By Kristin Messerli
We interviewed two female change makers, both in very different fields, but with the same mission… to empower women to live and own their moment.
part 2: Gravitas New York
Gravitas is more than just a clothing line. In 2013 after a long career in management consulting, Lisa Sun started Gravitas to create professional clothing for women that promotes body confidence and body positivity. Covering a wide range of sizes, Gravitas has become a movement to empower women through fashion and community. In this interview, Lisa describes the inspiring journey that led her to Gravitas and how the company has grown to become a voice for women who overcome.
LS: My first boss at McKinsey Consulting in my first professional review told me I didn’t have any gravitas. I didn’t know what the word meant. I looked it up, and it means dignity, importance and gust of substance. I said yeah, at 22 making less than $50,000 a year, I was a size 20 and not a small girl. When I went back to her and asked how I get gravitas, she said “Buy a new dress, wear big jewelry and great shoes. And every morning, when you look in the mirror, you’re the first person you have to like. And you have to have something in your life that makes you feel like you are your best.” She said, “For me, it’s clothes.”
She talked about how Dumbo had a flying feather. He could always fly, but he needed the feather to remind him that he could. So, when I decided to leave McKenzie after 11 years, I really had this idea. Our mission statement of the company is: We catalyze confidence. How do clothes catalyze confidence in women? And it’s not about having a lot of them. By the way, I argue that we actually only wear about 20% of our clothes. There’s really only a few MVPs that combine intelligent function with versatility, meaning you can wear it lots of ways, and are body positive for as many people that wear 0 – 24.
But the genesis of the idea was about taking a piece of feedback around having gravitas and turning that into what we think is a positive movement for women believing in themselves and feeling good about their bodies and having something in your life that makes you feel like you can accomplish anything. We talk a lot about our clothes fitting in and standing out at the same, because I think it’s the hardest thing to accomplish in life. You want to be special and stand out, but you also want to be sure you fit in.
MWM: How do you feel like you are making an impact? I know you have described some of that, but can you expand a little bit?
LS: I always say the greatest impact we have is helping women at key moments in their lives. And I’ll give you two very clear examples. One, in which a woman calls our call center and said she was going through a divorce. Her son was graduating from high school and she needed to look good at graduation and she also might need a dress to interview in to go back to work. I ended up going down to DC (she was based in Virginia) and dressing her, and she just felt so good about these important things she had to do. Now we get an update from her every 6 months.
And she’s not alone. We get love letters from women who just had a baby, and they have to go back to work and nothing fits in their closet. Or a woman who’s trying to get a promotion at work and we get to give her the clothes that help her to do that. So I would say that the impact we’re having, woman-to-woman, is enough for me actually.
I had another woman in DC who had an event and she said, “I haven’t bought new clothes in ten years because I haven’t lost the weight I wanted to lose. And I buy clothes for my daughter because she’s perfect.” So we helped her buy a whole new wardrobe. She said, “Oh my god, I have things to wear again. I feel so good about life.”
So I would say, that’s the type of impact we’re having. I believe we are promoters of body confidence and body positivity. We’re definitely promoters of inclusion given that we cover as many body types as we can physically handle with a four-year-old company, and as many sizes as we can handle, from 0-24.
And I also think we’re becoming a voice for women who overcome. Gravitas is not just about going out there and talking about confidence, it’s also about being extremely vulnerable and overcoming those vulnerabilities to accomplish something beyond what you thought you could.
Think about the story of the company. My boss told me I wasn’t good at my job and that I needed to go get some gravitas. And although most women crumble under that feedback, I actually made it my mission.
I always ask for feedback, by the way, because no one will tell you how you’re doing. I always say, “What’s one thing I could do better?” I write them down and then I try to do those things better. That’s a long way to say, I think we are having an impact on a woman-by-woman level. I think on a macro level, we’re at the forefront of positivity, inclusion, and the blend between being vulnerable and being bold.
MWM: That is beautiful! I saw something on your website where you were saying that to have gravitas is to be beyond doubt and to instead own your own moment. I love that quote. What would you say has been your gravitas personally? Of course, clothing has made a huge difference clearly and something you’re giving to others, but are there others areas that have made you successful and own your own moment?
LS: If you become what that really means is that women are very, very hard on themselves. When women go into a dressing room, they’re setting themselves up to fail because after the age of 12, you walk into a dressing room to see everything you hate about yourself. I always tell women, let’s go back to when you were six years old and you don’t even know what body conscious means. I think the dressing room is a great analogy for life. I think women are walking around with a huge list of insecurities that they could rattle off to you before they could rattle off their super powers, before they could rattle off their strengths. And the old stereotype that women have a hard time accepting compliments is because we don’t pay ourselves enough compliments. So, when we talk about being beyond doubt, it’s not that you don’t have doubt, it’s not that you don’t have a ton of insecurities about life, it’s that you’re able to embrace the things you like about yourself. And I think that’s the hardest thing to do sometimes, is to like something about yourself. Like we could play a game right now. Kristin, what’s the one thing that you’re better at than anyone else in the world? That’s what I describe as a superpower.
MWM: Gosh, I don’t know, I would have to think about that.
LS: But it makes you uncomfortable, right? And so, what I always talk about is that you want to own your moment, but it actually has to start inside first. We can give you your dress where you can see your body looks good, you feel good, but that’s like the first step. It’s about getting really comfortable in your own skin.
I have a lot of great superpowers. For instance, I’m a great plus one. You take me to a party with you, I will fetch you drinks, I won’t hover, I’ll go meet other interesting people, I’m a great plus one. People should invite me. My other super power is I’m really good at seeing great things in other people and telling them that. I think that’s a superpower, right? When you meet someone, and you see something really beautiful in who they are, you should tell them because they’re probably not telling themselves enough. That’s like one of my things in life. Pay each other a compliment, pay yourself a compliment.
So, when we talk about owning your moment, it sounds like a nice phrase, but I always talk about owning your moment. Athletes talk about it as peak performance. Everything’s going right, there’s nothing you’re worried about or afraid of, there’s only positive energy in your system, that’s what that means for us.
MWM: I used to, well I still do this sometimes, where I put a quote on my mirror so that I see it all the time to inspire me. I love that idea that you need to empower yourself first in order to be able to move forward. Is there anything that you personally have done on a practical level? What are a couple of things you have done to get to a point of being as successful as you are and as empowered as you are? You talk about clothing and working on yourself, is there anything else you can give as advice to women who are trying to take those steps?
LS: I love that you think we’re successful. Thank you for saying that. I hope I’m one of many entrepreneurs, but I will tell you I make a ton of mistakes on a daily basis, but I learn a lot from them. I know you probably share this a lot with people you interview, but I am a great practice of gratitude. I sign all my emails, “With Gratitude.” I am an incredibly thankful human being. I think that has probably made me be able to deal with the insanity of what we do. I actually think there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I think the tunnel is really dark and that every few miles there’s a skylight that reminds you that blue sky is above. And with those little skylights along the way, you’re just really grateful that whoever carved out that skylight for you, you thank them for reminding you there’s a sky, thank you for reminding you there was a small way today.
So part of my whole mentality is this is a really hard job, it’s really not a fun job. And fundamentally, it’s a tough job. I actually wouldn’t wish it on many people. Elon Musk says entrepreneurs eat glass and stare into the abyss. They eat glass because they deal with stuff no one else wants to deal with and they never know where the next dollar is coming from. Who would choose this life? I only choose it because of the little skylights in a very dark tunnel.
An entrepreneur once told me, if you’re an entrepreneur, when people ask how is the business or how you are doing, you always say it’s good. You don’t say we’re killing it and you don’t say we’re sucking wind. If you’re making tons of money, you still say we’re good. The reason is, if you say we’re killing it, everyone will charge you more money. And if you say you’re sucking wind and have all these problems, they don’t want to help you.
MWM: Well this gives all of us lots to think about. Thank you so much for sharing such an empowering and practical message!
For Part 1, an interview with Marcia Davies of mPower, click here!