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Episode 20: Taking The Leap With Paulina Dao

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

Paulina Dao, freelance photographer and founder of Bay Area Outdoor Women, talks about taking the leap into freelancing, being a person of color in the outdoor industry, and defining success on your own terms.

Follow Paulina: @paulinadao


Episode transcript

Lisa: Hi, welcome to Outside by Design, the podcast about the business side of creativity in the outdoor industry. Thank you so much for being here. I know a lot of our listeners are marketing managers and brand managers and writers and photographers and people in editorial. So thank you so much for being here and giving me some time between your ears. That's so awesome. And I'm grateful to everybody who hangs out and listens to the podcast.

We've been seeing a ton of growth on the podcast, so people are liking the content and that's really exciting. I'm your host Lisa Slagle, by the way. I have received feedback that I don't talk about myself enough on the podcast. But yeah, I own a creative agency called Wheelie Creative and we represent brands in the outdoor industry and do tons and tons of production work and strategy and creative direction and art direction and design. It's a dream job, and I'm so grateful for my crew, and there's been a lot of exciting stuff going on. We just moved offices and that has been insane. I have been living at my office painting walls and getting everybody's stations a little more cleaned up and a happy place to come to work every day and hopefully every year and keep all these employees happy so… making good headway there for sure.

And then I just got back from Outdoor Retailer and then Project 16x which was a really interesting event in Telluride where 16 women from the outdoor industry came together to talk about entrepreneurship and hang out in Telluride and go on hikes and sit in hot tubs and it was amazing. It was a really interesting event.

Today I'm talking to someone I met at Project 16x and her name is Paulina Dao. She's awesome. Paulina is the super smart high-achieving individual who's also really thoughtful and methodical and I think pretty meticulous because she is going through this creative struggle that I think we can all identify with.

I think it's really a relatable episode. I think everyone will find something in common with Paulina of you know, “well am I enough?” and “is the work I do enough and is this work fulfilling” and “what does it mean to be fulfilling.” And she also is a champion for change and a champion for what she calls the diversity dilemma in outdoor media and I think I think you're going to like it. I think Paulina has some really interesting things to say about creativity and using all sides of her brain and she's just a lovely, lovely human being as well.

So. Yeah, enjoy the podcast.

Lisa: So hey Paulina, thank you so much for being here today on Outside by Design.

Paulina: Thanks for having me.

Lisa: Yeah! The first question we always ask everybody is to describe your setting. Where are you coming from? And what's your environment look like?

Paulina: So I am currently sitting in a phone booth at my other full-time job. I work as a software engineer for a giant financial corporation and we just moved offices and they have these super cushy phone booths where it's nice and quiet and a bunch of people actually just moved on to our floor and it's really noisy. So this is a really nice break.

Lisa: That's so cool. Do you enjoy being a software engineer?

Paulina: I enjoy the process of solving problems with code and I also don't mind sitting at a desk all day because it gives me a really good schedule. It really also is pretty flexible and allows me to go pursue other things like trying to break into the freelance photography industry and travel a lot or work remotely. So yeah, I feel like we don't have very much time on this planet. So really being able to pursue like what makes your heart happy and full is really, really important. And I also want to note that it is that is like a very, very privileged way of thinking.

Lisa: Yes. But that's awesome and that leads me to my next question is what lights you up and what sets your heart on fire? Is it photography?

Paulina: For me It's really I think being able to tell stories about really cool people doing cool things and also being able to share our public lands and just getting outside with the world. I feel like a lot of people are like, “Oh, you know, going outside is really hard. Hiking is hard. I don't know what to do” or a lot of my non-outdoorsy friends say like, “oh, you know, I can't go hiking with you because you do all these like crazy badass things.” And so that seems scary and, you know, it's really not that scary. I don't think a lot of people realize that I am like the world's slowest hiker and I just plan for that accordingly. Being able to share how easy it is to get outside is really important to me.

Lisa: That's so cool. And I know that you are involved very heavily - I think you started something called the Bay Area Outdoor Women?

Paulina: Yeah, so I started a Facebook group called Bay Area Outdoor Women, which mirrors my friend’s group called Pacific Northwest Outdoor Women which is based out of Washington, Oregon that -ish area. The idea is to create a safe space for women to connect with one another in in the Bay Area to inspire each other to go on adventures and also just to find adventure partners.

For me, I feel like it's really hard to make friends around here. A lot of people are very into their jobs. Not that that's bad. But it's just really difficult to have friends who are not your coworkers. And a lot of people here are transplants from other areas as well.

Lisa: So that's a good avenue.

Paulina: Yeah, so I try to host events like once a month or once every couple of months, but it is a little a little bit tough just because I'm not here very often. And oh God, taking time for myself is something that I've realized is also very important.

Lisa: Yeah. You seem to be doing a ton of things because you have a full-time job, you're freelancing, you’re, you know, helping women get outside and you're involved in the climbing community. So, how how do you take time for yourself? Is that climbing?

Paulina: It is climbing and also kind of just like finding ways to really disconnect from my laptop, phone, all that stuff even though it's really hard. I feel like I'm just always playing on my phone when we're on road trips or driving places. It's just like, oh this is a good time to check up on things, but it helps when we go places where there's no service.

And sometimes it helps for me to just leave everything behind like leave the phone or maybe put my phone on airplane mode because sometimes I maybe want to just snap some random shots of stuff. But leaving the camera behind and just going out with my boyfriend or friends where there's no service just to kind of recharge.

And lately… so I was gone for almost all of July save for like a couple of days here and there. And I was gone almost all of last week on a project and so it's really been nice to kind of just hang out at home and catch up on home things. I have a lot of house plants and it brings me such joy to to care for them and cultivate them and that's really what I do on the weekends when I'm not around.

Oh, and the other day I picked up a Nintendo switch and got really excited about playing video games.


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Lisa: I think if you really wanted to jump off your software engineering job and go full time with photography, I think you would find great success that way.

Paulina: Yeah, and so I think that's that's kind of where I'm at right now. I'm trying to figure out what that looks like and it's basically so tiring working two full-time jobs, and it makes me really in a way appreciate my tech job more because there's so much less hustle.

So everyone's always just like oh, you know, like full-time jobs are terrible, but I'm like, well, you know, there's a little there's trade-offs to both. Is really what it is.

Lisa: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I remember for me, I kind of basically started out my career freelancing and then I took one job at in the photography department. And then I was like, nope, I'm going back to doing my own thing. And so I never had that fear or the “oh my gosh, I have to leave something stable for something unstable or something uncertain.” I can't really imagine like how how much of a game changer that would be.

Paulina: Yeah and for me it’s my parents.

I grew up in a very strict household. My parents immigrated here from Vietnam and you know, they were all about like - you work really hard to get a full-time job as a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer and then you’ve made it. And so I think having that societal pressure from like my family and lot of people that I grew up with or like the environment that I grew up with makes it a little bit scarier to pull the trigger as well.

Lisa: Wow.

Paulina: Oh, yeah, especially because our high school 10-year reunion is coming up and I'm actually supposed to be planning it but I feel so far removed from everything in high school. And somebody was like Hey, we're going to pick who we think are the most successful people from our class and we're gonna do like a little profile on them.

And I'm just like this is so wrong. You can't like define people’s success for them, you can't just pick people and say hey you're successful versus like someone else and say hey you're not because it's so subjective. You know, like for me like being a CEO of a company is yes, it looks successful on paper but it doesn't really feel like success to me. Because that's a lot of responsibility and for me like success is you know, being able to go out and travel a lot and have a flexible schedule and it was just things I've been thinking about lately.

Lisa: Yeah, that's an interesting conversation to have, like what defines success is so subjective and being creative is usually something that you can't like squelch. You have to let that passion and that creativity and that need to create, you have to let that out and it doesn't really follow the path of like the typical society success story. And so I think it's really important to acknowledge that success is a special thing and a personal thing and I just think it's awesome that you're you're going to make the move you're thinking about it. That's exciting though. What what do you think is next?

Paulina: Like I said, definitely trying to do the whole freelance photography hustle. But if for some reason that doesn't work out or you know, if I don't want to do that full time, I would really love to work in a space that helps get people outside.

I'm not really sure what that looks like, but maybe some sort of like outdoor science school or summer camp. Because I used to, when I was younger, I used to volunteer at Walden West outdoor school and science camp and it's so tiring, but it's so much fun being able to show hiking, climbing, high ropes courses to young people and inspire them to get outdoors and protect the outside.

There are a couple nonprofits that I follow from time to time. One of them is called the Wampler Foundation and there's a man his name is Steven Wampler and he's the first person with Cerebral Palsy to climb El Cap. And he went to a summer camp for people who are differently abled and that's how he realized that you know, he could live a normal life. Yes, there might be challenges and setbacks, but, he's married and he has kids now and so he owns this camp called Camp Wamp somewhere out near like Truckee or North Lake Tahoe and they send differently-abled kids. They're all expenses paid for like a week or so. I'm not quite sure of the details every summer just to like go hang out and like go kayaking and swimming and hiking to show you know, like hey, yes, you might be a little bit different but you can still you can still do all these things. So be able to work in a space like that. I think is would be so amazing for me.

Lisa: Oh, yeah. And you, you're very interesting to me because you have all these passions that are you know, tech and creativity and Science and your brain seems to be the total package.

Paulina: I feel like it's a little noisy. There's... I don't know. I think a lot of people think that you know, you can only do one thing with their whole life, but now I'm at a point where I'm starting to realize that it's okay to have different interests or like different careers because you know, we're always evolving as people and so like you know who I was 5 years ago is very different from who I am now, and I'm still starting to come to terms with that and say, you know, it's okay for you to like want different things.

Lisa: Absolutely.

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Lisa: I know you do a lot of photography for brands and Instagram and things like that. So like for people out there who maybe aren't even as far along as you are with your photography and your brand ambassadorship and all that. What do you think that brands want to see when they work with a photographer or an ambassador or an influencer... what do you think that bigger brands are looking for?

Paulina: I think a lot of brands are just looking for different. In the sense that, like you are a person with your own lived experiences and stories to tell. How can you tell that in a way that's unique to you? And that's something that I always try to remember when I'm like, you know scrolling through like my feed and seeing similar photos with thousands of likes. I’m like well, yes this photo has thousands of likes but this isn't something that I think embodies me or the work I do so that's something that's really, really important.

Also going off of that, I feel like a lot of people base their self-worth or you know, how well they are doing off of Instagram and how many likes and how many followers they have and it's really hard not to get caught up in that but it's important to remember that you know, Instagram is just a platform. And there are plenty of people out there who are like doing it and making a career out of photography or whatever they're trying to do that are on Instagram with not very many followers. And so I think you know if you're doing good work the right people and brands will always be able to find you and Instagram is like not really a good judge of that because it's also a platform that you do not control and it can shut down, things can change at any minute.

Lisa: Yeah, and I always have to remind myself because of the work we do as a creative agency, you know, and I'm employing people and we do so much with Instagram and all the brands are so passionate about Instagram, but at the end of the day Instagram is an app and it's a fake little world inside of your phone.

Paulina: Yeah. Yeah. It's so fake and it's such a time suck and it's so hard not to get caught up in it and I have to tell myself that every single day.

Lisa: Yeah, it's like a Chronicles of Narnia style wardrobe. It is, like you go into your phone and there's a whole world in there, but you can always always leave. I don't know. I find it fascinating how big that has become in people's personalities and you know going out there just to get the shot or you know going on trips only because they’re Instagram worthy and things like that. So I think it is really interesting how it is an app, but it really has built its way into people's experiential lifestyle as well.

Paulina: Yeah, whatever the next Instagram is will also be very interesting to see.

Lisa: Absolutely. Or if there will be a next Instagram. Who knows. It's really exciting.

So would you say that... how am I going to ask this question? Okay. So I loved the article you wrote called “Why don't they look like me?” And it's about the diversity dilemma in outdoor media and this article is on your website and you wrote this in November 2016. Yeah, I think this is just like a very well written article. I remember reading that this kind of personal narrative. So tell me what that article did for you and and your career. The opening sentence says “some time last year I was tossed on a list of women of color to follow on Instagram.” Like this was a really well written article. Just tell me kind of where that came from and where it's gone since then and how you think things have changed since 2016.

Paulina: Sure.

So I started going to like outdoor retailer in maybe like to 2015 or so and for me, I just felt like very out of place because I was the only woman of color or like person of color in that space and you know everywhere I looked like in videos and films and commercials, advertisements, you know, there was really nobody who looks like me. And coming from the Bay Area that's very strange because you know, if you go out on any given trail like within a two-hour radius of the city there, it's really diverse out there.

So a friend of mine who is a super prominent voice in the Outdoor industry, especially like in the influencer type of area was like super adamant and like was like a champion of diversity.

And so she was coming to California for a photo shoot and I was like, hey, you know, if they need more people, more diverse people, just let me know. And then I just never heard back from her and then later on I found out that they were still looking for people and so it kind of just got me thinking about like the media space and you know, why aren't there more people of color?

And so it's been almost two years since I wrote that and it's been kind of a wild ride, you know. REI has their new Force of Nature, I guess, ad campaign and a lot of companies are really looking to partner with more people of color and like for me personally, the article was super helpful because it connected me to a lot of people of color in the outdoor industry. And that for me alone has been amazing because I've never felt like I had anyone there like to really bounce ideas off of and talk to you and you know share stories with. So that has been really cool. And it just widens my network of people to help… for me as a photographer, I want to really try to like portray like the world that I live in and like the way I see things right?

And so having a network filled with like a lot of people who look like me or maybe like don't look like me but like, you know have their stories and experiences from you know, where ever they came is really really fun.

Lisa: Absolutely. I always say that like the mountains don't care what you look like or how able-bodied you are or where you come from, or if you're hungry, like the mountains just don't care about about anything and the mountains are the great equalizer for nature itself, I guess.

Yeah, I think that's a really powerful article that you wrote and I'm glad that the voices are getting louder for women in the outdoors and people of color and you know, I think that you are, just by being yourself and by putting out really high quality, beautiful content of how you interact with nature, I think you are helping, you know, amplify different voices and just doing you.

Oh man. Well, is there any advice you can give to our listeners who are mostly marketing managers and people in editorial and things like that?

Paulina: Oh gosh, hire more photographers and writers and people of color. Yeah. I feel like if there was anything I had to say it would really be that, because you know, yes we have made a good chunk of progress but we can we can still do more and I think the more we uplift others’ voices and stories and images, especially people who don't look like us, I think we just have a more well-rounded community.

Lisa: Awesome. That's some good closing advice. Well, people can follow you on Instagram @PaulinaDao. And then where else, can they follow your website?

Paulina: Yep, my website at

Lisa: Perfect, and thank you so much for being on the podcast. I think everyone is going to identify with your story and your, you know, questioning, and I really enjoyed talking to you.

Paulina: Awesome. Thanks so much.

Lisa: So thank you so much to Paulina for being on the podcast. I'm excited to follow Paulina and see where the career and her photography continues to grow and evolve. I think, I think it was just one of the most relatable episodes and people I've talked to on the podcast so far, so exciting, exciting stuff.

Tune in next week when I talk to adventure photographer Kylie Fly. Kylie is very energetic human being who can hike to the top of anything with tons and tons of gear and I'm excited to have Kylie on the podcast next week. Here's a sneak peek.

Kylie: I kind of hate the word authentic because who frickin’ knows what that means. But like that's why I go for candid. I don't like that posey stuff. I don't like telling people like go over there and do this and that and the other. I mean, sometimes there are certain things where you might have to move something or position someone and obviously that's the nature of the work as a creative director, but… really, it's about like capturing people doing what they do in the most natural way possible. And if there's something that I saw that I missed, then those are the times I might interject and be like, hey, that was freaking awesome. Will you do that one more time for me? Then they'll be yeah, okay! So it's like sometimes that's the way it works, but, in general, yeah, I kind of like to be a shadow, a fly on the wall so to speak so I can capture people in their most natural element. Ideally.

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