Persistence, charity and faith: A Mountain View junior builds her own clothing company

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN AND ALLISON HUANG, PHOTO COURTESY JESSICA GAO

Two years ago, Jessica Gao was a budding entrepreneur selling stickers — stickers of Asian slippers.

Now, the Mountain View High School junior runs her own clothing brand, Upward Design, donating 100 percent of her profits to Second Harvest Food Bank.

Jessica’s previous exploits into the world of entrepreneurship have included — in addition to the aforementioned Asian slipper sticker company — attendance at various summer programs and panels for teens interested in business.

But for Jessica, Upward Design has been by far her most ambitious project.

“I wanted to try something where I was actually taking action and doing things that businesses do versus attending camps where you just learn about business,” she said.

And learn about business she has. Since July, she, along with two team members, have taken on both the front and back end of the business’s operations: everything from website design to arranging manufacturing.

“It’s so much more than just designing,” she said. “Like do you know how many clicks it takes to put something into a Wix editor? Even writing product descriptions: You don’t realize how long these things take until you do them yourself.”

The brand’s current product line features a sweatshirt and tee, part of its “Connection Collection.”

When asked about the impetus behind the 100 percent donations — as opposed to a lower portion like 10 or 20 percent — Jessica said that a large part of that had to do with the inequities exposed by the pandemic.

“It was shocking reading that one in four people in Silicon Valley are at risk of food insecurity,” Jessica said. “Especially considering my own position of being fortunate enough to not have to worry about how much food I have, I wanted whatever I created to have an impact on other people.”

More than that, her decision was grounded not only in her desire to positively impact other peoples’ lives, but also in her faith.

“I don’t want to simplify Christianity down to ‘doing good’ — that’s not what I want to say,” she explained. “But a big part of that is ‘how are we going to love the people around us?’ And for me [giving back] was one way that I wanted to be able to show love to other people.”

She did note that while her motivations are genuinely grounded in wanting to do good for others, it can be hard to stay confident and persevere.

Sales have been slow, or at least not where she wants them to be, and the work can get overwhelming, especially with the six to eight hours a week she puts into the brand — that’s on top of an already rigorous course load at school and a handful of extra-curricular activities. 

But for Jessica, it’s a matter of reminding herself of her motivations that keeps her going through all that.

“You have to talk to yourself and remind yourself about what is constant and true,” she said. “For me, my faith plays a big part in that. It’s also like what is my success? It’s not the monetary gain in this case or saying ‘I accomplished this.’ When I started out I knew I just wanted to learn and make as much of an impact as I could.”

The “space frog t-shirt” from Upward’s collection. The product description reads, “Distance aint got nothin on space frog. Space frog reminds you to call up and check in on your friends and fam to stay connected. This soft and comfy t-shirt works with any style.” (courtesy Jessica Gao)

And while so far she’s been successful in pushing through the painstaking work of web design, creating graphics, designing clothing, writing captions, growing social media pages and communicating with her supplier, Jessica said that she’s grateful for all the support she’s gotten from friends and family.

Another place she’s found support in — albeit from a more unlikely source than friends and family — is Kiujoy Jay Kokko, the founder of Achoo International, an Asian American clothing brand. After hearing him speak at a Rice Design panel, which she attended through her sister, a sophomore at Rice, she reached out to him seeking advice.

“I just told him about who I was and what my brand was, and he is probably one of the most genuine and kind people I’ve ever met,” Jessica said.

And through all the support she’s had, she’s gained not just practical or emotional support, but also a degree of personal growth.

“When I started this brand, it really helped me see how great of a support system my family and friends were,” she said. “Now, I’m like okay, when my friends want to do something, I know I should be there for them in the same way they were there for me. Just a lot of self growth.”

As for next steps, Jessica plans to increase the brand’s audience on social media as her company, and she, continues to grow and evolve.

While she wasn’t able to share specifics regarding new products and developments, it’s safe to say that any future actions will be rooted in her core values.

“You don’t have to donate anything to make an impact if people enjoy what you make and you’re changing people’s lives through that,” she said. “But personally, just knowing what other people are going through at this time, I knew I had to make a change somehow — even if it was little, even if we could only give a few dollars back, we’re at least able to do something.”

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