When Phuong Mai realized impractical business bags were causing her back pain and injuries, she took matters into her own hands. In 2015, she launched P.MAI — a California-based brand that creates functional backpacks and handbags. But the company is more than just a bag brand. Women's empowerment sits at the core of their mission. Beyond designing products that are functional and feminine to ensure women aren't hurt by their fashion choices, they employ female business and policy leaders who they call P.MAI pioneers as their campaign models.
We talked to Mai about how a trip to the doctor inspired her brand, the women who inspired her to start a business, and her best career advice.
Fairygodboss of the Week: Phuong Mai
Tell us a little about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
I began my career in management consulting. After a few years, I joined a boutique strategy consulting firm that applied design thinking to solve business problems. It was here that I learned the power of combining interdisciplinary skills to help organizations. While it was an incredible learning experience, consulting took a toll on me physically. Client visits meant I was living out of suitcase and racking up points like nobody’s business. The physical stress on my body from carrying a heavy shoulder bag eventually caught up to me. The slight discomfort in my right shoulder I noticed early on grew into an excruciating pain. Exasperated, I visited my doctor who detected the uneven weight from my bags had misaligned my collarbone. She ordered me to switch to a backpack immediately for better weight distribution and to reduce the risk of pinch nerves on my one shoulder. That doctor’s visit served as a wake-up call. No woman should ever have to sacrifice her health for fashion. I went straight to a department store to trade in my clunky laptop bag and purse for an accessory I thought I had resigned to my school days: a backpack. Unfortunately, I was less than pleased with the options available. All the backpacks large enough to fit my laptop and personal items were extremely utilitarian and masculine, and all the fashionable backpacks were too small to fit my laptop. As I spoke to other women who shared my sentiments, I realized there was an opportunity to make stylish and comfortable laptop backpacks. This is what led me to found my company, P.MAI.
Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? and Why?
Mama Mai! My mother has always been my role model. When I’m feeling overwhelmed with work, I think about the sacrifices she has made and courage she had to flee her country as a refugee in the hopes of building a brighter future. She instilled in me values like patience, tenacity and resourcefulness. She also carries herself with a distinct style and grace that I hope to have one day.
What do you do when you're not working?
You can find me brainstorming new business ideas, exploring my new city (Berlin), photographing my cat (@sirbeasleycat), traveling somewhere (hopefully warm), or eating noodles.
Lightning Round: What is your go-to karaoke song?
Any 90s pop.
Lightning Round: What book would you bring with you on a desert island?
How to Escape A Deserted Island for Dummies.
Lightning Round: What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?
Dresses. I've been known to disregard seasons and find any excuse to wear one. But if I won the lottery, I'd buy a house for my parents.
What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you?
Hustle without ego and ask for help. As an entrepreneur, I can't tell you how many times I hear "no" or things don't work out as planned. Building a brand requires commitment and the humility to forge ahead despite the odds. That means I have to keep putting myself out there—whether I'm reaching out to journalists, brands, suppliers, etc. —because you are the shepherd for the brand. At the same time, don't be shy asking for help from others. You don't have do everything alone. Have someone check your resume. Ask for introductions. Run your next marketing idea by a friend. And don't forget to give back.
Why do you love where you work?
There's no greater reward than the freedom to work on your own ideas. Being a founder affords me the luxury to work on my terms—where, where, and how. But the best part of my entrepreneurial journey is the people I've met along the way. I've met inspiring people from all backgrounds whom I never would've been able to.
Fairygodboss is all about women helping other women - so each week, we celebrate a woman who made a difference in another woman’s career. Is there a woman who has made a difference in your career? Celebrate her and thank her by nominating her here.