Lawyer, writer and entrepreneur
All about empowering women and giving advice on all things, work, wellness and wardrobe related, Elissa James, founder of IrisLillian.com was a natural choice for our latest That Girl. We sat down with the Perth native and former corporate lawyer for a chat, and got some tips on how to juggle the busy work-life balance in the 852, managing our own ‘side-hustle’, and her favourite things to do in Hong Kong. The importance of a good red lippy, and how to style out corporate wear are just some of the things we learned…
Tell us a little about yourself – where are you from and how long have you lived in Hong Kong?
I grew up on the beach in sunny Perth, Western Australia.
My favourite food is either papadums or salt and pepper tofu. I’m also addicted to Haribo Tangfastics. I also really like Dachshunds (not to eat…).
When I was 19 I lived in Milan and won a competition to record a single for MTV Italia.
I wanted to be an opera singer at high school, but ended up studying law at university. I’ve been ‘lawyering’ for over a decade specialising in the energy and renewables sector.
The 852 has been home for almost two years. The time has flown!
You’re the founder of the light-hearted webzine Iris Lillian, can you tell us a little more about the site?
Sure! Iris Lillian is the complete career and lifestyle solution for busy, professional women who believe that intelligence and style aren’t mutually exclusive.
Our aim is to make your lives easier, so me and our 15 writers get the scoop on all the candid, hilariously real 9-to-5 experiences, life hacks and fashion advice direct from career women on the front line.
What inspired you to start Iris Lillian?
Women still face roadblocks in the workplace because, structurally and culturally, it doesn’t vibe for us yet. For example, I worried about looking greedy when I asked for a pay rise, even after discovering I was being woefully underpaid compared to my male contemporaries. I avoided the tough conversations when faced with unwanted advances from male colleagues (#metoo); and I laughed off questions like, “…so, when are you popping out your first kid?”
These situations are difficult to navigate alone. What I needed was a wise friend to point me in the right direction. Someone who could, on the one hand pick me up when I was having a crisis of confidence and remind me that I’m really good at what I do, and on the other help me to style my favourite leather trousers for casual Friday.
The opportunity to share this wealth of valuable on-the-job knowledge from women of every background, and to support each other through the sharing of content and collaboration was the inspiration behind IrisLillian.com.
If I’m up to my eyeballs in emails at work I’ll often pop over to the Iris Lillian Facebook Group for some downtime – it’s a supportive place to share ideas and gain insights from women who’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt.
You chose to stop climbing the corporate ladder and set out on your own path. Can you tell us about the realities of making that decision and what made you finally take the leap?
When I was clocking between 80 and 100 hours a week as a corporate lawyer I often thought to myself “…imagine what I could create if I took my skill set and focused 100% of my time on my own project.” That was the seed, and it grew. My relocation to Hong Kong was the perfect opportunity to test my theory.
I knew nothing about websites, photography, content marketing or Instagram 18 months ago when I launched Iris Lillian – it’s been an exhilarating (at times very frustrating!), and humbling experience.
Update! I’ve just dived back into the corporate rat race (part-time) and I’m loving it. The time out has given me perspective and has made me a better lawyer.
There’s so much that comes with starting a new company. Can you share your most meaningful milestone?
The day IrisLillian.com went ‘live’ was certainly the most memorable. I was freaking out and I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I kept saying to myself, “you goose, what on earth have you done?!” Putting myself out there was, and still is, my biggest challenge.
You interview a lot of inspiring businesswomen on your site, and we love reading all of the incredible interview features. We can’t help wondering who your dream interviewee would be?
Thanks! Okay, this is a tough one. It’s probably a toss-up between HM The Queen or Rachel Bloom, the creator of hit TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I’m obsessed with that show.
Hands down, having a good chin wag with so many interesting and clever women is the best thing about running Iris Lillian. I had a ball chatting with Marisa Drew, one of the most powerful women in finance, earlier this year in London. She had some great tips about imposter syndrome.
Aside from writing and managing Iris Lillian, you’re also a lawyer. (How!?) What are three things you do to maintain work life balance in your day-to-day?
I’m still finding my ‘groove’ but I do try to do these few things to stay sane:
- When I get to work I put together a list. It has to include at least one goal relating to work, physical health, mental health, relationships, finance and giving back. I don’t always tick them all off, but I’m starting to be okay with that because they all get done eventually.
- To prevent the midnight-Facebook-scroll-session I am militant about having no phones or technology in the bedroom. I get so much more sleep because of it.
- I haven’t always been good at this one, but recently I’ve started prioritising ‘me time’. So, say I have a netball game (go Kowloon Pearls!) on a Monday night, or training on Thursday, those commitments take precedence over everything else. I block them out in my calendar – they are non-negotiable.
We know you’re all for supporting a good ‘side hustle’. How would you encourage people to manage their time when Hong Kong encourages us to pack every waking hour?
Go you side-hustlers! Okay, so every six months or so it’s great to sit down and figure out how well you’re balancing all aspects of your life. This ‘wheel of life’ chart is a great place to start. The chart is designed to allow you to assess key areas of your life. For me that is health, work, family, friends, relationships, fun and mental wellbeing (not necessarily in that order!)
Give yourself a score between 1-10 for each area of your life – this will show you where you’re happiest and where you might need to apply more focus or consider improving. This tool helps me to figure out how I feel about my current split of time between work and other aspects of my life and adjust where needed.
You’ve lived all over (including Australia, Italy, Costa Rica and the UK!), but what drew you to Hong Kong?
I’m a trailing spouse – my husband got a great opportunity to work in Hong Kong so I came along. And I have to say that Iris Lillian wouldn’t have been possible without his support and also if we hadn’t moved here. Entrepreneurship and innovation have long been the lifeblood of Hong Kong. In a city of unique cultural and philosophical diversity, opportunities abound; if you have a great idea and you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work for it, you will succeed.
What are your favourite things to do in Hong Kong in your downtime?
Right now, with this stunning winter weather, I’m out on the hiking trails every weekend. I love escaping the city and getting out into the countryside. So far, my favourite hike is Stage 2 of the Maclehose Trail – it’s tough but you end up at the most stunning beach slurping a giant bowl of noodles and sipping an ice-cold beer. Also, here’s my Hong Kong to-do list.
Aside from career and wellness tips, Iris Lillian offers style advice. Where are your favourite places to shop in Hong Kong?
We’ve checked out your Instagram, and we’re loving your downtime wardrobe just as much as your smarter work looks. Do you have any advice for women who want to keep hold of their personal style, even when dressing for corporate work? And do you have one “holy grail” fashion tip that you swear by that you can share with us?
Thanks! When it comes to dressing for the office, my mantra is: “Ditch the black suits and embrace your femininity.”
Start with a well-tailored pencil skirt or wide leg trousers. Pair with a silk camisole or blouse. Leather pieces, statement jewellery and well-tailored blazers in various colours and styles are perfect for showing a little flair and insuring against over-zealous office air conditioning.
Also, don’t be afraid to wear a bold coloured lipstick.
We also love that all of your photos are taken by your husband. Any tips for other Insta partners out there? Or, how to take a good selfie without one!
Haha yes, he’s a very good Insta-Husband. I think he quite enjoys it!
As for advice, I’d make sure the process is always fun and never a chore – so no barking orders. If there’s a beautiful sunset it can be very tempting to keep taking snaps to land ‘The Perfect Shot’. In hindsight, I’d opt for putting down the camera and enjoying the moment together through your own eyes, rather than the lens.
If you had one piece of advice to give to aspiring girl bosses out there, what would it be?
Don’t follow the pack. You’ve got to do you, baby. Because ‘you’ is awesome.
Thanks to the talented Michelle Proctor of Michelle Proctor Photography for all of the beautiful images above! Follow her on Instagram @michellejproctor and Facebook at www.facebook.com/MichelleProctorPhotography.