Onto’s Jilleen Liao Doesn’t Shy Away From The Hard Questions

If you scroll through the grid of Onto founder Jilleen Liao’s Instagram account, @heavydiscussion, her page is noticeably free of selfies or food pics. Instead, her feed is filled with posts about current events and news clips that address everything from sexism in the skate industry to racism in fashion.


In the current political climate, social media with a strong message has become par for the course, but Liao’s posts strike a decidedly different chord. In a sea of images that might declare that “The Future is Female” while hocking merchandise for the revolution, Liao’s account pushes the discussion further than just a “like.” Much of this is due to Liao’s thought-provoking captions that provide much-needed context and history to the issues at hand, providing a platform for not only learning, but also dialogue.


Take, for example, her recent posts on the bizarre college admissions bribery scandal involving actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; while many corners of the Internet used the situation to create a plethora of memes and jokes, Liao dove into the structural inequality of the issue, addressing how elements like race and economics affect things like school funding and access to higher education.


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Another side to this college admissions scandal is that from scant articles I found online covering the aspect of “political donorship” of those charged it would seem a majority are Democratic donors. In addition- one of the core questions of the pending federal Affirmative Action case SFFA v. Harvard largely focuses on whether Harvard violated the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against Asian Americans. As an Asian American- this very timely fraud scandal is kind of a perfect metaphor for the ways in which the AAPI community is used as a racial wedge to support the white supremacist agenda of proving essentially “institutional” reverse racism. How r u about to aspire to dismantle affirmative action essentially championing “race neutral” policies under the guise of meritocracy when none of your concern extends to trying to sue to “Eliminate admissions edges for wealthy white alumni would be a logical start.” VIA Salon “At Harvard, according to a filing in the current case against the university, alumni children — known as legacies — comprise 21.5% of accepted white applicants, compared to 7% of Hispanic admits, 6.6% of Asian Americans, and 4.8% of African Americans. Thus it can be difficult for universities to justify keeping these preferences in the absence of countervailing boosts for under-represented minorities.Harvard and other elite universities typically justify legacy preference, when they talk about it at all, as a legitimate reward for alumni loyalty and volunteer work. They portray it as merely a tiebreaker between applicants of equal merit. Court filings, including Harvard’s internal reports, show otherwise. • The real scandal, as they say, is what’s legal. At 38 colleges, including Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania, there are more students from the top 1% of families by income than the bottom 60% (families making $65,000 or less per year), according to a 2017 New York Times analysis. The children of alumni get a leg up. So do the children of major donors; a recent lawsuit over Harvard’s admissions policies revealed the details of how they are treated as much as revenue generators as they are for their

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“I think that it’s hard for people to passively engage with my platform,” Liao tells COOLS. “It’s not really designed to be for passive consumption. You’re going to follow it or you don’t. You either like what you see or you don’t agree with it. I don’t really have a middle ground for what I post.”


Liao’s ability to speak to a diverse range of issues stems from both her coming-of-age and her multi-hyphenate status. Born in Taiwan, raised in San Francisco, and now living in New York City, Liao is the founder of footwear brand Onto, which seeks “to make covetable products accessible to a wider audience,” which in this case means beautifully made sneakers made of globally sourced, premium materials like grazed aniline cow leather and suede.


Onto’s conception was born out of two deeply personal and very different experiences: Her time as a teenage girl skating the streets of San Francisco in the ‘90s, and her time in the fashion industry in New York City, where she cut her teeth interning for designers like Marc Jacobs and Rachel Comey. Later, Liao went to the legendary Cordwainers at London College of Fashion, a program that produced Jimmy Choo, Sophia Webster, and Charlotte Olympia, before returning to New York, where she apprenticed at E. Vogel Custom Boots & Shoes while working at Autumn, one of New York’s most beloved skate shops. More design gigs followed until Liao decided to create Onto in 2015 with the intent to make shoes that infused superior craftsmanship with the energy of the skate scene she had come of age in. With the creation of Onto, Liao decided to reformat her decade-long blog, where she sounded off on current events and her life, into an online platform and speaking series about women and skateboarding. That has evolved now to include her Heavy Discussion Instagram account.

Onto's Jileen Liao Doesn't Shy Away From the Hard Questions With 'Heavy Discussion'

Courtesy of Heavy Discussion

“I think it was a sort of confluence of the evolution of social media and the news that led me to re-contextualize what the blog used to be,” Liao says, before noting that she hopes people don’t look to her as an influencer or activist. “The stuff I’m posting about is pretty relevant because people are trying to change systems right now and, in order to do that, you have to be involved in conversations and be willing to challenge yourself to think and speak critically about those things. What’s important to me is the ability to be able to talk to other people in my community. I get to talk to different kinds of people who react differently to what I have to say. For me, the value is in engagement with other people who are also concerned or who need a place where they can be like, ‘fuck this shit.’”


While some might be hesitant to sound off on politics or social issues as an entrepreneur, for Liao, the decision was easy, something she attributes to growing up transnationally, having split her time between the United States and Taiwan, and now, splitting her time between New York, her home base, China, and Italy, where Onto’s shoes are produced. She also credits her experiences in the skate space for making her reflect on topics like gender equity and misogyny.

Onto's Jileen Liao Doesn't Shy Away From the Hard Questions With 'Heavy Discussion' 3

Courtesy of Heavy Discussion

“I think you are politicized no matter what,” she says. “And if you’re not politicized as an everyday individual, then you have the privilege of not being so.”


For Liao, whether it’s asking the hard questions or crafting a pair of sneakers, the goal remains the same: sincere and passion investment in the world and people around her.


“It comes down to just caring about stuff,” she notes. “I think it’s hard to find people who generally care about stuff. And being able to navigate what that means is what separates someone who is detached from something and someone who is reflectively sharing the sentiments that other people might feel but don’t always talk about.”

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