Inspirational Woman Interview: Michelle Lai
Michelle Lai is the Founder and Creative Director of MISCHA, a company that produces and sells travel handbags and accessories. MISCHA has been featured in Forbes as “one of Asia’s handbag brands to have successfully gone global.” Michelle has been interviewed by Harper’s Bazaar, People Style Magazine and Cosmopolitan, among other notable magazines. Michelle has a long standing commitment to empowering women, expressed through her work with The Women’s Foundation and charities supporting girls education. Michelle was invited to be a speaker at TEDx Youth Hong Kong in 2013 and was featured in Star World TV’s Inspiring Women special for International Women’s Day in 2014. Previously, she has worked in education. Michelle holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Science from University College London.
What is your background?
Michelle Lai: I was born and brought up in Toronto, Canada. My parents relocated us to Hong Kong when I was a teenager. I went to an international school in HK and then ended up doing a pre-med program at university in London. I’ve always loved art and fashion, so handbags were always in my blood!
You are the Founder of MISCHA, a company that produces and sells travel handbags and accessories. What inspired you to found MISCHA and what has been its impact so far?
Michelle Lai: It came out of a passion for two things: travel and vintage textiles. I think the key to starting something new is that it has to be driven by a purpose. I started MISCHA as a living room project. It was through word of mouth and friends hosting mini exhibitions whenever I travelled to different cities. My client base grew organically and I enjoyed meeting every one of my clients and accessorizing them. After a few years, I was stocking some boutiques and getting regular requests. One of my first milestones was being recognized in Forbes magazine for being one of the Asian handbag brands to make it to the global market. We now sell worldwide through our online store, stock concept stores and high-end department stores worldwide. I continue to travel in order to stay inspired.
What were some of the main challenges and/or failures you faced when you started founding MISCHA, and how did you overcome them?
Michelle Lai: There have been so many ups and downs I don’t know where to begin! It took a big leap of faith to quit my full time job in 2008 to pursue a business I was neither experienced nor trained in. The learning curve is steep; I learned from my errors in judgment and rookie mistakes which include over-ordering on stock, not managing timelines or not managing cashflow tightly enough. I was able to overcome challenges largely through guidance from mentors and fellow entrepreneurs. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my team. The biggest lessons I’ve taken away from building my brand are personal ones.
Can you tell us about some of your work with The Women’s Foundation, and your advocacy for girls’ education?
Michelle Lai: The Women’s Foundation does some great work in HK at the grassroots, corporate and research level. I’m grateful that I could be a part of the mentorship program in 2013. I was paired with an inspiring women who were like big sisters. I was able to learn from women who had gone though the same challenges I was facing and the milestones that I had yet to reach. Through the one year program, I was able to bring my business to the next level and find a better balance with my private life. In 2015, MISCHA partnered with TWF to design a pin that would be sold at every event and to corporate sponsors. The funds raised go towards their ongoing T.E.E.N. and Life Skills Programs.
In your opinion, what are some of the main challenges and opportunities that face the fashion sector, and more specifically, the handbags and accessories segments?
Michelle Lai: In terms of the fashion sector, and more specifically as an independent brand, we’re all faced with the similar challenges of high rentals, scalability, budget constraints and how to differentiate ourselves from the competition. Fast fashion is giving everyone a run for their money and it’s a challenge trying to stay creative while making sure the business is profitable. On the plus side, with the advent of social media and online platforms, we’ve been able to market the brand to clients we wouldn’t have been able to reach before. Selling directly to customers means we have more freedom when it comes to creativity and knowing what our clients want. It allows us to be quite creative with our resources and being based in Hong Kong helps with the supply chain tremendously.
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Michelle Lai: I think the women of my generation have made so much progress already but of course there are many more opportunities to be had. This is a generalization of course, but I feel that much more could be achieved if more women were in positions of influence and power, were recognized for their abilities and weren’t so modest in their achievements. I believe this new breed of role models will empower the young women of tomorrow.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Michelle Lai: My mom has been a great role model for me. She was a professional working mom who dealt with her fair share of adversity as she rose through the ranks in an all male work place as a minority. She still spent time with my sister and me. She’s showed us that you must face life’s challenges with grit and grace, and always be compassionate.
What is your advice for individuals interested in starting a fashion company?
Michelle Lai: Do your research, be prepared for long days and nights and love what you’re doing because it will be 24/7!
What are your favorite books, films, websites and resources related to fashion, business and/or social impact?
Michelle Lai: I read The Business of Fashion, it opened up a whole new world for me and shows you a different side of fashion. In terms of fashion related movies, one of my favorites is a documentary called The Eye Has to Travel. I also like Coco Before Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. I just bought Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss.