Inspirational Woman Interview: Elissa James

Elissa James is a lawyer, writer and entrepreneur based in Hong Kong. She is the Founder of IrisLillian.com, a light-hearted webzine for modern goal-getting women who want to thrive in their 9-5 and beyond. Iris Lillian also showcases influential female entrepreneurs and businesswomen. Elissa writes for the South China Morning Post and Asia Times. Passionate about gender equality, particularly in the workplace, Elissa was a panelist at the 2017 International Women’s Day Lightning Talks hosted by General Assembly. Prior to founding Iris Lillian, Elissa worked as senior corporate counsel in both the UK and Australia.

What is your background?

Elissa James: I had a wonderful childhood growing up in sunny Perth, Western Australia. I completed a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce before pursuing a career in the law. In pursuit of long-held dream of acquiring the lingua italiana, I move to Italy at 19. I also lived for a short time in a small farming community in the Costa Rican jungle helping a women’s group to establish an eco-tourism venture. More recently, I lived and worked in London before settling in Hong Kong a year ago. I have now worked as a corporate lawyer for almost a decade. Tempus fugit! I’m now taking a brief hiatus from the law to focus on IrisLillian.com.

You are the Founder of IrisLillian.com, a webzine for modern working women who want to style their career and lives, their way. What inspired you to found Iris Lillian and what has its impact been so far?

Elissa James: IrisLillian.com takes a practical, light-hearted approach to all things career, fashion and work-life “blend”, aiming to make the lives of working women easier so they can focus on themselves, their families, friends and careers.

When I found myself slogging out 100-hour working weeks and navigating the travails of a male dominated industry, I had few places to turn to for guidance or support. I didn’t talk about these challenges with anyone, even my mentor, I just got on with it. There is a wealth of real life experience, insights and knowledge out there so why not share it to motivate, inspire, empower and support other women? This is our mission.

Plus, the Iris Lillian Squad is a forum women can go to generate ideas, to ask questions and to connect with other impressive business women and female entrepreneurs across a range of industries, at all levels, around the globe.

One of our members recently said that “Iris Lillian is a great community to go to touch base – even if for just five minutes during lunch – to remind myself that other women are still out there (my work group is almost entirely male), that it’s OK to want to achieve as a woman and that it’s OK to be a woman!”

Early last year, I wound up physically and mentally burnt out. Unfortunately, many of my friends are headed that way too. Burning out in an effort to succeed is obviously counter-productive (although so many of us still seem to do it). So through content and conversation IrisLillian.com aims to re-frame the traditional notions of ‘success’.

Can you tell us about the interview series you run with Iris Lillian?

Elissa James: Sure! It’s one of my favorite parts of running Iris Lillian. Our Interview Series celebrates influential businesswomen and female entrepreneurs around the globe, particularly those who might not ordinarily put themselves forward or who have limited visibility. Last year I was lucky enough to share a number of intimate and insightful conversations with women from Cambodia, Nepal, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Scotland, England and the US. By documenting the challenges they have faced and showcasing their success I hope to inspire, empower and inform our readers and to perpetuate a culture of “when you win, so do I.”

For this years’ International Women’s Day #BeBoldForChange initiative I committed to publish no less than 50 articles in 2017 celebrating the success of inspiring businesswomen and female entrepreneurs around the world.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in transitioning from working as a corporate lawyer to founding IrisLillian.com? 

Elissa James: I knew zilch about running a website. I had never even heard of SEO (Search Engine Optimization), let alone content marketing. I certainly had my work cut out for me. It’s been a humbling experience.

Not having formal structure in my day has also taken some adjustment: there are so many distractions when you work from home!

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Elissa James: There are two very senior women I have had the pleasure to know and work with. One is a judge and the other a law firm partner. Both are at once amazing at what they do and unapologetically feminine despite their male dominated working environments. They are true pioneers paving the way for women in their field, including me. For this I am truly grateful.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Elissa James: If one day I ever have a daughter I don’t want her or her friends to face the same limitations I have because of their gender.

Maintaining an open dialogue and open minds about what we can do individually to make gender equality a reality is critical.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Elissa James: Always celebrate your wins no matter how small: it’s important to take stock and recognize how far you have come and what you have achieved.

I would also say, don’t do it alone. Find a like-minded partner who gets your ‘why’, then go forth and conquer.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources?

Elissa James: I am ManRepeller.com‘s most avid fan. On its face it is a fashion blog but delve deeper and it is so, so much more. The founder, Leandra Medine, is a modern day philosopher who I think will go down as a voice of our generation.

I’m reading a book about Hong Kong by Jan Morris. She challenges my erroneous assumption that there are no words to describe this city of bewildering contrasts. A stunning read.

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