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Meet Leslie Kim of Dynamite Starfish in Palms

Today we’d like to introduce you to Leslie Kim.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Leslie. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
The life I have now is what I have always wanted, but never thought I could have. I never would have imagined myself making a living off my creativity and love of rock climbing. But I also don’t think it could have been any other way.

As a biology student in my undergraduate years, I had a strong rebellious streak and a passion for writing and drawing. I was also an avid martial arts practitioner and longed for experiences outside what I considered a privileged, suburban life. After two semesters of studying biology, I saved up some money to study abroad for a semester, then went on to live in Perth, Australia after getting engaged to an architecture student whom I admittedly didn’t know very well. I dropped out of my biology program and began studying design. When I came back to the States a year later, I was single, broke, and still very discontent. As many who are struggling with self-identity in their 20’s often do, I landed myself in a toxic relationship for many years. It wasn’t until that relationship had come and gone that I saw just how off track my life had gone. I had no self-care priorities, and my career was nearly in shambles. I reconnected with my passion for art and writing in a desperate attempt to satisfy my need for creative work. I finally finished my degree in graphic design at 28 years old. I interned for and was eventually hired by a wonderful design studio. I also began to show my most honest work at local art galleries.

Reconnecting with my creative side and making art for shows was an invaluable experience. At first, the art I created was at best, unpolished. If I wanted to reach people, I was forced to craft my stories in more interesting and compelling ways. As a shy person with social anxiety that could be debilitating, I learned how to communicate more effectively through creating, showing, and reworking my art. Working full time at a studio where I truly admired each and every designer was amazing, but I wanted more. I have always wanted to have a creative practice of my own that stimulates new thoughts, spreads joy, and encourages others to think about their experiences in different ways. So in 2014, I left the studio. I took a job in social media advertising just to try something new. That didn’t last long, and finally I made the jump to becoming a freelance designer with a passionate side hustle.

Parallel to my journey of self-discovery is the story of my growth as a rock climber. Having tried rock climbing for the first time in 2003, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue. However, at that time, I couldn’t afford the gym membership, nor the specialized shoes and other accessories. In 2013, a lot of climbing gyms began to open up in Los Angeles. At this point, I had income and needed some kind physical outlet. As soon as I started rock climbing again, I became obsessed. I put my art aside, and rock climbing became my way of connecting with people. I made friends who were supportive and caring, and we took off on many climbing adventures together. Naturally, I began to make drawings about climbing. They were light-hearted, and I wanted to explore the shared experiences of climbing across cultural boundaries as opposed to just displaying the “coolness” of climbing.

After making a few doodles, some friends convinced me to put the art on shirts. Having studied printmaking in college, I knew how to screenprint, so I started printing the tees myself. If I was going to make graphic tees, I wanted to make sure my project had a name. I decided on Dynamite Starfish – a climbing move where all your limbs are outstretched, and you are desperately trying to achieve upwards momentum. The name made me laugh out loud, and it reminded me of the way climbers put in so much effort to get to the next hold or achieve their next climbing goal, though the results are very likely failure… until that one time you get it. Laughing and failing and trying again… that’s what I love most about both rock climbing and just living life.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Absolutely not! The road to where I am now could not have been more circuitous… but I have a hunch that’s the way it goes for most entrepreneurs. Of course, I’ve had tangible struggles like problems with my printing press right before a big order, or running out of tees and rushing to print them after miscalculating my inventory. Those were stressful moments, but each problem taught me how to tighten up my system and learn how to be a better business. The biggest struggle was overcoming my shyness. I had to learn to make cold calls and emails, and delegate tasks, too. After many years of staying quite small, I finally built up the confidence to believe in my company enough to make it scalable. Until this year, Dynamite Starfish was very much a one-person operation. I did all the artwork, screen-printing, marketing and sales myself. I’m learning to be a better delegator and let experts do what they’re good at!

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Dynamite Starfish is a rock climbing inspired arts and apparel company. We make tees, tanks, art prints and stickers that spread joy and create laughter in the rock climbing community. Dynamite Starfish’s greater goal is to promote mindfulness in the climbing community and beyond. We also help promote awareness about outdoor ethics. We do that with our artwork and messaging on all platforms. Another way we support outdoor ethics and conservation is by donating a portion of profits to local organizations doing on-the-ground work to conserve natural environments and keep up access to climbing areas. We’ve done this is day 1 of doing business, and it’s a big priority for Dynamite Starfish. Out of all the companies out there that make clothing for climbers, I think our mission, unique style of artwork, and mindful business practices are what really sets us apart.

What were you like growing up?
Growing up, I was really awkward and shy but creative with big ideas. As an only child, I would spend every day painting and crafting in my dad’s office while he was out working as a gardener. Socializing was baffling to me, but I loved cartoons, drawing, and reading. I was also a pretty active tomboy who liked to ride bikes, swim and learn martial arts.

I also spent a lot of time with my grandmother, since she was the one who was home with me most of the time. She taught me that you don’t need to buy groceries when you can grow them in your backyard, and I remember sometimes helping her prepare ingredients for a full day of making dumplings that would last us months. I think I got my very practical mindset from her.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Brian Speigel, Sabrina Claros, Big Beauty Pitches, Benjamen Baron

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