by Celine Semaan Vernon
Originally wrote this a few months ago, but never felt the courage to post it. I was finally motivated to share this piece after reading Lena Dunham recent post. So, voilà!
“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” Madeleine Albright said recently at the Glamour Women of the Year celebration at Carnegie Hall. I wish I could have been there, but with my eight and half pregnant self [at the time], all I could do was lay down and watch it unveil on my phone.
I am in my early thirties and one of the rare women among my group of friends who already has a child and is expecting another. When I was living in Beirut, Lebanon, in the 90's, I made a very conscious decision at the age of fifteen: to never have any children, because I thought that to be considered an equal to men and have a career, a woman should be childless - for lack of role models, that was my belief. Fast forward a little bit over a decade later, I got pregnant not even trying yet, with my first child, which was both a surprise and a nightmare.
How was I to reconcile myself with the reality of a woman’s career sacrifice if she decides to bear children? How could I change this paradigm? How would I address the patronizing opinions of the world around me as it decided for me that I had “given up” on my career.
The amount of times I have heard: “Relax, you are pregnant, you don’t want to stress your baby, don’t worry about your business now,” or “Your career is not as important as nurturing the baby you have in you,” has deeply affected my self-esteem. I know people mean well, but I still felt what my fifteen year-old self felt at the time: rage! Why? The comments people make presuppose that we can only be one thing, or do one thing. But we are infinite beings and amazing multitaskers!
No one noticed I was pregnant until I was seven months into it, and I never really announced it either, fearing my peers’ reaction. During my first pregnancy, I lost several very career opportunities after potential partners and employers found out I was pregnant. Even from my female peers, support was scarce. How could I have not controlled and designed my life more carefully?
I then began a never-ending soul-searching journey that mostly consisted of arguing with my inner fifteen year old self. She would try to make me feel terrible on both sides of a paradox: on the one hand, I was a bad Feminist for “giving up” my equality and career goals by becoming a mother; on the other hand, I was a bad Traditional Mother for not “giving in” to withdrawing from my career to focus on my pregnancy and family goals. Therein lies the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation that recurs so frequently in women’s lives around ideas of motherhood, sexuality, assertiveness, independence and feminism itself.
Despite being seen as a walking talking cocoon that couldn’t be given any more opportunities since she was already at full capacity carrying a child, I did run my own business, and moved it from Montreal to New York. I’ve been growing an ethical fashion-activism studio based in Brooklyn. We’re three years into our business of creating silk scarves with prints of NASA Satellite images that raise awareness and financial support for the World Wild Life and international NGO’s. And yes, I have a young child, and yes, I have a business. It is possible.
When I found out I was pregnant again this time, I was in the midst of preparing to raise our first round of funding. Trusted advisors I had brought on my board (men and women I admire, but who don’t have kids) told me to try not to show that I was pregnant, that investors won’t invest in a pregnant woman’s company. So I dressed accordingly until it was getting pretty hard to cover up. I felt ashamed. Meanwhile Kim Kardashian was showing off her belly and fighting all of her haters one perfect Instagram post at a time, not hiding who she is to her 20+ million followers. I found her inspiring and courageous not to take their judgement personally. Haters gonna hate, right?
The project of raising my first round of investment fell through as my peers began to discourage me that I should drop the idea of raising capital while I was pregnant. Again, I was encouraged instead to focus only on my baby. My fifteen year-old self wanted to smash everything. I didn’t know what to tell her. I dove deep into a depression, I found myself having very little energy to move and to think; all I could do was feel terrible about myself.
My three-year-old caught me looking out the window one day, with an empty look in my eyes, thinking about how much I had failed. She put her sweet little hand on me and said “Mommy, why are you sad?” Her question broke my heart open. “Why am I sad?” I asked out loud, and, on the verge of crying, “I don’t know baby! You are right, why am I sad even?” She climbed on my lap, this beautiful soul, and hugged me tight. At that moment I felt the super-power we have as mothers: we are here, we exist. And we made all of you!
Few examples in the mainstream media portray mothers as inspiring heroes to look up to. There are however, lots of these women out there, and we are given a chance everyday to become either loud or quiet heroes. We are the heroes our daughters and sons look up to everyday, the quiet heroes of our little growing family.
I want to be a loud hero. No, I will NOT feel ashamed for bringing life into this world. I will NOT feel guilty for running a successful business even a few weeks from my due date. I will work whenever I am inspired to and I know that my children will grow confident and happy to be raised by a happy and thriving mother. Yes, I know we can do more than one thing at a time, I am a proof of it and so are many women I met who run successful businesses and raise amazing children at the same time. As a woman, friend, peer and mentor to other women, I will always be there to support, help and guide them especially when they will be expecting mothers. I will not feel guilty for thinking that people might think my work is going to be less good now that I am a mother. Because that’s not even the truth.
I read Amanda Palmer’s Medium post justifying herself to her entire fans that her work will not suffer by her pregnancy, and again my fifteen year old self felt like smashing everything. I wanted to tell Amanda: “Of course not, girl! Your work will blossom! It will be different and will mature! And so will you!”
My ultimate message to mothers: we need to keep representing our diverse and inspiring selves without shame or guilt. Being a mom and the notion of a mom will be valued again in a matrilineal society — and women will not guilt trip each other — they will help one another.
by Celine Semaan Vernon
I am 3 days away from going into labor with my second child. Three years ago, shortly after giving birth to my first child in 2012, I started Slow Factory; an online design boutique that creates limited edition silk scarves with digital prints of NASA images. I had been rejected from all the design schools I applied to, from Paris to Montreal because I was considered “too artsy, too fine-arts”. After I graduated from Cyber-Arts and Computation Arts at Concordia in Montreal, I realized that being coined (labeled) as “too artsy, too fine arts,” was actually a blessing in disguise. It meant that I understood one or two secrets in this world;
1) L’art c’est la vie - Art is life.
2) You can be anything when you believe it (this I learned from my performance and video art days).
I ended up as a successful self-made interaction designer and user-experience designer for HUGE Inc. in Brooklyn, New York and thereafter, onto start my own consultancy Le Design Team inc.
I started working as a designer and used Google to figure out anything I didn’t know, from fonts to typography, layout, interaction design and documented everything on a personal blog that got me to be discovered for this new job in New York at HUGE inc. in 2008. Later on that same blog got me to become a UX Design instructor at General Assembly for two years. I taught students and professionals such as an entire department at Condé Nast, Trip Advisor, and AXA France (I am fluent in French so that was easy). I went from an interaction designer to a fashion design entrepreneur while still keeping my clients and working on Slow Factory during my free moments (evenings mostly). I did this for two and a half years and up until recently, I have shifted my efforts towards Slow Factory full-time since June of this year.
Slow Factory was a young company, when I moved back to New York from Montreal, and because I am Canadian, I didn’t yet have any credit history, so couldn’t really get myself a credit card or a line of credit. The 3 C’s, that I am sharing below helped me save money, focus and use my time wisely and my creativity to get my company off the ground. In a year our products were sold at the MoMA Store, worn by style icons that I admire such as Nadia Abulhosn, TK and Ciprianna Quann, and Samar Serqui de Buttafaco, featured in Vogue and closed a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to help preserve our oceans.
The 3 C’s that inspire me:
Cooking can be therapeutic and help you save a lot of money!
I learned to cook from my mother who cooked throughout my childhood despite the fact that she was a young immigrant with three children and working full-time at her own restaurant. We had homemade Lebanese food 24/7. At the time we always complained, us kids wanted to eat out or eat regular food like the others, but looking back I am so grateful I grew up far from my country, Lebanon but yet, very close to it through the taste of my mother’s daily authentic Lebanese food. So cooking has become a big part of who I am, and part of my child’s life in New York while running a company with very little budget.
Curate your life, your closet, the kind of food you eat, the people you hang out with. Curate to enjoy life better.
Have you read the book ‘The life-Changing Magic of Tidying up’? This book teaches you how to keep less than 30 items in your closet that bring you joy. Apply this rule to everything else: books, music, objects you keep around, and even food! When you feel good about it, keep it, eat it, hang out with it. Curating, is the art of making collections, telling stories and better defining who you are.
In the online open-knowledge culture, we say that curating and dj-ing are pretty much the same thing. The time when you used to create a mixtape cassette for your friend or your crush: that was curating 101! Moving back to New York after Montreal with a one year-old was a big deal! I had to curate our life’s inventory to fit a New York sized apartment. All the lessons I’ve learned curating my new life and embracing minimalism, I applied to my business. The “less is more” mantra can be relevant to running your business too. For example, when deciding on the upcoming collections, (aside from having constraints like wanting to use eco-friendly dye and material, fair-trade production, materials with minimal impact on the environment, and quality) I also had strict constraints about the meaning and the story of the product itself. I am very mindful of a product's ecosystem. From its inception through its life-cycle. While in Paris, studying in art school I quickly learned: “Knowing when to stop” is a valuable insight and in Brooklyn, as a designer at a major design firm I quickly learned that “self-imposing constraints” is something I have control over. Good design is knowing how to gracefully navigate constraints and come up with a delightful experience and product. Define and create your own constraints, whatever values you have, that can help you better create products that will bring you joy.
Channeling your insecurities, fears, creativity is key in maintaining a productive rhythm as an entrepreneur
Make up your own rules, do what you need to do to find what’s best for you, but the goal is that you must channel positive and negative emotions in a constructive way. First lesson I learned is don’t take anything personal! It’s easy to when you get a bad attitude from a sales rep, or someone hanging up in your face. Perhaps it’s also the kind of wisdom you acquire when raising a two year old. These emotions are tourists; they come, they go and they shouldn't leave a trace, shouldn’t pollute your well-being. Let it go.
Fear. Fear is your friend. If you try to push fear away, fear will become this needy annoying creepy friend that will keep calling you and drive you to the verge of a nervous breakdown. Talk to fear, sit down with it over coffee, have a chat like in a David Lynch movie. Fear is complex. It comes in many forms. Sometimes it can be in the form of a voice recorded in your brain (the brain is an amazing recording machine!). Listen to the message. Accept it. It’s shining a light on something you must deal with from within. Rumi comes to mind here, “The wound is where the light enters”. I find myself talking to fear so many times a week, and out loud sometimes too. “Hey okay, I heard you! Thank you! But I’m going to jump anyway because I am more afraid not to jump then to actually go for it, so I appreciate your input there, Fear, but I’m okay.” And Fear understands. Mindful meditation helps.
Creativity. Hi Creativity! What an awesome idea! I’m so excited! I can feel it working! I know exactly how to make this work except we don’t have the budget for it! OMG Fear just heard me! Okay Okay, let’s break it down together and see how we can work it out. I’ll go for a walk.
These are some of my experimental methods dealing with channeling these genies into productive work and I am nowhere close to having found the holy grail. I feel that we all go through these emotions and talking about it with peers and sharing our own homemade remedies can be very inspiring and helpful.
These are the three C’s that make it possible for me to run an online company from a studio in Brooklyn. Building my network of trusted collaborators and peers, creating collections that both raise awareness and funds to support causes that are important to me and raise my little family with the culture that I come from despite the fact that we are millions of miles away.
I really wanted to share the 3 C’s with you and somehow as a message in a bottle to my future self, the one who will try to figure out how to balance life again after giving birth to a second child. I’m hoping this will help me in the future focus, laugh, and keep on keeping on growing Slow Factory into a sustainable - slow and steady - online business that creates a bigger and bigger impact each year.
by Celine Semaan Vernon
I borrowed this title from friend and actress, performance artist Marie Brassard. If you haven't seen any of her work, I urge you to follow her updates to know when she might play next in your city. Her work is eerie, magical and a journey into her stories and invented places.
This post is about the ups and downs of starting your own business.
It's 09:00AM, I am lying on the floor of my Brooklyn apartment; the sun is filling the room in a warm light. I’m having a hard time breathing. All the savings I’ve earned working on User Experience design and teaching gigs are now all sent to our factories. I'm thinking to myself "I am trapped. I can't go back. I have basically jumped from a flying airplane and there is no way of a safe landing in sight, or I have to figure it out for me not to crash." Whatever people tell you about running your own business, it never comes without risk. Even the smallest risk is still risk. Entrepreneurs who talk about following your dreams or your passions, but don’t mention the risks, are misleading.
So here I want to talk about the beautiful reality of following your passion and getting out of your comfort zone to make it happen.
It's 1PM I receive a call that prompts me to run downstairs to find that the delivery truck has left all 20+ large shipping boxes on the sidewalk. I panic for a minute as it starts to rain. I sit on the sidewalk and try to catch my breath. New York apartments are not supposed to be used as warehouses. Where am I going to store these?
As I sit down to “calmly” think of a solution, someone from the building walks by and offers to put them in the roof storage. Roof storage?! I feel like the Universe is sending me helpers. Bill Nye would roll his eyes at my magical realism explanation, but I don't care. I help the young man load the boxes in the elevator. The view on the roof is just breath taking. I can see the busy city vibrating with energy. I feel ecstatic for a second until my phone rings, bringing me back to reality. It's the FEDEX broker. Yes, another shipment is coming from Italy. Okay. No big deal. We're going to make this work.
How will this sound, when I’m Future Me recounting it to others in a near future?
I imagine myself in the future, telling the story of what’s happening to me as it happens, but with all the distance and charm and “happily ever after” perspective that I cannot have right now. It's my way of coping with the stress of the everyday ups and downs of running your own business on your own without a credit card, or a loan or an investment.
My future self talking about me in the future sounds like this:
“So I just got let down by someone I was counting on, the day after we launched a major campaign (our ANERA campaign to help refugees in the Middle East). I didn't sleep all night. I received her email at midnight: my phone binged, I read it and couldn't sleep. There is this automatic voice in my head, like the one of a narrator that begins to describe the situation in a soothing detached manner "Midnight, the main help I was counting on quits on the campaign and I can't help feeling abandoned. I had no idea that it actually happened because deep down I had to learn that it's to show me that I can find a way to make it happen by myself. Whenever you count on someone it cannot be at your own expense. It has to be a relationship that empowers both of the people involved. At that moment I couldn't take a full breath, but soon enough I would be able to see that everything is happening in its right order. And that I will find a way."
Now that I am in the future of this situation I can say this. One, the amount of time I spent agonizing over situations I had no control over is absurd. Two, everything happens to teach you something about yourself. Find what it is and grow from it. That's the only survival advice I can genuinely share with confidence that –even if it sounds like a self-help book, it's what made sense to me.
That campaign surprised me. We managed to raise close to 10K in support of women refugees in the Middle East in around 2 months time. With this donation ANERA was able to provide dignity kits, clean clothes, and medicine to women and children displaced in Jordan and Lebanon. We sold out of our Gaza by Night scarf.
I learn everyday. This is what gives me meaning in the path I have chosen. It's what's keeping me amazed, eyes wide open like the eternal 7 year-old soul that I am adding the little wisdom these past 30-something years has given me. Every single person I meet is a teacher. The ones I need to let go off, the ones I want to keep close. Everyone has shown me something about who I am and ways for me to grow and in the same way contribute in nurturing what I have built with Slow Factory.
This is the first post where I open up as a designer and an entrepreneur and share some of my thoughts without fear. Because Why Not.