Radical Uncertainty: Jane Park '93 and Entrepreneurship in a COVID-19 Pivot

Tuesday, Jun 2, 2020
by Jenny Wang '22

Jane Park, Princeton Class of 1993 and two-time founder of Tokki and Julep, shares her journey as a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and the recent pivot of her sustainable gift wrap start-up to sell fabric face masks amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. She will also take part in the online webinar Tiger2Tiger: What Consumer-Tech VCs Are Funding Now on Wednesday, June 3rd.

In the past year, Jane Park launched Tokki, an eco-friendly fabric gift wrap company with the mission of merging reusable gift wrap with a digital social experience to reinvent gift giving and reduce the carbon footprint. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tokki faced an immediate collapse in sales. Park noticed that the pandemic was shifting the focus away from the environment onto single-use as face masks disappeared from the shelves -- she saw an opportunity to pivot Tokki amidst the frenzy. 

“My friend Lisa was no longer doing sewing for Fall Fashion Week for her company Gravitas. She had a bunch of seamstresses who were out of work and asked me if we would turn our fabric gift wrap into face masks. Originally, we thought we would only do a handful for some girlfriends, but it turned out that people wanted to order them.”

Especially as personal protective equipment has become hard to get a hold of, Park wanted to do her part. Doctors and nurses continue to reach out to Park every day to get a hold of Tokki face masks, because in dreary and uncertain times, a friendly and fun splash of color on their face masks can do a lot in fostering human connection. While the transition has been rewarding and impactful, it has also been extremely challenging for Park to manage the socially-distant supply chain. She has had to solve problems like expediting delivery times, managing employees remotely, operating with speed, and sourcing fabrics both creatively and nimbly.

Park compares the process of becoming an entrepreneur to that of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic: “How do we flatten the curve? When does this end? Where is the bottom of the economic impact? How will we all get through this? What will the country look like on the other end? It’s sort of the same thing as building a company -- what entrepreneurship is like. It’s radical uncertainty. You need to build the next bridge through the messy middle.”

Along her entrepreneurial journey, Park has accumulated many invaluable experiences and lessons that inform the choices she continues to make at important junctures of her career. Whether during her time at Boston Consulting Group and Starbucks or as the founder of Julep and Tokki, her formative experiences have shaped her into the successful leader she is today.

 As a Princeton alum of the Class of 1993, Park reflects on her bittersweet memories studying at the university as a Korean immigrant who grew up in Toronto. At the time, the social climate on campus was clouded by issues such as homophobia and White privilege, which was heartbreaking and isolating for Park. 

Despite her mixed emotional experience, Park is thankful for the rewarding aspects of Princeton that carried her through the hard times and still inspire her to this day. “I had a handful of friends I loved. I’m grateful for the intellectual training, the problem-solving, and the resources I had access to in the Woodrow Wilson School. Amy Gutmann was one of my favorite professors. I remember I wrote a junior paper on carbon offsets. Now at Tokki, I buy carbon offsets. It’s fun to see ideas that are before their time and to truly interact with policymakers. It gives you a sense of confidence that your voice matters. That has served me well.”

Park says that she recognizes that Princeton has changed dramatically, which has led her to rebuild a relationship with the institution. As a first step, she hopes to mentor minority women in business within the Princeton community.

From one entrepreneur to another, Park offers advice to those who are just beginning their journeys in entrepreneurship, stressing the importance of vulnerability and support. “Having a network of people that will give you the real scoop on the challenges they are facing and who you can be candid with is everything.”

“It’s not that it’s lonely because you have so much success. It’s lonely because you took other people’s money, you don’t have colleagues that are similarly situated, and all the responsibility is on your shoulders. In this time of even more uncertainty, it’s really important to not go in alone and figure out the answers on your own. Radical prioritization is important and the only way you can do that effectively is by leaning on people that have some degree of expertise and are willing to share that transparently with you,” she says.

As for what is in the near future for Tokki, Park is focusing on building a company culture that encourages being scrappy and exhibiting a strong moral core, just like she did with Julep. Because Tokki is a self-funded start-up, Park is grateful that she has the freedom to grow her company at the speed it’s ready for without the external pressure of achieving typical markers of success. Moving forward, she is excited to explore different product lines in line with Tokki’s mission of transforming gifting to make it more sustainable and memorable.

“When I look back, the moments of pride I remember are around the people I have helped and connected with as well as the culture I have built with my values.”

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