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.
She keeps the two brands separate.
At first she was running both, going back and forth between Instagrams, but now employs “a team of talented young women who work with me. A very small team." Paying members of that small team is incredibly important to her, noting that she knows really talented women who work for much bigger brands for free. “I really believe in them and I know they will go far,” she says of her team, wisely knowing young women need champions. "I lived in Newark and you kind of feel like there’s no world outside of Newark and the whole world wants you to fail. It’s not true. You have to leap. You have to seize life and see it from different perspectives.”
She further explains why it was necessary to separate the two brands. "Fanm Djanm," she says, is “about celebrating strong women, so I shouldn’t be the only strong woman." It's rather sensible. "I am surrounded by strong women all the time and they’re what inspires me. There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed and I have think about someone who inspires me. Then I have that extra something to get up and try.”
Try and do. Both are happening in her world, which includes a recent move with her husband from NYC to Austin, TX, a transition she openly shared as hard in a recent blog post. In short: She hasn’t made complete peace with the move yet. Her office remains there, as does her small team.
In New York Paola says she walked everywhere. In Harlem she would see strangers and approach them, asking about their life, their stories and if she might photograph them. She hasn't found this yet in Austin.
“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," she adds. "When you tell an older woman she’s beautiful often they think you’re making fun of them or it surprises them.”
She also digs in on another known vestige of an ageist society: the list. “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."
It's her spirit, willingness to move forward and try her hand at something new is what makes her voice unique. She also happens to have a badass vision, knowing her way around color and a camera. “I go to bed dreaming about it because I know it’s potential," she says excitedly about the company. And I still can’t believe that I’ve accomplished what I have from nothing.”
"I think I used to say ‘I’m living my dream’ before I actually was. I think now I am living my dream because I can wake up and turn something down or say, I’m not into that I’m sorry-- or say, I do think I can do this, but for more money.”
The combined result of saying no and knowing your worth, two things that Paola has developed over the years, is Fanm Djanm. The blogger does feel like she’s struggling to ensure that sponsored content remains true to her voice. “Everything that I do I have to be passionate about," pausing to note, "I’m privileged enough to do this, right?” She says that when sponsorship opportunities do arise, most brands want to tie her story to it.
While she's priming herself for greatness and Paola is still getting used to people telling her story. “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-- oh it’s me and...” She's in awe. As she should be, sharing one last story.
“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."
She laughs. "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."
photos courtesy of: Finding Paola
Arianna Schioldager is Editor-in-Chief at Create & Cultivate. You can follow her @ariannawrotethis.