How A Cult Jewelry Creator Learned To Stop Being Weird About Money
How Wing Yau, founder of coveted jewelry brand WWAKE, went from aspiring artist to successful entrepreneur.
Last week in New York City, Girlboss partnered with Mint for "An Impolite Conversation"—a panel discussion hosted by our own Sophia Amoruso, moderated by journalist and finance expert Farnoosh Torabi.
The panel consisted of four remarkable entrepreneurs—Mackenzie Barth, CEO and co-founder of Spoon University; Nina Faulhaber, co-founder of sustainable clothing company ADAY; Lisa Price, founder of beauty company Carol’s Daughter; and Wing Yau, founder of jewelry company WWAKE—in candid conversation about money. About how much of a headache it is. About their biggest mistakes and worst financial habits, and the ways in which they were able to make up for said bad habits.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing their most salient insights from the panel and how their views of money have evolved. First up? Wing Yau.
Formerly a sculptor and performance artist, Yau founded WWAKE in 2012 based on the concept of merging art with the intimacy of jewelry. Over the course of five years, WWAKE has developed a cult following for its elegant yet unexpected pieces, counting Rihanna, Cate Blanchett and Emma Watson among its clientele.
Deena: How were your financial habits shaped, for better or for worse, by your upbringing?
Wing: My dad always told me, “Save your money for something really special, and always have a contingency plan.” And as an aspiring artist, I thought he was so annoying and out of touch. Well joke's on me, because nowadays my "money mantra" is “Save your money and always have a contingency plan.”
Before starting WWAKE I worked tons of crappy jobs; I nannied, I worked in food service forever, and I saved as much of this income as I could. I had a checking account, a short-term savings account, and several long-term savings accounts. I even saved the babysitting and birthday money I got when I was a teenager.
To be honest, I had no idea why I was saving and kind of felt like I was wasting my life following my parents advice. But when I dedicated myself to design, that back up was there for me. Coincidentally, the "me" from the past was now the investor for my future business. And spending money on personal success is truly something that you can feel good about.
For you personally, how would you describe your attitude towards money?
My instinct is to be really weird and secretive about money—probably as a result of my upbringing, I have a lot of shame in spending money on things that I don't value. Every penny really does count.
With that said, I am also a strong believer that money is a real vehicle for freedom and for positive change, and that's not something I should feel weird about. I definitely don't think you need money to be happy, but I think it’s a vehicle for achieving what you want.
Now that the business is going better, I’m less stressed about going out to eat, but I also think that the more money WWAKE makes, the more seriously our business is taken. And the more money the business makes, the more money we’re able to donate to causes like Planned Parenthood, women’s shelters here in NYC, and the communities that are the sources of our jewelry.
What would you say is your worst financial habit? And your best?
I spend a lot of money on coffee and eating out. And for the business, I don't do my financial projections regularly, which is super bad! This could inform really smart cash flow, but instead, I rely on my best financial habit, which is saving and also having my hands on everything, a.k.a. looking at every bill and payment coming in and out of the business.
For some women, building financial security with a partner runs parallel to a desire to protecting themselves financially and making sure they have their own access to necessary resources. What advice do you have for women who want financial autonomy within a marriage?
Just keep it separate! I make my income, my husband makes his, and we have shared accounts for shared expenses. These shared expenses are for things like rent—it's not my rent, it's not your rent, it's ours, and we work together to pay these. There's definitely a back and forth, and we put in what we can when we can, but it's always an open, honest conversation. It's so important to talk about money when you're in a serious relationship.
Finance, as with a lot of aspects of our lives, are often compartmentalized into what we show the world and what we choose not to. When it comes to financial stress, who do you talk to? Who do you turn to for advice? Who do you talk to when you need to vent about spending guilt?
It's so easy to feel weird about money; I have different people for different things. I talk to my mom about the guilt so we can laugh about how well she knows the feeling. I talk to my accountant and mentor about cooling my cashflow anxieties with hard facts that are constructive about the business.
You come from a background that was entrenched in the arts. In terms of thinking about and dealing with finance—something that a lot of artistic types tend to avoid—what was that transition like?
In starting a business, I developed a lot of anxiety surrounding the numbers. I didn't know what a P&L was; I didn't know how to calculate overhead and profit margins. I was definitely the stereotype of an artist running a business!
I actually took a course called “Design Entrepreneurs NYC” which was a mini program that taught me the basics of business management. I had a lot of help getting there, but I found comfort in learning how to crunch numbers and do financial projections. It gave me a baseline to work from and to measure my progress, and I've built a lot of my business off of that.
What was the biggest challenge in making the transition from a creative skillset to needing to mind the books for your business?
Time management. I still struggle with balancing both my bookkeeping and creative responsibilities, but building an amazing reliable team at WWAKE has helped me get better every day.
How has the process of starting a business changed your personal finance philosophy?
Well, I'm not personally scared of money anymore. And I have a longer-term perspective on it now; I not only have our team here in NYC, but we have several communities around the world—the communities that source our jewelry—that depend on our sales.
I'm so proud to be able to support real people through my creative endeavor, and so I spend a lot more time thinking about stability rather than fast growth.
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Words: Deena Drewis
Photos: Jesse Ditmar/Shay Platz