You can tell a lot about the values and direction of a company by its leadership, its board and who it hires on staff. As many brands today are doing, engaging with the public around their product often does have to carry weight socially, politically as well as personally. It’s not enough to stand by and be neutral anymore, and frankly it is refreshing to see numerous brands, labels, designers, and owners take a stand.
One company that is doing this is DropLabs, a visionary haptic apparel company charting the way for immersive entertainment technology through technology that allows people to feel sound. DropLabs is not only redefining how we experience the worlds we immerse ourselves in— games, music, movies, and television— but it is also charting a new way forward for those left at the margins of fashion and technologies many revolutions— namely, those in the Deaf/HOH community and those with differing physical and sensory capabilities who are also looking for new and innovative ways to experience the world around them.
Leading marketing and brand storytelling for DropLabs is Angella Nguyen, whose work and personal passion to marry market experience with social justice is exciting to see. In her role at DropLabs, Angella has led the brand to serve as a nexus for some of the most important conversations in technology: accessibility, individuality, justice. She has instituted partnerships with several voter equity campaigns, spearheaded programs to promote rising Black designers, dancers, filmmakers and activists. As a woman of color, Ange is passionate about diversity in fashion and technology, mission-forward brands and building authentic platforms that redress barriers for equity-seeking groups.
We spoke with the visionary leader to learn more about her own career path, why she is passionate about incorporating social causes into corporate settings, and what DropLabs is currently working on.
Tell us where your love of fashion, design and storytelling came from:
I’m the daughter of an engineer and a hairstylist and have always seen my tastes and interest straddling the line between design and function, especially with fashion, which has always been my medium of expression. Growing up, I would dig between my parent’s closets, thrift shops, and flea markets to Frankenstein together the latest trends. Since upcycling was a huge part of my fashion identity, I wove that into a capsule collection and essay that I entered into a contest, which I won. Chanel named me “The Future of Fashion,” where I predicted the need to curtail some of the rampant consumerism common throughout the industry, and shift to purpose-built, multifunctional design made from more sustainable “non-traditional” materials.
This really impacted how I approached my education. Inspired by my dad, I started off as an engineer but I also took on a separate major, Costume Design with a Focus in Fashion, to fuel my own happiness. I did my Masters in Fashion Styling in Milan, and moved to NYC to start my fashion career. From assisting to eventually starting my own consultancy, I took my resourcefulness and scrap to help clients build out their dream campaigns, often with very limited budgets.
After many years of running my own business, I returned to California to study management and complete my MBA. I was still trying to find my balance between tech (my roots) and fashion, when I landed at Tesla Motors, one of my dream companies, doing Marketing Strategy for their Apparel and Lifestyle Products line. It was the perfect entryway into the tech world.
Your career has seen you in a number of impressive spaces, working for Tesla, founding a healthcare startup, and now working for Droplabs. What has been the common thread for you among all these experiences?
After a certain point of working in fashion, you start to see a lot of your peers drop off for various reasons – but the high majority was fueled by the search of “something more.” I’ve worked with many people who left fashion to be yogis, go back to education, or to work at nonprofits. I wanted to find meaning in my work, which may have had something to do with why I left a successful fashion consulting practice in New York to pursue my MBA in California.
This allowed me to transition my skills and interests into the field of impact technology, or “do-good tech.” Tesla Motors was a great first start and allowed me to combine a love for design and aesthetics with a technological innovation that benefited our planet. I ended up leaving to pursue a healthcare startup with a co-founder who I met at school where we ambitiously sought to tackle one of the many problems in our healthcare industry. We went through the prestigious incubator, Idealab, and started WhiteCoat Healthcare company to solve for gaps in the insurance industry that went from urgent care at your door (concierge medicine) and led to housebound seniors being chronically under-serviced in the healthcare sector.
I ultimately found my footing at DropLabs, which somehow magically combined my diverse backgrounds in fashion, design, wellness, and “do good” tech that I’ve worked in my entire career.
When did you first start at Droplabs, and what was it about the company that got you excited initially?
During my time in fashion, I was surrounded by and mentored by strong women: I didn’t experience power struggles on a gender level. Moving into tech, automotive and healthcare was a rude awakening that male dominated fields still struggle with patriarchal power and can sometimes be inhospitable to new perspectives. This fuels with a lack of diversity and makes for workplaces with frequent lateral microaggressions.
What sold me on DropLabs was Susan Paley, our CEO. She was “the magnet” that drew me in. I was craving modern leadership and empowerment, and her past experience in the business world made me really curious to see what things could look like in a female-led tech company.
Oddly enough, Susan also did work with Idealab and we bonded over that. Our networks overlapped and there was a lot of synergy so I took the leap and started mid-2019 and haven’t looked back since.
We love what Droplabs is all about! Can you share about some of the innovative ways the company is disrupting fashion and technology?
“Wearables” of this nature have historically been obtrusive and uncomfortable. DropLabs really put human-centered design first in developing a form factor for a technology that you would be comfortable enough wearing everyday, or around your own house. I love that this “invisible tech” is housed in familiarity- there was no learning curve or change of habit. I could be having a total experience in my own world, and you’d have no idea.
This kind of human centered design is really propelling important conversations around accessibility and the kinds of technologies available to support people in experiencing the world in a myriad of ways. We’ve gotten great feedback from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities that this is one of the few options in a long line of technologies and products that let them experience sound in a novel, comfortable and thoughtful way.
We’ve been in a few studies with institutions like University of Pittsburgh to see how this kind of feedback can impact sensory processing. It has profound implications for folks who experience challenges with tactile processing, and can even be used as a wellness and trauma recovery tool in therapeutic settings.
Droplabs has also been on the forefront of marrying social justice with fashion and technology. Can you tell us more about the voter campaigns and the initiatives to amplify the work of Black designers and creators?
DropLabs is an official partner with WWAV (When We All Vote), Michelle Obama’s initiative that fought voter suppression, drove registration, and reached the youth vote. We used our combined audience of 60K between our socials and email lists to mobilize the vote with regular voter literacy content. Some actions included a giveaway of our shoes paired with WWAV merchandise, prompting entries by way of registering to vote and/or encouraging friends to register.
Most companies try to leave their voice out of politics and current events. Susan empowered us to run with topics that we were passionate about which, I can’t stress enough, was so refreshing and made me proud to work at DropLabs. During the height of the BLM movement, we used our platform to disseminate information on how to support frontline efforts or how to donate to community-led groups or bail funds. We highlighted other Black creators and lent our platform to Black voices.
Many of the DropLabs Fam are Black artists, producers, dancers, athletes and we stand in solidarity with them. We can’t be silent when energy around our company comes from the artistry of Black creators. At the start of COVID, we had IG Lives three times a week, to highlight and interview our ambassadors, who were actively involved in the BLM peaceful protests, and asked them to relay their story on what it was like to be in the frontlines in Atlanta, LA, and D.C.
In keeping with highlighting Black creators, we’re launching our sock program. Socks are our love language. We wanted to dedicate that working with Black artists and creators for limited drops, in addition to supporting small businesses.
Droplabs is redefining what accessibility in fashion and tech looks like. We’d love to learn more about the collaboration with dancer and activist Antoine Hunter, and how the company is working to serve those in the Deaf/HOH community:
Antoine gave incredible feedback in the company’s inception on how we could fine-tune the tech to make it more sophisticated, nuanced and with higher fidelity. We postponed our initial launch based on this feedback and it was so worth it – his suggestions utterly transformed the product.
When Antoine uses the shoes to listen to music he can tell what instrument is playing – that’s how sophisticated the shoes became with his feedback. Hearing him speak about the freedom the shoes give him, how he is untethered as a Deaf person and as a Deaf dancer, is one of the more rewarding instances in my career.
Antoine is a joy to work with and is an incredible activist. He created the Bay Area Deaf Dance Festival, which we’ve supported for the past few years. His students were able to do a class in the shoes before launch and some burst into tears from the sheer emotion of the experience. We’ve done silent discos for a wrap up party for his dance festival and the joy to dance and feel in unison is seriously moving. He’s steeped in the cultural community in the Bay Area and we work with him to support him as he’s supported us.
As a woman of color you are passionate about mission-driven brands and how they use their power to create more equal spaces. Can you share more about this and how you incorporate it into your work?
My work in marketing involves cultivating platforms, conversations, and audiences. One of the best ways I can put my talent to service is through using our platform and other cool things in marketing/comms/tech to elevate voices that are usually left at the edge of conversation.
DropLabs is all about finding your voice and defining your unique way of experiencing the world. One of the best parts of my job is scouting partners and people who lead interesting, incredible lives and are generous enough to share how they see the world with other people through our platform.
As a woman of color, I’ve had many instances in my life where I felt like my point of view was sidelined, undermined or overshadowed. Those kinds of experiences stay with you – but I’m using that to do good, and to work with and develop platforms for people who are real changemakers and are passionate about community, culture and equity.
What have been some of your favorite campaigns and initiatives to work on at Droplabs?
Of course the pre-COVID activations! Some notable ones include Google Room 98. It’s a secret room at the Google Campus, the beautifully converted Spruce Goose Hangar, and is an intimate setting intentionally designed for visualizing data. We had an esteemed list of leaders of industry as guests to hear Susan speak, accompanied by a dance by Antoine. Everyone then put on the shoes, tuned into the same channel and went into an immersive soundscape that spanned 2 screens, each about 10’x32’ in size. We experienced sounds like a glacier cracking, a stampeding herd, a thunderstorm and even a Formula 1 race.
Afterwards, there was a cocktail and networking hour with everyone still in the shoes. We put on a “Social Frequency” which led the guests to stay longer as planned. The event manager had to extend the bartenders’ hours, which she said has NEVER happened before.
Another fave of mine was TheBasement LA, a special event for us. At most events, “VIP” is normally away from the energy and action of the main stage. At TheBasement’s live event, we were in a secluded VIP loft on the second floor. We plugged a transmitter directly into the DJ booth, which sent a signal to silent disco receivers attached to the shoes. Despite being on the second floor, guests felt like they were on stage with the performers. They didn’t lose any of the immersion, energy and sensation of being at a live event.
During COVID, we had to pivot to strictly digital. Our “Escape At Home” campaign was the perfect blend of reality check and escapism, using the shoes to get lost in your favorite content. You can stream digital concerts and feel like it’s live in your own living room, sink deeper into your game and amplify your gameplay. Miss the movie theater? Put on a flick and create your own 4D viewing experience. It was a reprieve from stay at home orders, without needing to leave.
How can technology and fashion be a force for cultural change in a way politics or other industries can’t?
Fashion used to be region based – you could tell where someone was from or where they traveled from the way they dressed—there was a geographical component to the self expression. It gives real insight into the values and creativity of a community while also being very personal. “I’m a Cali Girl,” or “I’m a Manhattanite” was a personality trait, enforced by visual cues like wardrobe and your aesthetic.
We’re seeing now more than ever that technology is the main driver of a connected world. Technology and marketing has accelerated things behind outdated demographic markers. The way fashion was bound before has been released with technology and Internet 2.0.
Even the way we talk about demographics is the thing of the past as we lean into psychographics: interests and motivators that inform behavior. People don’t sit neatly into buckets and are much more complex. We were once judged for not being perfectly defined and now, everyone is a multi-hyphenate with diverse interests and passions.
Cultural change rides on the backs of Technology and Fashion, which have always been the fastest at evolving.
What is the next big thing we should look out for from Droplabs?
This shoe is just our first product and we have other form factors in the works, new features to be released, and a robust patent portfolio that we’re productizing. We have some exciting partnerships around health and human performance that we’ll be announcing in the next 30-60 days so keep an eye out!
You can keep up with everything DropLabs is doing on their website and socials: