City: San Francisco, California

Passion: Engaging People //


Before I even moved to the US to attend Stanford, I was receiving emails from a so-called JJ O'Brien who was planning a 100 people-he-did-not-know-yet trip to Colombia. Ask anyone who knows JJ through his different walks of life, and they will tell you a similar story. Bottom line is that he is the fire that engages and brings communities together. He does it with passion, and everything he creates is epic. Including his latest venture Hem / \ Haus, which he recently successfully crowd funded. We visited JJ's colorful home in Lower Pacific Heights, and dove into the piles of fabulous fabric swirling around. We watched him sew his latest collection and screen print the t-shirt collection already on sale while he narrated some of his unique life moments with utmost sincerity. 

On Passion

I create things to engage people. I always go back to writing my application for Stanford’s MBA program and the question ‘What matters most to me and why?’ It was an interesting experience, pairing my answer to that with questions about what I wanted to do with my career. I had never thought of the two things as aligned or tied together at all. All of sudden, I wondered, should I be pursuing a career that is tied to what matters most to me? The whole process took months of pretty deep reflection, but once I had my answer, the essay came together in a matter of hours. What mattered most to me back then: Escaping boredom through interacting with others. Does it still today? Hell yes. I enjoy meeting new people, it spurs my creative process. Everything I do on a creative level is motivated by interacting with other people. I aim to create stuff that purposefully engages people. It motivates me.
When I create a new item for hem/\haus I always ask the question: what attire is most engaging for the social setting I am about to enter? I have always found myself looking for new ways to engage people. Even when I think back, I have always had a very randomly assorted group of friends. Before school I planned a 280 people company meeting for my firm and I loved it; in business school, I started organizing various trips for upwards of 100+ people. Everything was completely new but many of these have become my legacy.

On Mastery

I started my passion with making costumes for Burning Man and other events. I would talk with friends, people at fabric stores and others to help me hone my skills. I chose specific events to make various pieces for. Having a deadline for the event itself helped me stay focused and get various pieces done in a timely fashion. I always tried to build upon the last piece I made, to challenge myself in a new and interesting way. It helped me develop my skills while keeping a 9-5 job and constantly test various ideas out.

On Transition


When I first left business school, I wanted to start an entertainment venue on Market Street in San Francisco. It was an incredibly ambitious plan and never got off the ground. After that didn’t pan out I took a job in the Innovation Lab at Capital One: a job that, on paper, was good for my career and rationally, it was the right next move. I needed a paycheck. I did not have the time and flexibility to organize large events like I had in business school. Instead I organized parties and found different ways to engage people. I planned a Burning Man camp, which was a huge creative outlet, but it took so much out of me, I found myself retracting back to not exercising the creative muscle like I wanted to. That is what led to a bigger uptick in my sewing. It was an easy way to test myself creatively on the side. A couple of hours here, couple of hours there.

On Failure

You have to be open to failure happening early and often. I’ve made a ton of pieces that I thought were going to be a huge hit, invested a ton of time in them, and have had them end up a complete and utter flop. My entertainment endeavor was a big personal failure and really taught me a lot about keeping things small to start, learning from small risks and taking bigger ones on top of those. When I left work, I sold stuff for Burning Man and I thought I was going to sell a lot more. I had massive production issues and missed deadlines, but it taught me a lot about where I wanted to take my business and how to reach my goals. I try a lot of different things and I know I will strike out more often than not. I have learnt not to harp on it, I have learned to treat it as a learning experience. Two fold learning: learning not to fail as badly.

On Fear

My biggest fear is that I won’t be able to align my passion with my career. I overcome my fears by just staying focused, relishing the small wins and having faith in myself.

On Money

I used to live abroad and travel a ton. I have not been out of the country for the past two years. Even with the job, I was cautious with spending, knowing in the back of my head I would want to venture on my own at some point. . I tell myself a lot of this is temporary, that I am working towards a larger life alignment and the “sacrifice” is worth it. I would rather an alignment of my professional life and passions than be unaligned but take two weeks every year to travel. I try and give myself small breaks after major sprints. A midweek trip to Tahoe, a trip to NYC to visit friends - things I can afford but also enjoy - catch up with friends, relax, etc. And if I have to go back to a job? I hope this investment of time and money will be worth it and I will be more aligned in whatever job I may go forth onto next.

On Self-Love

I work out a lot now, a lot more than I ever used to. One hour to one hour and a half to go to the gym. I try not to get down on myself for not having a productive day. You need break time to be efficient. I try to make sure to catch my friends for lunch and dinner as often as I can.

On Inspiration

I find inspiration from lots of different people. I find a ton of inspiration from my friends - I am really fortunate to be surrounded by an amazing group of people who are doing amazing things: personally, professionally, artistically. I’m also very inspired by creative folks who are constantly pushing the boundaries of society. Those who set their own boundaries - not those set my society.

On Support

You have to find people who are real with you and push you: friends, family, everybody. You need more than just cheerleaders - you need people who will push back with you, and most importantly - whose criticism you don’t just push aside. You may decide to disagree, but having that discourse and debate will make you feel more confident in your decisions and help you avoid dumb mistakes.

Advice to the Community

Start small. The best advice I ever received was, ‘What if you raised 400,000 and you need 40 million, what would you do?’ Do the small things. Hit those small milestones and build onwards from there. It makes passion more authentic and allows you to fill out what it is about it that excites you. You also start finding the people that support you. Start a blog if you want to write a book. Do it on the side, then try it out, then look towards your friends. Ask for favors. Fake it ‘til you make it. 80 / 20 rule is a better way to do it.

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Photo Credit: Celeste Noche Photography