One of the most rewarding aspects of running FinAbility is getting to connect with and build a community of inspiring women and business leaders. Years before FinAbility started, I learned about Keiko Akamine through a mutual friend and watched in awe as she grew Yū|Mono from a passion project to a million dollar business.
I had always been interested in entrepreneurship, obsessively reading about startups and founder stories. But I often questioned if I could be a successful founder. Did I have the necessary resources and support? Would I have enough credibility, especially as a young Asian-American woman?
Keiko’s journey has inspired me and so many others to envision a different future for themselves, dream bigger, and pursue their passions. With that said, we’re very excited to share a piece of her story with you all and hope you find it as inspiring as we have.
Additionally, we would like to recognize that for over a year Yū|Mono’s Claws for a Cause campaign has been donating a percentage of sales to FinAbility! Keiko is the epitome of women uplifting other women, and we’re incredibly proud to partner with her and Yū|Mono.
– Stacy Sawin, FinAbility CEO
What's a fun fact about you?
Oh goodness, let’s see. I started learning how to play the guitar during Covid. I love classic rock and always wanted to learn an instrument, but thought that it was too late (in hindsight, what a silly thought). Learning the guitar reminded me how exciting and empowering it is to learn something completely new from the very beginning—it’s been a while since I’ve done something like that. I’m very proud to say I can now play the intro to Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters. 😂🤘🏻
How did you find out about FinAbility and what is your involvement?
I first heard about FinAbility from a mutual friend Stacy [FinAbility’s CEO] and I share. I was telling this friend that I wished I could make a bigger contribution to the world than what I was currently doing through Yū|Mono. Jewelry is wonderful, but it doesn’t exactly save lives or change the world. My friend recommended I reach out to Stacy and see if there was a way I could get involved with the start-up nonprofit she was launching. Once I did a bit of research on Stacy and her mission, I KNEW I had to be involved. For a little over a year, a percentage of sales from our most popular earring style has been donated to FinAbility through our Claws for a Cause campaign.
If there's one thing about finance you wish everyone knew, what would it be?
Learning about personal finance can be uncomfortable and overwhelming, but the more you learn, the better you feel. The hardest part is getting over the initial dread and fear.
How did you first learn about personal finance?
I was lucky to have a mom who saw the value in educating my brother and I about personal finance when we were young. We each had a bank account to deposit our birthday money in every year so we could learn how to save, and as soon as we were eligible, she helped us apply for a credit card that we were meant to pay off in full every month. With her guidance, we learned to take control over our finances and spend within our means.
What does financial security mean to you?
I live a pretty minimalist lifestyle—I don’t really accumulate things I don’t need or put a lot of value in material possessions. For example, I still drive the same ’99 Tacoma I drove in high school and want to keep driving it as long as it gets me from point A to point B. The one area I will splurge on, however, is travel. Thus, financial security, to me, is being able to comfortably afford my simple day-to-day lifestyle, but being able to go all out on travel when I am able to take time off work.
Tell us what inspired you to start Yu|Mono?
I never set out to be a jewelry designer, and I always consider Yū|Mono to be a happy accident. As a former athlete, I initially thought I would work somewhere in the sports world. While working on a degree in Sport Psychology, I signed up for a basic jewelry making class at a local art academy to give my brain a break. For fun, I started designing jewelry I’d want to wear, using the handful of skills I learned in class to make pieces for myself. I soon realized I spent more time visualizing new designs than I spent creating programs for my athletes—I took it as a sign.
Sometimes the first step is the hardest. When I chose Yū|Mono, it meant abandoning the vision I had for my future to work in an industry I knew very little about. It was a scary moment, but I absolutely knew it was the right move.
What have been some of your biggest challenges and successes?
The biggest challenge has been managing our growth. I’m fortunate that Yū|Mono is out of the phase where I’m struggling to make ends meet every month, but now the challenge is strategizing how to scale responsibly. We were able to hit over $1,000,000 in annual sales with a very small team (I am still the only full-time employee), but I would be lying if I said that would be sustainable over the long term without making big changes to our day-to-day operations. It’s a constant balancing act, but I weigh every decision against Yū|Mono’s company values and my own personal values to make sure I am staying true to both.
How has being a woman of color impacted your startup journey?
To be honest, I don’t think about it much. As a former wrestler, I’m used to feeling like an underdog. I’ve been to tournaments where I was the only girl, and opposing coaches and athletes would refuse to shake my hand after matches. I’ve had male competitors say awful things about me just loud enough so I could hear. I’ve been in situations where all I want is to be treated equally, but instead I get a patronizing pat on the head before getting shunted to the side. Those things really hurt at the time, but they made me more resilient. Coming from a background in such a male-dominated sport prepared me to stand up for myself, but also taught me not to get hung up on people who don’t respect what you’re bringing to the table. In my experience as an athlete, there are always more people willing to support you than tear you down—and the same has been true in my experience as a business owner. If anything, it has taught me to appreciate other startups and individuals who don’t fit the mold, but are nonetheless carving out a space for themselves.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own business?
My advice would be to work smarter, not harder. There will always be too much on your plate and never enough time, but before you get overwhelmed and blindly dive in, take a moment to step back and prioritize those endless tasks by their importance to the immediate survival of your business and your long term business goals. Before devoting your precious time to a task, evaluate where it fits into the overall wellbeing of your business and divide up your time and energy accordingly. Also, everyone has imposter syndrome! So get over it in the beginning and don’t allow yourself to get in your own way.
What's your hope for the future?
I hope to continue to find ways to contribute to a better world, whether it’s in a small way, by creating a positive work environment and customer experience through Yū|Mono, or through partnerships with amazing organizations like FinAbility, who are able to help people in ways beyond what Yū|Mono can do.
Interviews have been edited for length and/or clarity.