Meet Jon Cotay, owner of AKIRA Chicago

Over the past 7 years, AKIRA has taken Chicago fashion to a new level. Beginning with a single store in the Wicker Park/Bucktown area in 2002, it has since expanded to six retail locations in the trendiest neighborhoods of Chicago with additional locations at Northbrook Mall, AKIRA Men’s in Lincoln Park and the opening of AKIRA Shoes this week in Lincoln Park creating the similar feel to the store in Bucktown. AKIRA is an event driven company which propels its marketing by partnering with the most influential fashion vendors as well as corporate sponsors to make each event a success. AKIRA throws the best parties and runway shows in Chicago, with the most cutting edge trends in fashion and dedicated clientele. Recently, I was fortunate to meet co-owner Jon Cotay of AKIRA Chicago for dinner and an interview at Cafe Sushi in Chicago’s Old Town Neighborhood on Monday October 26th. In this interview I wanted to publicize the fact that AKIRA Chicago is owned by Asian-Americans, a fact that not too many people know about. During the course of the interview Jon discussed his life as a Filipino-American in the states, transitioning from a Registered Nurse to an entrepreneur, and providing advice for those interested in entering the fashion industry or business world.

You can view part II of the interview at PinoyEmpowerment.

Please tell us who you are.

Jon Davidson Lim Cotay. I’m 35 years old. I was born and raised in Manila, Philippines. I came to the US when was 12 back in 1986 with my family when President Marcos was overthrown in order to find something new and exciting. We got here in Chicago and from there we stayed with some relatives for a couple of month. Then my parents started out with an 18 unit motel in Indiana, since then my family has been in the motel business for the past twenty-some years now.

The biggest challenge growing up in the US was moving around a lot because we had to go where my parents had to be at. The last time I counted in 14 years we moved 13 times. On top of that I went to like three junior highs and three high schools. The longest I ever stayed in one place was in college, where I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My parents being typical Filipino wanted me to go pre-med, but in my head I really didn’t want to do it because I wanted to do something in business. However, I was still able to fulfill part of my parents’ wishes because I majored in Nursing. I have a Bachelor’s in Nursing that I received back in 1998.

Supposedly, I was to take a one year break to go into Med school, do the MCAT and the whole works. However, I decided to take a different route. I worked as a nurse full-time when I moved to Chicago after college, but at the same time I wanted to do something else. I did real estate for 10 years and at the same time I did nursing for 8 years full-time. It came to the point for me that, “What should I be doing when I’m past thirty?” So I set a goal for myself if I didn’t do anything productive by the time I was thirty, which I was going to sell everything off to buy a small condo, move to Florida, buy a small condo, and follow the tennis circuit as a tennis groupie.

AKIRA owners Eric Hseuh, Erikka Wang, & Jon Cotay

At twenty eight, opportunity came in when two of my college friends Erikka Wang and Eric Hsueh who both went to U of I working in computer consulting got together at a restaurant deciding to start a business. The biggest challenge was none of us ever worked in fashion nor were we big shoppers. We all came from different Asian backgrounds; Eric and Erikka are both Chinese Americans. Erikka migrated to the US from China when she was a kid and Eric was born and raised in Springfield, IL. None of us were fashion savvy, but we just decided to open our first store in Wicker Park/Bucktown area when I was 28. So that was 7 years ago, now we just opened or tenth store, a website, about 170 employees and hopefully more by the time this month ends. That’s to keep you up to speed.

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for Filipinos who plan on entering the fashion industry as a designer or model?

The biggest challenge for Filipinos or people in general is that people like to talk and get reassurance from others. You’re not going to get anywhere, you have to challenge yourself. Even with us, we figured let’s just get started and we also produce our own products. As individuals you learn how to cope with things, you learn to adapt, and you’re there to learn. The best part of my job is that I learn every day. We never had a book or plan of action, we just went with the flow of things. As long as you’re open to that, you can do whatever you want. You can get into design, retail, or any kind of business you want. But you have to get started. However, if you’re just talking about it you’ll go nowhere and ten years later you’re gonna still be sitting in the same place talking about the same thing.

Where did you get the name AKIRA?

When we were brainstorming for name, AKIRA was something that popped up. AKIRA is very common in Japanese and Eric Hseuh had a Japanese friend growing up. We wanted to have a name that had no definite meaning but has a little bit of a twist and something that roles out the tongue pretty well. There was nothing behind that name and we wanted to create the image behind it. We wanted to make it unisex; there was no limit to the name.

AKIRA Storefront on famous State Street

Have been a part of or are currently in any organizations that focuses on the Filipino and Asian community?

Yes, for the Asian community. We coordinate with Dr. Yvonne Lau at DePaul University. We do a couple things like public broadcast tv. Right now we trying to work on a program at DePaul to push younger minorities to meet us and have more of a role model in business as opposed to medicine. We have outreach program at other colleges and a program with IEDT, which I got once a semester to talk to students. In addition, we have an internship program within our stores. People are curious of the interworking of what it is like to be behind retail. So we do have different programs.

What advice do you have to give for Asian American business owners?

Everyone has different backgrounds. Whether you were born here or came here to the US when you were younger, the one thing we all have in common being Asian is knowing hard work (seeing your parents do it). You really have to put your heart and soul into it. But if you do find that niche for you, it does not feel like work because you enjoy yourself that time will fly by so fast. But if you are miserable at your job, definitely it’s time to reevaluate your life and see what’s important for you. Give it a try and if it works out it will work out really well.

What do you feel needs to change with Filipinos and how the world views us?

I think the biggest thing is you cannot get rid of stereotypes unless you become a better example for the Filipino community. Right now, it’s not like we went out there and started a business in order to give a good name to the Filipino community. We went out there to become good citizens, bosses, and teach the younger people what a good role model should be. There is nothing in stone that says you have to do something. So being Asian, I think the biggest thing is that you are an example out there especially if you are in the public eye and dealing with everybody in the community. Then one thing you have to do is really watch out for yourself and really set more of an example to the community. From there, the community is the ones who will break the stereotype. Stereotypes don’t go away over night, it will go away over time. But if you are a good influence, good business person, and good person in general the stereotype will definitely go away. This will give Filipinos a better opportunity in any field if we set good examples out there.

Do you look up to any famous Filipinos as role models?

I never had a Filipino role model that’s the funny thing. When I was growing up I didn’t have much roles models because I really worked a lot with my parent. I viewed my parents as hard working and discipline; they were more like role models for the working aspect. Sometimes I wish they had more of a balance and relaxed a little bit more, but they were workaholics. One thing I try to do is feed off of people’s energy. If I meet someone and I feel there are such a good person, I try to make part of what they do as a role model as my own. More like the actions I look at and not the overall package because no one is perfect.

What is your favorite Filipino dish?

I have a lot. I could eat Filipino dishes all day. I’m a big Lechon fanatic, Kare-Kare because of Bagoong, and Dinuguan. The three main Filipino dishes I love. I always keep a Bagoong in my fridge. I eat everything, I’m hardcore 100% eat Filipino dishes.

Is there any additional information that you would like to share with us?

If you go under you can see a lot of different events that we do. Also, if you go to the stores what I try to do is try to make a social network out of it so that you are always informed of what’s going on. You can look me up on Facebook Jon Cotay. My number is pretty open so if you have any questions please feel free to call me at 312.804.4183. Thank you again for listening and hope my interview here today makes a difference.

Fil-Am Ako shout-out to our contributing editor Attorney Kristine Tungol Cabagnot for coordinating the set up of this interview and to Maggie Morgan, VP of Marketing at AKIRA Chicago for providing all the photos and media kit.

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