOUR LIFE, WHAT’S TOP OF MIND FOR YOU?
I'm still being really entrepreneurial in this job hunting that I'm doing at the moment. So I've been looking at companies that I'm interested in working with, doing a ton of research on them, and then pitching them on a role for an opportunity that I see. So it's a bit unconventional. To be honest it's scary because it's kind of like cold calling someone. It's a bit more of a labour-intensive approach but I'm hoping something will land. I’m banking on the idea that people don't know what they want until they see it.
So I'm still applying my entrepreneurial spirit to this next phase of possibly working within a company. I've learned so much about myself that I don't think I would have learned if I’d continued to work in a corporate environment. It's been the most intense and eye-opening relationship I've ever had with myself. I learned a lot about being resilient and what self care actually looks like. I didn't learn those things until I took on this for myself. I feel like I've learned so much about me and now I get to take it somewhere else. And that’s exciting.
Stay tuned next month when we’ll speak with Shafeez Walji, a UX/UI designer using his passion to bring the human element back into visual design.