TMF S3E10 Winnie Park

Monica Royer: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Mentor Files. I’m your host, Monica Royer, founder and CEO of Monica Andy. Join me as I chat with leaders across the fields of entrepreneurship, parenthood, health, and lifestyle. This season we’re digging deeper than ever before to learn the story behind the story. Think of the show as one part Audible MBA and one part certification to be the confident CEO of your own life.

Here we go.

Please join me in welcoming the wonderful forever 21 ceo winnie park to the mentor files When Winnie took the helm of Forever 21 in 2022, the global brand had been majorly relevant for decades. But rather than look back and rest on the brand’s laurels, Winnie has helped launch Forever 21 into the future.

With innovative collaborations and great attention to consumer feedback. Today, Winnie and I speak of her journey, what having an entrepreneurial mindset means to her and why leading with authenticity is so important. I know you’re going to love hearing what Winnie has to [00:01:00] say. So let’s start the conversation.​

Winnie, welcome.

Winnie Park: Monica, I’m so happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Monica Royer: Oh my gosh. Well, I am thrilled. And I feel like we talk about. We talk about business. We talk about motherhood. We talk about all things when we talk, which is great. But if you can tell everybody just a little bit about who you are, Winnie, that would be fantastic.

Winnie Park: Okay. So that’s always kind of a weird, tricky question, Monica. Who am I? Who am I? I’m still trying to figure that out. So who I am, um, at the core is a single working mom. Um, and a, um, and I would say my vocation is being a mother to Annabelle and my advocation has always been fashion, uh, consumer retail, and, um, I’ve had a long and winding path to the current role at Forever 21, um, not a [00:02:00] direct path at all, but, um, I would say that I, um, got here by taking risks. I got here by, uh, actually following my passion and, um, not necessarily putting a career path or money or, uh, kind of anything ahead of just pure curiosity. Am I learning? Do I feel passionate about what I do? And, uh, finally, um, you know, how am I feeling about the people I work with? Because I think you spend as much time with the people you work with as with your own family.

And for me, that matters a lot. Um, that matters tremendously is just who, who, who, who do I get to learn from? And who do I get to touch? And Who, who in turn, [00:03:00] um, you know, shows me something that, that I could really, um, explore with them.

Monica Royer: Incredible. And I think, Winnie, one of the things I’ve admired the most is Just being able to take a step back and really have really admired your work ethic. And I want to talk a little bit about like where that came from for you. I think as I have gotten to know you, I really have come so much to admire parents in general, especially moms, just, you know, biased a little bit towards moms.

Um, and seeing that here you have this incredible daughter. Who you who you have raised and is like now in the very early days of being off to college And you’ve managed this really tremendous career at the same time and we know as moms like there’s always Sacrifices on every side as we’re doing different things But I think what i’ve what i’ve come to admire so much about you is there’s just like a grit To get the job done and not only that but you bring this energy and this light to [00:04:00] conversations where You Even with all the things swirling around that must go, you know, through your mind in a day, you always bring like a thoughtful consideration to the answer to the questions that you have for me.

And so I was thinking about a little bit about the story of Winnie before I ever 21, and maybe before even Annabelle, and like where that work ethic that you have came from.

Winnie Park: Mm. Um, Monica, I have to say that, um, one of the greatest influences in my life was my maternal grandmother. Um, she was able to, uh, so my parents and I immigrated, uh, from Korea to the United States when I was two and a half. And. Actually, our first stop was Chicago, uh, where we spent about a year and a half before we eventually ended up in Tennessee.

And I think that, um, you know, for my parents, this notion of having this amazing opportunity, uh, to come to the [00:05:00] United States. And it really was, it’s the classic Korean American immigrant story of we’re coming here for you. We’re going to defer gratification in our, in our own lives, in our own comfort level so that you can kind of charge forward.

And there was a very explicit, We want you to go to the Ivy Leagues. We want you to get a great education, like very explicit. And I heard about that since I was two. And lo and behold, when I was 10, We were joined by my maternal grandmother, who was widowed when my mom was a year old, and, uh, she had been alone in Korea up until that point, and we got this amazing opportunity to apply for a visa.

Um, it took us, you know, the good part of, you know, um, honestly, the decade to get her in the United States, but when she joined, um, She, and she always role [00:06:00] modeled this notion of grit. Um, but she also role modeled for me and showed me what it was to love fashion. Um, she and my mom, when they were living in Korea, would, would tear, um, you know, this is the latest Dior outfit.

Let’s go knock it off at the tailor. Um, everything from, uh, just, uh, you know, passion for fashion, um, movement. She also was a tremendous, uh, cook, and, uh, her ability to just delight and surprise with, you know, Korean cooking that, honestly, we didn’t have the ingredients in, in, uh, Tennessee, so she grew a lot of what we ate, um, and we couldn’t find those ingredients.

And then I would say the third thing was just her capacity for, uh, being just so authentic and real. Um, you know, her struggles in terms of raising my mom on her own, um, and actually my [00:07:00] parents struggles as, as, you know, um, as immigrants, um, really inspired me and, and, you know, There was, gosh, my dad would work, you know, 48 hour shifts as a doctor and he just never gave up.

And I know that so much of that was for me and for my sister. And that is a very strong motivator for not only what you want to aspire to do, but more importantly, what good looks like. Um, and, um, and so, you know, I would say it’s probably, Those pieces is my family, my grandmother, and, and being an immigrant,

Monica Royer: How old were you, Winnie, when you came to United States, when you moved here, what age were you?

Winnie Park: I was two and a half. And, um, so I was fluent in Korean. I knew no English when I started preschool. Um, I had to learn English in, um, [00:08:00] uh, like in earnest. And I learned my English actually from watching TV from Sesame Street, um, and watching PBS. And when I got to school, it was interesting because at one point early days, um, the teachers actually thought I had a learning disability because I was so quiet.

Um, but my quietness really came from, um, Um, a few things being so self conscious because I was the only Asian person in the school. Um, and I guess secondly, just, uh, learning how to articulate and speak when I was in my brain, I was rapid fire just trying to assimilate, trying to understand, um, really just trying to literally understand the language as I went.

Monica Royer: Incredible to think about like two and a half year old Winnie coming here for the first time. So most of your earliest memories [00:09:00] then Winnie would have been of being here. I assume like you don’t being so young. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t as much that you were already of school age when you came here, but it sounds like there was a big process as you got to actually, because of the difference in language to, to getting used to being in, in a school here and speaking English all of the time.


Winnie Park: Absolutely. And you know, my parents had never stepped outside of, of Korea. My dad had served with the US forces in Vietnam, um, out of med school, but outside of that they had never stepped outside the country. And so while they learned English in school, we spoke Korean at home and we were very much a family of three until I got to preschool.

And, um, And then I, you know, I would say, Monica, that the way that we kept, uh, the Korean culture very much alive in our household is we ate Korean food every night. Um, we went back to Korea [00:10:00] every three to five years to see our family, uh, because for the family back in Korea, my parents were the first ones, um, first to ever go to college.

And then secondly, um, to really step outside and try to make a better life. And, um, and, and a lot of money went back, um, to Korea to support the broader family.

Monica Royer: That’s an amazing story, Winnie, and I think a lot about sometimes being, you know, my mom came here as an immigrant, very similar to you at an older age, but keeping that culture alive, even through additional generations. I feel like that, you know, I also was so close to my maternal grandmother. And I think a lot, um, even when I went to have my daughter, I remember thinking, Oh, my gosh, like how now that I’m actually having this baby, like, how am I going to, you know, You know, as I got closer to the birth, everyone was so excited and I thought, well, nobody actually has to do this birth but me.

And I was getting pretty nervous. And then I thought about my grandmother and I was like, Oh my gosh, [00:11:00] she had nine children at home. If she could have nine children at home, somehow I’m going to make it through at the hospital. Like there’s a way that this is all going to happen, but still drawing so much on her resiliency and strength, even though she’s gone.

And it’s kind of amazing when you have that. Tie. It’s almost like that arm that reaches to like a different time and a different place and a different culture, how it binds you together in so many ways. And I think that was, you know, my grandmother was a second grade education. She had the first of her nine children starting at the age of 12.

I think she was like a year younger than my daughter is now. And, um, and I often think about that because when I have a hard day, I almost have to recenter myself sometimes to be like, Oh my gosh, there’s You know, of these generations are right before me. There was like a different definition, and it doesn’t undermine the hard days that we have here.

Of course, it’s all relative, but it is it is difficult to think about, like all of the I don’t know, the generations that came before you and how you kind [00:12:00] of Merge those together have in terms of Annabelle. Have she been able to like, and I think about this all the time with Bella and our daughters have very similar names.

Like, will I be able to to have that tie to the culture? That, you know, that we have, like, do you feel like it, that you’ve been able to do that for her? Does it get more distant as the generations grow?

Winnie Park: It’s definitely tougher with Annabelle. Um, and, um, you know, part of it is she’s, she is half, um, Caucasian. Um, and what’s fascinating to me is that she identifies as Korean. And, um, and I think it is because my family, my parents have been such a big part of her life. Um, and have been constantly present, uh, even with distance.

My, my parents remained in, in Tennessee. Annabelle was born in San Francisco. Uh, we moved from San Francisco to Hong Kong. And, [00:13:00] uh, and my parents would visit us in Hong Kong. My mom would spend stretches of six weeks in Hong Kong with me and with Annabelle. And, um, and so I think a lot of her identity and feeling a connection to Korea has come from that.

Also, when we lived in Hong Kong, we took advantage of being close to Korea and visiting and seeing family.

Monica Royer: So she

Winnie Park: And I think that makes absolutely. And, and even when we moved back to the United States, uh, my father, uh, planned a tour of the country and my, myself, my sister, her family, Annabelle, we all got literally on a tour bus that my dad rented and we went all through Korea.

And it was amazing. Cause I think it’s important for him as he’s, you know, as he’s getting older. Um, it was his wish that his grandkids experience. the culture in a very visceral way. And [00:14:00] so all of those pieces have been, um, really fundamental in her, um, identifying the culture. And then finally we still eat Korean.

So she’s grown up eating a lot of Korean food and I would say her taste buds are, uh, intrinsically Korean.

Monica Royer: I love that. I do feel like food ties you so much to the culture and can help keep the culture so much alive in a different country. And Ashley, give me one second. The nurse’s office is calling me, Adam,

Winnie Park: Oh!

Monica Royer: give it, let me, sorry to interrupt this

Winnie Park: No!

Monica Royer: for just a second, but give me one sec. Let me call back. Hi, I’m so sorry. I missed your call. Yes. [00:15:00] [00:16:00] [00:17:00] [00:18:00] All right. Sorry about that. Can you guys hear me?

Winnie Park: Yes, is everything okay?

Monica Royer: No, no, never a dull moment. Yes. Everything’s fine. And Bell will probably call me again in like 20 minutes, but she just got Invisalign. This is like, and she’s just like, Mom, my mouth hurts. And so like, this is like my third call from the nurse’s office, which is why I wasn’t like terrified, but I was telling,

Oh my,

and then it gets better. Well, I was, thank you, Adam. You know what I was [00:19:00] telling Maddie this morning, and this is even like funny enough going back to the conversation as I was like, I feel like at least I’ve raised a daughter where She’s not afraid to go back to the nurse’s office for like a fifth time in the day if she doesn’t feel good.

So I’d like, part of me is just like, at some point I’d be like, you know what, I’m just gonna like deal with it. But in Bella’s case, she’s like, hey, if I’m feeling it, I’m going to tell someone about it. And I was telling Maddie this morning, I’m like, at least she doesn’t mind just like speaking up her feelings again and again.

Whereas I think I would, I don’t know, the nurse, the nurse at the school are amazing. I don’t know how they get through their day, to be honest. It would not be an easy job. Okay. All right. So eventually she’ll probably come. Okay. Thanks, Adam. Okay. Amazing. Thank you. Um, yeah, Woody, that’s incredible. As you think about the connection that you’ve given your daughter, even to the culture.

And I think that Very similar. Very similarly, Bella was, you know, I [00:20:00] was half Indian, you know, to begin with, and she’s a quarter. But what I think is so amazing about this next generation is they’re so proud of and identify so deeply with their culture. And I think where I even felt as a kid this need to assimilate to be like everybody else today with what brands are doing and the inclusivity, the representation that everybody has across cultures.

There’s so much pride. It feels to me from like, just even what I can see in this next generation, and I think Bella takes so much pride in her Indian heritage. And I think it’s been so fun to relive it through her eyes in a way that I don’t think I even enjoyed or appreciated as much.

Winnie Park: Hmm,

Monica Royer: You know, when I was a kid, because my brother and I were kind of straddling two cultures, and I don’t necessarily think we fit in anywhere.

And so that was something that I felt I remember. Not necessarily self conscious of, but I just felt like the need, with whatever culture I was in, to kind of [00:21:00] like, to try to fit in there as much as possible, and I remember thinking, where do I belong? And as I look at her, like, she doesn’t have any of that, you know?

Winnie Park: Right. Right.

Monica Royer: Mm

Winnie Park: I agree with you. I think this generation has, it’s not just an acceptance level, but a pride of what makes you different as opposed to what makes you the same. And you said such a key word, which is assimilation. And I think that, um, assimilation can come in so many different levels.

It can come in the place of, of culture. race. Um, it can come in the place of, uh, you know, I think it’s the classic issues around the imposter syndrome and um, you know, you can fill in a pot like an imposter because, you know, professionally you don’t think you deserve the position you’re in or feel that others are questioning whether or not you’re [00:22:00] qualified.

Right. Um, and I just think it’s, it’s a bit of the human condition. Okay. Um, and I, I feel very good that Gen Z embraces difference, but I know that the imposter syndrome regardless is, is very real, you know, and it’s something that, um, you know, it’s so funny cause as you grow older, you wish you could talk to your younger self.

Monica Royer: Definitely. I, you know, it’s interesting that you say that we had an event maybe a year ago for International Women’s Day at Monica and Andy and we had this incredible group of like really accomplished women and moms and people were standing up to, you know, kind of introduce themselves. And there was this theme that emerged.

Across the room, which is that everybody felt imposter syndrome, and it didn’t matter what their position and I thought this is so interesting that this dynamic and women and again, like maybe men and exist to you. I don’t not as familiar from personal [00:23:00] experience, but I remember my brother told me something so helpful.

When I started doing this, he said, Monica, nobody really, really knows what they’re doing. Everybody’s kind of faking it. And so don’t feel like you have to know what you’re doing. And, you know, I hope that that that’s not like neurosurgeons. I hope there’s some people out there that do really know what they’re doing.

But for the rest of us that aren’t clinically trained, um, it was a really heartwarming thing to hear. And I often think about it as I go into a place. I used to be so afraid to ask a question thinking, Oh, I’m probably the only person that doesn’t know what this is. And it’s taken me almost a decade to shed that.

But I think you finally get to a point where you try not to care quite as much about what anybody else thinks, but that’s a, that’s a hard thing to do. And I completely agree. If I could go back and talk to my younger self, I think I would definitely, amongst other things, say, be a lot nicer to your mom, Monica, um, to start.

Um, but for sure, like, don’t be [00:24:00] so afraid to try new things because, you know, it’s not like anybody really 100 percent knows what they’re doing either.

Winnie Park: Absolutely. And I love what you said at first and be kinder to your mom. Um, it’s so interesting cause I’m watching Annabelle, um, you know, the teenage years, high school was this moment of, you know, self actualization, she’s coming into her own. But there’s real, like, mom. I wouldn’t call it mom hate, but mom conflict, you know, and it goes from, you know, you go from having this baby who adores you, worships you and you know, and it goes both ways and the sweet relationship to one where conflict kind of fuels the day and um, and they always said to me, you know, with girls, they come back in their [00:25:00] twenties because they realize how much.

You went through and how appreciated you are and how much they need you. And I certainly, um, I certainly felt that, um, you know, I think when I went out to college was when I look back and you know, My mom could barely get me to talk in high school and then all of a sudden I’m in college and it’s, I’m calling her every day, you know, And, and seeking advice, but also a lot of it is just, just comfort.

Monica Royer: Definitely. And it’s interesting. I feel like there’s been such an evolution of my own relationship with my mom where we’ve always been incredibly close. Um, if it makes you feel any better now, Winnie, like my parents live directly below us in a condo and there’s not like almost a minute. Like a lot of times now it’s funny.

I’ll call my mom and she’ll be like, I can’t talk. I’m on the other line with Bella who’s like two feet away. And I’m like, wait, she’s talking to my mom. So like. She now calls my parents every two seconds, so I don’t even get as much of a chance to talk to them because she’s so busy informing them of everything that we’re doing.

But I think it was [00:26:00] interesting for my mom and I, because, you know, she immigrated here at the age of 19. So she didn’t grow up here. And I think if you talk to her, she’d say she was kind of unaware of what we would face growing up here, because it was so I think that there was a lot of when I was younger role.

Differences where she She couldn’t really see around the corner to some of what we would experience in school because She just didn’t experience it. She wasn’t here But then I think later in life to your point and we were always close We came so much to be able, you know to be able to appreciate each other But I feel like my mom and I have been through so much and there’s so much you know with my brother’s mental health struggles and like there’s a lot like of That has been through Bound us together as a family because in some ways we’ve just been through, we’ve just been through so much and in a different way that it’s like I go back to think about 18 before my brother’s even like in the [00:27:00] initial diagnosis.

And I think about his Initial mental break when you know, I was maybe 21 and he was 19 and that was before we really knew what we were, what it would be. Yeah. But I remember, like, that dynamic and that happening to him, like, in so many ways, for better and worse, like, changed the trajectory of what the next, like, 20 years would look like.

But we just didn’t know it at the time, and I think I think about how much closer, in some ways, that made me to my parents. Because we were so dependent on each other to, like, ensure, like, his health. Over time, and it’s just it’s it’s like you you look back and you don’t even realize like there’s this immigrant culture.

That’s one part of the overlay. There’s You know, all the other struggles that you that everybody has. It’s a family in different directions. And I think as a mom myself, I mean, you always look back at certain things and you’re like, uh, I’m even thinking back to last night when Bella was working on a project and I was like, I wish I’d been like a little bit more Calm as we, you know, went through like some of the [00:28:00] homework trials and tribulations, but You just, you just try to do the best you can every day, and that’s kind of all you can do.

Winnie Park: Monica, you, um, what I love about you is how real you are about, um, some of the real pains and struggles, um, that come with being, uh, an authentic human being, like beyond being a professional or whatever you do. It’s about. Um, the who you are and what shaped you and, um, you know, as you talk about your brother and mental health, you know, I grew up in a household where my mom struggled with mental health issues and had serious bouts of depression when I was young.

Um, and it resurfaced later in life. Um, I’ll never forget. Um, you know, when I was shopping for my wedding dress, it’s a business school here in Chicago and [00:29:00] um, she was just not able to make it out to be part of that or really anything related to my wedding planning because she was suffering from depression and um, basically had like a flat affect.

And I just remember how much that, and, and, you know, and I really needed her and loved her so much and it, um, it was so interesting cause I, you know, at the same time I have to, I’m, I’m very human. I felt this level of almost resentment of why do you have to be sick when this is, you know, this moment that I need you to be here. And, um, and, you know, and, and it was like a combination of resentment, worry, um, this cloud of like sadness, but also almost feeling like, come on, let’s push [00:30:00] through this. You know, all of those conflicting feelings at a moment where, um, I, I was also coming into my own, you know, it was. I was trying to get, uh, my MBA.

Um, I was confused about what the next steps in my career would good look like, you know, and, um, and at the same time, you know, celebrating this moment and it was very bittersweet and very difficult. And, uh, when. I’ll never forget, uh, coming to this conclusion with my dad around what her, um, actual, uh, what the actual prognosis of her, you know, situation might be, and maybe it’s beyond just depression and, you know, uh, looking for different cocktails of medications and drugs to try and stabilize her.

And when she came out of it, it was like a whole fog lifted and [00:31:00] It, it, it felt so different to be a family at that point. Um, but it’s, it’s a very, it’s a real tough thing to live through.

Monica Royer: You know what? It is in the awareness that we have for it today, Winnie, I completely understand what you’re saying. I’m like a very energetic, up early, hyper positive person. And I’ve suffered from my own bouts of like probably anxiety and depression too. But when you’re really dealing with it, I remember with Andy before we really, you know, he got the initial diagnosis and then he was fine for so long and honestly we didn’t really believe it.

It seemed like bipolar was something where you cycle through a lot of moods and it just I was sort of the moody one. I, I don’t remember that being Andy, but the depression, I absolutely remember from him. And I remember thinking, Oh, I can coach him out of this. Like, I’d be like, get up. Like, there’s so many great things about your life and you know, you should be excited about this and that.

And I remember like just being unable to connect to him, but I just didn’t understand depression at the time. I wasn’t educated in it. And so I [00:32:00] thought, well, maybe he’s not eating well, or he’s not sleeping enough or whatever it was. And I just didn’t appreciate how clinical it really was.

Winnie Park: hmm. Mm hmm.

Monica Royer: And how much now, as I think about that, I’m like, geez, how did he ever make it through those years, like, without really having therapy or help for so much of what he went through?

And I think because we were also this immigrant family, I think we were a little bit, it was just a little bit harder to face. It just, for whatever reason, it didn’t seem. As embraced as it’s, as it feels today and like 2024 that you can really, you know, say, hey, I need a mental health day or like, here’s what’s happening.

It was just so taboo 20 years ago to be thinking about that stuff.

Winnie Park: Absolutely. I think there’s, um, I think there’s a lot of a shame associated with it and, um, and, uh, you know, a lack of understanding. It’s also not. Uh, in terms of, you know, there’s a [00:33:00] course of, you know, if you’re diagnosed with, you know, cancer, you know, it is, there is a course that you follow. There is a path.

Um, and although it is very individualized, um, there are known, um, kind of remedies and solutions. And, and I think the mystery of mental health is, uh, we’re just beginning to tap into what those remedies are and, and greater understanding much less the, uh, the taboo and, and the shame that is, that can be associated with it.

You know, um, yeah, I’m curious from your perspective. So um, where the. We’re the strong and healthy one. And, and you know, likewise, like I didn’t have the situation with a sibling, but I definitely had it as, you [00:34:00] know, um, you need to be the strong and healthy one ’cause your mom’s not doing well. Um, and you know, how, how was that for you?


Monica Royer: interesting you say, I feel like, and I don’t know if this is true that sort of like what doesn’t kill you make you, makes you stronger. Like I feel like everyone’s life is different and it’s hard to say, but I would say I’ve worked with this amazing CEO coach and we’ve interviewed her on the podcast before.

And I think the underpinning of my personality is this ruinous empathy, Winnie. And what Irene once shared with me is like, Helping to manage my brother’s situation built a grit for me that balanced that empathy that I had. And so as I step away, I think it brought, it made me realize that there was more resilience, like that I could handle more than I thought that I could.

And so, You know, I think about how sometimes these things and I wish that I could take it away from him but [00:35:00] on the other hand and you know, obviously I don’t know your mom, but I feel like he wouldn’t be as special as who as he is And you know, andy like andy is like a light anyone and it’s just so funny I was talking to someone before this and talked to andy for the first time and and the pure admiration sometimes that I see on people’s faces after they talk to him.

And I’m like, no, I get it. He’s like a special kid. Um, and he wouldn’t be that special of a kid if it weren’t for, if it weren’t for bipolar. I feel like what the best of us is sometimes like the worst of us too. And so in some ways I’d love to take away the pain and what we experienced, but I would never take away the affliction because he wouldn’t be the special kid that he is if he didn’t have it.

And I realized it built for me a skill set that I would have never needed to build. And I didn’t know I was building it at the time. Right. And I think my, like, I’m so close to my mom as it sounds like you are to yours. And my mom was very strong always. And so [00:36:00] it wasn’t until my brother’s And what does he say as you’re thinking about cancer?

He’s like, everyone says I have cancer. Like, it’s not like he is cancer worth like mental health. We’re like, Oh, he is bipolar. And it’s like, no, he has bipolar, but it’s not who he is. And he’s taught me to try to say that in the right way. Um, but I think that was like, for me, the wall of like, my mom was like this beacon of strength.

This immigrant, you know, her dad had died as she was coming here and like she survived so much. But. You know, she crumbled with my brother’s affliction, and she got back up and stood back up again and everything, but it was the first time in my life, because my parents were such beacons, that I saw them falling apart, and I thought, and like, and my best friend, who was my brother, you know, he’s being wheeled away,

Winnie Park: Mm

Monica Royer: and like, into like this, you know, uh, mental hospital, for lack of a, like a better way to term it.

And like, I, for the first time in my life, I was like kind of by myself, like my [00:37:00] parents were there supporting and they never left my side, but, but they were kind of gone in terms of like, they just couldn’t believe that this was happening.

Winnie Park: Mm-Hmm.

Monica Royer: And so I think it built, it built a strength in me that I don’t like, I, I, you know, I don’t think I would have been able to build if not.

And in some ways it’s almost, and I was talking to Irene about this too. You know, I had that happen like at the same time I was as my brother was like older and things were unfolding. I had like multiple miscarriages and I was telling Irene recently. I’m like, sometimes I don’t know if I let things affect me enough, you know, or like, I’m just like my mentality now is like, and I mean, you know, with building a business.

I’m always like, plan A, B, C, let’s get through to the other side, and I’m like, will this all come, like, will someday, will I just be like, buried under all these, like, emotions that I never had? I, I, I don’t know. Um, like, I’m definitely, you know, going to therapy and, like, talking through all of it, too, to make sure that that doesn’t happen, but, you know, it’s interesting how you just, like, you kind of have to keep going at certain [00:38:00] times.

Winnie Park: I think that what, what is, uh, what has always been striking for me with you and with Andy is the astonishing level of self-awareness that you possess. knowing. And that is this tremendous, you are also a beacon and a light. Um, not only because it’s as a leader, having someone who’s so relatable, but also, um, that level of consciousness is a gift in any human being and fostering a relationship with a conscious, Self aware human being versus someone who is trying to project perfection or, you know, any number of masks that we put on is, um, [00:39:00] You know, you can’t even compare the two. And I think that, um, you know, it’s, it’s interesting for me because, um, I, I think that so many of us struggle, um, as professionals and as people, because we are rewarded for what you can do, what you know, but the question is the, who you are.

Monica Royer: Mm hmm.

Winnie Park: And the, who you are is actually. Especially as a leader and as you move up in an organization and as you start a business, the who you are is why people follow you.

It’s not the what you know. It’s not the fact that you know, you know, organic, um, you know, uh, baby clothes and you understand. You know, honestly, [00:40:00] how to raise capital. It’s not, it’s not what you know, or what you do. It’s really the, who you are. And I do think these experiences shape the, who you are, uh, more than anything.

And especially, um, uh, difficult, difficult, I would say it’s not just difficult, like, you know, life is difficult. I always think about like, you expect, you know, when we’re younger and you Everything, you know, Hollywood, every fairytale is about, it’s supposed to be happiness, interjected by moments of difficulty.

When actually so much of life is difficulty interjected by moments of happiness, it’s the, and once you embrace that, you’re like, oh, this is okay, you know?

Monica Royer: no, it’s so true. You know what? I think we learned so much from my mom and I, I mean, my dad is a wonderful, amazing human, but leadership, I think we learned my mom really led by example. And she always said [00:41:00] like, you have to see the heat, like the person behind. The person working with you, like whoever’s working with you, like who’s the human behind that?

And I think if you can then, and I’m still learning too, like every day it’s, you know, something new or different and I’ve evolved so much too in doing this. But I think it’s, I think you have to build an awareness a little bit of who you are and I’m, I’m still learning and doing some of that. But once you can understand your own strengths and weaknesses.

It gives you a little bit of empathy for everyone dealing with you, too,

Winnie Park: Oh my gosh. Yes.

Monica Royer: you know, like, oh, here are the qualities that are good about me, but here are the ones that, that aren’t, too, or like the things that I could be working on, and I, and like I said about Andy, I’ve realized that, our best qualities are also our worst qualities too.

And so, you know, I think that’s been like a, a very big learning as leaner and knowing, and, you know, you sit on like the board, you know, it’s like, when, when do you assert yourself as a leader versus like listening to the people around you? And it’s like, [00:42:00] it’s always kind of a dance when you’re dealing with so many different personalities and so many different people.

And I think that’s something I’m, still learning and I’m still struggling with, but I think it’s a journey. And I think one thing I learned from my mom was like, and she had a career, she was busy, but we always felt first, no matter what. And so I always think no matter if it’s Bella or who, people really do remember how you made them feel

Winnie Park: Absolutely.

Monica Royer: than anything.

And so I think that all the time, like I’m busy, I have a lot going on, but like, does Bella feel like she’s the most important thing? And I guess only time will tell if she does or doesn’t, but I think that’s something I’m, you know, so focused on being able to do. And if you could hold on one more second, she’s calling me from the nurse’s office now, Winnie.

Winnie Park: I got

Monica Royer: I’m so sorry. [00:43:00] [00:44:00] [00:45:00] I’ll be headed to school pickup after this.

Winnie Park: Oh,

Monica Royer: That’s okay. I mean, speaking of which it’s like, that’s what you do as a mom, right? You interrupt a podcast twice. And the second time she got on, I was like, all right, like, I’ll be there to pick you up in a little bit. It’s so close

Winnie Park: I was going to say she definitely knows,

Monica Royer: Yes.

She’s persistent. I know. I was actually thinking about for fundraise, I should put a group of middle schoolers on it or little kids. Cause I feel like they just don’t let up. So maybe we all need to hire an army of, uh, Oh, [00:46:00] and winning. I would be remiss. I mean this, I feel like we need like a three hour podcast to get through all of this, but what’s it been like to, I mean, bringing all of the life experience you have, like the cultural experience that you have and like coming to one of the most.

powerful and incredible brands. Like, I feel like Forever 21 is not just like a brand. It is like, uh, ingrained. It’s etched in all of our memories. We’ve all shopped at Forever 21. I remember I was asking about the Forever 41. So that’s my branding idea for the future. But in the meantime, it just seems like it’s been an incredible experience for you.

Winnie Park: It’s been incredible on it. In fact, um, just, uh, It’s so funny that you should say Forever 41 because this year we turned 40

Monica Royer: I know. That’s why I was like, it’s perfect.

Winnie Park: It’s crazy. It’s, um, and if you think about it, um, I do agree with you. I think I am lucky enough to be a steward of this brand that was born 40 years ago and, uh, that [00:47:00] millions and millions of people around the world have, you know, been part of that journey, shopped.

And what I think is So amazing about it is that one, um, you know, it was founded by Korean American immigrants in the, in

Monica Royer: Oh, I didn’t even know that. That’s

Winnie Park: It was,

Monica Royer: Wow.

Winnie Park: with one store that became five in LA and their magic was bringing trend product at value prices, uh, with immediacy. Um, and they expanded to be like, you know, A multibillion dollar company operating directly in 47 countries around the world and the classic immigrant story.

Um, you know, Horatio Alger at its best. But what is amazing is I joined this team in Los Angeles and, um, there are so many people I work with who have been there for, 30, 25, 15 years. [00:48:00] And, um, what really gets them going is this passion for the brand. And I think that the learning for me with forever 21 is how do you take the best of all of that?

Amazing, um, knowledge that comes from history and these folks who know how to do things in a very specific way, we can deliver trends in eight weeks from concept to floor. It’s incredible. But how do you take that knowledge and how do you blend it? With, uh, new talent and I would say overall a cultural change.

Um, so much of, I think founder led businesses are about the founders and when the founders aren’t around, then it’s, what do you, what are we aiming for? And there’s this huge vacuum that is left when founders leave. And so with me, it’s kind of having the dialogue around actually, Your real boss never left the building.

Your real boss is actually [00:49:00] the customer. Okay. And what we need to do is instead of just focusing on one person making the decisions about the look and feel and the aesthetic focus on what the customer wants. and actually get into this notion of customer intimacy. And for us, our maniacal focus is on the youngest generations, because that’s what forever 21 is.

You get to 20 bills, your parents set you free, you go to the mall and you purchase for the first time. And forever 21 is that place where you can unleash your Your own purchase power and through self expression right through fashion. And, um, just focusing right now maniacally on Gen Z where we’re going to be onto Alpha soon, but Gen Z is fascinating to me.

Um, you know, I, I believe both of our daughters are part of this generation. And what is so interesting as some of the stuff we said before, the inclusivity, Uh, but the other [00:50:00] piece is self expression and, um, what I have loved is, is changing our definition of trend and fashion from what goes down a runway or what, you know, Gucci is doing to actually taking a step back and saying, What is a customer talking about?

What is the relevant dialogue that’s happening out there in terms of culture and this generation? Millennials are digital natives and Gen Z are social natives and so much of their information comes from social media and instead of looking at that as something new. Scary or different. I think the question is, what can we learn from it?

It’s a free form of, of, you know, user generated content and information flow. You can learn so much about trends and it’s not just fashion trends, but what What’s happening with food? What’s happening with music? Um, the other thing that I find so empowering about [00:51:00] social and how we’ve been communicating with the customers is creator led content and instead of like the old fashioned fashion campaigns, we cast models and find the shoot.

I’m like, let’s stop all of that. Let’s let the creators create the content. Let’s arm them with the best fashion. Let them self express. They’re actually the ones who know the trends better than us. And so, you know, even this past weekend, we were at Rolling Loud Music Festival, which is a huge hip hop festival in Los Angeles.

Um, Kanye West opened, he had to take over the festival, they didn’t know about. Yet, Nicki Minaj, and I’m like, let’s not do a festival shoot. Let’s send people out. To actually wear our clothes, take the content that they generate. And that is our festival shoot. That’s what’s going to show up on, on our site, on the app.

That’s what’s going to show up in our content and our feeds. And just turning this notion of we’re no longer creators. The customer is the creator and we’re along for the ride. And that’s been the funnest part of this journey.

Monica Royer: That is such a cool way to think about it, Winnie, and as I think about that for what, like, even a lot of that means for our customers, as I feel like wherever our customers are now, everybody, to your point, is consuming the same content. So whereas, like, years ago, there was, you know, A certain segment of the population that was maybe getting this like high end level of content, and now it’s so [00:52:00] democratized.

We’re all open to see, like you said, the same things about fashion, the same things about culture, the same things about food, and I do think it’s revolutionizing the way that people think about brands and whether you’re a newer brands like us or whether you’re a brands like Forever 21, they’re fortunate to have you at the helm because I think thinking about things in a new way Is what the new brands and the brands that have been here for a while have to do Because the world is evolving so much and you see it so much with these hundred year old brands Where it’s going to be really hard, you know where it’s not possible for their founders to potentially be around anymore You know there I think about some of the other brands and baby and i’m like wow There’s a changing of the guard that’s happening out there.

And I think either You’re new and you’re part of that changing of the guard or You You’re at an established brand, but it’s, but you’re evolving with it. And I think those are the brands that are going to be standing strong, you know, 10 years from now.

Winnie Park: Absolutely. I think that, um, at [00:53:00] the end of the day, we’re all stewards of the brand. And you as a founder, um, founded and stewarding this brand, this beautiful brand through this period. And I’m lucky enough to be part of that journey with you. But what’s really neat is when you step back and what you’re really creating beyond product is an emotional connection. People, there is such an abundance of choice. Nobody has to buy right. And in the, in the old days, you pretty much bought a singular brand, right? You trusted singular brands, especially when it came to baby. And today customers can actually exercise so much more choice. They have so much more visibility to what that choice is, and they can make conscious decisions around.

You know, the provenance of the product. They can make conscious decisions about the emotional connection with the brand. Um, and, and you can go alongside this emotional journey with them. And so I, I think there’s something really powerful about that. It’s also, um, [00:54:00] it, it can be hard to keep up. changes really fast.

Monica Royer: Yeah, well, it definitely does. And I have, um, as a recently, somebody that came into the LA forever 21, when I was out there, I am blown away. That you can be more in the Forever 41 category, but still be shopping Forever 21. So that was my key takeaway. Obviously not the target customer necessarily, Winnie, but I love the idea that even fashion can span generations now in a way that like it probably didn’t, you know, 20 or 30 years ago, too, which is kind of amazing.

Winnie Park: Monica, you are the customer. So we are very intentional. We want to get to know the youngest, but we are absolutely We did change a lot of things at forever 21. One of them one of them is looking at, you know, just Understanding that age is a number And that really you want to meet the customer for whatever trend need that they have and whatever wearing occasion.

[00:55:00] So, you know, the fact that I, I, this is forever 21. I shop at forever 21 with my daughter who is decades younger than me. And, and, and the fact that there’s still relevance there. And we are very conscious of looking at how we make the product differently. We’re very conscious of making less. We’re very conscious of how it fits the body and acknowledging that there is, we’re, you know, embracing, um, the full range of shapes, sizes, also frankly, genderless dressing, you know, like you don’t have to be so defined anymore.

And I find just as much stuff in the men’s department as I do in the women’s department. Um, and so breaking some of those bonds of what old retail would tell you, you need to be, or how you need to shop has been one of the fun parts of Forever 21.

Monica Royer: Definitely. I mean, through COVID, retail has been a crazy ride, but to be part of retail in 2024 is a [00:56:00] real privilege to be thinking about like what this next, what the next generations are going to be looking at and the evolution of how we’re thinking about all things. Retail is very, very fun to be a part of.

Winnie Park: Absolutely. And it’s really neat because coming out of COVID, um, I think people embrace physical experiences and, and it’s nice for us because we love our digital business, but it’s nice to see the stores come back as well.

Monica Royer: Oh my gosh. Incredible. Completely agreed. Winnie, this is It’s been fantastic. I mean, we could go on for another hour, minus the two nurses phone calls that I’ve taken, um, which I appreciate your patience with, but let’s do this again. Let’s have a part two, but thank you so much for joining me today. And thank you more than anything for just being you and being the mentor and the leader that you are.

I continue to learn so much from you every day and I’m so grateful.

Winnie Park: Um, Anika, I am so honored that you consider me a mentor. Thank you.

Monica Royer: Thank you. Um, all right, Adam, how are we

Thank you so much for listening today. As a female business leader, I’m [00:57:00] inspired by Winnie’s professional and personal approach. I hope you took away some valuable insights for this, from this discussion as well. And trust me, it’s well worth a look at what Forever 21 is doing these days.

Check it out by visiting forever21. com. Or forever. 21 on Instagram. Remember to subscribe to the mentor files wherever you listen to podcasts and your reviews are always deeply appreciated. I’m your host Monica Royer. See you again soon.