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Phuong Mai

Founder, P.MAI

San Francisco, CA

None of this would’ve been possible without my misaligned collarbone and the courage to lean in.

Handbags are a pain—literally. But they don’t have to be. Here’s my story on how I decided to change that.

I started my career in management consulting. While it was an incredible learning experience, the job took a toll on me physically. Client visits meant I was living out of suitcase and racking up points like nobody’s business. I still remember the routine. On Mondays, I would head to the airport at an ungodly hour with several bags carrying everything I needed for the week. I’d lug my laptop and purse everywhere on one shoulder, working from the client site to my hotel room. Wash, rinse, and repeat. By Thursday night, I’d returned home with enough energy to lie comatose in my bed.

Needless to say, the physical stress on my body eventually caught up to me. The slight discomfort in my right shoulder I noticed early on grew into an excruciating pain. Exasperated, I visited my doctor who detected the uneven weight from my bags had misaligned my collarbone. She ordered me to switch to a backpack immediately for better weight distribution and to reduce the risk of pinch nerves on my one shoulder.

That doctor’s visit served as a wake-up call. No woman should ever have to sacrifice her health for fashion. I went straight to a department store to trade in my clunky laptop bag and purse for an accessory I thought I had resigned to my school days: a backpack. I was less than pleased with the options available. All the backpacks large enough to fit my laptop and personal items were extremely utilitarian and masculine, and all the fashionable backpacks were too small to fit my laptop. In the end, I could not find a single backpack that combined fashion with function, and had to settle for a sporty black unisex backpack.

While I had to compromise (temporarily at least) my choice of accessory, I decided I could no longer compromise my health for my profession. I left my management consulting job and began working at a boutique strategy and design consulting firm. This experience taught me the power of design thinking and encouraged me to take the first steps towards designing the bag I wanted to buy: a fashionable, functional laptop bag for women. As I talked to more and more women about what they wanted in a bag, I realized that most shared my frustration. They realized their overweight handbags were causing strain on their bodies, but didn’t feel as though they had any other choice. This was when I knew there was a significant market need for the bag I wanted to design.

I eventually left my job and decided to take the leap to create my own brand with a simple philosophy: combine luxury and utility into products that inspire women to look and feel their best. I believe women should not have to sacrifice comfort for style. With the launch of P.MAI, we’re now giving women around the world the new option to carry a backpack worthy of the boardroom and runway. Nothing gives me more pleasure than hearing from customers, who have told me that they can’t imagine going back to a handbag now. To think that none of this would’ve been possible without my misaligned collarbone and the courage to lean in to create a bag that allows women to prioritize their own health is truly humbling.