Today’s interview is with someone I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over the past few months – the lovely and accomplished Sonita. I admire Sonita greatly because she has been able to achieve success and happiness on her defined terms. She’s built a fantastic career, made and stuck by her own family choices (you’ll read more on that later), and dedicated her time to worthy causes. Along the way, Sonita has also gathered together an enviable closet and travel schedule – with amazing style to match. Enjoy meeting her!
Who are you? What do you do, and where do you live?
Hi, I’m Sonita. Professionally, I am an executive at a venture-backed green technology company in Silicon Valley. I am a passionate advocate for green technology and for advancing more women leaders in the still male-dominated area of technology in general, and green technology, in particular. I am a frequent speaker and contributor on clean energy, technology and women leadership topics and have appeared in and written articles for publications such as Forbes, Fortune, CNN, etc.
Outside of work, I’m active in several organizations. I am a professional mentor for the TechWomen program, a program spearheaded by Secretary Hillary Clinton. I’m also a contributor to the Clean Energy Empowerment & Education (C3E) program, and serve on the boards of several non-profit organizations focusing on clean energy, education, and women leadership. Additionally, I serve as the working liaison for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a group founded in 1978 by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard. Last but not least, I’m an active member of 85 Broads, a global network for high-achieving women which has expanded to over 30,000 members from 92 countries.
Personally, I am a fun-loving person who loves traveling, meeting new people, and exploring new restaurants. I live in the beautiful city of San Francisco.
You are clearly very accomplished! What would be some advice to fellow women who are just starting out in their careers?
Ideally, you should have a rough idea of a plan of where and what you want to be in the short term (2-3 years), medium-term (5-8 years), and long term (10+ years). But this is easier said than done as sometimes, life has another plan for you. Also, many young people are still exploring who they are, what they are good at, and what they want to become.
Life is a journey, but have a set of guiding principles to guide you through your journey.
My guiding principles are:
1) Work hard and deliver outstanding results. There are no short cuts in life. You have to work hard and deliver. Period.
2) Keep an open mind and be open to possibilities. See the glass half full. Take that tough assignment that no one else wants as you may actually learn something from it and grow stronger. You never know where and when opportunity will knock, so always keep an open mind and learn from every situation, no matter how uncomfortable or tough it may be.
3) Combine your passion (what you like) with what you’re good at and what the world needs (purpose). I think many people mistakenly only focus on the first (passion), but forget about the second and the last. I’ll explain in more detail later on.
4) Find good mentors AND sponsors, both men and women. Most people understand the concept of mentorship, but not so much of sponsorship. A mentor is someone you exchange and bounce ideas off of. A sponsor is someone, usually more experienced and quite powerful in the organization, who is willing to put his/her reputation on the line to advocate for you to help advance your career. A good mentor gives advice. A good sponsor advocates for you to earn the opportunity to get ahead.
In the political world, this is analogous to the more-established, famous Presidential candidate acting as a “sponsor” for his/her less-established, not-so-famous Vice Presidential candidate to advance. Read the article “The Sponsor Effect” by the Harvard Business Review, which explains how women often times do not know how to leverage the power of good sponsorships to get ahead, unlike most of their male counterparts. Studies have shown that leading companies that foster successful sponsorship programs are able to advance and retain their best female talent.
Another thing I’d advise is to become a mentor. I understand this may not feel natural to someone who’s just starting out in his/her career, but in the long run, it helps build your leadership skills tremendously.
5) Have confidence in yourself and ask for what you deserve. I cannot stress enough how important confidence is. This is the one area which I believe women sometimes shy away from. Men ask for what they deserve (even sometimes for what they don’t deserve), but women sometimes expect others to notice them, and don’t ask for what they deserve.
Now that I’m a bit more established in my career, I also find that being authentic helps me become a more effective leader. By being authentic, you gain the trust and respect of superiors, colleagues and team members, which enables you to set a vision that resonates with them. And once you set a vision that resonates, you can more easily marshal the resources necessary to achieve that vision and create a collective common goal that everyone can rally around, and inspire the team to achieve greatness. Good leaders produce more leaders, not more followers.
What’s a mistake you made in your career that you would advise others to avoid?
I’ve made many mistakes in my career, but the biggest one was probably thinking that following my passion alone would make me happy. I think sometimes people mistake their hobbies as passions for their careers. Of course some people are fortunate to be able to combine their passions and careers. Instead of blindly focusing on your “passion,” I encourage people to focus on finding a purpose where your passion and skills can be put to good use in helping solve a problem in this world.
People who are working hard to solve the biggest problems are often compensated in the biggest ways, not just in financial terms, but also in human satisfaction terms. Having a purpose shifts the focus from you to others. It shifts the conversation from what you like doing (having a passion or hobby) to how you can be a valuable contributor in helping society solves its problems (having a purpose). This paradigm shift in thinking is empowering as it shifts the frame of reference from ourselves to how we can help others. We become less self-absorbed and ironically, more likely to be genuinely happy. Don’t you sometimes find that you’re happiest when aren’t thinking too much about how to become happy?
True happiness comes from the intersection of doing what we love, what we’re good at, and what the world needs. People tend to focus on the first because it’s the easiest, but let’s combine it with the second, and most importantly, the last.
You wrote an article in Forbes (here) detailing your choice not to have children. How did you come to this decision and how has the experience been for you?
To be honest, I never really thought too much about having children. I personally do not think having children fits well with my life outlook. Don’t get me wrong, I like children and truly enjoy playing with and mentoring children. I actually believe having children must be one of the most emotionally rewarding experiences a human being can have. I just don’t believe, however, that it’s a good fit with my own life. Fortunately, I have a very supportive husband who is completely with me on this decision.
I think the judgment we’ve received has mainly come from people who don’t know us that well. I understand how some people with children cannot fathom why others can even think about not having children, given that it must have been one of the most important decisions they’ve made in their lives. I find it interesting though that most of the time, a child-free person will have to defend or explain their choice, but those who choose to have children seldom have to defend or explain their decision. Maybe that’s because having children is way more common in our society than not having children.
In the beginning, some family members would sometimes ask, “Why not?” but after a while, they understood and respected our decision. Surprisingly, after that Forbes article, I had people, both whom I knew and didn’t know, reach out to me with supportive messages. The messages ranged from “Thank you for writing this article. I’ve been feeling the same way for a long time,” to “Bravo for your decision”. I think at the end of the day, whether or not a person chooses to have children is such a personal decision. Everybody’s situations, desires, and aspirations are different and people should respect others’ decisions and choices.
You’re a long time Hermes collector. Can you describe how you started with the brand, and where your collection is now? How do you feel about the availability of goods, and the explosion of the brand over the past decade?
I’ve always been a fashion lover and started with Hermes when I was 12 years old, with Hermes scarves. Then at 14, I got my first Kelly bag from my mom. At 18, I started collecting Hermes on my own. The first bag I bought was a navy, Box 28cm rigid Kelly. At that time, I think Hermes only made gold hardware, no palladium hardware. A few years later, I sold that Kelly on eBay and actually became pretty good friends with the lady who bought it.
My collection is at my home in beautiful San Francisco, in my badly-in-need-to-be-organized closet. The majority of my Hermes collection consists of Birkins and Kellys and the occasional Collier de Chien, Jige, Garden Party, Herbag, watches, and scarves.
From the early to late 90s, I almost always purchased my stuff from the Hermes store, except for the occasional pieces from Cameron Silver at Decades in LA, and a few others. I also once bought a bag from the assistant of a famous Hollywood movie star! I got my 32cm black alligator Kelly that way. I flew to LA with a cashier’s check in hand to meet the lady at the airport and inspected the bag in person, paid for it, and flew back to San Francisco. That was quite an experience. That gator replaced my older 32cm crocodile Kelly, which I then sold.
Way before Birkins and Kellys became so popular, I worked with a lady named M as my sales associate at Hermes. M was great, but left Hermes in 2000. I have noticed that it’s become incredibly tough to get Birkins and Kellys from the store these days. Earlier this year, I went back to my local store, but didn’t recognize any of the associates. But one kind lady, R, recognized me from the old days and helped me. I’m still an avid Hermes fan and will purchase items that have high quality, which I appreciate. To me, if you show that you genuinely appreciate a brand – that you’ll be a loyal customer and purchase things you truly appreciate – the relationship will be developed organically.
I feel the quest to get a Birkin or a Kelly has become too crazy these days and am a bit miffed! But like I said, if you’re truly a loyal customer who appreciates quality, you’ll purchase what you love and your Hermes relationship will develop organically because it’s based on genuine interest.
I’m still amazed at how the brand has exploded over the past decade. Today, seems everyone wants a Birkin and/or a Kelly. How did that happen? Although I still appreciate the craftsmanship very much, I personally feel the whole Birkin and Kelly craze is just getting to be a bit too much. Lately I’ve been thinking of getting a Bolide as they are also so classic, but still somewhat under the radar.
What are some other items you collect and love? Can you share some of your favorite items in your wardrobe?
I love fashion and collect many other brands and items, but what I love and use has evolved over time.
For handbags – in the past few years, I’ve collected Bottega Veneta. I find their bags to be very comfortable, classy and easy for everyday use. I also like Gucci, Chloe and Prada. Although I don’t usually like logos emblazoned on bags, I find these brands very useful for my everyday life. Other bags I’ve found a lot of use for are the YSL Muse Two bag in tri-color burgundy, purple and tan, and my trusty tan Balenciaga motorcycle bag. I guess I like “larger” bags for everyday use and put comfort before style. In the past, I’ve also collected Chanel and Fendi, but don’t get to wear them that much anymore, because my lifestyle has changed and the sizes I bought in the past were not big enough for my everyday use today.
On the shoe front, I collect mainly Louboutins, Blahniks and Choos with other brands (Gucci, Prada, Miu Miu, etc) mixed in. I also collect watches and jewelry. My favorite watch is a gold Cartier Tank Francaise that I got when I was still in college.
I also collect diamond and pearl jewelry, but most of my more-significant diamond pieces are actually from my mom. My mom has a quite impressive diamond collection that would be too difficult for me to match on my own at this point. For everyday flats, I love Tieks. I have many favorite items in my wardrobe and usually go through a phase where I love an item and wear it a lot, and then move on to others.
The two perennial favorite items I really love are the 35cm pink/beige alligator Hermes Birkin I got in 2003 and a special order red couture top I wore to the 2010 Kentucky Derby. Both items are one-of-a-kind and though they may not be the most practical, are very special and beautiful nonetheless.
What are some of the items that you wear the most?
These days I wear Birkins, Kellys, Bottega Veneta bags, and Tieks flats the most as they’re the most comfortable and easy to use for my everyday life. I also wear a lot of tops from Thomas Pink, Anne Fontaine, Banana Republic, Theory, J.Crew and jeans from various brands. For work, I sometimes wear suits by Theory, Narciso Rodriguez, and Chanel.
I also find Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses very easy and comfortable to wear. They are my go-to dresses for semi-formal events.
I go through phases on jackets and coats, too. My everyday staples are from Burberry and Valentino. I used to wear a black Yohji Yamamoto coat a lot, but don’t find it too practical these days as the design is a bit too severe.
On the jewelry front, I wear many of my simple diamond studs, solitaire rings, pearl earrings and pearl necklaces.
What is a piece of advice about shopping/style/budgeting that you’ve learned over the years? What pieces have you learned to invest in vs. not?
1) Buy only what you can afford. If you have to buy on credit, that means you cannot afford it. Buy high-quality items that are classic and will stand the test of time. Set a budget and stick to it (though this is hard for me too, sometimes).
2) Invest in high-quality, classic items. I’ve learned that at the end of the day, the classic items are the ones that stay with me. Hermes, Chanel, Bottega Veneta, Louboutins, Blahniks, and Choos. Cartier and Rolex. High quality diamond and pearl jewelry. How many times have you bought that oh-so-trendy, can’t miss item, only to find it sitting in your closet collecting dust a few years later? Even if you no longer want them and want to sell them, the trendy items won’t retain their values.
3) Buy something you will use, instead of pieces-of-art you think you’ll use, but most likely never will. I once bought this really over-the-top, floor-length Yohji Yamamoto coat. It was such a spectacular piece and I thought I’d be able to wear it often. But, in the reality, I wore it only once and even then, didn’t feel too comfortable in it. It’s been sitting in my closet in a hard-to-reach section ever since. It’s the same sad story with numerous extravagant evening gowns I’ve purchased over the years. Some of them are very beautiful and represent a piece-of-art, but I hardly ever wear any of them.
4) Do not buy things just because they’re on sale. Especially if deep down you know you don’t actually like them. In the past, I’ve bought things just because they’re on sale. Often times, they end up sitting in my closet with their price tags still on. You always know deep down whether you really like an item or not. If you find that your heart is not really in it, but that small voice in the back of your head says, “Well, you should buy it. It’s on sale after all,” DO NOT buy it. That means you don’t really want it.
5) Be confident in yourself and buy what looks good on you and feels comfortable, regardless of brand names. How many times have you found yourself buying a certain bag or shoes just because it’s a famous brand, even though it doesn’t look good on you or feels comfortable? As you develop more confidence in yourself and your style, you will be able to buy something because you like it, because it looks good on you, and because it feels comfortable.
In your daily life, where do you splurge and where do you save?
Personally, I splurge mainly on fashion.
My husband and I splurge on restaurants and travel. We love exploring new places and enjoy trying out good hotels and restaurants. But we balance it out by being smart about our travel arrangements. For instance, instead of flying first class on expensive airlines during high season, we upgrade from business class during non-peak seasons. Once in a blue moon, we’ll also travel via private jet on routes that aren’t too popular during non-peak seasons, or hitch a ride on a friend’s jet. We apply the same principles on booking good hotels or private villas during non-peak seasons.
Although we love eating out, we’re not splurgers on grocery items. We buy most of our staples from regular supermarkets and Costco, not from organic or specialty food stores.
What are some of your other passions and hobbies?
I love writing. It allows me to relax, clear my mind, and express my thoughts. These days I write mostly for professional reasons, but I’m hoping that one day I can write more fun stuff, maybe a fashion, food or travel blog. Wouldn’t that be fun?
I also love meeting new people and truly enjoy getting to know others and what makes them tick. Instead of the usual networking, I enjoy building long-lasting, genuine relationships. So while I may not know as many people as a networking guru may, the people I know, I know very well. There is a certain mutual trust and respect. Someone once told me that “relationship-building” is like a natural muscle I have developed (if there’s even such a thing) without much effort, as I genuinely enjoy meeting and getting to know people on a personal basis.
And finally – please share something surprising about yourself!
Okay, this may not be what you’re looking for, but domestically, I’m very disorganized. I don’t cook, don’t clean, don’t do laundry. The last time I “cooked” was probably around 1996-1997. I remember a long time ago in college, I wanted to impress a friend and offered to cook for a group of friends at someone’s apartment. Minutes later, not only did I cause the fire alarm to go off (and the fire trucks to come), but my “cooking” also inadvertently caused a minor burn to the host when he was trying to put out the fire (luckily, everything ended well). I think many people assume that I take care of domestic things for some reasons. The good news is, I am very fortunate to have a very organized dear husband who keeps things in ship shape.
I also love to sleep. Sometimes I may not get as much sleep as I want. But when I can, I love to sleep for 8, 9, 10+ hours. Sleeping makes me so much happier and more productive!
And lastly, I may be the only person who has taken a Birkin river-rafting in Bali! I’d brought my 35cm black Togo Birkin with me on the trip because I thought the river rafting company would have a locker where I could store the bag. Alas, they didn’t! So, they folded the poor Birkin in half, flattened it, put it into an air-vacuum plastic bag, and strapped it into the raft. Fortunately, the Birkin survived the trip. Unfortunately, it lost its shape and acquired a “bowing” shape to it.
I brought it to Hermes for a treatment and they did all they could, but the “bowing” shape stayed put. I’d recently asked the “Doc” for advice to restore its shape and may do the treatment the Doc recommended. Lesson learned, do not take your Birkin river rafting, ladies!
I adore the river rafting story – it’s wonderful that Sonita uses her luxury items everywhere, and has a great sense of humor. I’ve read through Sonita’s advice (on career, style and life) several times and each time I find something new that I identify with. For me personally, Sonita’s words have been fascinating and very much educational. Thank you very much to Sonita for taking the time to share some of her style, wardrobe, and learnings with us all today!