Path To Success with Stella Guan
“If you don’t get started, then it’s never going to happen so it’s better to just go ahead and do it in small steps. You can’t anticipate that things are going to happen overnight but it’s the first step that’s important and knowing that you won’t always have everything planned out because you don’t know.”
Hera.co’s mission is to empower future female leaders to grow the ambition, bravery, confidence, and self-leadership to pursue their passion💫
Path Unbound is an education company dedicated to democratizing creative education. They provide students with an equal opportunity to receive a high-quality creative education, offer a full-length visual design course that is free and open-sourced, as well as a custom Portfolio School program that teaches students how to create an outstanding portfolio with unique personal branding and compelling storytelling elements so that they can stand out in the job market.
Besides Path Unbound, Stella also founded a secondary company in 2021 which specializes in mid-century modern and affordable furniture.
Q. Would you like to talk more about your two businesses?
Stella: So, Path Unbound is a design school that we established earlier this year in January, and we spent a lot of time building a community of students that are passionate about design wanting to break into the design industry as professional designers. So far, we have a couple of thousand students enrolled in our free courses and we are launching a really big certificate end-to-end learning program that will last for six to eight months depending on how much time you spend in the program. This new program is called the School of Design Certificate and it’s going to enable students with no design background to really study design in the capacity of an Associate Degree program equivalent to, you know, college. But it’s at a much, you know, easier arrangement because we are completely online. So, we cater to different kinds of student’s lifestyle and their circumstances, and we aim to establish a foundation, a really good foundation for students so that they can pursue different kinds of design careers. For example, you can be a brand designer, graphic designer, UI designer, and anything that has to do with the visual side of things- you can do. And in the future, we also have a plan to launch a program called School of Creative Business because we see a lack of business education in the design field and so that’s our long-term plan after we launch this program.
So, my secondary business is more of my passion, and it takes a longer time but I’m proud to say that we’ve made significant progress in the past eight to nine months because I had the idea in December of 2020 and I immediately started designing my first furniture. So far, I’ve already created a three-piece collection and we’ve had the first two pieces produced in China in the factory, and the first prototype- a multifunctional vanity table that can be turned into a writing desk has already been sold. So, we are, you know, working to solve supply chain problems, which is very challenging right now but hopefully next year we’ll make more progress.
Q. What is it like being in two different industries at the same time?
Stella: I see it more like, there are a lot of overlaps because both businesses are centered around design, and I am a designer and I think ultimately this is a really good example for people who want to be in the creative industry to see that their skills are very transferable. So, you know, just because you study one thing doesn’t mean that you’re limited to doing one thing. If you are creative and you have the drive, you can do a lot of different things utilizing your skillset. So, I don’t see it as too polarizing, you know, very different industries. Yes, they’re very different but at the same time, I also see a lot of really successful businesses. You know, people who are pursuing different kinds of businesses and they’re able to do it well because when they establish the foundation, they can delegate right. Like once you scale your company, you’re delegating a lot of responsibilities, you don’t have to do everything by yourself.
Q. What are some of the key advice you would give to someone going into business in both industries?
Stella: I think a lot of people when they try to do something whether it’s applying for a job or starting their own business or anything that they want to take on, there’s always that fear that you know what if it doesn’t go well or what if I get rejected or what if no one wants me or what if it fails. So, a lot of people stop- it’s kind of like analysis paralysis right, but I think my advice is you have to do something. If you don’t get started, then it’s never going to happen so it’s better to just go ahead and do it in small steps. You can’t anticipate that things are going to happen overnight but it’s the first step that’s important and knowing that you won’t always have everything planned out because you don’t know.
So, for me when I first started Path Unbound, it was because I realized I want to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t have an idea of what I’m going to do so I just picked one thing. I started to pitch at conferences, you know, to pitch myself as a speaker because I thought well if you want to be an entrepreneur, you got to be known, you got to be making connections and what other places can I make connections other than sharing my knowledge right? So, it’s kind of an easier step to get started without having the full-blown plan of what I’m going to do, and things will start to reveal themselves to you along the way. So, I would say keep an open mind, but you have to do something.
Q. Taking a risk and building a connection is one of the most important things you must do when you’re owning a business so I would like to ask what your day-to-day life is and how you manage it.
Stella: Day-to-day is very different because as an entrepreneur, every day is different. So, when people try to schedule meetings with me, I defer them to my calendar because I honestly have no idea what I’m doing tomorrow. So, I think that the exciting thing is, every day is different. I’m one of those people who hate routines. So, I would prefer to have something a little bit more different than every day is the same. I, you know, respect people who love routine and do that for 30 years but ultimately, we have to find a fit for ourselves. Because we know ourselves the best, we know our personality- what makes us happy. So, for me, it’s the creativity and the kind of opportunity to do something different as much as possible that kind of draws me to this kind of lifestyle.
But I usually start with replying to a couple of emails and then get a few things out of the way and I need an uninterrupted time, and it has been a challenge because there are so many people trying to find you during the week. So, I think it’s important to tune out a few things if you need to get a few uninterrupted hours of work.
Q. As an immigrant and a woman, trying to build yourself within two very different industries, would you be open to sharing some of the struggles that you face?
Stella: I think your question has two parts- like the immigrant experience and the business building experience. I think that a lot of immigrants are very entrepreneurial. Whatever business that they get into, they work hard and they do well so I’m hardly unique but in terms of struggles, I think everyone is a little bit different even though we’re all part of the same immigrant community because of the place that you came from and the experience that you have. So, I think for me, is kind of finding your niche, you know? Because everybody- whatever you do -you kind of really need to find why what you do matters to people and how that can relate to your brand. A lot of entrepreneurs’ brands and their personal brands are very interconnected and I think that it’s the case for me as well, especially with Path Unbound, I have a lot of personal connections with students that kind of drew them to me and also they started referring their friends to our school. So, I think that kind of connection, it’s something that we need to build but also it relates to who we are and what kind of people are we able to attract with our brand.
The other thing, as an immigrant I think we bring a variety of backgrounds and experiences that it’s going to make what we do better right obviously there are a lot of struggles that I can’t speak for everyone, but for me most of the time is to find resources and how to make things work. Despite the trouble of the legal system and immigration system that’s very suffocating, at least where I live but luckily I was able to overcome them but it took a long time like, in the US, the immigration system is very cumbersome and for immigrants to start a business, it’s not easy at all. Some people were able to start businesses earlier because they came through a different route while I came from the student visa route and then gradually tried to make my way to get a green card. It’s just a terribly long journey. But I would say that’s the most struggle that I’ve had. It’s like navigating through that process and how can I legally do things that I want to do. So, that’s part one and part two is starting a business, we have to be very clear about what we want and also marry that with what the market needs. Because I found a lot of people starting a business very enthusiastic and they have you know great ideas but they kind of neglected to test the market. Also getting feedback, I’ve also found some people, who’ve been struggling with the business because they are a little bit too idealistic because there are a lot of things that we need to prioritize in business like not everything can be done in one go. If something is not happening right now, we can table that. We can think, ‘that okay let’s get started with the things that we have control over right now, and then maybe in a year or two we can revisit what we wanted to do’, this is ultimately a demand and supply issue. It’s like, does the market want what you have to offer, and do you make money? So, you got to be conscious of your numbers which are not something that everyone is comfortable about but ultimately it comes down to numbers.
Q. That was insightful! Can you tell us, what it takes to build your own brand?
Stella: Whenever we talk about personal brand building it always sounds very abstract, but it isn’t because I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve successfully built their brand because they have a voice. I think having a voice is the first place to start because you can’t have a personal brand without talking to anyone. You can have a great website all you want, but especially in this day and age if you want a personal brand you need to start writing articles about what you think about certain issues in your industry and what recommendations do you have to make. You also need to participate in your community as well, you know? When there’s a great discussion thread online, you probably want to chime in.
Not everyone is a content creator obviously but if you can, I think content creation is a great way to strengthen and bolster your personal brand because, without a lot of things about you floating around, you don’t have a brand. So, I think it’s about you as a person how you think about what value you have to contribute to your industry. Because you can’t always be speaking about the same thing that everybody else is talking about. Do you have original ideas that spark a discussion? I think that’s very important because nobody wants to hear the same thing over and over again. So, start by writing because writing is probably one of the lower stress activities. You don’t have to show your face, you can just start typing in your thoughts. Not everyone is a great writer, and you don’t have to be necessarily a great writer but your thoughts count, you can make some punctuation mistakes but ultimately, you’re speaking so you have to have a voice, so that’s what I think.
Q. What are some tips you can provide in terms of building a really strong and impactful portfolio or a brand?
Stella: For this question, I’ll have to share my screen. Stella shares her screen, showing the website of a French designer. He starts with animated slides showing his best works so this is very visually stunning. His about page also stands out because even though he starts with a Hello, you can see there are a lot of activities that he took a part in. He’s also very funny which is another thing that adds to your brand. He’s also showing high-profile clients he’s worked for and sort of a digital resume. It’s done very nicely like if you hover over the words, you can see him in action. He’s also got testimonials and interviews which show a well-rounded side of him. So, the reason I’m showing this is that it’s very simple and it’s the details that matter. I definitely invite students to think a little bit outside the box and don’t start with a blank template and just populate a few of your projects. I would advise people who are in design to learn a few web building tools like webflow. So, I would say this is a prime example of how a portfolio can stand out. If you ask yourself, have I seen this before no you haven’t right like you haven’t seen this before so if you construct your portfolio and you think that your portfolio looks familiar that’s not a good sign. So, it’s a good thing to look at a lot of examples get some inspiration, and experiment with the visual style that speaks most to yourself.
Q. How would you make yourself stand out in your interview in your portfolio?
Stella: The interview process, it’s how you how well you explain how your skill sets fit into what they’re looking for is the most important because contrary to popular belief they don’t care about your life story like they’re gonna ask you to tell them about yourself and that’s not the time for you to chronicle your childhood. It’s an opportunity for you to pitch ‘why do you matter for our company and how can you contribute to our company that other people can’t’ so it’s like, you have to think of yourself as a sales representative like when you knock on someone’s door you’re like ‘oh I want I want you to buy this’ and they’d be like, ‘why would I buy this, what’s the benefit’. So, if you adopt this mindset, it’s gonna help you to craft your interview answers, your ‘sales pitch’ a lot more focused. I think that’s something that, if you haven’t had a lot of interview experience you might wander off, just talk about random stuff about yourself.
That’s one and then the second one is to read the room and develop soft skills, it’s easier said than done because as someone who’s new and fresh, soft skills has to be developed. It’s hard to teach in schools and that’s why it’s very important to gain experience through internships or co-ops because that’s your practice ground and without those experiences, you’re just diving head on into the job market without being prepared and there’s no way for you to develop the soft skills. Sometimes they will ask you situational questions and behavioral questions and those I think will help you gain some experience without actually directly gaining experience by attending events and listening to other people talk about their experience. If you’re new, you attend a lot of event industry events and then you hear panels, you hear their experience and it might come back to you when you interview for jobs and you can relate to that, like ‘oh I’ve heard of that before as it happened to this panelist that I’ve you know listened to before and this is what they did’, you can borrow that. You got to be creative about how you can compensate for things that you’re lacking but not let it show up in the level of your confidence because confidence is a really big factor. Confidence, it’s what separates people who are always getting jobs and people who are not getting jobs even if their abilities are probably the same.
You can watch the Q/A session with her here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ws5f9fIEMio&ab_channel=teamheraco
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