San Francisco Advantage

Heritage in a Handbag

Akiko Bates ’19 aims to diversify the fashion world one purse at a time

by Ashley Marie Lardizabal

For many USFers, Uber is a surefire way around town. For Akiko Bates '19, it was a foot in the door to co-found Mei Li — a startup company that's diversifying the fashion industry with purses and accessories that reflect Asian design and culture.

The history major told USF News about her journey from fashionista to founder.

What's the connection between Uber and Mei Li?
Coming back from a day trip to San Jose, I was being driven in an Uber by a man named James Ng who had an idea for a handbag company and had already secured some funding. I worked at the luxury handbag brand Kate Spade in New York for two years and knew the common complaints that customers have about their bags. And I also just really like handbags.

I thought, “Hey, I think I’m qualified to be part of your startup,” so I started pitching myself to James. By the end of the ride, I’d said what I needed to say and gave him my phone number. I definitely did not expect a callback, but somehow I’m here now.

How does Mei Li set itself apart?
Mei Li wants to bring Asian influence to the larger fashion community and we set ourselves apart from other brands with our authenticity. Our designer, Olivia, James, and I are all from Asian heritage and want to represent our people. We’re not random people trying to incorporate some elements of Asian design into our products. In fact, our brand’s name translates into “beautiful” in Chinese and each of our purses’ names is a play on Chinese words. For example, our small cross-body purse is named “Min,” which means quick in Chinese, because it’s designed for lightweight use. All our purses are available in a signature red color, which is a symbol of good fortune in Chinese culture. We really aspire to attach culture to our products while also bringing functional use.

How does Mei Li bring diversity to the fashion industry?
Fashion has almost always been Eurocentric and there hasn’t really ever been an authentic Asian label. Sure you can name Alexander Wang or Vera Wang, but they’re not brands that reflect the rich culture and elements of Asian design. Their products still reflect standards of European design.

Has being a student at USF while running a startup helped you in some way?
Yes. In Adjunct Professor Evan Elliot's Writing for Advertising class, I learned to convey a clear message, use rhetoric effectively, and even to create a good business card. I didn’t know how useful this would be as a freshman history major. Looking at it now, taking that class really helped me with creating sales pitches to catch the attention of investors, and helped our team’s effort to secure over $200,000 in funding for Mei Li.

What advice do you have for other budding entrepreneurs?
Take advantage of being in San Francisco. Whether it be networking with your Uber driver, working for a startup, or even introducing yourself to your spunky professors, take that extra five minutes to create an opportunity for yourself.

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