Company with a Cause: Ryan Suda

Ryan Suda at a Blacklava booth.
(Photo Credit:
How many people do you know run a company with the goal of raising social consciousness about Asian American issues? Ryan Suda, owner/founder of Blacklava, did. In a society where it's not popular to stand up for Asian American issues, he did it anyway.

Started in 1992, Blacklava produced "clothing for a new state of mind." One of my favorite t-shirts is a Blacklava shirt that says, "I AM NOT A TERRORIST" (acquired during the G.W. Bush era when people who spoke out against the Iraq war were considered "terrorists"). Blacklava has now evolved into a merchandise empire offering (almost) all things Asian American.

To gain some insight, Ryan recently granted Nourishment Notes an exclusive interview.

What inspired you to start Blacklava?
It just kind of happened. I started Blacklava as a surf based t-shirt company. After failing miserably at that for about 4 years, I stumbled across an Asian American Studies class at Cal State Fullerton and also joined a Asian American theater company called hereandnow. The combination of the two led me to making shirts with Asian American themes. Blacklava the Asian American t-shirt company was never planned. As I learned new things and gained new experience, the company naturally evolved.

What would you say are the biggest factors of your success?
I have a good support system of family, friends, and a community of people who care and relate with the shirts that Blacklava sells. It also helps that I can work a 12 hour day like it was a walk in the park, on a sunny day with singing birds, sun rays, and the smell of bbq. This is a good and bad thing because I can plow through a pile of work that would make a normal person cry and totally feel proud of that.. but at the same time I realize that I can’t do that forever and will need a team of people to help me take this business to the next level. I can’t do this alone. I need to find a good team of people.

Where do you see Blacklava 10 years from now?
If I could totally tap into the part of my brain where reason does not exist.. I see Blacklava with a staff of 5-10 people. I want Blacklava to be in a building.. 2 floors.. no make it 8. My office would be on the 7th floor. The 8th floor would be where I live... because I hate traffic. Each floor would have a window that opened up to a water slide that would take you directly to your car. I don’t know how the slide would figure out what car belongs to you.. it just would. The downside is that you would have to climb back up the slide in order to get back to your office. We would fix that issue in year 11. Blacklava would have an amazing team of thinkers and creators. They would totally have fun and be very clear and effective with the messages that they would be putting on shirts. Blacklava would evolve from clothes to media.. short films, long films, commercials, and candy bars. That’s all I have for 10 years. Wanna hear what I have in store for 20?

If someone wanted to start a business right now, what advice would you give her/him?
Find mentors. Read books. Have a game plan. It’s better to do rather than to over think and not do. Take risks. Make mistakes and learn from them. Have fun. Understand how to leverage time and money. Be good with people. Learn to be a leader. Listen.  

If you were the keynote speaker at the Harvard Business School this year, what advice would you give to the class of 2012?
When you work in business, you'll get into situations where you'll doubt yourself or feel like quitting. The trick is to just accept that feeling and not make it "wrong", just let it be what it is: hard, difficult, tiring. By allowing those feeling to be not wrong, it helps you deal with it in a way where you accept the bumps in the road just as if it’s another element or experience when driving down your highway of life. That was kinda cheesy but hope you get the picture. I have to get back to work now Roderick. Now leave me alone.

To purchase Asian American apparel, CDs, DVDs, books, buttons, or birthday cards, please visit

Ryan Suda at Comic Con 2009 in San Diego, CA
(Photo Credit:

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