I’m thrilled to be bringing you another installment of my popular “Women Who Inspire” series, where I feature a diverse group of entrepreneurs, creatives, and makers.
Today I’m so excited to introduce you to Phoebe Kunitomi, founder of the minimalist bodywear brand okko. Phoebe and I connected years ago and instantly bonded over our shared passion for minimalism and deliberate consumption.
Phoebe’s inclusive brand includes a curated line of bodysuits, bras, and underwear inspired by input and feedback from over 100 women of various shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. I’m talking with Phoebe about inspiring leadership, risktaking, and of course really good underwear. Our interview is straight ahead!
The most valuable career advice you’ve ever been given?
Deliberately carve out time in your week to rest. My first job was a financial regulation consultant with clients who were some of the world’s biggest banks. It was relentless and demanding. During one of our busiest projects, my managing director, Kristen, strongly encouraged me to take one day per weekend for myself. To her, overworking yourself may have meager benefits in the short term, but it was not worth the long-term health implications. Since then I have taken a “me” break, not always a full day but at least a decent chunk of a day, every single week over the past 10 years. It truly has made me better at being a leader and entrepreneur because I’m not burnt out (at least to the point of a mental or physical breakdown!).
Entrepreneur or leader you admire?
Phil Knight, at least who he was during Nike’ early years. I read his memoir, Shoe Dog, a year ago and had a surprising number of moments where I said “that’s what okko’s going through!” Although Nike is a behemoth today, Phil hustled just to survive when he was first starting out. From dealing with cash shortfalls to defective products, his experiences reaffirmed that great companies are built, not born. And, building takes time and resilience. It was comforting in a way – I mean, look where Nike is today! I say this all with a big caveat that I admire his early entrepreneurial years. Of course, Nike has had a host of issues since it blew up, which I’d never want to emulate at okko.
A risk you took that paid off?
It’s more of a risk that I am continuing to take, with a payoff that is starting to materialize but is still not fully baked. okko was created to flip the fashion industry on its head. Brands typically drive revenue growth through constant launches of new products or product extensions. This model has fueled overconsumption, materialism, and the rise of the environmentally disastrous fast fashion sector.
At okko, our vision is to promote a simpler-but-happier life by encouraging women to only buy what they will wear often and for a long time. My semi-serious joke is that we are the only for-profit company that wants their customers to buy less. The risk is that we don’t have those big sales bumps or PR-grabbing headlines associated with new releases. However, on the flip side, we have created a strong community of women who come back often. According to a recent survey, 97% of respondents said that we are meeting our objective of empowering them to buy fewer-but-better undergarments! Financially, our revenue growth is slower but more stable and sustainable, and we are profitable (in most months this year).
Getting into the MBA program at Wharton, a lifelong goal. It was not easy. I had to take the GMAT four times, and my best score was still on the lower end of their average. I hustled my butt off for 18 months to make sure the school knew I existed. For example, I networked with Wharton alum (even cold “calling” via LinkedIn) so that they would submit supplementary recommendations on my behalf in addition to the two required in the application. I traveled to Philadelphia three times to go on campus tours. I depleted my savings for GMAT tutors and application counselors. In the end, Wharton was the only MBA program to which I was accepted, but that’s all that mattered.
The thing you like most about yourself?
My generosity. My dad raised me alone, but he was a firefighter so spent many nights in the station when I was younger. I ended up sleeping over at my friends’ 2-3 nights a week. I never felt like an outsider in their homes; their parents treated me like their daughter. I want to pay this generosity forward. Plus, as an only child, my closest friends are like family.
How do you fuel your creativity?
Pinterest boards are my creative outlet. It has become an obsession. My current favorite is called “manifesting,” which has pins of things, places, home decor, and moments that I am trying to manifest in my life right now. The process of discovery and visualization empowers me to push preconceived notions about my creative capacity.
Go-to daily uniform?
You know I love this question as a founder of a minimalism-grounded brand! Obviously, my base layer is all okko, typically our wireless bra and brief. Because I live in Miami, I like to keep outer layers light: a flowy dress or loose pants (sometimes Levi’s) paired with a tank or our bodysuit.
Actual morning routine?
Wake up at 7am. Put a bit of micellar water on a cotton ball to “wash” my face, then slather on sunscreen from head to toe. Walk my dog and usually stop by a coffee cart nearby for an iced chai latte. When I am back home, I center myself for a few minutes. It’s only after all of this do I open my laptop or social media apps.
How do you recharge when it’s all too much?
As mentioned before, I intentionally take time every week, from a few hours to a full day, to not work and do whatever else makes me happy at that moment. It’s a life changing ritual that builds in rest and recharging into your weekly schedule.
One self-care tip you follow religiously?
Take at least a week before buying any non-essential material item. For me, a very real benefit of a minimalist lifestyle is that it injects an awareness and intentionality into what you bring into your life—physical or not. So, if you do decide to purchase that item, you will have reflected on its value and can enjoy it wholeheartedly. A new dress? Schedule a girls’ night to show it off! New sheets? Take a day to lounge in bed! Happiness in these small moments is what self-care is all about.
Your #1 go-to easy weeknight meal?
My boyfriend and I love spicy pastas. I make an aglio e olio with thai chilis and bucatini. I finish it off with a squeeze of lemon and freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Favorite or most used app on your phone?
Genius Scan, which is an app that snaps photos of physical documents and converts them into PDFs. It is like magic; the end result looks as if you ran the paper through a professional scanner. As a hater of loose paper, the app gives me peace of mind in more ways than one.
What’s in your handbag right now?
My handbag has less clutter than the rest of my home. It has an ID, okko’s business card, and my personal Amex. Sometimes, I add one tube of lipstick if I’m doing something fun.
Digital or physical planner?
Physical, and I’m never going to change that.
Favorite gift to give?
Cash. Growing up, the Korean side of my family (who are all immigrants) always gave cash during the holidays and special occasions. They came from a war-torn country with nothing, so finally having cash to give was a source of pride. I have continued this practice to date. Plus, this gift is guaranteed to be loved, and sans clutter!
Can’t live without beauty product?
Sunscreen. I go through a bottle a month, at least.
I only drink once a month now, but when I do, I love Hendrick’s martinis – extra, extra, extra dirty (or as I say, filthy). It tastes like a cold glass of scrumptious ocean water.
Your favorite spot to retreat to in your home?
My couch. I’m sitting here now as I type these responses out.
Anything fun coming up?
You bet. For our second bra in the works, every step of the development process, from choosing the style to figuring out smaller design details, has been done hand in hand with the okko community. This fall, we are going on a multi city roadshow to have women fit test the bra samples and provide feedback in real time. Over 22 sizes will be tested (for comparison, our signature bra has 8.)
Photography Credit: okko