Justine Hwang is a Social Impact Calligrapher and Workshop Coach. A multipotentialite exploring many threads, Justine's work is tied together by her passion to create space for meaningful connections so that everyday difference makers can impact their world from a full heart. She creates inspirational art, cards, and journals, and hosts heart-centered calligraphy workshops, where lettering becomes a tool for self-care, community building, and social impact.
What inspired you to start your business?
A DESIRE TO USE MY GIFTS: I’ve always created and shared/sold things since age of 8 (“rubber stamps” made out of styrofoam meat trays, handmade lick and stick address labels, handlettered Christmas cards, etc.). I’ve always loved gathering diverse groups of peoples in my living room for dinner parties or craft jams, for sharing of knowledge and inspiration, and meaningful conversations.
AN INSTAGRAM POST: One of my friends tagged me on Instagram, posting excitedly about a calligraphy magazine she had just bought. I offered to teach her, another friend commented she wanted in too. The three of us had in common a long lost childhood love of lettering, as well as a common heart for social justice. It was November, so I came up with the idea of hosting my first @socialcalligraphy workshop, to not only make some social connections but be a part of a bigger picture of social justice. We donated 100% of proceeds to an organization my friend runs, who helps sexually exploited women and their children to begin a new life of freedom, and donated notes of encouragement to the women. From there, I experimented with developing the workshops more.
A TUESDAYS TOGETHER MEETING: But it wasn’t until I was in the “hot seat” for support in my Tuesdays Together group, talking about all my ideas for my business, that one of the women really challenged me to focus on the workshops instead of Etsy, because that’s where she saw me really lighting up. I remember walking home that day, asking myself what i was so scared of, and recognized that face to face workshops feel a lot more vulnerable when no one may show up compared to an etsy shop (not big deal if I don’t see you come or go).
A CONFUSING LOSS: And then finally, I began to stop treating my business like a lemonade stand after I experienced a discombobulating loss. I sensed that all that effort I would have invested into that hope was meant to be channeled into building the business. The commitment shift took my business to the next level.
What is something you would say to someone who is struggling in their first few years of business? Is there something you struggled with and learned from in those first few years?
Be uniquely you, your unique blend of all your passions and skills, and your story. For awhile I struggled with the fact I’m not really a wedding calligrapher (in function creating invitation suites, nor in dainty elaborate style). And I automatically thought I should do an Etsy shop. I had to get honest about why hosting in person workshops both terrified and excited me at the same time. For me it’s the perfect mix of my professional experience in workshop facilitation from my full time job, along with my story of knowing what it’s like to be the outsider, having moved around a lot, which has led me to have a soft spot and radar eyes to be drawn to the new person in the room, and my desire to create a space where every person feels welcome.
Don’t pressure yourself to have a crystal clear plan of your business from day one. I’ve struggled with feeling paralyzed from starting things because of fear that I’m not taking the right direction. We are organic beings, and so are our businesses. Building a business is a three way conversation, between you and your heart (did you love doing something? hate it? Why?), between you and your clients (what are they telling you they want? What pain do they need you to relieve)? And finally, between you and the world — what are the unique pains and beauty that move your heart? What are the gaps and needs you see in the world that you can do something to solve? It’s not just about chasing our dreams, but about doing something that you’re reasonably good at to do something useful and helpful. You see something or have an idea? Try it. Don’t wait til it’s perfect. Just get going on the next two steps. Then tweak as you go, because you’ll get feedback inside and out about what is working. Keep reiterating.
Keep the long view in mind; you don’t have to (and you can’t) build your business overnight, so aim to build it sustainably (and cultivate your life holistically). It’s so easy to want to start your own business for more freedom, but because you love the work so much (and because there’s just so much to do), it can be a challenge to know how to truly rest and find joy outside of your work, so you can overwork until you burn out. Developing your self awareness is key — such as becoming aware of your insecurities that are driving you to hustle to prove your worth. Maintain your mental health and develop a broader definition of success of who you want to be and how you want to feel.
Grow in becoming aware of and managing your expectations. It’s hard to balance having our heads in the clouds dreaming vs working out all the practical grounded stuff of running a business. Turning your hobby into a business may be the quickest way to squeeze the joy out of it, because only 10-20% of a business is doing the part that you truly love. 80-90% is all the other stuff, tasks, administrative, sales, etc. work that aren’t your craft.
What hobbies, causes, or activities are you passionate about aside from your work?
I actually need to find a new hobby, now that i’m running the business and I find myself only doing lettering for my IG posts! I love good food, enjoying it with friends over a lingering meal, getting creative with trying new recipes. As an enneagram 7 whose therapist is always asking me, “What do you FEEL, get outside of your head,” I feel called to revisit more activities from my younger days that are more embodied like dancing and pottery. Causes that are close to my heart are sexual exploitation, mental health and burnout awareness. I’ve had the privilege of doing my calligraphy workshops with women who are starting a new life of freedom away from the street, and with adults struggling with mental health and addictions… or even just having conversations with homeless people while eating a bowl of soup together — these are the interactions that have truly changed me and move me to keep bringing the impact piece into my business.