Six years ago, she was honoured in the inaugural Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list in 2016; but Love, Bonito’s Rachel Lim is not so much building a fashion empire out of Singapore. Rather, she is in the business of building women up.
Having spoken and headlined at TEDx, the Great Women of Our Time Forum and the Future is Female conference, she is passionate about female empowerment and building communities. Recognising her penchant as a people builder first, we decided to check in on her to see just how she ticks and what men could learn from this accomplished woman.
What were some of your struggles during the early days of Love Bonito?
Back then everything was traditional, we were setting the stage for eCommerce. Singpost was the monopoly when it came to logistics, we had to determine what was the best way to work with Singpost: would they be willing to be experimental because we still had to weigh each package, and manually write each name, address and then affix a physical stamp and then make multiple trips a day to the post office. With the rise of online shopping, we had to figure out how to do things differently.
Getting people to join the team was also challenging because people thought it was a passion project. For me, I had to break my bond with the government to start the business properly. My own mother was also skeptical and wondering whether it was legal. She couldn’t fathom why people were transferring money to me before they had received or touched their goods.
On a personal note, there was also the burden of knowing that I had loaned my mother’s entire life savings to break my bond and it came at a time when my father was going through bankruptcy as well with my mother working three jobs to support the family. These were some of the reasons that pushed me not to fail.
Doing this in my early 20s, I also had to discover and find my footing an identity as a person. I still wasn’t sure who I was, I was swayed by peer and societal pressures — I didn’t even know who I was yet but I had to figure out who I was as a leader.
What you say are some of the guiding principles or qualities that helped you overcome these hurdles?
Ultimately, I think I found psychological safety in my family that my mom had built since I was young. She brought us up really well with the belief that if I didn’t have the right answers for everything, it was okay. I didn’t have to come in first in class or a race, she encouraged us to try all the time — her mantra was that “if we never tried, we’d never know” and we would celebrate whatever results we would ultimately get.
I recall when I was in a Primary Five 200 metres race and I came in fourth, and my parents were cheering me on as if I came in first. I was so embarrassed but I learned that through their different ways of encouraging and celebrating me, I have learned the importance of trying and not being afraid to fail. To just take that leap of faith and have the courage to do something that I dreamt of.
It also takes courage to ask for help and feedback and these things have helped shape the person I am today. I think if I did not grow up with this boldness to try early in my journey, I would be a very different person today. In order for us to progress we have to grow and sometimes that means falling and making mistakes but what’s most important as we stand up and try again.
Speaking of standing up, what would you say defines an empowered woman today?
She’s someone who first and foremost embraces herself. This has been my journey as well. Right at the beginning I used to look at my strengths, flaws, weaknesses and limitations and wonder, oh God, why am I not like someone else? Back then, I compared myself incessantly with others and I wondered whether I was meant to be a leader because I did not possess a particular set of skills nor possessed certain characteristics. Finally I discovered that I had to embrace this all and set myself fully towards becoming a better version of myself. I believe that we are all gifted differently and that we have different paths to success. It is in understanding all of this and knowing you you are and working towards that unique individual that you are meant to be.
My greatest accomplishment is in being true to who I am and not being afraid of being myself. I think in my journey, there’s a lot of pressure from society and media, where the industry will glamorise a certain kind of leader — your Zuckerbergs and your Jobs and I was wondering did those archetypes mean that with my characteristics, I wasn’t meant to be a leader or find success?
I think when you look around, you also find that leaders tend to look a certain way and I was not like that. My whole journey has been really choosing to focus on who I am, what I’m gifted with and really honing in on that while not being afraid of hiring people that were smarter than me in different areas to succeed together. I’m a leader who is not great in certain things but I have a great team to complement me.
To be truly empowered, she owns all herself, recognising all her limits while working with her community and the people around her (and the plurality of diverse thinking) towards a greater goal.
I assume not being afraid of yourself is born out of a courage from years of experience, but have there ever been moments where you questioned if you should hide part of yourself just to fit in?
Yes! In our early days, we would have personality tests and “strengths finders” and for me, those tests would always skew towards relational and influential aspects and I always found myself envious of those around me with hard skills. I was worried that as a leader, I was leaning so extremely towards one side of the scale and lacking in the other side. I was so embarrassed I didn’t want to share the test findings. It wasn’t until one of my peers came up to me one day and she said, “Rach, what you have is not what we have.” As simple as it sounded, it made me realise that my gifts and limitations were a way to figure out how I could be the best version of this and lean into my inclinations while improving in certain areas. In doing so, I felt that I was able to look at myself in the mirror and recognise who I was. I decided I didn’t have to try to be like other people just because I thought that that was what it meant to succeed. There’s no “mould” for success.
You mentioned Zuckerberg and Jobs, “stewardship” is almost always referred to in masculine terms and defined by it, what does it mean for women?
We are wired differently. We each have a unique purpose and calling on this earth and stewardship means taking care and being responsible for that regardless of our gender. When it comes to women, we are less self assured than men and in order to succeed, we know that confidence matters as much as competence. Self-assuredness is something we as women can do much better in. It means taking charge of our lives and really owning the dreams, aspirations and having the courage to pursue it, that to me is stewardship.
Do you have have any perspectives on what a woman’s responsibilities to society are as co-stewards?
There are so many expectations on the roles women play, perhaps the opportunities or lack thereof at the beginning led to years of these perceptions. President Obama once shared his experience about the importance of women in society and leadership. He said, “I’m absolutely confident that if all nations on Earth was run by women, in just two years, you would see significant improvement across the board on just about everything.” — that speaks to me, coming from one of the most powerful men in the world. I truly believe that when you empower women, you empower society because when she’s empowered, she succeeds. Innately, a woman reaches out to people around and pulls them all up with her. I think this is really goes back to our need to be confident and self-assured in pursuing our calling and understanding we all have an important role to play while being good stewards to our gifts.
In the business world, The Kauffman Fellows report shows that female founded companies actually perform 63% better than male founded companies and they also generate higher revenues. It really shows that when women are in the right seats, they can make a great impact on society, the nation and the world.
What about the inverse? My wife is my equal, but she believes that killing cockroaches and dealing with ruffians is still my job. In the context of social media feminism, what does this say about “equality”?
[laughs] In my family, I’m the one expected to kill cockroaches and lizards. All of us have different fears and limitations. In your construct, you’re the one responsible for dealing with pests. In mine, I’m the one. It all boils down to us having different strengths and limitations. I think if I were to have listened to social expectations that men are supposed to do the more “macho” jobs, then I wouldn’t have able to play my part which is much bigger than a stereotypical gender role.
Social media has been a great platform for raising awareness on gender equality but as we all know, things taken to extremes are always harmful. I think the misuse of social media leads to unfavourable outcomes like generalising how “all men are evil”; for us, its also really finding male allies in society to help support our objective of giving women equal opportunities and really looking at women as equals.
Does the “all men/patriarchy are evil” narrative help or hinder the equality narrative? Is there such a thing as the patriarchy?
Yes and no. I do believe men a role to play in the divide and though it is getting less wide, there’s a lot of unconscious bias. I recently had a chat with Adam Grant and he said in order to close the gender equality gap, men have an equal role to play like in the example of assuming that women in an organisation like to do more secretarial or administrative work. There is also a lot of unconscious bias and the tendency to hire certain genders for certain roles. I don’t think the statement that “patriarchy is evil” is true because I have seen for myself men that have come alongside as allies and champions to encourage women to rise and be confident. It is something I’ve seen in male leaders in Love Bonito as well.
What attributes should your ideal man aspire to?
The ideal man should have integrity more than anything. A person with integrity is someone who acts responsibly. Secondly, I believe they should have a growth mindset: They’re always curious and hungry to learn. This is so important especially in a world that is moving and evolving so quickly, you see the difference between someone with that mindset versus someone with a fixed mindset. I intentionally surround myself and am attracted to people with a growth mindset. Finally, another attribute is empathy.
All of us are going through a daily battle that no one else knows of, being a great friend, colleague, partner, it’s really in always having that empathy in wanting to understand and taking the extra step to investigate and understand a deeper symptom of the problem beyond the superficial. For example, if you’re not performing well this quarter, I want to understand why before I write you off. Is there something you’re struggling with? Is something happening at home where you’re not performing at your best? Empathy is really important. There are many others but these three are crucial.
Having a sense of humour is great too be serious at your work but don’t take yourself seriously. Life is too short to be uptight. Don’t be too quick to take offence.
Speaking of taking offence quickly, do you think “woke” culture is healthy for the evolution of society?
Woke culture is turning into cancel culture. Keyboard warriors hiding behind screens are scary to me; never throw first stones when you’re not perfect yourself. Taken to the extreme, you’re breeding a generation of people who feel they have the right to cast judgement before even understanding the sides to the story and digging deeper into the intentions and rationales for certain behaviours. “Wokeness” is great but taking a stand does not mean casting judgement, throwing stones or cancelling people, I’m not comfortable with that because this is rooted in self-entitlement and self-righteousness. No one has the right to rally others to shut people out from society.
Love Bonito is predominantly female employees, do you fight the temptation to jump on certain causes especially when they’re reactionary and allow you to jump on certain causes?
When Black Lives Matter happened, we had a lot of discussion about showing solidarity against discrimination because it is something which Love Bonito believes in as well. We wanted to jump on board but when we took a step back, we asked ourselves what’s beyond the showmanship? We need to do our own part to research the movement and show support beyond the superficial like a black display picture on social media. We felt that it was more helpful to provoke discussion within the community rather than preach and say, this is what you should believe. This was more mindful and valuable to us as a brand. It’s always tempting to be “seen” speaking up for something but we must also have that self discipline and restraint to know how to do something that actually matters beyond the optics.
Men are no longer hunting for food, many women are now contributing financially to the household and a new generation of men feel disempowered as a result. What does masculinity mean to you in today’s context?
A real man is one who is confident enough, brave enough and do anything he can to allow his partner to fly in life. As a man, you’re most valuable when you can fully support your partner and give her the opportunity to discover her opportunities. That self-assuredness in staying behind the scenes knowing that you played a part in allowing her to pursue her dreams and ambitions is what a true man is about. Society has taught that men need to provide a house, car and put food on the table but women can contribute as much today, so men need to take a different perspective and find their strength in confronting that new paradigm.