In Bed With The Woman Who Made Colorful the New Black
Born in Haiti, raised in New Jersey and currently living out her dreams in NYC, Paola Mathé shares adventures of travel, fashion and NYC on the blog Finding Paola. What began as a private diary for Mathé to release her thoughts, has now grown into a popular lifestyle blog. After quitting her corporate job in 2014, Mathé launched her brand and online boutique shop, Fanm Djanm (which means strong woman in Haitian creole). The first item she sold on her shop were African head wraps. “They made me feel so strong and regal,” she says. Mathé wanted to pass that feeling on to other women and to empower them to be bold, beautiful and powerful. Everyone deserves to feel like a badass, right? ” Mathé took on being an entrepreneur with the aim to connect and empower women from around the world.
We’re loving the head wraps, but more importantly, we’re digging the message behind Finding Paola and Fanm Djanm. We spent the morning with Mathé at her harlem office, and ended the day at Refinery Hotel. We chatted about the success behind her blog, how she spooks herself out everyday and why competition is healthy.
How did you find yourself in New York City?
Growing up in New Jersey, my parents would drive me into NYC. Seeing the lights I knew that’s where I wanted to live. Right after college I packed my bags, found a roommate on Craigslist and moved to NYC.
How did you start your blog, Finding Paola?
When I first moved to NY, I needed a place to write my thoughts. I was working at Columbia University as a research assistant, and the New York I had envisioned was not the New York I was experiencing. My life wasn’t as colorful as I expected. Everything seemed so exciting from the outside, but I didn’t realize that it was up to me to make the city exciting. Finding Paola was really about figuring out who is Paola, and what does she like? I am finding my vibrancy. I think being honest and sharing my colors is what the blog is all about.
What has been the key to the success of your blog?
Being genuine. The people who have been following me from when I first started know that I have come a long way. I share my experiences, and I also share my struggles. It’s not all about glamour.
What does the future hold for Finding Paola?
I’ve learned to take everything one step at a time, and not compare myself to others. I recently went to Puerto Rico to shoot a lookbook for my own project, with my own budget. A year ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that. It confirms that I can do anything I want to.
There is this pressure that you don’t make it unless you end up in a big name publication, but I feel good about where I am. I’m still excited when someone reaches out to me and wants to hear my story. It feels good when Haitian women write me. It feels good when any woman writes me. That’s what really drives my passion.
Tell us about Fanm Djanm and how you started it and how it’s about empowering women.
A few years ago I made a video about the unity of Haitians, and people were coming up to me saying that they wanted to be a part of my organization. I had to tell people that there was no organization. Then the idea of selling head wraps came to me.
I’ve worn head wraps for years. When I wore them people thought I was crazy, but they made me feel strong and regal. The women who work really hard in Haiti wrap their hair. I wanted to show the modern woman what we deal with in Haiti. So I quit my job managing two restaurants in Harlem and founded Fanm Djanm.
To me, the strength of women really matters. I grew up in Haiti with my mother. She was young and my biological father wasn’t around much, so I grew up with this resentment. My mother, step-father and I moved to New Jersey, and I realized women here were so strong as well, and that women’s struggles are universal. I have friends from many different backgrounds, and their fears and insecurities are similar to mine.
Was it scary for you to leave work and become an entrepreneur?
Yes! I’m always super scared before I start something new. I have a chalkboard at home that says, “Do something that scares you every day.” Someone asked me what I did today that was scary, and I said, “I have an office in Manhattan. That’s scary!”
There’s no one else to fall back on when you’re doing this on your own. I don’t know if it’s going to get easier. The more successful you become, the more difficult things will get. There are always obstacles. There are different decisions that you will have to make that will make or break your business.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned since becoming a small business owner?
Collaborating with like-minded individuals is important. When I first met Joey, my creative partner who also does the photography for Finding Paola and Fanm Djanm, we both wanted to create and grow. He also has a thirst for creating something different. He has a passion for pushing the envelope when it comes to photographing black women. Without collaboration, I don’t think I would be where I am today. If I wanted to do everything myself, I would still be in my studio apartment. As an entrepreneur, you need to learn to let go and find the right people to create with.
Another important lesson for me was that competition is healthy. The more people who wear head wraps, the bigger the market. If you want to join the headwrap market, you’re welcome to! Before I thought of it as a threat, but now I don’t. People want an experience, and I give them that with Fanm Djanm.
What is it about New York City that inspires you?
New York City is the only place that has allowed me to shout my loudest. You can make anything happen here. I really believe that. I’ve had this voice inside of me and I’ve kept it quiet, and now I’m able to really express myself. I didn’t think it was possible.
What are three things everyone visiting NYC must do?
I love the Highline, so I always recommend that. Next, you must have a great meal.You have to have a really great cocktail as well. And finally, go see a play. I feel like New Yorkers don’t take advantage of Broadway enough. Bonus: In the summer, it’s good to dance under the stars. There are so many different places you can dance in the summer.