I am so proud that I’m from Korea. But that’s something that only developed at a later stage of my life.
I grew up in Seoul until 12 or 13. I went through all the rigorous academies that the traditional Asian education provides—you know, with the tiger mom, tiger dad. But my parents also had a very open-minded and forward-thinking mindset. They wanted me to be able to play on a bigger field. The three of us mutually decided that I would spend my high school years in America. I came here by myself, and I was the first person within my extended family to ever live in a different country. Boarding school was a very new experience for me. It was the early 2000s, and there wasn’t much of an Asian presence in suburban Pennsylvania.
I think it also gave me a different perspective: I was able to become as creative and as athletic as I wanted to be. Sports isn’t something that a typical Korean education puts much emphasis on. Having a high school education in America was a nurturing ground for me.
I came here by myself, and I was the first person within my extended family to ever live in a different country.
The flip side is that while, of course, there were other Korean and Chinese students, I was definitely in the minority. I was very eager to integrate and assimilate into the main crew: white American kids who were considered cool and pretty. So there’s some complexity to my identity.
It was a very preppy boarding school. I tried to be a white girl. I tried to wear my polo shirt, I tried to play lacrosse. That’s not to demonize things that are not traditionally Korean. I absolutely think the experience opened my eyes to a wider set of possibilities.
A lot of my Seoul community and my American roots are founded in New York, where I went to college. Because it’s so diverse and active, New York has been a great place for me to explore my Asian identity. Everyday, I feel like I am growing with my identity. Like a tree, I’m going deeper into my roots and into Korean tradition, while at the same time branching upward to see what my present world has to offer and what I can contribute. But it’s almost like this shoebox that I keep tucked away. I know it exists, but it’s not something I’ve really opened up yet and gone through photo by photo.
That’s really the main reason my co-founder Dae and I started Sundae School. We wanted to build a platform for these minor voices, whether for Asian Americans or other POC. I won’t ever assume that someone’s individual experience is the same as my own as a POC woman, but I think being empathetic toward other people’s experiences is very important. Even within the Korean American experience, there are so many different levels and complexities. I try not to generalize or make blanket statements, like, “Oh, the Asian American experience is this or that.” We’re very fortunate to live in a time when we can be even more granular and focus on how experiences are shaped by aspects of your own history.
As a “dutiful daughter,” I majored in finance and worked in investment banking for two years, followed by another two years or so at a consulting firm. Those two experiences gave me a really balanced view of how to become an entrepreneur. Although we definitely started Sundae School as a side hustle to mitigate the risk.
Dae and I have been friends for a long, long time. We met when we were 13. We grew up with tiger moms in the same neighborhood, so they placed us in an afterschool academy together, like “Okay, you guys are going to be study buddies now and learn the SATs and ACTs together.” I did so many of those courses with Dae. That’s where the foundation of Sundae School comes from—we really grew up together. On weekends, we’d go out and do our own thing. But during the week, we would study together. So we’re on a similar level in terms of how we frame and tackle a problem. Having that long lasting relationship with him definitely helps as we navigate through this very nascent and dynamic industry.
Smoking became a part of our ritual as we worked on Sundae School over those weekends.
The first time I smoked weed was at boarding school. I don’t think we got high, because you seldom get high from your first joint. You also have to be comfortable with the whole experience. But it left an impression on me. It didn’t really become my drug of choice until I started working in a super corporate environment.
My weeks were so busy and I had so little time to give myself, let alone the things I was interested in. So over the weekend, Dae and I would smoke a joint to try and get some creativity juice in our brains. We were both interested in fashion, and in the branding and marketing side of things. But as neither of us actually had a background in those, creating a fashion brand was very intimidating.
Smoking became a part of our ritual as we worked on Sundae School over those weekends. We thought, How great it would be if we actually had our own weed business? How great would it be if our clothing was stocked at these prestigious stores? Cannabis is the way we dreamt, and we made those dreams come true.
Cannabis is a very emotional product, just like fashion. You smoke with an intention. There is a sense of yourself imparted in the plant as you smoke, and as you share it with other people. There is an aspect to this plant that is quite magical and that makes it more than a product and more like a medium, a passage to get to a greater something. In my case, I wanted to be more creative, and cannabis enabled me to do that. become more creative. For other people, they might need to be more relaxed, or more sleep-oriented, and that’s the aspirational function of cannabis that I find so mesmerizing.
Cannabis is so demonized in Korea, and part of our mission is to break down that wall in Asia, to normalize the plant there. The normalization we have here, we want to bring that over to our home countries.
I only recently told my parents I smoked—and about Sundae School. I didn’t even tell them that I was full time on Sundae School for a little over a year. I hope they don’t read this article! While we were deep in building the operations and foundation and going out to California almost every month, they thought I was working at my consulting job. I even lived out there for some time. I just always referred to Sundae School as my “California project.” That’s still true on some level.
I only recently told my parents I smoked—and about Sundae School.
I sat them down over a dinner, and said, “Listen, I haven’t been doing my consulting job for the past year or so. I’ve been building this thing called Sundae School.” I had to emphasize that we were a legal business entity, that I wasn’t a drug dealer. Because all parents worry about that. I also had to be a little strategic in terms of sharing a lot of our accomplishments at that point, like, “Hey, we were able to raise this much. We are on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.” But to be honest, my parents didn’t really care about all those accomplishments. They just saw how passionate and motivated I was to really build this brand out. At the end of the day, they didn’t care that Sundae School was about selling weed.
Now, they love hearing about the progress we make, as well as our future plans. I wonder if one day that I’ll be able to sit down and smoke with them. But I’m just grateful that they’ve been so supportive.
Fashion is one way people communicate their values and beliefs. And there’s a correlation there with cannabis, too, because with cannabis, you actually create a community. People who you share a joint with, you actually share a little bit more of a special bond than people you might normally interact with.
So ultimately, both mediums are community building for us. And there’s a lot of overlap. We can clearly picture somebody who’s really into fashion and very creative also engaging in recreational cannabis consumption, and vice versa. For people who first experience our brand as a fashion consumer, which is often outside of California, as soon as they land in California, the first thing they look for is our edibles line.
Dae and I really try to be storytellers. We see cannabis and fashion as the way that we can tell our stories. Dae spearheads our creative process, which basically entails us sitting down and saying, “Okay, for our next collection, we want to focus on, say, the hyperfetishism of Asian women.” So it starts with a deeper thesis beyond just, “This is how I want my merchandise to look.” It’s almost like writing a novel, where you have a theme or a message that you really want to convey.
Then we ask ourselves what it is and why. How is that fetish propagated? What makes it even worse during these times? We’re able to then translate those ideas into our visuals. That process is something beyond my knowledge. I love being involved in the storytelling aspect, and Dae is so good at translating that thesis into visuals. That’s why when you see a piece of clothing from us, you get a sense that it’s part of a bigger campaign, a bigger story that we’re trying to curate here.
If it’s just about selling a piece of fabric so you can make a profit out of it, consumers these days are smart enough to figure that out. But if they understand that there are bigger themes within these collections, they become such loyalists. Beyond supporting us, they’re endorsing what we’re trying to put out there as our mission.
This year, and thanks to the recent efforts of my friends, I’m trying to read more books. I love being an entrepreneur, and doing something of your own at a small but very rapidly growing scale is always super exciting. But you can also get stuck in being too much in the weeds. As in, too focused on execution or those tiny details. In trying to read more books, I’m really trying to help myself see the forest rather than the trees.
One of the books I’m reading is about the circular economy, meaning everything is within a closed loop system in terms of manufacturing all the way to consumer end-users. The future of this earth has to be sustainable, and I think the cannabis industry needs to really focus on that. Like any other industry, we need to start thinking about water in a sustainable way, especially with the imminent federal legalization. This is something I would recommend for anybody who is trying to start their own company or is interested in working in a very entrepreneurial environment: the ability to step out a bit and be able to see the bigger picture.
Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind has become one of the anthems within Sundae School. It was really eye-opening in terms of the bigger trends amongst psychedelics as well as cannabis. And there’s so much actual biology and science behind it.
I’d say I’m an avid dabbler in psychedelics. Maybe not avid. I’m not a beginner. But I’m not an expert. The power of psychedelics as I’ve seen documented, as well as studies that show how they can allow you to break free of those old fears that are engraved in your brain and let you leap forward—that’s something so powerful that I think everyone should at least consider. There’s so much that we don’t know about the brain and how psychedelics can stimulate the brain when used properly in the right setting. I’m fascinated by that from a neuroscience perspective. It’s so understudied, and we have so much to learn.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Mia Park photographed by Meghan Marin at her home in New York. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.