Woman of the Week
Get inspired by this self taught artist and entrepreneur!
-April Daniels Hussar
Working for BettyConfidential.com has many perks, but one of the greatest is getting to meet – whether in person or “virtually” – so many truly incredible and inspiring women. And Christine Koh, the bright and lovely founder of BostonMamas.com and Posh Peacock, is exactly the kind of superwoman disguised as an everywoman that we can all relate to and be inspired by. This mother of one has managed to turn her insecurities into her assets, and to forge her own path to a life of creativity and beauty. Read on to find inspiration from a truly awesome Betty…
I’m really interested in what drove you to leave your previously chosen path (you have a Ph.D. with expertise in music as it relates to pedagogy, cognition, and the brain), feeling that you’d rather “perish than publish.” What was the impetus for making this major life change after 10+ years in academia? And how did you decide to launch not only Bostonmamas.com but Posh Peacock as well?
In short, the jump came down to finally following my instincts. For so long my path seemed linear and clear – I was enormously inspired by my college professors, who helped me discover that I could bridge my interests in psychology and music (I was a competitive violinist and taught privately and in group settings). But after undergrad, I wrestled with the idea of change at various junctures of my career. I was bothered by many things: the bad pay, the piles of dry journal articles to read, the resistance I felt to writing journal articles that I knew a panel of peer reviewers were looking to tear apart. But I kept going because I really believed in my research ideas. Then when I got to my postdoctoral fellowship everything took a turn for the worse: the content was technical and boring compared to the research I completed during my Ph.D., the work environment was socially isolating, and my relationship with my advisor and his family came to a surreal, manic head towards the end of my fellowship. I also became a mom during my postdoc, which of course changed the way I viewed everything. All signs were pointing me to the exit.
I started developing BostonMamas.com toward the end of my postdoc. As a new parent, my research skills translated naturally to my parenting. Whatever the topic – nutrition, products, development – I researched it exhaustively. Friends often asked me for advice on various topics and I realized that I should just synthesize all of my thoughts in one place. And Boston was lacking a stylish independent parenting portal with a wide variety of topic coverage. So I went about creating it, with particular attention to making the site fresh and stylish; appealing to modern parents like myself.
Launching Posh Peacock was the formalization of creative energy that had fueled many personal projects, as well as those for friends and family; it seemed natural to make myself official in my new identity as a producer of creative things. In retrospect, the development of two brand new sites in such a short time span (about three months) seems vaguely insane, but at the time, it made perfect sense.
And circling back to the instinct piece… I think I’ve always been a gut type person, but it wasn’t until I became a mom where I really trusted that instinct and ran with it. So I decided not to hit the override switch when it was time to take the next logical step in my academic career. Many people were amazed that I took such a brave and fast leap after investing so many years in academia. But the jump was easy – I was drowning emotionally and creatively in my postdoc – and it clearly was the right instinctual move. And once I did it, all of my friends were like, “Well it’s about time!”
What fears did you have and how did you conquer them?
This might sound a little strange from someone who almost became a professor, but my biggest fear throughout my academic career was that I wasn’t smart enough; that I was an utter fraud. I grew up in a family with very little money amidst an affluent neighborhood near Harvard (meaning, my friend’s parents were professors, etc., while my parents were shopkeepers). I was an average student amidst honor roll peers and that feeling of inadequacy took its toll.
When I went to college my academic curiosity was sparked and I became very high achieving, but inside I was still insecure that I was just a big fish in a little liberal arts pond. So I went on and got a Master’s. And then a Ph.D., where I applied for and received prestigious NIH funding. And then I applied for and received another prestigious NIH award to fund my postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard/MIT. But none of these accomplishments made me feel smart; just more fraudulent. I was terrified when I started working at Harvard/MIT, but I learned to program in Matlab and read neurology charts and master the principles of auditory psychophysics. And then I realized that I had made it to the alleged top of the academic mountain but it wasn’t such a big deal after all. I was in fact smart enough to be there, which in turn made me feel OK about leaving.
I often am asked whether I regret the decade I spent in academia, but I don’t regret it at all. I truly believe that every path brings you to the next, and I needed to conquer my fears and insecurities about myself in the way in which the universe dealt the cards. All of those steps brought me to where I am now.
Here it comes – the ubiquitous “balance” question that it seems like every working mom gets asked… but, seriously, how do you keep all the balls in the air – being a mommy, a wife and running not one but TWO companies from home?
Well, if you can believe it, there’s more. I’m also the managing editor of a music psychology journal (that’s the money that pays for me to do the creative stuff), and I’m a freelance writer. Plus, my family (6 siblings + my mom) is mostly local so there’s always some sort of drama brewing.
But honestly, I’m still tweaking the balance thing. I think I’ve worked out my working mama balance pretty well as it relates to my daughter Laurel; we experimented with different levels of day care before settling on a part-time childcare arrangement. The math doesn’t work out, in that I have far more work to do than childcare hours to do it in, but this is the arrangement that feels right instinctively, given the kind of kid she is and the kind of mom I am. But juggling all of the work balls definitely is a challenge. One concrete tip is that I have found it enormously helpful to start each day by looking at the to do list and identifying one or two major things to get done and shutting off the e-mail until those things are done. Getting one big task out of the way really helps me feel more at peace.
There are two other things I have realized in this journey. The first is that I have more energy and am more efficient in my work because I am passionate about what I’m doing, compared to the way I “drove with the brake on” during my postdoc. The second is that no matter what time I go to sleep, everything seems to get done. This realization helps me shut off the computer so I can reconnect with my family, or just kick back and relax. I’m honestly not sure how this works out, but I think at a basic level, if I stay up absurdly late (which I was doing regularly for a long stretch of time), I’m a whining zombie the next day. Better to just go to sleep and be more functional the next day.
I also just got a Blackberry, which has been enormously helpful in detaching me from my laptop. I can simply take a quick look at my e-mail to make sure nothing’s on fire, and not get sucked into work on the actual laptop.
You describe yourself as a self-taught artist. Can you tell us about that journey from desire to create to being a skilled graphic designer with your own stationery company?
I’ve always had a creative side and love for pretty paper and design. Ironically, I had a few months off between finishing my Ph.D. and waiting to hear about my NIH postdoc grant, during which time I picked up a part-time job at an art store for fun. I worked there for about 20 seconds when I felt the internal sparks flying.
As my knowledge about paper and tools and techniques expanded and I started whipping up all sorts of insane little personal design projects, my friends and their friends came calling. I did my first large scale wedding job for a dear friend, designing, then cutting, scoring, assembling and tying all the paper accoutrements by hand. It was exhausting but thrilling! Then for a friend’s baby shower I really wanted to design a pregnant lady holding a handbag because I was hosting the shower at a handbag-making studio. But I had no idea how to illustrate on the computer and was worried about buying an expensive program like Illustrator without having used it before. So I downloaded their 30-day trial, started fooling around and found that I had a knack for vector graphics and loved being able to create my own artwork.
I bought Illustrator and started designing motifs that I thought were chic and cute but not cutesy, if you get my drift. As my collection grew, I decided to put the motifs in a collection where clients could pick and choose how to apply the motif (stationery vs. calling card vs. invites, etc.), thus offering clients access to my work if custom design was cost prohibitive. And then I started banging out the HTML code to build my Web site to handle sales.
I think it is important to share that a meaningful part of my creative journey has been a nagging feeling of inadequacy about the quality of my designs; rather parallel to the insecurity I felt about my academic ability. Everything these days seems to be about vintage-looking designs and that’s just not what I create. And I don’t have art training, which brought about that fraudulent feeling. But as the positive reviews rolled in, I became more adept, and I realized that what mattered was that I loved what I was designing, I resolved those feelings of inadequacy. I am truly grateful for how favorably my work has been received by the press and my clients.
Your sister teaches music – were art and music big parts of your lives as children?
Oh yes. In fact, I played the violin that my mother scrimped and saved to buy when she was a nursing student. I’m from a family of seven kids and all of us played an instrument. We had our own little band, and whenever we had guests my parents made us play one by one. It must have been excruciating for the guests. Amateur violin in particular is not very forgiving.
What is your favorite kind of project to work on?
I absolutely adore custom illustration. Part of what I do very well is listen and get a read on clients. I actually really like the challenge when clients have a very vague idea of what they want. For example, I had one sleep deprived new mom say, “Uh, I like circles, fishies and a modern look.” It was so gratifying to experience her happiness when my vision was so in tune with the vision she had but couldn’t articulate.
I’ve also built some Web sites recently, and that process is also very exciting. It’s the merging of my technical coding skills and my design eye. I also pride myself on being very responsive to clients and never condescending in the way web developers sometimes can be toward people who don’t know how to code. It can feel frustrating and very out of control to be a person who has to rely on the “Web guy” who condescends them. And I find this sort of behavior deplorable. I strive to create an entirely different feel to the Web creation process with clients.
In previous interviews you talk about the importance of community – how do you foster your relationships with other moms, artists and writers? Have you created a “village” in this often disconnected, 21st century world?
What an excellent question. Being a freelance writer, editor and designer can actually be a very isolating lifestyle, what with all the time spent at the computer. So how do I foster these relationships? First, I am extremely fortunate to have an amazing network of mom friends in this area. I mean, truly amazing. They tolerate my various inquiries related to Boston Mamas, they are dear friends, they are women I admire deeply. Some of these women also are very talented artists with whom I trade services – I have bartered design work for everything from haircuts to PR services to oil paintings. And Boston Mamas has created an amazing virtual community of people with whom I feel connected. Someday if I’m rolling in cash I’d love to throw a fabulous bash to celebrate all the readers and meet them in person!
Another interesting development that has emerged from my work on Boston Mamas is a flattering series of invitations to exclusive “influential mommy blogger events.” This spring/summer I was invited to events by Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Disney and Pampers (the latter two which I attended). I have met some truly amazing fellow mom bloggers – incredibly passionate, talented women who are so open to sharing. It has been an honor to be in their company, and to continue to connect with them.
What’s something about you that might surprise people to find out?
I am obsessed with figure skating and gymnastics; as in, I actually visit the U.S. figure skating and gymnastics Web sites to keep abreast on information! I was devastated when Michelle Kwan went down in the last two Olympics, and I am so excited about the Summer Games. One of the members of the women’s gymnastics team – Alicia Sacramone – is from a Boston suburb and I am so rooting for her!
Rapid Fire Questions:
1. When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
The first Asian Little Orphan Annie on Broadway.
2. What type of kids did you hang out with in high school?
My closest friends were associated with music, theatre or the newspaper since I spent all of my free time in those spheres. But I was very open-minded toward all of my classmates irrespective of clique, no doubt because as a financially challenged minority I wanted people to be open to me. I have had high school friends tell me that they always were surprised that clique boundaries didn’t phase me. They called me The Diplomat.
3. What woman from the past do you most identify with?
The first person that springs to mind is Katharine Graham. I was so moved when I read Personal History. My story is not nearly as dramatic as hers, but the themes of insecurity, tradition and social and professional challenges all rang true. I couldn’t believe how painfully self-effacing she was despite all that she accomplished. Although of course now I know that the accomplishments can’t fix the emotional baggage.
4. What’s your workout?
I used to be a swim and gym rat (I swam laps right up to the day before my daughter was born, much to the fear of the lifeguards…) but unfortunately don’t formally workout these days. I do try to walk as much as possible. And this summer I got hooked on hula hooping!
5. Cat or dog?
Unfortunately neither, due to allergies. I admire other people’s pets from a safe distance.
6. What do you do when you want to completely tune out?
Bring an InStyle magazine to the local nail salon and get a bargain pedicure.
7. What book is sitting on your shelf, waiting to be read?
My bookshelves are currently overrun with children’s books. I really need to remedy that!
8. If you could have dinner with any two people, whom would you choose?
Creatively, Joelle Hoverson, the owner of Purl and Purl Patchwork in New York City. Over the last year I have done a bunch of projects from her Last-Minute Patchwork & Quilted Gifts book and just adored them all. The voice she brings to the book is so lovely; I really feel as if she and I could craft and chat for hours.
And personally, I would love to have dinner with my dad. He died three years ago and while I feel very resolved about his death (I spent a lot of time with him during the last year of his life, plus I have an excellent therapist) I just miss him. The other month I did my first TV interview and I just couldn’t help but chuckle and think of him. He always thought I should be the first Korean talk show host (or a diplomat…), and that TV spot was probably the closest I’ll get to that.
9. What is the one thing you want or do not want the next generation of girls to encounter?
I want the next generation of girls to be inspired and to follow their passion, even if it means the ducks don’t all line up in a row.
And I know it’s impossible, but I wish the next generation of girls could be spared toxic relationships. I had one really bad one that altered my life and my relationships with others in sad ways. I wish I had been stronger and more confident at the time to not be manipulated. Then again, I was a naïve teenager, so the offender bears the majority of that onus.
10. If there were one thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
This sounds awfully traditional, but if I could change one thing right this minute, it would be to have the means to take care of my mother. She is spry and highly functioning, but she recently needed to move out of the home she lived in for almost 40 years, and she’s not thrilled about her new place. I wish I could just plunk down the cash to set her up in a fabulous modern, managed condo. But of course the irony is that she is so traditionally Korean that even if I had the means, she would never accept a gift like that from me with a peaceful heart; it would need to be delivered by a son.