Joanna Dai is the founder and CEO of innovative womenswear brand, Dai.
Dai delivers comfort-empowered performance for the modern woman, designing at the intersection of eco-certified technical fabrics, minimal aesthetics, timeless silhouettes, and purposeful versatility. The brand is committed to empowering women and making positive environmental and social impact. Since launch in 2017, Dai has been on a tremendous growth trajectory and is a pioneer in sustainable materials innovation and tech-enabled fit and e-commerce experience. Joanna is a US expat based in London and was previously an investment banker for 8 years at J.P. Morgan in New York and London. She graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and hails from Southern California which could explain her obsession with comfort and ease.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I’m the founder and CEO of innovative womenswear brand, Dai. The world is better when women succeed, and our mission is to deliver comfort-empowered performance with an unwavering commitment to sustainability. After spending eight years in investment banking at J.P. Morgan in London and NYC, I loved looking smart and tailored but worked long days with frequent travel and experienced first-hand the importance of how we look and feel to empower our confidence especially as women in male-dominated fields. My a-ha moment was in Stockholm on the tarmac of a return flight on a 16-hour work day. The waistband was digging in, I was uncomfortable, and I wished I were in my yoga kit. I thought to myself, “could workwear feel like yoga and still look like a powersuit?” I left finance, studied design and patternmaking at London College of Fashion, interned for Emilia Wickstead, and launched Dai in 2017.
Prior to banking, I earned my B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Cornell University. I grew up in Orange County, CA, which might explain my obsession with comfort and ease, and I’m a first generation immigrant in the US and was born in Shanghai, China.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
No, should I? In high school, I was quite creative but also good at maths, and I aspired to be a CEO / business leader one day. When I applied to uni, I picked a serious major that would lead to a highly skilled professional field as my parents and career counsellors thought best, hence the engineering followed by finance. I quickly learned after a summer internship at Hewlett Packard in San Diego, CA that the laid-back culture and beach lifestyle were not for me. For the next summer, I was excited to learn about Wall Street and face-paced careers on the trading floors of investment banks. I thought it would perfectly combine my analytical skills with my aspirations to become a businesswoman. That led me to start my banking career in the summer of 2008, right into the financial crash. I survived the crisis and believed that was the path until I retired, to be a lifer. Eight years in, I realised I abandoned by creativity for far too long, and I think that was why I pivoted not just a little but so extremely, from finance to fashion. Beyond the base financial security that allows you to afford living costs, I think it’s more important to know your purpose and know that every day you’re fulfilling that purpose, than to plan your career.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
I read somewhere that it’s like you’re a surfer, and it’s not about having one big wave but the challenges keep coming at you wave after wave. I think the way we navigated through the impact of Covid has been a significant and never-ending challenge. We sell women’s workwear for empowering women going to the office or traveling or leaving the home, so the immediate impact last March was significant. We’ve immediately focused on community, donated £18,000 of our bestselling trousers to the NHS and £4,000 in cash, and launched Masks for Heroes the day after face coverings were made mandatory resulting in one of our biggest online sales days ever. We then took the time to really empathise with our customers, the fact that women were effectively doing the “double shift” of WFH and taking care of kids and family, and soon launched the Every Collection to empower women with even greater versatility and performance for the everyday and everywhere.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Besides successfully navigating and growing through the pandemic, achieving our Certified B Corporation® score of 97.4 is a huge achievement. On the global apparel industry scale, our score is second to Patagonia and ahead of some of my much-revered brands including Toms, Allbirds and Veja. We’re committed to using our business as a powerful force for good, to creating a positive impact for our planet and our people, and our journey is just beginning.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
The incredibly rare circumstances that resulted in family’s immigration to the US, the journey my parents took to raise me and give me a better future, the building of our new lives with close to nothing. I think their example instilled such a strong degree of perseverance in me ever since I was a child. I have too much to be grateful for, and I have to keep going because they did.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I think the advice and sounding board of those who journeyed before you are invaluable. The key part is finding the right mentors for you, where there’s good alignment on experience and they have the time and energy to regularly catch up with you. I also think there are different mentors to serve different aspects, i.e. a serial entrepreneur who understands the rollercoaster journey, a senior woman in fashion, and so on. For me, I consider myself a sponsor, which is a different to a mentor, for several members on my direct team. Different to mentorship, I have a direct vested interest in their career development and success, I try to help them navigate their passion professionally so they can continue to feel fulfilled, and I coach them and offer them resources to take their career further.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
In so many industries, the percentage of women needs to increase significantly especially at the senior levels where attrition rates are the worst. With more than more than only 1-2 at the table, I think there would be a change in corporate culture which would have so many knock-on effects trickling through all levels of the organisation including changes in mindsets, social behaviours, stereotypes, and moving away from groupthink. This would create a more inclusive environment where women’s collective voices can be more supported and heard without feeling as uncomfortable, risky or abandoning other women’s agendas in order to fit in with the men.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
You’re allowed to pursue what you’re passionate about, not just what you think will make the most money. You’ll feel more fulfilled doing what you love. It will take some time but search for your purpose, your why, and work towards it day by day. You can look back on the years and see how far you’ve come.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
In building a fashion brand that’s committed to making a better environmental impact on the planet, I’ve learned about the magnitude of our global climate crisis. Taking actions through our brand platform, while it’s important, feels small in comparison to the global scale and there is so much more work to be done. I’ve defined my personal purpose as both empowering women and positively impacting environmental change, so as and when, I’d like to think my next big challenge would be to take everything I’ve learned about building and scaling through Dai and tackle global climate change in a much more significant way, to be one of the people impacting change in order to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement by 2050.
WeAreTheCity has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Cherie Blair, Paula Radcliffe MBE, Caprice Bourret, Anna Williamson and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here.