Mar 1, 2020

Ad Astra: My Founder's Journey Part I

Hi, I’m Janelle! I’m the founder of a small startup focused on bringing beautiful, functional travel clothing to women that is sustainable and ethical–I also consult for video games on the side. Nice to meet you all.
Stallari_founder_Janelle

That quote above is how I introduce myself these days. However, until about two weeks ago I had the roles reversed. In June 2019, I quit my job in the video game industry as a product manager on League of Legends to start a business I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid.

My story begins in the 1980s in my hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. I was the daughter of Filipino immigrants and often felt trapped between two worlds: the Filipino world that was traditional and conservative and the American world that embraced progress but left me feeling forever like a foreigner. I dreamt of a different world I could create where I didn’t feel pressure to conform to my parents’ or teachers’ expectations. I escaped to the early 90s Internet and met people all over the world who opened my eyes beyond my hometown.

I dreamed of being a fashion designer or illustrator, but my parents discouraged me from a future they didn’t feel confident in, so I turned my sights to my two other passions: international relations and tech. Starting from middle school I was laser-focused on the idea of “working at the UN” or “starting the Yahoo of Singapore” (an arbitrary country I chose at the time.) Graduating high school during the dotcom crash led to my pursuit of an education in international relations. I wanted to change the world...or better yet, build a “different world.” How hard could it be to work at the UN? I was hopelessly naive, but everything told me I was on the path to success.

After graduating from the University of Southern California with double degrees in International Relations and East Asian Languages & Culture, I moved to rural Japan where I worked in a City Hall for three years. On paper, everything was perfect--the path was being followed step-by-step. After three years in Japan, I wasn’t ready for the “real world,” what with the 2008 financial crisis looming, so I backpacked around Asia for nearly a year. Out of necessity to save money, I chose to stay in locations for weeks at a time instead of trying to cram as many sights as possible. What started as a cost saving decision ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.

I got a glimpse of how people actually lived in these far flung communities along the Mekong and in the suburbs of Taipei. My years of studying East Asian economics and policies were all intellectual case studies, traveling and talking to people helped turn those charts of numbers into real stories. I stopped looking at my travels as a way to escape the “real world” -- my jaunt down the Mekong which seemed surreal and cinematic was the “real world” to everyone I encountered there. And my actions, purchases, consumption, attitudes--all of these things I did without much thought had very real impacts on their lives. By viewing travel as not part of my “real” life, I was shutting out the human connection to the people and places I spent years studying.

Laos

Once I’d gotten the wanderlust out of my system, I moved to New York City and got what I thought was the perfect job for the path (of parent-approved success): a job at the Japanese Mission to the United Nations! This would be the perfect stepping stone before I got a Master’s degree, took the foreign service test, and became a diplomat! I was assigned to the political department and got to use my Japanese skills daily. It seemed like the perfect fit! However, right when I should have began studying for the GRE admissions exam, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. Not only did I hate the type of work I was doing and the bureaucracy, I ultimately realized I wouldn’t be able to change the world the way I’d hoped when I started.

I may have been hopelessly naive when I started working at the UN, but I quickly became jaded and cynical at 28. I felt I’d made a massive mistake; I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree I didn’t need and had “zero” job experience outside of a highly specialized field. In a world that extols the “30 Under 30,” I felt I’d failed at life at 28.

I know now that my life had barely even started.

After wallowing for a few months, I realized I had everything I needed to switch careers and pursue my other dream – a career in tech (Singapore already had Yahoo by then, *sigh*). I leveraged my social media skills, my intense love of video gaming, and my network to land jobs in the NYC tech industry. The late aughts were the perfect time to be someone who knew more about the internet than the average person as Facebook and YouTube had just launched two years before. Everyone knew they couldn’t just hire their nephew to run a Fortune 500’s social media account and they were hard pressed to find anyone with the required six years of experience” in social media. Lucky for me, the internet had always been my escape and I’d spent years building digital communities, fan sites, and angry anonymous blogs. After trying a variety of roles in tech, I discovered a knack for brand/marketing. Furthermore, I knew I wanted to work on a product I was passionate about, and I had too much energy to work on something I couldn’t give every ounce of myself to.

Riot_games_team

In 2013, a role at Riot Games opened for the Japan Publishing Manager for League of Legends. I couldn’t believe it! Another “perfect” opportunity! It was the perfect blend of all my work experience, I’d be working on my favorite game, AND the role was located in Los Angeles, which I missed dearly. So, I took a pay cut and started all over again, for the second time. I thrived at Riot Games for six years: I got to travel the world, met my husband, made some of my best friends, and did really cool work on a video game I loved. I was a Product Manager for Skins and led a team making--what is essentially--digital clothing. I worked on projects that got mentions in Variety and charted on Billboard and helped make the company hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. It was a lot of fun...but that nagging feeling that this wasn’t “right” kept creeping up.

In 2018, I found myself burnt out and dreaming again for a change. Part of me thought about my old life at the United Nations and how I wanted to change the world. The other part was thinking about that childhood dream of being a fashion designer (I kept finding myself frustrated with travel clothing and bags, unable to find anything that fit my needs). The Product Manager in me couldn’t stop thinking, “why is it this way?” “How hard would it be to design my own clothing and accessories that fit the life I have?”

I concluded it was time for my third career change. 

I realized if I was going to “give every ounce of myself” to any company, it should probably be in service of my own dreams and creating the world I wanted to see. I was in my mid-30s, and it was time to stop blaming my parents for the fact I never pursued my passion. My dreams are my own, afterall. Most importantly, it was time for me to stop telling myself “it’s too late.” By now I realized the path was more of a labyrinth (or in the lovely words of “The Good Place,” the path is “Jeremy Beremy”). So, Stellari was born. I quit my job and started learning everything I could about the fashion industry to make up for all those years lost. I’ve spent the last year visiting factories in Europe and America, negotiating contracts (often badly), and asking dumb questions.

Hopefully, I can finally achieve my childhood dream of creating something that will make the world a better place. Along the way, I realized I don’t love “fashion design” as much as I love being a product manager and creative lead. I’d rather elevate, empower, and give talented people opportunities. I learned there’s joy in cultivating something that can be shared with others. I also learned that the fashion industry is rife with waste and abuses, and archaic ways of working no one could explain beyond “that’s just how it’s done” (which as a product manager, makes my brain tingle with possibility). There are so many things I want to change that I think could be good for the industry and the world.

I’m once again being hopelessly naive in an unfamiliar industry. But this time, I realize my starts, stops, restarts, and reboots have given me a lifetime of varied and valuable experience. I have the skills to manage my own projects, launch my own social media accounts, and even do a little bit of back end code hacking. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure the younger me, who was jaded and quick to call myself a failure, could have handled the start-up life. It’s because of the starts, stops, restarts, and reboots that I’m ready to take this crazy risk now.

And, in my opinion, the path I took here with all its twists and turns makes for a far more interesting Founder’s Story.


Author

Janelle Wavell-Jimenez

Janelle makes digital clothing in video games, and real clothing in real life. She founded Stellari in 2020.