In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we’ve been sharing the work and stories of some of the incredible AAPI-owned businesses in our community. Earlier this month, we highlighted the children’s hair accessories company Bows Arts and the stress-reducing beverage makers at Droplet.
Today, in appreciation of the final week of AAPI Heritage Month, we’re featuring Forage Paper Co—a stationery business out of Austin, Texas. We spoke with owner Christina Chun about a life full of illustrating and the learning curves of business ownership.
A career in illustration
Christina Chun has spent most of her life drawing. She’s loved illustrating since childhood, and the importance of handmade gifts and greeting cards was instilled in her from an early age. “My mom taught me to bring a card to every party growing up,” she said. “She would say, ‘You don’t have a gift? That’s fine, but bring a card.’”
Christina attended college for illustration, where she spent 4 years learning about art and the craftsmanship of design. “When I graduated, I felt unemployable because I didn’t know how that degree would translate,” she said. However, she quickly found success as a freelance editorial illustrator. During her freelance career, she provided illustrations for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and even children’s books. All the while, she continued creating her own illustrations inspired by nature’s beauty and gifting them to friends and family.
Over time, Christina began displaying her handmade greeting cards online, and she was surprised to find that customers—and even retailers—were placing consistent orders. Finally, after 10 years working as a freelance editorial illustrator, she decided to take the leap and start her own business from her home in Oakland, CA in 2015. “I always found working for myself to be so much more fulfilling,” Christina said. “I wanted to pursue my own illustrations and find my own style.” Opening Forage Paper was a perfect way to blend Christina’s passion for illustrating with her love of stationery. She hoped her greeting cards would help keep the tradition of snail mail alive, and that her art would help others rekindle the joy of putting pen to paper.
Learning on the go
Despite her formal education and successful editorial career, Christina found herself with little knowledge or training on starting her own business. But she was no stranger to hard work. “My Korean parents immigrated to this country for a better life for me and my sister,” she said. “Hustle is a part of my DNA.” Christina put that hustle to use and learned everything she needed to know to succeed. She turned to customer feedback for ideas on what would sell and learned the ins and outs of the stationery world through independent research and trial-and-error.
“The learning curve was everything from finding the right manufacturer to packaging for wholesale, she said. “I just had to learn on the go.” She taught herself how to create her own website, how to create a catalog of work, and how to adapt to the strict yearly calendar of a greeting card business. She even personally pitched her work to stores in all fifty states. “I had a Google spreadsheet of who to reach out to,” she recalled. “I just worked my way down the list, sending them all emails and mailing catalogs with samples of my cards to stores.” Since the company’s founding, Christina has successfully secured the placement of Forage Paper products at hundreds of shops nationwide, from small local businesses to stores like West Elm and Paper Source.
Today, aside from a few seasonal contractors, Christina still largely runs the business herself. She begins every project the same way she always has—with simple sketches in her notebook inspired by everyday beauty. She hopes her continued hard work will set a positive example for her son. “I love being able to show him that I’ve built my business from the ground up with my own hands,” she said.
Supporting entrepreneurs and the AAPI community
For any hopeful entrepreneurs, Christina’s advice is to not be afraid to stray away from the norm. “You can easily get caught up in a linear career path and think ‘this is how it should go,’” Christina said, “But there’s a lot of fulfillment in starting your own business.” She’s encouraged by the amount of positive leadership in the Asian-American community right now, and to Asian-American entrepreneurs, she advises, “You can do it, too. There’s no ceiling you can’t break.”
When it comes to supporting other Asian-American artists and makers, Christina says to think about how and where you spend your money. “How you spend your money shows where your heart is,” she said. Start small—beginning with your local community—and support the Asian-owned businesses near you.