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SAN FRANCISCO, United States — After developing a “curiosity around human behaviour” at a young age, Tracy Sun initially intended to become a doctor and began her career in neuroscience, which she studied at Columbia University in New York. Instead, this fascination for human behaviour eventually drew her towards fashion — leading Sun to switch industries via an internship at streetwear brand Brooklyn Industries.
In just three years, Sun rose to the role of vice president of merchandising at the New York-based company, leading the fashion design team despite her unconventional background. From Brooklyn Industries, after obtaining an MBA from Dartmouth University, Sun moved to Silicon Valley — transitioning into the world of technology — where she co-founded Poshmark, one of the largest peer-to-peer fashion resale platforms.
In its 9-year history, Poshmark has built a community of over 40 million users, raised nearly $160 million in funding and last year, hit a milestone of paying out over $1 billion to its platform’s sellers. In 2018, its revenue was estimated to hit $140 million.
Today, Sun holds the position of senior vice president of new markets at Poshmark, responsible for innovating the company’s digital reach and expanding the marketplace into new areas. In 2013, Refinery29 named her one of the "Women Making Waves in Tech.” Here, she shares her career advice.
What is it that attracted you to working in fashion?
I always thought I was going to be a doctor when I was growing up and the beginning of my career was in neuroscience. I was curious about why people do the things they do; what draws people to certain behaviours, why people react a certain way. That is, in essence, why I’m so interested in fashion.
Everybody in the world touches the fashion industry: you wake up in the morning and you put something on which represents your mood, something about your culture or the weather, and I love that story telling. Poshmark is a fashion and technology company, but the core of what we do is connecting human beings.
How did you transition from a science background to the fashion industry?
It’s hard to switch industries and I’ve done in a few times now. Because it was early on in my career, switching into fashion was very challenging. But I think the transition was more successful because I didn’t follow a conventional path to get into fashion and I was not a conventional candidate.
I thought about what company was right for me and I took a very targeted approach. I found Brooklyn Industries and I loved what they were doing — it was a husband and wife team who are artists, [at the time] recycling billboards and making them into messenger bags.
If there were opportunities on the table or projects that someone needed to lead, I volunteered, regardless of what it was.
I pitched myself not necessarily as a fashion person but as a business person. I admitted that I didn’t know everything there is to know about fashion, but that I was a thoughtful, creative, smart individual and they could use a business person on their team. I listened to what the brand needed and positioned myself to fill that.
What was the biggest lesson you learnt at the beginning of your career?
When you’re in a situation when you don’t know what’s going on, it feels like you’re the only person in the room who doesn’t get it. But I gradually learnt that that time of being the least knowledgeable person in the room changes quickly, and with that comes confidence. If you keep learning, you can climb out of that situation quickly.
When I was at Brooklyn Industries, I didn’t really understand how a fashion company worked. I didn’t understand the vocabulary. But once I had my foot in the door, I asked questions and used whatever I had. I was then able to build confidence in myself and within my employers — and they eventually had me overseeing the fashion design team despite having no experience in fashion design.
This also happened when I moved from New York to Silicon Valley. I didn’t understand all the vocabulary of technology or how you can use your environment in Silicon Valley to be successful. It’s nerve wracking but just keep at it. We are all confronted with times where you don’t feel like the smartest person in the room, but if you’re not experiencing that, you’re probably not putting yourself in positions to grow.
How did you acquire such responsibility, so quickly, without prior experience?
Part of it was not being precious about where my next move was going to be. When I first joined Brooklyn Industries, I didn’t want to be a merchant — that was not my goal. If you had asked me back then, “Hey are you interested in leading the fashion design team?” I probably would have said no.
But I was excited to be a part of building an amazing team so, if there were opportunities on the table or projects that someone needed to lead, I volunteered, regardless of what it was. I started amassing all this responsibility by just raising my hand and saying, “I could do that. I’ll give it a go.”
What challenges did you encounter when you moved into fashion-tech?
As soon as I entered Silicon Valley, everything was new: I was in a new city; a new culture; there was new vocabulary; and I didn’t have a strong professional network that could help me. But you’re the same person — you have just put yourself in a new, challenging situation. It can be scary to be vulnerable like that, but I knew how to start again as I had done it before, and I knew that the fastest way to transition is to build a great group of people who can help you.
When I met my co-founder Manish Chandra, who’s now the chief executive of Poshmark, we spent 6 months having coffee or dinner, talking about business and start-up ideas, but also talking about our values in life. Manish then taught me about software development, using technology to build major scalable experiences, and I taught him a lot about fashion, brands, how to connect with consumers.
How have you up-skilled and evolved your personal brand in the workplace?
There’s lots of different ways that you can approach your personal brand. Mine is approaching it inside out, rather than outside in. What I mean by that is, a lot of people try to be part of particular projects or jobs in order to be known as this kind of person from the outside. I’m the opposite.
Your resumé isn’t the full story — don’t rely on it. Make sure that you take the time to really present yourself to be given a chance.
Going from inside out, I look for what feels right for me and what matches my values — and then I try to do more things that affect that. I love motivating people and understanding human connection. At Poshmark, we’re building a platform that empowers people to become entrepreneurs. It’s a place to help you be successful. That’s inside out.
What core skills do you believe are necessary for success in the fashion and technology industry?
Your resumé isn’t the full story — don’t rely on it. Make sure that you take the time to really present yourself to be given a chance, in a way that makes sense to your hiring manager or recruiter. I see a lot of candidates who I believe are super smart, but they don’t take the time to share with me why they would be a good candidate for a role. You have to show your passion and your interests — the things you do on the weekends that might appeal to your hiring manager.
For example, if you were transitioning to Poshmark, you should work out, “Am I trying to break into a fashion company? Or a technology company?” Really understand a company that you’re trying to get into. If it’s a fashion company, take the time to learn the language of fashion; if it’s a technology company, I don’t care what function you’re in — you need to be generally equipped with the vocabulary of a technology company. If you don’t match that, then you’re not going to be a good candidate for the role.
What do you believe is essential to being successful in the fashion industry?
What any person needs to be successful in the fashion industry, or any industry, is to take the time to believe in yourself. I have never heard of anyone whose career went exactly like they thought it would go. There are turns that happen in life and it’s two steps forward, one step back all the time.
Success is not the next step — success often happens over the course of a few years. There will be set backs and there will be change and there will be things that you didn’t anticipate that will happen to you. I think the most important thing for any individual to groom and grow is to believe in yourself and champion yourself, because nobody else will do that for you.