When I was younger, I would go to a temple with my mum to pray and meditate,” says Amy Ling Lin, who from an early age was interested in wellbeing and complementary treatments, such as mindfulness and meditation.
But it wasn’t until she was granted a scholarship to study fashion and retail management in 2010 at Syracuse University in New York State that she became interested in the beauty benefits of the nail industry. Despite having never been to a nail salon, a conversation with a friend about the shockingly unfair practices behind the scenes of so many mani-pedis peaked her interest.
The New York Times reported in 2015 that manicurists are regularly underpaid and exploited. Despite soaring growth (the number of salons in New York City tripled to over 2000 in a 10-year period) in the industry, it was discovered that employees, mostly immigrants, were paid below minimum wage, sometimes as little as US$3 per hour, and were suffering ongoing health issues due to chemical exposure.
“I always want to help immigrants, and the nail industry has many immigrant employees,” says Amy. “My dad wanted me to become an immigration lawyer but that’s not my passion – he disagrees with my interest in beauty and fashion. To him it’s not a very decent job, but, to me, I just love making people feel beautiful.”
Amy’s family is from Chang’an in southern China. Her father relocated to the United States when Amy was seven. She didn’t see him again until she too moved to the US in 2006, aged 19.
“I heard crazy stories about immigrant life [in New York]. When [my father] arrived in the US he was washing dishes. He’d had a business in China so it was a huge transition. Suddenly he was making $300 a month and didn’t speak English. He gave me a lot of strength and encouraged me to do something for the community, to give back.”
Amy felt that she’d be supporting the immigrant community if she could make a positive impact on the nail business that in the US is largely unregulated.
“In 2012 I’d finished my retail course and I was working for a marketing company. I studied beauty after hours and took some business courses. That’s when I started looking for locations and asking if anyone was interested in investing in the business.”
What proved most difficult for Amy was finding a location that would allow her to sign a lease. “I didn’t have a credit record, and my salary wasn’t high so I got a lot of rejections,” tells Amy, who eventually rented from a landlord who initially declined her application.
“They told me my business would fail in six months. They thought they were doing me a favour.” Amy didn’t give up. “I reached out again and told them I understood their concerns, but that I knew the risk more than anyone else. I said, ‘Please trust me, if I didn’t have the confidence in this, then I wouldn’t do it.’”
Amy was approved and opened her first nail salon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2012.
“That made me believe that we can make something that seems impossible, possible,” she says. It was in the throes of running that business that Amy realised the high level of chemical ingredients that were contained in many of the nail products. That was the catalyst to launch her latest business venture, a salon that’s free from harmful ingredients that have a negative effect on clients’ nails and the health of salon owners and technicians.
Manicurists handle chemicals and breathe fumes from a range of polishes, solvents, drying agents and glues all day – some of which have been linked to cancer, miscarriages and compromised fetal growth.
“It caught my attention that so many crazy chemicals were being used and no one was asking the suppliers or the manufacturers why. [The suppliers] say, ‘It’s the bestselling product,’ so business owners use it – I used it myself, in the beginning. Many of the salon owners are immigrants and their English is not that good so they just take what’s available, no questions asked.”
Amy started researching ingredients, the reasons for their use and the benefits. She remembers going to a wholesale warehouse in Brooklyn, New York – it smelt so bad she couldn’t walk in, but the salesperson was pregnant.
“I felt so bad for her,” says Amy. “I realised in that moment I was right to think the industry needs to change. I was like, ‘Wow, I have to do something.’”
It was then that Amy embarked on her next big challenge – applying to undertake an MBA at New York’s Columbia University. “I’d always thought about going back to school because I believe education can empower people. My dad never graduated from high school and I’m the first one in my village to go to college,” she reveals, adding that when she left China to study, family and friends questioned why she’d spend years studying when she could go into business and start earning money. Embarking on an MBA, she received the same reaction.
“They’d say, ‘Just because you spend more money on college, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make more money.’ Some people don’t believe in education, but I’m always very stubborn about what I want. I don’t think it’s going to help me make more money, but it will help me think and teach me leadership skills.”
Amy calls the process of getting into Columbia “very, very hard”. She estimates she spent twice as long studying as other applicants because of the language barrier.
“When I moved [to New York] I didn’t speak English, so it was a completely different language for me. But I felt I had the potential to learn, so I put extra effort into it. But that’s how I grew up – I don’t necessarily think I’m smarter than someone but that I have to work harder.”
After graduating from Columbia, Amy worked for a year with a chemist to develop a ‘10-free nail polish formula’ – meaning the polish is free from 10 harmful ingredients commonly found in nail polish.
Amy had searched for alternative non-toxic products but was surprised by their scarcity in the market; “That inspired me to make my own so I would know every single ingredient we use.”
Then, with a collection that was specifically formulated with health and safety in mind and completely free from any animal testing at her fingertips, Amy launched Sundays Studio in April this year. The space is home to the Sundays lifestyle brand that includes 42 non-toxic, vegan and cruelty-free lacquers, as well as their unique salon services, which includes a meditative nail treatment that focuses on delivering glossy talons at the same time as stress release, and harks back to those days with her mum visiting the temple. It’s as much about how customers feel as it is about how they look.
“It’s not just about pretty nails. I want people to be aware of the effect of the ingredients in the products they’re using. Too often people are willing to sacrifice for beauty. I want them to understand the risks,” says Amy.
She aims to empower not only her clients to look after their health, but also her staff. In part, her goal is for people to hold nail artists in a higher regard.
“People respect hair stylists and I want them to have the same respect for nail artists. Our whole team shares the same vision. There’s a lot of discrimination in this industry – I personally experienced a lot. Not speaking fluent English, people think all sorts of things, like you don’t deserve to be in this country. I don’t think immigrants deserve that.”
Amy started her business with money loans from friends and family, and a private investor she secured through networking. On pitching her business idea she says: “Of course I had to do financial projections [but] I definitely made it very personal. It’s not about financial returns, it’s about the mission behind it. Other people care about this and they’ve invested because they want to see a change in the industry.”
Rather than an overnight fortune, Amy envisages long-term impact.
“I’m interested in the branding, and that takes a long time. It’s not like software or an app that gives a higher return. I think if I spend a year building the branding there’s a lot of potential, and Sundays has already grown faster than expected.”
Amy is clear that her goal has never been to become a millionaire, but to make an impact on people’s lives.
“That’s more rewarding and it’s more sustainable. I’ve always had a tendency to want to help people, especially the less privileged. I want to support them. I feel I’ve done something meaningful when I see them so happy.”
Go to dearsundays.com to find out more about Sundays.