Sophia Chang is a hustler. The designer illustrator from Queens New York attended Parsons School of Design and today she works as an independent creative juggling multiple freelance projects that span the spectrum of graphic design, apparel, printmaking, media and illustration. Her immense talent, and relentless ambition has put her in a position to take on clients that include Nike, the NBA and Marc Jacobs. She collaborated with PUMA on a full collection of clothing and footwear.
Affectionately known by many as the “bun queen” and sometimes Esymai, Chang joined us on April 16th in New York City to talk to us about her path and her advice to other creatives during our “Mastering The Art of Your Creative Career Panel.” Below are her isolated responses from the panel conversation. You can also watch the video of the full conversation.
Her Agenda: The first question I have is, have you ever had a traditional 9-5 job and when did you that life wasn’t for you?
Sophia Chang: My parents really wanted me to get a full time job when I got out of college…you know the salary and benefits and whatever. So I decided to try it out. I got a random job off of Craigslist. It was full time and I was probably making I don’t know $23,000 a year or something. I worked really hard, did a lot of internships when I was in college and was there for about five to six months and then one day I woke up and I realized how much I hated going to work. I realized, I know I’m worth much more, I worked really hard and I was confident [in] my own talents. I realized I had to leave and figure it out and go into the unknown without any actual agenda but confidence.
Her Agenda: Sophia, you said you were working before and then you said, ‘okay, I can’t do this anymore.’ So what was the first step you took to actually launch out on your own?
Sophia: Well, when I was in college, I interned at a lot of different places and I had a lot of projects and names and people that I had worked with under my belt. I literally just took this job because I felt like it was the right thing to do. My parents were really forcing me into it and obviously I wanted to…I don’t know…make them proud or something. Then I just realized I hated it. So I quit and then I was like alright cool, let me figure out what I’m going to do, I’m in this city full of opportunities, I know a bunch of people, so it started out with me hitting people up. My most important thing that I was focused on was not standing still and not being idle. So sending out 100 emails a day hoping that one person would email me back. I went back to Craigslist, looked at the art/media jobs, scrolled through that every day, scrolled through like 10 pages deep emailing people…emailing people nonstop– and at least going to bed every night knowing that I wasn’t just sitting on my ass waiting for someone to hit me up. Through referrals and stuff like that and people seeing my site and seeing the work and the brands I worked with in the past definitely helped out.
Her Agenda: You’re pretty established at this point, so along with being creative there’s administrative tasks you have to deal with. How do you keep the administrative side of what you do from overriding the creativity and the creative side?
Sophia: One of the things I always tell people is that when you’re a freelancer, or an entrepreneur and you own your own business you’re not only focusing on the creative but you also have to be your own PR, your own marketing, your own accounting, at least when you’re small up until the point where you can financially bring other people on board. I haven’t [built up] to that point yet. But I think it’s also important to realize when you do need that extra help and when to reach out for that extra help. For me personally, I manage my business myself. I’ve always been blessed to be kind of left and right brained, I’m horrible at math but I am very organized. I have a full schedule every single day. I stick to it minute to minute as much as I can. When it comes to invoicing and stuff like that whenever I send out an invoice I always add another reminder in my calendar when to follow up with a client. I live off my calendars.
Her Agenda: Speaking of administrative things, can we take a brief second to talk about how you managed to raise the capital, find the capital, or save the capital to do your own thing?
Sophia: So when you have more money, you have more problems, right? (laughs) Let’s start off with that and I didn’t have that much money. Kind of similar to Danielle, I hit the ground running and just saved. It wasn’t easy because obviously there were moments when I was literally counting quarters, my laundry money, to take the MTA so I could meet a client. I am also extremely prideful so I didn’t want to ask my parents for help so I was eating Kraft Mac and Cheese for a really long time. It was like your typical starving artist phase that I don’t regret and I thought it was really fun. Everyone kind of has to go through it, and when the pressure is there it only pushes you to hustle harder. I was confident. I knew what I was walking away from, not that it was that much money. I was walking away from security for sure. I was confident in my abilities, and I just was like I’m young let me just see how far I can take this and if it doesn’t work out then I’ll just get a real job. Again. (rolls eyes)
Her Agenda: How do you stay productive on a consistent basis? Inspiration and ideas for most people is something that tends to come out of nowhere, and most times it doesn’t show up when we need it the most. So since motivation or inspiration is hard to get a grasp on at times, how do you navigate those moments so that you’re still able to get your job done?
Sophia: I always try to keep an open mind. Whether I’m talking to someone, walking down the street, checking out someone’s outfit or whatever I try to keep my mind open and absorbing information as much as I can.
Her Agenda: Do you have a routine? Even if you don’t have one, what kind of structure do you have to your days to get things done?
Sophia: A creative routine? I don’t know if I have a routine, when you’re a creative your mind is running all the time. You could be inspired by a movie, you could be inspired by a book cover or a pair of shoes. There’s inspiration everywhere it’s really just about your perception and how you approach life. I think everything is inspiring all the time. Also, the people you surround yourself with, what Instagram accounts you follow, you know Snapchat (laughs) – just kidding! I don’t wake up like ‘I’m going to get inspired today.’ It kind of just happens and it’s just part of a lifestyle. I don’t really have a routine. I wake up and I walk my dog and I pick up his poop.
Her Agenda: Sophia, you once said to succeed in the design market you need more than just talent, you need hustle. where does your hustle come from, and how would you describe it?
Sophia: You know it’s funny because I recently became bicoastal, so I’m spending some time in LA. I’m going through this learning about myself and who I am and why I am the way I am and I think where you’re from shapes you to be who you are. I’m born and raised in Queens New York. The whole New Yorker mentality, I feel like I stand out so much in LA, because like– when you’re in New York you think you’re the shit. Like rep where you’re from, oh I’m from this borough, ride or die. In LA they’re like ‘what? I don’t get it.’ I sound silly but this is a very typical New Yorker mentality when you’re growing up. You’re very prideful, you rep where you’re from, you rep your craft and this hustler mentality is instilled in who you are. When you’re going through junior high school, or high school, when you’re hanging out with the cool kids, or not. For me personally growing up this is just part of who I am. That’s it. I’m just wired this way. Definitely as I went to school, I started at Parsons School of Design. Dealing with international students, learning more about non-New Yorkers and stuff like that…you definitely notice how stand out in terms of your work mentality or work ethics. How you approach an assignment. Here in New York when you’re given an assignment, it’s EOD, you should treat it like it’s due at the end of the day. Even if it’s due two or three days later. That’s my approach always. But in LA it’s end of week…whenever you feel like it. And then in Hawaii it’s end of month or end of six months. You notice that difference, and that’s when I started to realize, oh it’s because of where I’m from that I have this approach to everything that I do. This instant gratification of today’s generation and also the fact that this entire city is wired to having everything right away. I’m just wired this way.
Her Agenda: Pursuing a career as a designer, or entrepreneur is not the most stable choice, who or what gave you the confidence to pursue this?
Sophia: It’s funny you (Leah McSweeney) mentioned you’re not good with authority. I was talking to a friend of mine Jeff Staple, who actually is speaking at AlleyNYC in midtown tonight, super random. I remember he was asking me about work, [and asked me] what would your ideal work environment be? And I was just like, I don’t know if I’m good with authority I don’t like it when people tell me what to do. Going back to the time schedule thing — if I want to take an hour and half lunch, I’m going to take an hour and a half lunch as long as I get my work done, that’s fine. But that’s the worst attitude to have in a 9-5. You have to work with structure you can’t just la dee da.
Her Agenda: And the thing about the 9-5 is you have to be there at the same time every. single. day.
Sophia: Yea, and talk to people about your weekend. Yea, I can’t do that, and I don’t want to listen to your conversation, I don’t care. I’ve been in that and I know I can’t live like that. I’m sorry but that further motivates me to work super hard so I can make enough money to just be on my own and not have to be in that environment.
Her Agenda: They say the worse enemy to creativity is self-doubt. Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject: “Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action. If the action involves something scary, then what we call courage might also be needed. Or if it’s difficult, a strong will to persist might also be needed. Anger, intelligence, creativity can play a role. But confidence is essential, because it applies in more situations than these other traits do. It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.” Keeping this in mind, what elements contribute to your confidence? How do you hone in on it/tap into it during periods of self-doubt?
Sophia: The part where you listed out the emotions, the courage and the anger. All of those are essential. Those are all driving points. When I’m angry, when I’m feeling intelligent, when I’m feeling courageous. I think they’re all just important as confidence. I think they all mix together.
Her Agenda: What is it like for you as a woman working in an industry that’s very male dominated?
Sophia: It’s definitely an advantage to be a female in a male dominated industry for sure. I can’t, maybe its a prideful thing but I always think you approach people whether they’re male or female, you approach them with your body language with your tone with how you speak with how you dress and that sends a message as to how you want to be approached. For me, there’s a lot of things working for me or against me, I’m small, I’m an asian girl and I’m in a very male dominated industry–streetwear, arts wherever you want to call it. So there could be advantages or disadvantages. When I meet people I feel like a lot of times they approach you and look at you as a female first, especially in the industry that I am in. And its almost like I have to in some way prove and show them, “hey fall back, first of all” and show some respect, because I respect you, and I don’t actually know you that well. But its all about how you express yourself and how you speak and again going back to body language and how you dress shows a lot.
Her Agenda: Alright, I’m going to open it up to the audience for questions now.
Audience Member #2: I go to Pratt, I am lucky enough to go to an art school and be able to be creative, what kind of advice would you give to someone who feels like they are gravitating towards a creative field but hasn’t necessarily had the education or the connections in that field, but is still confident with what they do?
Sophia: It’s funny, because I had this conversation with some of my interns. I don’t think school is for everyone, that’s for sure. There are many benefits to being in school, and there are many benefits to not being in school. One thing that I have heard from friends recently, is that when they are trying to grow, in terms of their career and salary, having a degree does help. Not only does it help, but it can actually hinder you when you don’t have a degree. And there are plenty of resources out there, honey. You don’t have to get a full on education and feel like art school is the only answer. But if you are in art school, it’s definitely very important to make the most out of your resources. A lot of times, doing internships are great, because you figure out what you like and don’t like, its like dating. You date guys and you realize this person is horrible, I hate all these qualities but I also like all these qualities –and you can take it with you on to your next relationship and so forth. It’s most important to just not stay static, keep exploring, put yourself out there, absorb, give back and retain.
Male Audience Member: Alright, so this is directed towards all of you basically, I have two passions in my life, I cook and I design. Cooking is what makes me my money and it is very demanding and I also am trying to start a streetwear/clothing/accessory brand and basically I feel like I don’t have enough time to put in the work that I’d like to. I started it two years ago, and if you have any suggestions on how I could focus more on that part. I feel like I am artistically inclined in both, but I would like to basically push that further. I actually just came to the city five days ago to pursue both and try to take it further. This is like my first big step.
Sophia: I think if your heart is in something, you will make time for it. It’s harsh but true.