06 - Why is inclusion crucial for the sustainability of businesses? ft. Grace Jun

December 24, 2019

Grace Jun is a thought leader and community builder for diversity and inclusion. She is an Assistant Professor of Fashion at Parsons School of Design and CEO at Open Style Lab (OSL), an award-winning non-profit dedicated to making style accessible to people of all abilities.   As a designer, professor, and social entrepreneur, she focuses on building educational programs, investigating applied technology for wearable integration, and practices research focused on inclusive design.   With OSL board leadership, her work has received nation-wide attention and has been featured on the New York Times, Fast Company, Forbes, Vogue, and recently was awarded the 2019 Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Emerging Designer Award. She is a proud alumnus from the Rhode Island School of Design and MFA recipient in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design.

Pinar Guvenc  00:00

Hello everyone and welcome to the sixth episode of What's Wrong With: The Podcast. My name is Pinar Guvenc and I'm the managing partner of Eray Carbajo, and award winning Architecture and Design Studio based in New York and Istanbul with a mission of creating concepts that address urban, social and environmental problems. Today we have the privilege of talking to Grace Jun. Grace is a thought leader and community builder for diversity and inclusion. She's an assistant professor of fashion at Parsons School of Design and CEO at Open Style Lab, an award winning nonprofit dedicated to making style available to people of all abilities. As a designer, professor and social entrepreneur, she focuses on building educational programs investigating Applied Technology for wearable integration and practices research focused on inclusive design With OSL board leadership, her work has received nationwide attention and has been featured on the New York Times Fast Company, Forbes, Vogue, and recently was awarded the 2019 Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Emerging Designer award. She's a proud alumni from the Rhode Island School of Design and MFA recipient in design and technology from Parsons School of Design. Welcome, Grace. 

Grace Jun  01:15

Thank you. Hi. 

Pinar Guvenc  01:17

So, for the audience, can you please tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Grace Jun  01:22

Yeah. So I teach primarily a lot of undergraduate and graduate students and practice my research on designing with disability at Parsons. Probably a larger scale, a lot of my practice extends through Open Style Lab, which I think some people are familiar that we're this year's Cooper Hewitt Design Award winner. So we kind of look at how to expand that through education, workshop practices, and different forms of R&D on how to make style accessible for people of all abilities. And I know that's quite general for those who are not in the design field, like what does it mean to make style accessible? And that's actually the very point that we're trying to make on educating the public on why style is such a great opportunity, yet still a barrier for many to express themselves, if they're going through a disability, don't find the right types of products or tools or assistive devices that actually help elevate their self expression, through function and style. So this this form of raising awareness is quite new, I think, in the disability community and more so new, probably in other communities that are not familiar like fashion. Like you never see, I think a lot of diverse abilities or body types that are in the fashion industry. Up until recently, maybe you've seen kind of plus size, or other types of color and cultural representations, but you don't see too much about disability representation, but in a way that I think is celebratory. So that's kind of where we are. And that's what I do. I think to make it really simple, I feel like I am half a therapist and someone who's still trying to figure out how to run a business on her own with a great team of people, but not really sure where this kind of new business venture will go. And I think that's part of the most exciting part and the most challenging thing for me currently. 

Pinar Guvenc  03:34

So what led you here?

Grace Jun  03:36

I think what brought me here and what continues to bring me to this type of work is, is a little bit kind of tying - on making the spiritual and manifesting that in a physical way. So the way we talk about death and aging and disability as a part of that process, and through my lens of design, I feel that we're at an age or at least for me, means that I'm at a point where those kind of taboo subjects are something that's really fascinating to me. So I think that is really why I continue to explore this topic, but in a way that is exciting, creative and innovative. Not something where I think there's still a social stigma surrounding disability or there's not enough dialogue surrounding about, you know, how we die. How we age. And that's actually the biggest question that leads me to drive what I'm teaching at Parsons, and building at Open Style Lab is to really embrace a lifestyle that looks at these questions, but in a way that is exciting. And that's kind of something that's personal to me where, you know, I've had my own experiences, Pinar, you know, but regardless of that, I think it's just this innate curiosity about looking at taboo subjects and not being afraid to question it. So that's kind of what keeps me going.

Pinar Guvenc  05:02

And I think you know, you've been an educator too. Probably on a day to day, you're very much more aware that this is not an active conversation now. What are the future designers going to produce? Right? And how can their mindset already be open to these kinds of conversations? And, you know, it's so crucial to have educators like you because of that, too. And I would, I'm always curious about like, This comes as such a human rights idea, right? Like, technically, it is not a very complicated thing to think about access for a person's like, own style. But yet, like, why do you think the industry especially the fashion industry came to a position where we're still at 2019? And this is a very lively conversation.

Grace Jun  05:53

Yeah, I think there - so I'll try to break your question down into two ways. One, I guess, first and foremost, the education part that I think, you know, as I was growing up, I was like really what is worth learning? Today, I think in academia, especially in design and the arts it becomes, it becomes more of a critical need to really examine how creativity can be applied, especially in design. And so for for my philosophy, and I guess, practice in education, I really want to look at other things that are beyond just theory, but really be able to like manifest our thoughts, right, our intentions, especially when we want to talk about working with marginalized communities, social impact, creating change for the world. We see a lot about sustainability and you know, equal rights, but really, how are how are those experiences chewable or digestible for students and for those who are learning and to really see it as like life-long learning, because we always keep trying to learn more about ourselves and other topics as we grow in the creative field and I don't think it should stop at a four year undergraduate college. Right? So that's, that's where I see education and my lens and where that I think hits the fashion industry is that in, in traditional fashion curriculum, I don't think we see something like this where it challenges systems of a consumer, like the consumer as someone who is a person with a disability, for example, or how do we broaden that perspective of what is a fashion system? Like why aren't we including things as we only see one type of body because you know, as we age, our body is gonna be different. So the industry in fashion still sees a consumer that's in their 20s right? Or they see a very like old generic consumer like we've seen in some websites made for clothing, like they have clothing made for only elderly and it really just screams "elderly" and the elderly do not want to wear these clothes. So it's it's a very like interesting stereotype about what people want and how they desire to be, you know, perceived. And so I think that essentially answers a lot about the lack of transparency and the education as well as the industry practice to bridge in who is the new consumer of the future. How do we look at a lifelong consumer journey, instead of just one moment in their life? And it's not even just about let's do good, but at this point, that should be a business model. So whenever I try to explain to people what Open Style Lab does, the best way to explain it is really, we look at a system of things right? We look at the labor, like who and what are we making for and with? So can the labor process be people with disabilities to gain better employment, right? To make accessible clothes. Or to be able to hack and produce the new future fashion designs right? Or can it be another type of systemic change where innovation is driven by accessibility given through the lens of aging and disability? So can we look at maybe educational practices and consumer lens practices that accompany diverse ranges? Because then the reality is we're all gonna get there, but it's kind of like we're still fixated on a particular consumer group. And if, for example, that generates enough revenue because they have the willingness to spend, or they have, you know, the market share, it will always last long and slowly we're starting to see a shift of people who are aging and living longer. So I'm very curious about what that market is going to look like. And I feel the industry in fashion is being forced to change in that way to adapt just like every other industry has to.

Pinar Guvenc  09:57

So do you think this push for The industry to be more transparent can like I don't know, what would be the time span on that, but impact all brands to sort of, well, that will adapt to, you know, accessibility standards, I guess, but also sustainability, right. So these are two I guess topics where the industry still is a very much of a black box. Some brands do have very much of a marketing pitch to tell the world whether they're very sustainable or they're accessible, but it's a little bit of a question mark if they really are. But do you think as we educate the end user, all brands will have to get there eventually?

Grace Jun  10:42

Yeah, I mean, I think that's part of what we're trying to do at Open Style Lab, right. We bring in different expertise, engineering design, occupational therapy; three expertises that normally don't sit in a room, with people with disabilities. So I think not problem solve for the future challenges of the industry, but be acquiring skills to look at things in a more diverse and inclusive lens. So no matter what they go into, because you know, today, it's not like you, you start off with one career track. And that's the only career track you go into. There are so many hybrid things that are happening as you've seen, whether it's wearable technology, so there's fashion and tech coming together. Or there's architects who turned into fashion designers, or vice versa, right? Like the scope of our profession is changing, and therefore our skills and what we need are continually evolving. And so I think in the end, it's really about how do we acquire thoughtful insights and skills, the soft skills about identifying inclusion and accessibility by working with actual people. So whatever job that they take, and whatever industry that they're in, they're able to apply that is kind of the the, I think, ultimate goal for most educators, and I think especially for myself, is to not problem solve for one thing, but be equipped enough to answer those questions around fashion, sustainability, but more so I think if you have these skills that probably our program has done so well in accomplishing it's, it's to really look at circularity right? Instead of the word sustainability, which I think is very overly done. Because, you know, as you know, cornfields or bio plastic doesn't really become an ecosystem that's actually sustainable. So like, there's all these other interesting things where we think of transparency as all sustainability, but it really isn't sometimes, because it's hard to do due to natural resources. But that doesn't mean we can't think about a circular system. And within there, what kind of circular attitudes or intentions do we have? And we'll only know when we work with people so different from ourselves, and especially the most different and the most marginalized are the ones I think that bring the most creativity. So if you're really stepping out of your comfort zone to meet someone who you've never met, that has a disability, you will immediately be thinking creatively, I think, and that person as well. So I think that naturally creates innovation and a sense of a broader market scope, in a business term, because you are looking at a consumer at the very end of the spectrum that your company normally doesn't look at. So that's where I think a lot of companies could adapt to evolving through innovation because you know, how many times have you heard tech companies or retail companies saying we want to innovate, we are the next wave the next you know, technology driven innovation, whatever creative company for 2020 2025, whatever you want to call it, and so I've heard this line so many times. And I'm like, really, okay. So the easy cop out is maybe building your own database platform, okay. But really innovation, I think begins always and foremost with people and the intentions that these people have. I know that sounds like a very lofty thing to say for a lot of CEOs or CFOs. But when you really look at it, when Open Style Lab, for example, as you know, when we work with people with disabilities, they are the people who make, they are the ones who advertise, they are the ones who drive innovation. So immediately, you're thinking of your common bottom denominator, but you're also mixing them in with other creatives, right, who are not also disabled. So I think that in itself is innovation when you have a good mix of bunches of different people. But it's not easy to do, because a lot of companies want to focus on retaining the people that they've employed, or finding different ways to cut corners by bringing in a new program to make innovation. But when in all I think they also have the resources so these companies could use, you know, charitable giving to build a think tank within the company, right? Or they could look at HR practices on how do we maybe bring an Open Style Lab inclusive design workshop for our employees when we already give them educational training stipends. So for example, if each employee has about $1,000 a year to look at podcasts, whether it's What's Wrong With or it's about learning about, you know, something that they want to educate and grow within the company, they will have the desire to do so. And you're also helping to connect them externally instead of just living in a box in corporate culture. So it's, it's kind of interesting because we see this when people are not satisfied with their jobs. And we can't blame them if they're not 100%, you know, passionate about their role because it pays well, they're in it, but they're still not 100% satisfied. And I think that and that not being satisfied has a lot to do with learning and to continually grow as an individual within a group. So I feel that is the biggest opportunity that a lot of industries and corporations could tackle and should be.

Pinar Guvenc  16:14

Yeah and I - let's talk more about people because it always fascinates me how fashion is such like a heavily B2C industry yet is so inhuman in so many ways, right? Like I think most of them will even though they're targeting for a certain audience, that audience is not probably included in the conversation. If they were I feel like we would never have like a plus size trend coming in later. I think like it would always be part of like the product mix. And people with disabilities are almost never included. Right. So access is a way-behind conversation already. So I do want to focus more on OSL's process and like this, get a deeper dive into it because I think it's genuinely a human process and it's the only, I guess it is innovation because it's lacking in the industry yet it's so common sense too. So tell us a bit more about OSL's process, whether that is on the summer program or outside of the summer program, how you bring diverse groups together and deliver solutions.

Grace Jun  17:21

So if I want to, I guess deep dive a little bit into Open Style Lab's process, we first look at raising awareness through workshops and events. And then we look into education on how do we share these skills and insights and collaborate with people in the community. And then third, not least but last is our endeavors to look at research for our R&D. So our education is really much the pivotal point for how we operate and we offer a 10 week summer program. For the last five years we've been offering it in collaboration with different disability groups, different educational institutions. Whether MIT or Parsons, and we bring in applicants who are from design engineering, or occupational or physical therapy, to collaborate with people with disabilities on making solutions accessible, and it pertains a lot to style, and I say style and not fashion because it has a lot to do with self identity and self expression. So sometimes as you know some of our products have, or the outcomes or the design products that are created within these 10 weeks, or sometimes anywhere from adaptive rain jackets that are meant for someone who's in a seated position, whether they're riding a bike or a wheelchair, to something that's more wearable tech, like there's actually like sensors and the clothing or there's voice amplifiers for someone who has low speech impediment. So all of these creative ranges has really been what we offer as like a process to explore what accessibility and universal design mean and the future. And quite recently I think as a company we thought about, you know, together what is the next move like after these four to five years of programming and all types of events and workshops that we even did for short term, whether it's with IKEA or with Cooper, Cooper Hewitt, we started to think about scale. And so with any business, even within fashion, we get the question of how do you scale something like what you do. We made this toolkit that is pretty much an adaptive-sewing toolkit that is made to be accessible but also empowering for people to be able to either sew some pockets or loops that are for better dressing or functional dressing, or not sew because there's also non-sewable sticky adhesives that we actually provide, and instructional materials. So this is, I think, a point where our innovation is looking into research and developing this toolkit anywhere from 3D printing a couple of threader parts, to looking at different types of closures, and any ways where people could hack the way they dress, because a lot of the mass, I guess, available commercial clothing are still not customized enough for everyone's needs. Nor do we think it's really economical right to customize everyone's things, whereas back in the day bespoke and tailoring was really left for maybe in-house sewing customs, or it was really left for a very high-crop group of very rich people. And so I think, how do you bring in something like that where anyone can take independence and autonomy to build themselves, the clothing that they want to wear or the tools they want to have to live a highly independent and dignified life is this kind of the goal where we saw this product go and therefore I think really in all our educational programs help push this. And so we technically I think are a little bit of like a 10 week summer school, but also a course-crunch on universal design incubation. And this is where we really offer something unique, right. And it's and the applicants are also from all age groups, which I love, because it's not just open to undergraduate students or graduate students or students in general, but anyone who has maybe left education for a while, who's maybe working for the last few 10 years. So I think that's where this type of lifelong learning is becoming available through the things that we offer.

Pinar Guvenc  21:39

Let's talk a little bit more about the process of the toolkits because it's such a it's like a Me-device that suddenly enables a person to just have more control over their wardrobe right and also such a unique case of really creating with people. So what was that process like throughout the summer? Like how did you work with people with disabilities to make that happen?

Grace Jun  22:07

Yeah, so our toolkit in the summer of 2019 was developed and part of a framework that the board of advisors and board members from Open Style lab had already discussed, you know, prior, in January. And it's really interesting to see how an idea of scale could really manifest I think, through the summer program. And so when we collaborated with young girls with Disabilities at NYU women's initiative for people with disabilities group at Lego, it was great to see a diverse range of young teens and especially women, to see what kind of skills that they have acquired through either hacking their own clothes or trying to express their needs because at that age, they are independent in terms of looking at what their their self is, their body is how they want to talk about themselves. So we worked with them for four or five weeks in a crunch time. And prior, we did online training on universal design and accessibility with our fellows who were engineers, designers and therapists, who we probably have chosen based on their multi skillsets. I think, because it's not your typical "I'm a mechanical engineer". But the engineer might have been someone who's just really creative and thinking about how to apply maybe different ways of creative coding with, you know, fabrication, or someone who is in 3d printing, but also has some experience in video editing. And I feel that that our our fellowships, were able to cultivate this collaboration over 10 weeks, because we were given that five weeks of time to really work with them. So we did lectures of five weeks, and then worked with the girls for another five weeks. And I think at that point, we were able to really manifest it In person, how to work together. So I saw them work with the girls on first looking at how to talk about themselves. And we began with these stencils that were diversely cut for different bodies so you don't you don't ever see stencils that are for wheelchair walkers or other types of you know, prosthetics right? You see it very typical bodies stencil that's like have like a size to girl and like a guy. And there's like some nuances of you know, which is gender, which is not, there really isn't much more. So, what I found the most fascinating, I think, in the beginning of this program is like how do how do you see yourself and how does style and fashion kind of become a funnel for how you see yourself and if you have no visual materials that represent that. I think it was a challenge for open style to create those things. So we did a lot of pencil, drawing and looking at how to cut out from magazines and different ways of how the girls can identify body representation that really aligned with their disabilities, whether it's cerebral palsy, or multiple sclerosis, there was really an interesting way of talking about first, I think, the body, and then I think we jumped into, okay, so where on the body do you feel like you're lacking accessible storage or better design, right. And this is where clothes come along as your second skin. And we looked at hacking and talking about their existing clothes and clothes that were donated to us, thanks to Macy's, and saw that, okay, we also need pockets maybe in the front for someone who has limited range of motion that only works on the center part of their area, and they need to reach for their cell phones because their mom's gonna call. So like simple things like that, where clothing isn't designed to accommodate a bunch of pockets in different places. And so we saw that pockets were one big thing that the girls have identified and helped us really co-create in the toolkit. And then the second one was loops. So how do we get to put on our clothes quicker and easier and to take them off, and especially for the caregiver, which happens to be a lot of their parents who are always dressing and undressing their children. So these loops were really great to add into clothing, the back of clothing looking at, for example, you know, the back neck line, so it's easier to pull for someone who doesn't have all the dexterity and reach. And I think those custom loops were crucial to giving an opportunity for them to dress independently. So they told us how they wanted to get dressed, and we added in the tools, so there were pockets, loops, stencils, and of course, a 3D printed needle threader because as you know, in the typical Garment District needle threaders are this like tiny little thin thing that I have even trouble putting my sewing thread through. So it's so hard like it's just like painful. If you haven't mastered yourself, the dexterity, you know, and needless to say, it's just not accessible as we get older. And so I think these tools alone are a barrier. And the girls over those 10 weeks have really helped co-design how to make these tools accessible, so that they could also design with us. And that was really the goal of the whole program to make this toolkit.

Pinar Guvenc  27:20

Yeah. And it's such a educational flow both ways, right? Always I'll learn so much. And as the girls also learn so much throughout the process, how would you think their mindsets sort of changed how they look at fashion or design or even personal style, whether it's their perspective or their even parents or caregivers perspective? Like did you see something really almost tangible that sort of shifted throughout those 10 weeks?

Grace Jun  27:47

Yeah, absolutely. I think there's two things that I saw and I'll divide it into two segments. One is the actual practical skill learning. You know, as an educator, you look at what skills are these people acquiring? The second is I think interpersonal skills. So the first one - the skills that they acquired were collaboration, co-design, looking at self expression through creative means because they were making stencils. They were sewing together with their own teammates, with each other. You know, I think the two Jessica's were sewing together. One of our fellows who had who also has spinal cord injury was a fashion design fellow. And she was sewing with another young girl with a disability, named Jessica. So we call them Jessica squared. And it was really interesting how they were being able to collaborate on sewing and also learning about measurements because she was telling her to Okay, can you sew maybe one inch out, you know, and you saw her use the measuring tape. so you're learning stem practices through fashion design, which I think was the biggest point of takeaway for me to see. And then you see the interpersonal skills, which is the level of confidence and the way they talked about each other in this process. So we saw at our final showcase which we host every year where we invite, like, over 200 people to come see what we've made together. The girls were talking about their experience, and I'll never forget Cinderella talking about her experience through this program, and how much it's brought her self esteem. And I think modes of self expression, because she was able to speak about herself, feel beautiful and confident, you know, through making and not being to settle for what's given to her. So as you know, Cinderella was one of the participants from the NYU program, and she's a young girl with cerebral palsy using a walker. And she was really, I think, a big example of the interpersonal skills that was taken away that level of speech, self confidence and expression.

Pinar Guvenc  29:49

So as an educator too, and this can be to your students or any progress maker out there who is trying to tackle this or another problem in the industry or another What would be your two cents? Like, What What is the I guess there's no secret recipe but what? What would you recommend for them to do?

Grace Jun  30:11

Yeah, I think I would recommend anyone who wants to start out in this field to begin by just collaborating with someone they normally do not collaborate with. So one big example thanks to Convene, you know, they didn't really know 100% what we were doing, but they were like, Sure, let's host you for the final showcase. And I think later, what we realized is that it's not just about having space but be able to activate space. And as you know, Convene is a is a place that offers office spaces and conferences and other venues that allow people to practice what they want to do. And eventually, I think that became a platform for us to not only practice, but share with other people to the community and in a bigger place and extend that network. So I don't think that's a typical collaborator, right? If you think about disability and design, we should maybe just stick with fashion retailers or just maybe with design communities. But for me, I thought that was a good way to extend out and I would probably put in to anyone's two cents who wants to do universal design or look into accessibility to find the most unusual partners, and look into how to collaborate with them, because I feel like there's a great chance for synergy there. 

Pinar Guvenc  31:25

I think that's the best advice, as it always starts with exposure. Well, thank you so much grace. This is a pleasure. As always, thanks so much for participating on our podcast.

Grace Jun  31:37

Thank you.


Thank you for listening to our podcast. Tune in next week when we sit down with Evren Uzer, Assistant Professor of urban planning in the School of Design strategies at Parsons School of Design. Evren is an urban planner and practitioner working on community led housing processes, civic engagement and critical heritage studies, activism and interventions in public space.


For more information on our events and our podcasts, visit us at What's Wrong With dot XYZ.

Subscribe to our show on: