Nathan Cummings and Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Chair in Fine Arts, and Professor of Fine Arts, and East Asian Studies
Aida Wong has always been interested in the connections among art, literature, and social impact. Her work as a professor of art history at Brandeis spans disciplines such as Chinese calligraphy, fashion design, and transcultural modernism
She is the Nathan Cummings and Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Chair in Fine Arts, and Professor of Fine Arts, and East Asian Studies, teaching courses to Brandeis undergraduates and graduate students in subjects as diverse as painting, the art of the Ming Dynasty, and Fashion History of China. In addition, her research interests address the intersection of fashion and activism. Combining her research and teaching interests, Aida addresses the ways in which art, fashion, identity, and community intersect and function together.
So, it’s no surprise that she decided to take her interdisciplinary interests and spin them into a fashion activism startup. Her journey to entrepreneurship as a faculty member shows the power of an idea combined with support from an innovation community. Aida’s goal is to fight bigotry and empower people using the power of Chinese calligraphy. To that end, she has created Callimode, a range of jewelry designs that express messages of community, strength, and pushing back against racism. Starting with a necklace made from sustainable gold, and expanding into other sustainable jewelry offerings, including a pair of earrings. Each piece of jewelry offers a message. The earrings spell out “racial harmony” in semi-cursive script, while a necklace says “no color boundaries” in Chinese clerical calligraphy. The necklaces also allude to the Buddhist “realm of formlessness” free of all illusions and divisions.
Her vision is of a whole line of wearable art in real gold and precious stones. The goal is to align political activism with consumers’ daily lives through fashion. “Jewelry is something that we can wear on different occasions to see friends, attend a conference or cocktail party, etc., and not just when we are out, picketing and marching,” notes Aida. “When people see calligraphy, they usually want to notice the content. So calligraphy jewelry are natural conversation starters; they are truly statement jewelry”
The orignal name of the brand, ZZZi Jewelry, has an even deeper meaning: it is a reference to the Chinese character for word, and the specific focus of the name is on using communication to spread love. “I think of my designs as love speech, and we all need more love,” says Aida.
Aida got her start in entrepreneurship through the Brandeis Innovation Spark program, in which she won a top prize in the 2021 cohort. After being in touch with the Innovation program for years, including inviting Brandeis Innovation team members to speak to her classes on numerous occasions, Aida decided to take the plunge and explore doing a startup herself. She applied, was accepted, and won funding at the annual SparkTank pitch competition. That started her on the path to receiving the support to make Callimode a reality.
Through Spark, she was able to receive funding, help with identifying her target market, marketing advice, training in business strategy, and connections with industry experts in the Brandeis mentorship network.
It was the network of support that Aida found vital in her journey. “The Spark mentors and administrators, who all have entrepreneurial experience, are some of the most supportive people I know,” notes Aida, adding that “I’m still discovering new challenges every day. But I know I can turn to the Spark team continuously for advice.” Through focused training on identifying target markets and honing a value proposition, Aida and the other Spark participants were able to supercharge their progress in entrepreneurship. For her, it has been especially rapid progress.
Callimode continues to grow, launching new products in Fall ’22 and beyond. Aida continues not only to raise awareness through her love speech artwork, but also contribute to social impact in more direct ways: 5% of each sale is donated to non-profit organizations supporting antiracism and Asian communities.
Doing well, doing good, and thriving as a creative professional are all possible in entrepreneurship, Aida says. Creative startups often don’t fit the profile of many incubators and accelerators, but the Spark program offers strong support to startups in all disciplines, including the creative arts. The key is to meld a business approach with a social mission and a creative vision. Aida’s advice to creative entrepreneurs? “I would say just keep your eye on the goal. And keep getting advice and beopen minded.”
“For me, it’s about shifting gear from thinking academically to strategizing for marketing and designing an e-commerce website. Spark not only makes that possible with the seed funding, it supercharges the process and one never feels alone groping in the dark. Without Spark, I would never have become a business owner within five months of my first pitch.” — Aida Wong