Getting what’s yours doesn’t always come naturally to women. Trust me I know, which is why when I came across this quote by the amazing Amy Proehler “It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for. It takes years to find your voice and seize your real estate” it suddenly dawned on me what was the reason behind my discomfort and the dreadful silence in my voice when standing up for myself. For centuries, women have been led to believe that they should not be opinionated and always follow someone else’s lead, rather than pave their own path, because that’s what good girls do. Today, even though remnants of this behavior still haunt a fair amount of women, we’ve finally learnt how to raise our voices and we got a new breed of women to thank for that, you know, the ones who lead by example, showing us what being a good girl really means.
And one such woman is Phoebe Kunitomi, the founder of Okko, sustainable underwear brand which focuses on representing women from all races and all shapes. Phoebe is a woman who has faced adversities since a very young age. With her father wrongfully imprisoned for a heinous crime, she had to learn how to fight and stand up for herself in a world that’s not playing by the rules which makes her one hell of a role model for young girls everywhere. This is the reason why she has dedicated her work and philanthropic focus on criminal justice reform and also why she chose Women’s Prison Association as a charitable partner when she founded Okko. A Wharton graduate, Phoebe’s star is yet to shine bright. We caught up with the awe-inspiring entrepreneur to talk about her business venture and her enlightening advices should you choose to follow in her footsteps.
Who is Phoebe Kunitomi?
Hello, everyone! I am LA-born and raised but currently live in NYC. The best way to describe myself is equally left- and right-brained. On one end, I studied economics at Georgetown then got my MBA at Wharton. Before okko, I worked in the B2B space at the intersection of technology and financial regulation — pretty analytical stuff! But, on the other end, I love applying my creative energy. In high school, I designed my own prom dress. At okko, I lead all creative direction and design, ranging from directing photo shoots to designing brand assets.
What’s your morning routine like?
My routine has changed quite a bit since my beautiful pom puppy, Pogo, arrived. I never, ever used to be a morning person, but he has forced me to be one. Now, I wake up by 6:30am and spend about an hour taking him outside, feeding him, and playing with him. Then, I get started on work while sipping a nice cup of coffee. Morning is when I feel the most focused and creative, so a lot of this more strategic work gets done then (i.e., no plowing through emails).
Love how simple the underwear you design is and how it fits every body type and the color palette is just beautiful. Could you guide us through the process from launching the company to how you’ve been able to grow it?
You’re too kind ❤. Honestly, I could write a book on our journey so far! As my mentor once told me, ‘if you have a dream, follow it.’ The hardest part of starting a company is getting started. I was super fortunate in that regard. I started okko while I was at Wharton, which served as a safety net that empowered me to try things out while minimizing the fear of failure. After that, our nonlinear journey entailed refining the idea based on customer insights, building our initial brand identity and website, manufacturing our core collection, and investing in smart execution. Of course, there are a ton of mini-steps in between!
Today, we have used a multifaceted approach to growing the company. Like anything from opening our own pop-up store in LA to running digital ads to doing one-day events in cities across the US.
What are the next steps for OKKO?
At OKKO, we want to reduce clutter in people’s lives, starting with our most intimate layer. Our next step is to expand our core collection to other areas of your top drawer. Of course, across all products, our product philosophy will not change: a strong focus on wearability, practicality, and no BS or frills.
Three things you wish you knew before starting out…
I actually have two things (but I’m sure a third one will come up…):
(1) Surround yourself with the right people — During the early stages of your new venture, people are the ‘make or break.’ Of course, healthy conflict is a good thing. But, if you have serious interpersonal issues with an early team member, those issues can turn into serious problems. If you are looking to bring someone onboard, ‘date’ them first. Start off with a discrete project with clearly defined goals, then assess the relationship to see if there is a longer-term opportunity to work together.
(2) Don’t rush — As mentioned, I launched okko while at Wharton. I had a large handful of peers who were launching their respective brands ahead of okko. I felt a self-imposed pressure to launch while still at school, so it looked like I was making progress as well, at least comparatively. In retrospect, I could have taken my time and invested in getting smarter at being an entrepreneur from the outset. We’re in the long game here!
Biggest failure/setback in life and what you’ve learnt from it?
I certainly have had small failures, or a better word is ‘mistakes,’ but not a single biggest failure. In the moment, these mistakes feel like the most terrible thing to ever happen. However, with age and more experience, I learned to be better about finding the lessons and applying them in similar situations in the future.
Books that changed your life
(1) Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. — I refer to this book regularly to keep my grammar and writing sharp (and correct).
(2) The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss — Although I doubt I could ever work as efficiently as Mr. Ferriss, this book has great actionable tips for how to become a better entrepreneur, or employee, generally. I practice these tips every day!
(3) Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson — I read this book when it was published back in 2014. When I was young, my dad was wrongly imprisoned for a heinous crime due to a false accusation by a tough cop. Since then, my philanthropic focus and advocacy have focused on criminal justice reform (a main reason why okko’s main charitable partner is the Women’s Prison Association). Reading Mr. Stevenson’s story was life changing, inspiring, and opened up my eyes to the serious reform needed in the US.
Favorite female empowerment speech
As a music person, I rely on songs for feelings of empowerment. After a break up, I blast No Scrubs by TLC. When I need to get pumped up for something, my go to is Formation by Beyonce. I love the lyric: ‘I go hard, I go hard. Get what’s mine, take what’s mine. I’m a star, I’m a star. ’Cause I slay, slay’
What’s in your Bastet Noir cart?
I’d like one of everything, please! But if I had to choose, I love the India Jumpsuit, Maiara Dress, and Greta Pants. How I practice minimalism is by being a more conscious consumer. That means my closet tends to focus on pieces that I can wear a lot of and often (e.g., lots of neutrals, day-to-night styles).
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