In case you didn’t know, 2020 marks the Year of the Rat.
And while brands clamour over top of each other to turn out Chinese New Year-themed products that have no connection to the occasion or community other than a picture of this year’s animal and perhaps a dash of red, we’ve decided to take a different approach.
It’s no secret that cultural and special interest groups hold lucrative opportunities for brands to take advantage of. But if that’s going to be the case, companies must communicate other ways of supporting these communities in order for their campaigns to resonate and feel authentic. After all, cultural holidays command respect. They are meant as not only a celebration of community, but also to remind us of the hurdles that certain people have had to (and continue to) endure in order to be where they are today.
This year, instead of rounding up a handful of rat-themed special edition products, we’ve put together a group of Chinese-Canadian entrepreneurs and leaders who continue to carve the path ahead. From beauty moguls and tech entrepreneurs to actors and personalities, these individuals are proud ambassadors of their community.
CEO, founder; Velour Lashes
What do Beyonce, Kate Upton, and Meghan Markle have in common with each other? Probably more than a few things, but in this instance, they’re all fans of Velour Lashes. Founded by Mabel Lee, an immigrant from China, Velour started as a dorm-room project in 2011 and has quickly transformed into one of the world’s leading beauty brands focusing on luxury false eyelashes. During her days as a student at the University of Toronto, Lee noticed a gap in the market when her love of false eyelashes found her without any high-quality, comfortable options. So, she decided to fix the problem herself by painstakingly creating her own false eyelashes out of mink during her weekends. Two years after she launched her company, Velour Lashes caught its big break when Sephora approached them to be their exclusive brand of false eyelashes. Since then, Lee has taken her brand to soaring heights, expanding to international markets including Sephora SEA and Middle East, as well as through the UK’s largest beauty retailer, Boots. In 2020, expect to see more big things as Velour prepares to launch their first line of cosmetics in Sephora and Ulta this spring.
CEO, co-founder; Wattpad
Hailing from Hong Kong, Allen Lau has always been determined to achieve success. Teaching himself how to code at the age of 12, he moved to Toronto with his family when he was 19 and studied electrical engineering at the University of Toronto. Lau’s company, Wattpad, occupies a unique niche in Canada’s growing cultural and tech ecosystem by harnessing data and community to discover today’s most compelling storytellers. Simply put, Wattpad provides a platform for unpublished writers to showcase their work to an engaged community, opening up opportunities to cultivate communities and possibly even book and movie deals. Since founding, they have grown their global community to over 80 million people, launched an Emmy-nominated Hulu show, partnered with other entertainment giants like eOne and Netflix, launched a book publishing division, and even beat out Quentin Tarantino at this year’s People’s Choice Awards.
Canada is not typically synonymous with fashion (we blame the weather), but of the talent that has managed to achieve international success, Alfred Sung is one name that has stood the test of time. Known for his effortless approach to style, the Canadian fashion darling quickly became a household name in the 80s as a designer that empowered women. Strong silhouettes and immaculate tailoring combined with pragmatic functionality were the perfect ingredients that solidified Sung as a trusted resource for women who wanted to look good and feel great at work. In 1985, Sung also opened the first location of his new fashion brand, Club Monaco, in Toronto with his business partners, Joe and Saul Mimran, which has since gone on to be a global brand now owned by Polo Ralph Lauren. Today, Sung’s name lives on past the catwalk with licensed deals for eyewear, fragrance, timepiece, home decor and more, as well as its own bespoke suiting division that continues to champion his legacy.
Bruce Poon Tip
Founder, G Adventures
Bruce Poon Tip has always valued the importance of social responsibility, well before it became the crux of today’s cultural and corporate dialogue. Born in Trinidad to a Chinese father and Chinese-Venezuelan Spanish mother, the social entrepreneur founded his company, G Adventures, in 1990 at the age of 22 out of his Toronto apartment. Passionate about connecting global cultures, Poon Tip yearned to create an alternative to the big business resort and cruise ship tourism industries by focusing on experiences driven by social impact. Under his leadership, Poon Tip has been responsible for growing G Adventures to 40 percent sales growth each year of the past two decades, and has launched an NGO (Planeterra Foundation) that helps to develop local communities, conserve the environment, and provide social solutions to local business challenges.
Financial literacy remains an undereducated, yet crucial, aspect of adult life. Part of that is understanding the importance of credit, and making good financial decisions that will impact your credit score. Eva Wong and her co-founders created Borrowell in hopes of making the conversation and culture around money less confusing and intimidating, and more approachable so that Canadians can have peace of mind around their finances. In this regard, Borrowell helps its users by providing access to free credit scores and reports, along with personalized recommendations for loans, credit cards, mortgage rates, and debt management. With over a million users, the Toronto-based fin-tech company has also received a standing ovation for its commitment to positive workplace culture and its diverse team.
When Michelle Obama appeared in a white, one-shouldered chiffon gown for the presidential couple’s first Inauguration Ball, the world collectively picked their jaws off the floor as they marvelled at the now iconic dress. All eyes were on a young emerging designer, Jason Wu, as he cemented himself in sartorial history. Based out of New York, Wu cut his teeth in fashion growing up in Vancouver where he taught himself how to sew, draft patterns, and illustrate by making dresses for dolls. Now an award-winning designer known for his attention to detail and craftsmanship, he now counts a growing list of A-list women as clients, including Michelle Obama, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, Reese Witherspoon, Priyanka Chopra, and more.
On the international landscape, Canadians are known for a few things: our manners, hockey, and parkas. More specifically, the quality of our parka brands. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it. We live in some of the harshest cold-weather conditions in the world and as such, require outerwear that will deliver on performance. Nobis is one of those brands. Kevin Au-Yeung is the founder and President of InnoVision Holdings Corporation, a group of international apparel brands, including Nobis. Distributed in over 35 countries across flagships and luxury department stores, the premium outerwear brand has grown a cult following across celebrities, athletes, and professionals thanks to its design innovation and performance in what is arguably a very competitive market.
Founder, CEO; Drop
The word “entrepreneur” is one that is used with disregard in today’s business dialogue, but if it’s one person who embodies its very definition, it’s Derrick Fung. A risk-taker that strives for impact, Fung is the founder and CEO of Drop, a Toronto-based fintech company that matches users with rewards and offers based on what they’re purchasing. Since starting in 2015, Drop has amassed a database of over three million users, paying out over $20 million in rewards to them, and directed a staggering $350 million in sales to their merchant partners. Towards the end of 2019, they also announced the closing of a $44 million Series B. For Drop, the growth of their company has only confirmed their belief in the power of consumer-driven data and what loyalty means to both consumers and marketers today.
Ask any Chinese-Canadian if they’re familiar with T & T and odds are, they’d respond with enthusiasm and fondness. Founded by Cindy Lee in 1993, T & T is a chain of grocery stores that many in the Asian-Canadian diaspora go to find the flavours of their culture and, ultimately, their community. Watching her mother grow a small family business into a national grocery chain, Tina Lee became a product of her environment and Cindy’s work ethic. Playing a pivotal role in the brand’s $225 million sale to Loblaw Cos Ltd. as director of strategy and operations, Lee has been a formidable force within the company and took over as CEO after her mother’s retirement in 2014. Since taking the helm, Lee has led the company into an expansion in both the digital and physical space, overseeing 27 locations across Canada as the nation’s largest Asian food retailer and the launch of an e-commerce platform. Her ambition extends outside of the office, as she is also one of five Canadian women CEOs appointed by the Canadian Prime Minister’s office as a part of the Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders.
CEO; MaRS Discovery District
The tech community in Toronto (heck, Canada) has blossomed into a thriving ecosystem that has established our country as a hotbed of talent on a global scale. A good part of that is thanks to the MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub based in Toronto that helps startups “grow, create jobs, and solve society’s greatest challenges.” At the tip of the spear is Yung Wu, MaRS’ intrepid CEO who has helped define the not-for-profit’s mission by encouraging cross-industry collaboration and the cultivation of talent, among many things. With his leadership, Canada’s tech community continues to grow and push boundaries.
Founder, Lainey Gossip; Host, The Social
When it comes to Canada’s media landscape, Elaine Lui (known colloquially as “Lainey”) is at the front of the pack. In the frenzy and chaos that is celebrity news, Lui has carved out a unique niche for herself as both a singular expert personality as well as a pillar in our country’s pop culture landscape as a host on The Social and eTalk contributor. For those that may turn their nose up to gossip news, yes, Lui reports on entertainment. But, look at her work a little closer and you’ll see a fiercely feminist commentator that has been able to use popular culture to translate larger themes around race, politics, business, and motherhood in an approachable way for an international audience that visits her website, Lainey Gossip, millions of times each month.
Influencer culture is an easy target for criticism thanks to its narcissistic tendencies, but every once in awhile you find someone who has been able to harness the power of social media as a launchpad for future success. That’s exactly what Mijune Pak did when she grew her site, Follow Me Foodie, into a career as an expert on all things food and travel. Today, while she continues to operate her site, Pak is also a judge on Food Network’s Top Chef Canada alongside some of the nation’s most revered culinary talents, and also a regular commentator on CTV, Breakfast Television, and more.
When friends and engineering classmates Gimmy Chu, Christian Yan, and Tom Rodinger created Nanoleaf, they did so with the belief that something as utilitarian as lighting could be redefined into a new experience. For them, lighting could be interactive, dynamic and a vessel for creative expression. So they created Nanoleaf, a modular and mobile light that could adjust to any mood or environment. Since inception, Nanoleaf has grown in the smart lighting category in three short years with over three million light panels sold and major retail partnerships with the likes of Apple, Best Buy, Nordstrom, and Home Depot.
Known for his role on the hit Canadian sitcom, Kim’s Convenience, Simu Liu was thrust onto the international stage when he was recently cast as the lead of Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings alongside Golden Globe winner and Crazy Rich Asians star, Awkwafina. Being the first Asian superhero in the Marvel universe is remarkable enough, but it’s Liu’s own arc that is truly what movies are made of. A former accountant that left his job to chase his dreams of being an actor, Liu embodies much of the Asian-Canadian (or “Asian-hyphen”) experience that may be why so many have gravitated towards him — they see themselves in him, they look up to him. And Liu is hardly shy about the challenges that he’s faced along the way. As he has cultivated his career, he’s used his platform to speak up about representation, masculinity, and generational differences in Asian cultures.