By Connie Wardman, MA, SDLT (She/Her)
While all entrepreneurs are passionate about their product, idea or invention, few are quite as passionate about their brand’s values and goal as Jimaye Nguyen, founder and CEO of Jimaye Swimwear, one of the newest members of the Compete Sports Diversity Council (CDSC).
By the time I spoke with Jimaye, I had already read a little about his company and was intrigued by his innovative approach to swimwear and his company’s values of Spirit, Innovation, Luxury, Excellence and Community. So I decided to ask him to tell me in his own words what the Jimaye Swimwear brand represents. The goal of the Jimaye brand, he said “is to use swimwear as a vehicle of empowerment for the LGBTQIA+ community so they become the best version of themselves when they wear it.”
He continued to say that the overarching goal of the company’s values is to give back to the community. When I asked him to be more specific, Jimaye said “it’s to actively look for ways to close the gap for the disadvantaged LGBTQIA+ community, to help the community catch up by lowering barriers to entry for small minority business owners in a way that’s sincere so they can flourish.” From there, he began to tell me his story, and what a story it is!
As the U.S.-born child of immigrant parents, he has two distinct business roles, both of which represent the CDSC’s IDEAL principles of inclusion, diversity, equality/equity, acceptance and leadership. First as “Jimmy” Nguyen, the buttoned-up professional working at a tech company in corporate America and then as his alter ego, “Jimaye” (his given name) Nguyen, the gay son of Vietnam parents who immigrated to the U.S. to escape the Vietnam war, who became an entrepreneur by wanting to find a creative outlet for his spare time.
It’s the creative and dedicated “Jimaye” who drives him in all he does to give back to the LGBTQIA+ and underserved communities in a variety of ways. He grew up watching his poor, hard-working immigrant parents struggle with a myriad of cultural, linguistic and legal barriers as entrepreneurs working to support their family. He saw them often caught in the crazy mix of tax laws and trying to deal with unscrupulous people waiting to take advantage of their ignorance. To him, it all seems like a rigged system where the rich get richer and the poor don’t. Growing up, he determined he’d help change that even though at the time he didn’t know how he’d do it.
Thanks to a degree in Public Health from U.C. Berkley, as senior vice president of The ARIA Network where he runs product development, consumer marketing, business operations and customer support – a predictable schedule with a predictable dress code – Americanized Jimmy Nguyen had seemingly achieved the “American dream.” However, wanting to escape the button-down dress code environment of Jimmy’s 9-5 job. Jimaye could step outside the box and truly express himself as a gay man. He could dress in bright colors, party, have fun and dream of creating his own company in his spare time, one that would bring him joy. But what kind of company?
Growing up in sunny California he had always spent lots of time around water, finding it to be calming and relaxing. So as Jimaye was researching a variety of opportunities as outlets for his creative ideas, he realized he had over 20 swimsuits, most of which were falling apart. Not only conscious of cost but also of quality, he knew that many of his suits hadn’t been worth the price he had paid based on the quality of their fabric and/or workmanship. The lightbulb went on! Jimaye had found his outlet to become an entrepreneur – he would make creative and high quality swimwear but also at a reasonable cost.
When asked about his background experience in fashion or as a designer he just laughed; he said he only ever envisioned himself as an entrepreneur. It was only when others started calling him a designer and introducing him to others that way that it hit him – he was now part of the fashion industry –he was now a DESIGNER. “Fashion is important,” he says, “because it’s about being able to express on the outside who you are on the inside. It’s been a fun experience learning and shaking up this staid industry.” He sources high quality products; threads, elastics and materials that will last over time. He also makes sure his designs are stylish, can be worn both in and out of the water and won’t ever go out of style.
Jimaye certainly has shaken up the industry, not only in terms of new fabrics, like crushed velvet for swim briefs and faux suede swim shorts but also in added accessories intended to make the wearer feel confident and empowered. When was the last time you added a brief topper to your suit that spells “SEXY,” “BITCH” or “ZADDY” in gold tone and shiny stones for a walkaround? And then add the shawls in two sizes, some of them in iridescent material; and finally, add a leather crown to remind everyone that you are royalty.
Are all these accessories fun? Yes. But still, “The spirit of Jimaye is to always promote a sense of body positivity, confidence and self-worth for the wearer, and that means in all areas of life,” says Jimaye – “education, health, etc. When we dress you, we’re helping you be the best version of you; we’re bringing out all the hard work that you put in.” When you look at his marketing you’ll notice that Jimaye uses Asian and Latino models, people not often used in mainstream marketing. “It’s very important to me,” he said, “that it’s out there for those who haven’t necessarily experienced that right level of representation and visibility.”
Jimaye has been strongly influenced by his work with the non-profit Globe Aware that promotes cultural awareness and sustainability. Prior to starting his company, he raised money and took vacation time from his job for two trips, one to Cambodia and the other to Beijing. “In Cambodia,” he says, “there was a huge genocide of very educated people – doctors, teachers – that are now gone. We built schools, taught English and helped these kids who don’t have opportunities because they literally don’t have teachers. That was so important to me because I think when you’re living in the U.S. or a more developed country, you forget the amount of privilege, the opportunities you have and how special or important they are.”
And so Jimaye’s young dream of making things better for the LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized communities is now very much a part of his creative venture into entrepreneurship. He manufactures everything in downtown Los Angeles where he keeps a close eye on quality control by producing as he goes, focusing on smaller batches. “It’s important for me to keep everything here so I can help give back to the local community and create jobs.” Through Jimaye LLC he’s also been able to work with the LA LGBT Center’s career development office to create positions for 10 LGBTQIA+ interns for 100 hours each at $15 an hour. He mentors the interns on social media strategy, marketing and other current skills that can be applied in a variety of work settings.
He brings his own experience to bear with these interns. Through his own grit and perseverance, he built his distribution network from the ground up by cold calling gay boutiques listed in the Gay Cities app. His products are now carried in gayborhoods throughout the U.S. and he’s even begun to be carried in a small but growing number of retail stores. Jimaye credits the support of his customers for his growing business but it’s also because of his marketing approach. In addition to excellent customer service, he says that “We’re a community of unique individuals, fearless, confident, weird, dorky and fun. I like to show in my marketing that we’re all our own unique person. It’s a community that doesn’t take life so seriously. It’s fun. It’s real. It’s a great community.”
And thanks to his foray into entrepreneurship, he discovered new ways to become active in helping the LGBTQIA+ community. He’s now on the board of directors for the LA LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce helping LGBTQIA+ business owners connect and build their businesses and networks. Additionally, Jimaye produces and runs an LGBTQIA+ young entrepreneurs program targeting youth under the age of 30 to help get their ideas and companies off the ground.
The program he produces is a monthly workshop that brings in speakers or experts in their fields to address topics like marketing, pricing strategy, storytelling, branding, legal, accounting and more. He says it only scratches the surface “but we open the doors to say, ‘Here are the questions you should be asking.’” Jimaye continues to say, “As I’ve been growing my business, I realize that LGBTQIA+ people are at such a disadvantage in so many ways. You’re kicked out of your families. You’re disowned so you don’t get knowledge passed down to you. You spend so much time trying to figure out where you belong that by the time you do, you’re 12-20 years behind. The heterosexual population doesn’t have to go through all this figuring out. If you don’t have knowledge passed down to you, how are you supposed to get ahead?”
When I asked him what his future plans are for Jimaye Swimwear, his immediate answer was, “The sky’s the limit.” For 2022 he wants to expand into more physical retailers. The core brand, he says is still swimwear with the fun accessories – the crowns, shawls and brief toppers – all meant to make you feel confident and good about yourself, supporting that. “My dream,” he says, “is to expand into a lot of different verticals and see how far I can go with it.” And after spending some time talking with Jimaye, I have no doubt that “the sky’s the limit” for anything Jimaye Nguyen puts his mind and effort to; and whatever it is, we’ll all be the better for it!
Photo Credit: Jimaye Nguyen