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Joy Cho opens up on being creative in motherhood

Joy Cho was jobless and looking for work in a new city when she started her blog, Oh Joy! Today, that blog is the home base of her wildly successful design business, which partners with companies like Target, Banana Republic, and Anthropologie. Joy also holds the record for having the most followers on Pinterest and has twice been listed as one the "30 Most Influential People on the Internet" in Time Magazine.
For our first episode of The Motherly Podcast, Joy chatted with Liz about growing her business while raising her two young girls, infusing her personal life with the creativity we know from her brand, and learning to stop comparing herself to other mothers.


LIZ: Hey Joy, welcome to the Motherly Podcast.

JOY: Thank you so much for having me.

LIZ: Something I'm curious about, with all fellow mothers, is, what was your view of motherhood before you became a mother yourself?

JOY: (Laughs) The funny thing is I feel like everyone has a view that completely changes once you actually become a mom. So for me, I wasn't one of those girls who spent my whole life dreaming to be a mom. I mean I knew I probably wanted to be, but it wasn't like something that I thought about all the time. So it really didn't come to me until I was in that stage and ready and pregnant, and then just like "Okay I guess now's the time!" Prior to that I had already started my business I'd already had um a career that was growing, and I'm a very goal-oriented person, and I get things done and I"m very type A and I was like "You know what, when this baby comes along, I'm just gonna approach it like I do any other project," like no big deal, I got this. And then my first daughter comes along, and I realized how hard it was to manage that with my life and my work and everything and I cried every day for like six months, and then my second daughter comes along and I was busier and my company was bigger at that point, and I cried every day for six months. And I think the thing is you just don't ever really know what it is until you're there, and then it becomes your new normal, but I think, I think I thought it was gonna be a lot easier than it really is, and I feel like that's probably a common thing that a lot of people think.

LIZ: So in your example, how did you start to find that new normal, and like you said it wasn't just the first time that you had a baby, but with each child there's a new normal to find. So, how did you, how did you figure that out?

JOY: I mean it was really hard, especially with the first because like I said, I was so on top of things, I'm pretty organized, and I just figure that I could just do it all. And that's when I realized that I couldn't, so it's taken a long time. I mean I didn't figure out even in the first year with my first child's life, it really took me probably until I had my second, to know I needed to ask for help. I needed to let people help me, I needed to delegate more, so that's the combination of at work making sure people can help you, and delegating if you are in charge of other people, or at home with your partner, making sure that they're doing parts too and you're not feeling the weight of everything. ON your shoulders, and I think that because I'm so used to doing so much all the time, I had a really hard time asking for help. And I think it's a common thread with women in general, you just want to do everything and you think you should be the one to do everything but you don't always have to, and so for me it's asking for help, it was also prioritizing I'm not one of those people who say your life is over when you have children, but your life is gonna change. SO, I used to feel really guilty for not being able to cook a home-cooked meal every night or I wasn't going to the gym five days a week anymore, but you know what? A lot of the times I realize I would rather be spending time with my kids instead of doing those things, I would rather sometimes get delivery, or I would rather sometimes get a semi-homemade meal or you know what? It's okay if I'm not working out so many times a week because i"m spending that time with my kids, instead. During this time that they're so young. So it's about knowing what's most important to you and focusing on those things and knowing that not everything has to happen in the same way that it did before.

LIZ: I love that, thank you so much, and you brought out a lot of themes that I want to talk on in this interview. Part of who we are as mothers, really stems from our families of origin, and where we came from. So I understand that your parents ran their own restaurant business when you were growing up. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to grow up in that environment, and what you learned from that?

JOY: So, my parents immigrated from Thailand a few years before I was born, and so they started a Thai restaurant, I was, I think I was 5 when they opened the first one. Now my parents came to this country to go to college and they have degrees in engineering and accounting and all these things, but my dad I think at heart was always an entrepreneur, and so instead of engineering like he was planning to, he started a restaurant. And he started it with four other partners because he didn't have the money to do it by himself, and so I watched him start it with four other partners. And slowly one by one he bought each of them out of the partnership until he was the sole owner. And so after one he added a second, then a third, until at the most they had four at one point. And my mom had a normal full-time job at another company, but she would help him in the evenings, on the weekends, so they were both always working, and for me you know as a kid growing up, in some ways I completely resented it, I was like my parents are never around, and I never see them, and everyone else's parents are home and they're home for them after school to help them with homework, and also growing up as a first generation Asian American, there's just like a lot of different things going on and so I got so used to just being very responsible and taking care of my little brother from early on, and just like doing everything myself, which I think has made me very independent, and I also watched my parents work so hard, which is funny because in my early childhood and early teens, I really was like "I will never have a business because it looks so hard and you're never home," And I always just said you know what, I'm gonna go to work like a normal 9 to 5 like what normal people do and not be the one responsible for all of this stuff. So it was never in my plans to start a business, but clearly I learned from that and from watching them and that's the thing is you model what your children see, your parents model what you see, and it all just gets passed down regardless of whether you realize it or not. And I really did learn how to start something from nothing, because my parents came to this country with $600 it taught me very early on the importance of working hard and also going after your dreams.

LIZ: What drew you to design, and then how did you get to that place where you ended up starting something on your own, something that you perhaps didn't even imagine for yourself especially given what you believed about entrepreneurship growing up?

JOY: I always grew up as a kid being creative and interested in making stuff, and I wasn't the kid who played with dolls. I wasn't the kid who did dress up or princesses like kind of typical girl things, I always wanted to either make cards, or garden, or bake, or like just create things from scratch. And part of that was also a money situation, like we did not grow up with a lot of money and so I had to be creative with what I could do with my free time. And so it, as I got older and as I realized these hobbies were hobbies and it was a real struggle for me to figure out how to turn that into a career, because when you have parents who are immigrants who have come to this country and have worked very hard to give you a better life, to say that you want to be an artist is a really difficult thing, and especially back then, my parents were like WHAT are you talking about? And so I was always a very good student so I had the ability to go and take some sort of academic track if I wanted to but it was not what I loved. I mean I know my parents would have loved for me to be a doctor, or you know just something that seems like what your typical success story is, but I knew I wanted to do something creative. So as I got older, and I took more art classes on the weekends and things in between everything else going on with school and college applications, I kind of had researched graphic design and figured out that that was a more commercial version of an artist sort of job. you could get hired at companies to do it and there seemed to be more options so out of trying to be practical for my parents and reassuring them that I would get a job someday when I graduated, I ended up going to Syracuse University with, for their communications design program. And communications design is basically graphic design. And I ended up after I graduated I moved straight to New York after graduation. And my first job was as a graphic designer at a small boutique ad agency, and we got to work with a ton of fashion clients and I think that was the beginning of really cementing my love of fashion and tying that into the work that I did. And then a couple years later I transitioned into a job at Cynthia Rowley, who at the time was one of the first designers at Target, so I was designing her collection at Target for this brand called Swell that they had back then. And I purposely sought after that job because I had loved graphic design, I loved designing, but I wanted to start designing physical, more tangible things for people. And this was a really great transition into that. And I remember when I was in a Target store one time I saw a girl who was probably 11 or 12 or 13 or something looking at one of the pieces I had designed, and she was begging her mom for it, and I was secretly hiding in the aisles like, peeking over to see if her mom was gonna buy it for her, and just seeing how much she loved it and seeing the reaction of somebody just like the simple thing, that was when I knew I wanted to design stuff. I wanted to keep designing more stuff, that made people happy. And someday I knew I wanted to design that under my name. And while I didn't necessarily plan to start a business, I just knew that that was the beginning of something else that I really loved.

LIZ: Can you talk a little bit about to grow your family alongside growing your business? What's hard about growing your family alongside your business, and how did you navigate that?

JOY: I think the hard thing is as a business grows, and ideally a business growing is good, right? And I'm so there was definitely a huge difference between my first and my second. With my first I was working from home by myself, I had a couple of freelancers here and there, but by the time my second came around, I had an office, I had a small team, and I was accountable for other people and their paychecks, and so I wasn't at a place where I could just take a huge long maternity leave, or I could just stop working or I could just not take any new jobs. I had people's paychecks to be responsible for. So I think that again it's kind of what I had mentioned earlier about what is the new normal. You do need to adjust for that, but also know that you are in control of what that looks like. So for example, I choose to have very normal hours for my company, and for my team, and we work 8:30 to 4:30 but I have chosen those hours, so that I can drop my kids at school and be in the office at 8:30, and I can then be home by 4:30 every day to be with them for a good chunk of time before they go to bed. So it's, it's hard, it gets harder as both things grow, but you can just adjust your life based on that, as makes sense for you.

LIZ: What advice would you have for women who really want to be able to drop their kids off at school and pick their kids up and are navigating that with their own boss, and their own company culture, do you have any advice for those women?

JOY: That's a great question, because I do feel like with my team I am very flexible with them and we have half of the women here are moms, and so I make sure that they have a good life balance, and not every boss and not every company necessarily feels that way, so I think the main thing is having a conversation and being honest. And just asking, because you know what, moms can do so much. Like moms legit are like the best multitaskers ever, and to me as a boss I know that if somebody can get their work done in less time, if they need to leave a little bit early every day to pick up their kid from school, if you can get your work done, to me it doesn't matter. And so I think it's about having an honest conversation with your boss, telling them what schedule you would like and what you are requesting like, be clear about it, but also say how you're gonna get your work done in that amount of time if it, if you are in fact asking for something different. Now, you could adjust it so you could go int earlier so you can leave earlier, or if you're asking for a slightly shorter day, you can make up time after your kids go to bed if you have some work you can do at a computer. Or you just, honestly convince your boss that you can get that work done, even with leaving let's say 30 minutes earlier or whatever that might be.

LIZ: Thank you for giving us some examples because, I think almost all mothers want that kind of professional accommodation, but they really don't know where to start and I love hearing the example that you're setting within your own company culture, but giving women really tangible ways to make that happen in their own lives I think is equally as important because I think as not everyone works for Joy Cho!

JOY: (Laughs) Yes exactly.

LIZ: I recently read Greg Mcewan's book "Essentialism" and it's a New York Times bestseller, I highly recommend it, and he talks about how busy people like mothers, in particular, need to choose what they want to go big on in life, rather than pursuing some kind of balance where they try and manage a little bit of everything. And in your work, I really hear you talking about that. That, it's not about juggling all the things, but if some things fall to the ground and you don't want to pick them up, just letting them go. So could you help break down for us how you make decisions in your own life, at home, and at work, about what is truly worth your time, energy, and focus as a working mom in particular?

JOY: Um I have not read that book but it sounds great, and I think, I think I imagine what you're saying what he's focusing on is not about the idea of "you can't have it all" um because I don't' necessarily agree with it. I think it's about the idea of focusing on what the most important things are that you want. For me, writing things down is essential I think for personal goals, for professional goals, for relationship goals, whatever that may be. I'm actually I started working with a life coach over this year, because I was just going through a lot of different things for the evolution of my business, and my career and all that stuff and I learned a lot from her about how important it is to write things down, even if you know that they're in your head and maybe you write them down on your phone, like physically pen on paper and writing specific, actionable goals down, and even, not even just goals but also dreams because I think sometimes we get so goal oriented that we forget about the dreamy stuff, and that's the stuff that might not necessarily happen today or tomorrow and feels kind of out there, but it's still stuff that you would like to happen, and so I think it's really great just every once in a while to really do a big ol' dream list of things that are, you want to accomplish. And when you give yourself that space to just write everything down, it helps you to better prioritize "well which ones do I really want? Which ones can i really focus on? Which ones are realistic for my position in life right now? And which ones can I work on for like this next stage or in the next year, or in the next two years?" And i think that's a big part of it is just that tangibility and then also talking to people about it. Talking to your partner, talking to your friends, talking to your coworkers or your employees or your boss or whatever it is, because things don't happen if they all just stay in your head, you kind of have to say it out loud and then it also makes people, makes you feel a little bit more accountable for it too.

LIZ: I love this idea about taking your dreams and writing them down. And you know I really believe that motherhood itself is this creative endeavor. You know, women take this dream an idea of having a baby or adopting a baby, and with their body or in their home they make this, they make this dream a reality. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about motherhood as a creative project, and explain the influence that motherhood has had on your creativity?

JOY: I think that becoming a mom in general, you reevaluate the way in which you do things, the way in which you explain things, the way in which you go through your life, and so for me having these small children ask you questions or need your help explaining something, it makes you think about it in a whole different way, right? Because you've just been doing these things normally and not having to think about how to do them, and so I think that creatively, there are some, probably more obvious things like um, for sure after I had kids I was more inspired to design things for children and for babies, I don't consider myself like a mommy blogger or anything, but it's important for me to make sure that when we're developing content or products, that we are speaking to that demographic because that is part of my life, and I know that there are other mothers who turn to Oh Joy! for inspiration but also I feel like it's changed me a ton in the way that I am as a person, because, I don't obsess over the same things that I used to because I now know that there are these two little girls who are looking at me every day as their role model, and so I don't want them to see me worrying about what I look like or worrying about what I wear or worrying what people think about me, or just all that stuff that comes in a woman's life later on at some point inevitably. But I have to remember to like kick all that stuff to the side because I don't want them to see that in me I want them to see all the amazing things that I know that I'm capable of, that I will then tell them that they are capable of, so I think it's been a lot more of like that. Having them has made me more confident in myself, and in who I am. and so inevitably that has also helped my creativity and also helped to grow my brand into a more concrete, established look and feel because I'm more confident about myself as well.

LIZ: It also seems that there's something about motherhood that draws us to beauty and to create beautiful things, and I see that in the collaborations that you've done with baby oriented or child-oriented brands, what do you think it is that drives us to create these magical, beautiful worlds for our kids?

JOY: I mean I think it's because with your kids you're kind of getting to start over. Like, um, you know you get to a place as an adult and you get often, I don't want to say "stuck in a rut" 'cause that sounds negative, but you just get, you get into the process of paying bills and living your life and being responsible and when you have kids you kind of start over because they are not responsible for any of those things, and you get to live in that magical world for a little while, while you're raising them and growing them into adults and so I think because it gives you a chance to start over but now with this adult mentality and with all the physical and mental skills that you now have, you can now do something and create something new for them, and I think that's, that's the joy of it, It's getting to relive experiences through your kids.

LIZ: Over the last decade through your work you've really had a front row seat to what people find inspiring, especially through the internet, right? And we can almost track things about human behavior through that, we kind of didn't know before because we all leave digital footprints and share a little bit about what we find inspiring or what we need help with. What have you learned about people in your work? You're one of the most pinned people on Pinterest, what have you learned about humanity through that work?

JOY: I mean, social media is so interesting because it's fully taken my company in a direction that I never expected but I also have created this business a lot in part because of it. I think that I've learned that people just want to be inspired, they want something that's gonna make them feel happy, but they also want, they want to feel like they're in touch with a real person. And so for me because the way my company is, people know me separate than Oh JOY but also as a big part of it as well, I think that it's that combination of sharing joy, inspiring people, but also reminding them that you're human, in sharing just normal stuff that just happens in your life that you know is going in their life, and for me I always try to be positive, I'm not somebody who complains on social media, I really do mostly keep it optimistic, except when you know there's just like real life stuff, when you have a 3-year-old who is being completely difficult, and everybody knows if you've had kids what 3-year-olds are like, and it's just fun to be able to, for me as well, it's very therapeutic for me to be able to process that and talk about it or share my thoughts about it and then people are like "yes, me too! I'm not alone! You're not alone!" And I think the amazing thing about this world is that whatever life experience you're going through, both good and bad, you have this automatic community of people who you can lean to, to be there for you in a way that we didn't have before.

LIZ: So what would you say to a mother who looks at lifestyle blogs, or Pinterest, or perfect Instagram accounts, and feels like she, she should live up to a certain standard and she's not meeting that standard? That Social media somehow makes her feel bad about herself?

JOY: Of Course, that is something that I know unfortunately happens, all the time, and I am guilty of it as well. I will certainly look at other people's Instagram accounts and be like "oh my gosh they're traveling all over the world! And they have so many kids and it seems like they're balancing it all perfectly!" And all the things that I think that people feel in different ways but, you know what I also have gotten to a point in my life where, number one, as somebody who posts on social media, I know that Instagram is like the tiniest slice of your life. So I know, and I have to remind myself and I remind everybody, how much of a small part of your life that is. And there's not everything that you're seeing. So that's number one, but also if people are getting to go on amazing vacations, or they are having successful businesses, or they are doing these things that seem amazing, like, that is so great for them, and I think that, it is easy to feel jealous, I get it, but let's like, let's not do that to ourselves and let's not do that to each other. And like use that as fuel to fire something inside of you that you've been wanting to do. So I don't, you know, I might look at somebody who gets to take all these amazing vacations, but you know what I have chosen not to do that. That is not where I have chosen to either put my time, or my money, and I"ve put that into something else that might be as equally great, just it's always grass is greener sometimes, when you're sitting there scrolling on your phone. So for me, and I always say that about anything that incites jealousy, let it fuel your fire, and be happy for that person, because that person has chosen whatever path they have worked hard for that success, and you know take that and put that back into you and into your life.

LIZ: I think that is such a fascinating example, that Joy Cho, feels that sense of Instagram envy. And in a way, honestly it's a relief that YOU, YOU like the queen of the internet feels that too. So I'm wondering if you could help give our listeners, like an inner monologue for when they have that moment of "Ugh, I see something and it doesn't make me feel good, it just makes me feel bad." How do you talk to yourself? How can she talk to herself in that moment?

JOY: So there's a couple things there. You know, I I'm definitely not saying to follow people or anybody if every time you see their feed or their photo it makes you feel bad about yourself. Just don't do that to yourself, you know you don't need to follow it. So if it's about that, if for some reason the feed that somebody's putting across just doesn't work with you, that's okay. Take them off, you don't need to follow anybody, nobody cares, nobody's gonna keep track of it. So number one don't feel guilty about that. But, if it is somebody who truly inspires you, and who you get joy from in following them, and every so often you see something that does make you feel that way, number one, I mean, I don't mean to get all therapy like, but it is something about yourself. Jealousy always speaks to you, first. IT doesn't have to do with that person. So, Look at yourself, like if this person who you do enjoy following somehow makes you feel jealous about something, well what IS IT that is like, striking a chord with you? Is it that there's some dream that you're not fulfilling? Is there something that you wish you were doing that you're not doing? Are you unhappy at your job? Are you unhappy in your marriage? Like there's always something there and use it as an opportunity to like look inside yourself, and I know it's not so easy to figure out what that is overnight, but just know that that feeling is always that. And so for example, I gave you the travel example only because it's so obvious to me when I see people who get to travel the world with their kids all the time, there's a part of me that's like "Oh, did I miss out on that? Did I miss out on getting to do that and exploring these cultures?" but I also know that I spent that time and those resources doing other things, and I'm okay with that, and I've come to be okay with that. And so that's I think the biggest thing, is like it's going to bring up some things inside of you that might be a little bit painful that you might have pushed back, and pushed down, but use it as an opportunity to help yourself grow.

LIZ: I totally relate to that I love the idea of kind of questioning your own feelings, of like "why do I feel this way?" And um, and using that as fuel to fulfill your own dreams and they're unique to you and your own story. So, at Motherly we often talk about the ways that motherhood brings out our inner super powers. I'm wondering what superpowers you've discovered since becoming a mom.

JOY: OH my gosh, I mean I feel like, you just, can do so many things all at once. There are just some moments where I am literally cooking dinner, while helping to do homework, while helping another kid whining about needing a snack, and like I feel like my brain is going to explode, but somehow it all just happens, and it will all be fine and everybody will get their stuff done and everybody will be happy But yeah you make it work, I think the multitasking thing is really the thing that it, you're probably good at before and you will become even better at it after you have children.

LIZ: I think so many moms will relate to that, and I totally agree, especially that hour after school and before bedtime it's just this crescendo of the day, that I think so many moms relate to.


LIZ: Joy, is there anything we haven't talked about that you think is important for our listeners to know?

JOY: I mean for me I really think it is about, being true to who you are and also really trying not to worry so much about what other people think. I think especially once you become a mom, especially these days oh my gosh, I mean with the internet and social media and internet forums, everything from the day a baby is born, like sleep training and how do you feed your kid, and what to wear, and what lotions to use, and all this stuff, it's like so much. It's so overwhelming and everybody has opinions, and there's organic and not organic and grain free, blah blah blah, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by all the choices of the opinions or what other people think and you just have to go with what makes sense for you and your family. And don't, I know it's hard, because I am guilty of it too, but don't let other people's opinions sway you. If there's somebody whose opinion you care about, then great. But if it is somebody who is not necessarily the same parenting style as you, you don't have to to cave into what other people think, and you don't need to stay strong in what you and your partner believe is the best way to raise your children. And that's it.

LIZ: That's really great advice, I think especially in the age of social media. I love the no judgment motherhood community so thank you for being a part of that.

JOY: OH my gosh, yeah.

LIZ: Well Joy thank you so much for taking the time and for your honesty in sharing your story today on the Motherly podcast.

JOY: You're so welcome! Thank you for having me.
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