THE QUEEN OF COLOR.
You don't need to write a novel to tell a story.
Paola Mathé is the embodiment of this. A storyteller at heart, the blogger and Creative Director was born a dreamer from a small town in Haiti. Paola moved to the United States during her teenage years, where she lived in a one bedroom apartment with her family in Newark, NJ. Of her mother, the creative shares, “She’s had a very tough life and over the years I’ve seen her get stronger and smarter." It's certainly helped shaped the woman Paola has become.
A driven individual, Paola was the first in her family to graduate from college, receiving her dual bachelor's degree in Economics and French Literature at Drew University. Post-grad she went on to launch a career in hospitality. As is the narrative with many bloggers, she started Finding Paola as a creative outlet during a time when her career was soaring. She recalls getting “four promotions over the course of about six months-- I was dominating and living that life," she says. "But I got really into it [the blog] and made time. I was working 50-60 hours a week, managing all of these different people but really wanting to be creative. So that’s what I started doing. And I remember thinking, I don’t have much, but how can I create this? How can I show people that they can live without having much?”
This was during 2009 when the blog in its infancy was called Finding Paola: Lost in New York. What was she searching for? Was she truly lost? Not exactly. “I was writing about things I was not familiar with but were intriguing and exciting. I was really trying to find who I was. I started seeing this girl," she says self-referentially, "who, whether she had someone to go to an event with or not, she would still show up, she would meet people, network, and then I started seeing me changing in front of me-- doing all these things I was never comfortable with, really trying to get stronger.”
She was busy documenting different events, but the content evolved over time to include her personal style. "I tried to keep up with that, while also being as honest as possible." She says that having a blog, especially before the dawn/explosion of social media was really hard. “I felt like everyone was studying a manual I didn’t have and everything looked the same. I didn’t want my blog to be that because my life is full of color and I felt like my story was so different from the blogs I was reading. I remember subscribing to a lot of them, trying to follow and keep up and then unsubscribing because I didn’t relate. But then I’d wonder why they were getting so popular. I didn’t realize that at the time my blog was also getting popular. I thought it would just be friends and family.”
Occasionally she'll read her old posts to see how much she’s grown, although many have been lost as she’s transitioned platforms over the years. “A lot of posts don’t migrate," she laughs recalling the days when twenty views would get her really excited. “I thought the only person reading it was my mom because she was terrified of me being in New York and wanted to keep tabs on me.”
Describing herself as a shy child surrounded by strong women in Haiti, including her mother, Paola says, “I remember always trying to be in charge of her money. I would always try to calculate everything. How much does sugar cost and how much does rice cost? I was shy, but I was very observant. I had very strong opinions and I knew when I was older I wanted to be treated a certain way. I remember being in this house full of women. My mom didn’t like to be alone so when we lived in our family house in Haiti she surrounded herself with friends-- people who weren’t relatives but I would call them cousin. I saw how all these women lived. As a little girl I saw their love lives, how they cried, how they handled things, and I remember sitting there-- because in Haiti it’s very strict you can’t just get into grown folks business-- and thinking about what I liked and didn’t like. That’s why Fanm Djanm is important. They were all strong in their own way, but I didn’t want to be treated how they were treated. As I got older and older I found myself solving problems. And I realized that I could solve problems and be creative.”
She is referring to her company, Fanm Djanm, a head wrap collection and popular lifestyle brand launched in 2014 that celebrates the strength of women while empowering them to live boldly. It means “strong woman" in Haitian Creole.
More from Paola, a very strong woman, below.
Where do your drive and passion come from?
My drive comes from the way my heart races when I feel like I'm going to step out of my comfort zone. It's embedded in all my daydreams as a shy little girl. And it continues to evolve as I realize how much I can do with the right mindset. My passion? Maybe I was born with it? I don't remember not ever being passionate. I see beauty in abandoned cracks and crevices. Sometimes I create it. And sometimes it just surprises me. It's hard not to have passion.
When you run into a career obstacle, what drives you forward?
Knowing that it's not going to be permanent. Knowing that it only gets worst if I ignore it. So I have to push and find a solution. Sometimes reading about other entrepreneur's obstacles help me because I know I'm not alone.
I know I'm not alone.
We've talked a little before about how you created your office space in Harlem. And that even though it's small, it's yours. Why is having something that's all yours important?
It's important to have something that's all mine because I make the rules. I create my world of beauty and happiness. The walls vibrate inspiration and truths that I don't find most places. I get to curate and be in charge of what I like. I can look around on a bad day and find a piece of artwork and some words that just lift me up. And that's where some of the magic happens.
How do you manage your time between your personal brand and Fanm Djamn?
It's hard to manage time between the two. It's hard to say that I'll work on Fanm Djanm for an x amount of time today and I'll dedicate another x amount to Finding Paola. It's exhausting. So I go by what demands my attention the most at the moment. Fanm Djanm is my baby, but it's just one of the long term projects I'm going to work on in my life. I think having a good team is extremely important. My transition to Austin hasn't made it easy.
How have you been able to work remotely with your team since you moved to Austin?
The move to Austin has been a big challenge for, and my pregnancy hasn't made it any easier. I'm happy to work young, ambitious, trustworthy people. I found that with the current state that I was, it was difficult to make solid plans. I've learned a lot about patience and not to be too hard on myself the past few months.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
My biggest pet peeve is how easy people find it to comment on other people's bodies, especially women's bodies. I think the world would be a better place for us if we weren't being reminded every time our bodies go through a major change or look different. It's our body, we know how we look, and we don't need your remarks unless we ask for it.
Who or what are you most inspired by?
I'm inspired by women. I'm inspired by black women. I'm inspired by women who have found their voice, and who know what they want (or at least what they don't want). And of course color! I love color and how it makes me feel. It doesn't have to be bright or bold (although that's my go-to). Neutrals can be fun too. I love how mixing or not can tell a story. And my friend Mama Cax continues to inspire me everyday.
What are your biggest fears about running a business?
My biggest fear is failing those who work with me. I want them to do well and be well just like I want to do well. It's difficult when you've started without much and are still finding yourself. But the more I learn, and the more I know, the more I'll be able to look out for them as well.
You're about to be a new mom. What do you hope to pass on to your child?
I'd like for my child to know that she was born from unfiltered and exciting love. I'd like for her to know that she will be privileged even as a biracial person, and that she should understand his or her role in all of this. I'd like to pass on open-mindedness, and being able to love, communicate, share, and inspire. I'd like to pass on that nobody is perfect and that life is unfair no matter where or how you're born. But if you're able to make a difference, you should. There's so much that I'd love to pass on. I think self-love is also one of the top things I'd like to pass on. Being free, but not carefree.
Where do you find inspiration?
When I was in Harlem I would go up to a stranger in the street if I thought they had a story or they’d be an amazing person to have a conversation with. I love talking to older women a lot. I started photographing older women in Harlem and I would approach them and tell them how beautiful and amazing they are. They would look at me like I was crazy-- that’s how you know you live in an ageist society. When you tell an older woman she’s beautiful often they think you’re making fun of them or it surprises them.
How does that make you feel as a woman?
People think you’re failing at life because you’re not doing something before you’re 30. I know so many amazing people who didn’t start to find themselves until later. When I meet a woman who says, ‘I’ve been doing this for a while, but it wasn’t until I was 45 that I really found my voice,’ to me that’s really inspiring. These aren’t just women breaking the rules but those who are doing something positive and impactful for their communities. I want to showcase stories like that.
When did you find the confidence to become the woman you are today?
There was a video recently of me and I started crying because I was like WHO is this woman, WHY are they using these words to describe her-- and I realized, 'Oh it’s me.'
I painted the floors in my office in Harlem myself. I was tired and I wanted to get it done, because customers don’t care if you’re painting the floors, they want what they’ve ordered. But I was tired and I sat down and was looking around. And I remember thinking, “Oh my God, this is me. This is mine. The woman who wrote the piece about me in the New York Times described it as a matchbox and I was like 'damn, not even a shoebox?' But still, its my colorful matchbox.