Building a life around color and joy with Paola Mathé

by Kristine Hamlett

posted on 03-23-2021

Paola Mathé holds many titles - entrepreneur, creative director, photographer, blogger, business owner, wife, and mother. She’s been described by those closest to her as brave, hard-working, extra and insightful. Mathé describes herself as simply, strong. Her mission is simple – to live life unapologetically and to encourage everyone else to do the same.

Citing joy as an act of resistance, and patience and passion as her driving forces, Mathe launched Fanm Djanm in 2014, a collection of headwraps, meaning “strong woman” in Haitian Kreyol. Over the past 6 years, she’s seen her business evolve and grow – and then change as the pandemic hit everyone hard.

We sat down to talk to Mathé about her work life, her home life, and the tools she uses to manage it all.

The pandemic disrupted everything for everyone. How has your routine changed over the last year?

I tried to kind of maintain a type of normalcy in my household, especially having now a young child and an infant. We get up, make the bed, and open the curtains to let the sunlight in. That was and continues to be very important to me - it’s my favorite thing. At the onset of the pandemic, my office was still in New York and I’d been planning to move it to Austin, but it wasn’t a priority because of my travel schedule.

When the pandemic happened, I also became pregnant with my son. Fortunately for Fanm Djanm, sales were booming, and people wanted head wraps. Our motto is to create in small batches, so it became difficult to fulfill orders and operate as normal in a safe way for everyone as a very small, independently owned business. I shut everything down, moved it from New York to Austin, and went from traveling a lot and working from coworking spaces to working entirely from my home office and an office space and showroom in Austin, just a few minutes from my home.

Mathé and daughter Zuli.

Mathé at her home office.

With so much of your business changing to digital and contact-less, what tools have become critical for you?

I use Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Sign – it’s just very easy to get things done. I can just open my phone or my computer and sign a document or send it out for a signature. You may think it’s just saving a few seconds or minutes, but those seconds and minutes really add up – especially as a working mother of two! I rely heavily on signing contracts or sending and receiving documents, and having those tools readily available to just tap and swipe just makes things so much easier for me.

It used to be that no matter where I was, at home, in the airport, on the airplane, in a taxi, I could easily read it, fill it and sign it. Now, with the current way of doing business, I can do the same from the safety of my home or office and not need to be in-person or around other people. It’s just so helpful.

How do you balance work and home life?

Since my son was born in January 2021, I’ve made an effort to slow things down because I realized that I made the choice to be a mother and a wife first, and my family should be prioritized. I’m fortunate that I can work from home and be with my family while trusting my staff to make decisions at the office. I’m incredibly hands on, so having a team that I can trust has been critical. It’s been a work in progress evolving with the forced changes of the past year, but I feel really good about the space that I’m in and that my business is in right now.

How did you start Fanm Djanm?

At the time I started the business, I was wearing head wraps, but they were not very common for younger women to wear. Had they been around for centuries? Absolutely. But were you seeing younger women wearing head wraps, walking into their offices or events? Not really. It was always a statement when I did it. But people started becoming more curious about the wraps, and I started to think, ‘Why couldn’t this happen? Why couldn’t this exist? Why couldn’t women who look like me walk into these spaces confidently without it having to be about making a statement?’ Once I was able to answer these questions, I decided to go ahead and take the plunge.

It felt like a gap I could actually fill. I asked myself what my intentions were – why should I do this? Fanm Djanm means strong woman in Haitian Kreyol. It celebrates all of these hardworking women who are often not celebrated. These women are the backbone of the families. They literally make the local
economy - especially from my country.

What advice would you give to other mothers looking to become entrepreneurs?

I started with a few hundred dollars and no investments. I didn’t have much, but I was so passionate about it, and when you have passion and determination, there’s nothing that can stop you. Will you break down and cry? Absolutely, because it’s not easy. You need the passion to drive you, because like motherhood, entrepreneurship can be a hot mess. You will cry and question yourself all the time, asking whether you’re good enough. You have to be patient with yourself and with your project. It’s just like growing a garden, it doesn’t happen overnight.

Patience and passion are two very important things that anyone should have when they’re starting a new project, but especially moms, because as a mom, you’re constantly trying to figure out how to balance everything, which is nearly impossible.

Mom guilt will follow you no matter what - there’s always something you think you could be doing better, so we do the best we can, and we stay present and prioritize our families as best we can.

Fanm Djanm headwraps.

Mathé at Fanm Djanm’s office.

2020 was difficult for everyone and celebrating moments of joy was necessary - what for you was a moment of joy?

Next door to our office, there’s this leather shop and we share this communal kitchen area. Every now and then, someone would come in and comment on how much we laugh. We are all Caribbean and African, and when we laugh, you can hear us! I feel like that’s something I’ve always wanted to cultivate in my work and my workspace. I want to make sure that we’re happy, that we can really, truly be ourselves. I dance at work. I dance around with my daughter at home. I feel like I really have built this life around color and joy. I have this banner on my wall that reads, ‘joy is an act of resistance’. And it’s something I look at all the time. The world is just so tough, and life can be so overwhelming that we need to have some fun.

What’s your coffee or tea order?

It’s either boring or just classic, but I drink my coffee black. We grind our coffee beans at home every morning and my husband has become quite a coffee connoisseur. We always have fresh beans around - we get Singing Rooster coffee beans from Haiti. My husband is really into that slow drip coffeehouse kind of coffee, and he’s become a scientist in the kitchen. I’m very lucky… with the exception that I have to clean up all the messes – coffee, waffles made with our daughter, all of it. But I mean, what is life without good food and spending time doing what you love anyway?

How can women support other women?

Having a community is very important as a business owner, as a woman, and as a Black woman in general, because without a community, it’s hard to succeed.

We support each other on social media by posting about other women owned businesses, tagging each other, engaging with one another, collaborating, and doing group giveaways to support each other digitally.

I remember during the first few months of the pandemic, I felt so helpless because I was one of the lucky ones who still had work. New York was in lockdown, and everyone was scared and so many people were hungry, and it was scary. I reached out to a couple of Black-owned restaurants and we donated a percentage of ourselves to providing meals to families and some of the low-income communities in New York.

Having been able to feed families in need while supporting and promoting local New York restaurants meant so much to me. That’s what my life work is. It’s not about bringing in all this money. It’s about creating things and doing things that I genuinely love while helping others and fostering community.

Topics: Celebrating Women, Future of Work, Customer Stories, Productivity, Document leadership,

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