.Kyla Zhao’s Valley Verified on High Tech and High Fashion

From high fashion to high tech, author Kyla Zhao doesn’t hold back

Infinitely un-boxable and demonstrating uncontainable energy, 25-year-old Bay Area-based Singaporean author, Kyla Zhao, has devoted the majority of her professional working life to fashion, technology and literature, which shows up in her newest book, Valley Verified.

Zhao has been selected for Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Leaders of Tomorrow Asia list. Additionally, she has signed a six-figure, two-book deal with Penguin Random House while sparking the interest of a Hollywood adaptation. Her meteoric rise has been featured in Vogue, Elle and Cosmopolitan, and she has even penned essays and fashion articles in Vogue Singapore, Harper’s Bazaar and Tatler

Her debut novel, Fraud Squad, was written while completing her college degrees—BA in psychology and MA in Communications—from Stanford University. “I wrote Fraud Squad during the earliest part of the pandemic in 2020,” she says. “It was my junior year and there was lockdown and loneliness. Most of my family is back in Singapore. Even now, I visit only once every two years.”

Zhao continues to write while working full-time as a marketing analyst for a Silicon Valley tech company, where she worked 9am until 6pm while writing her newest book, Valley Verified. “I write best from 9am to 2pm,” she says. “My friends know not to ask me out in the morning on weekends. I don’t think I’ve been to brunch in years.”

Zhao shares with the Valley Verified protagonist—New York fashion writer Zoe Zen—in pangs of self-doubt and a tendency to question her value in the workplace, along with an intense yearning for self-discovered identity. Zen jumps ship and soars across the country to the West Coast in a new job working for a startup tech company in Silicon Valley. “I was exploring a lot of topics, so I didn’t want to put everything in there,” Zhao says of choosing to write about the parallel between high fashion and high tech. “Like body bias: any woman in fashion or any woman at all is aware of it. That Zoe is not super thin is in there, but it’s only one aspect and there are other elements I wanted to be more prominent.”

Zen instantly and with increasing trepidation recognizes distinct matches between the worlds of tech and fashion: sexism, elitism, body-shaming, extreme competition, as well as deceptive, questionable and exploitive business ethics.

“Zoe’s journey is partly based on my journey,” says Zhao. “When I wrote those scenes, I was going through a confidence crisis at work. Writing it gave me hope. Writing gave me a safe place to consider my insecurities and to talk about them as authentically as I could.”

Authenticity is established with ease, Zhao says, when it comes to plot beats and structuring how a story best unfolds. “I know instinctively when to escalate tension and when to hold back. That rise and fall has a natural cadence that comes partly because I love reading and consuming content in all forms, like even short TikTok videos.” 

Zhao adds that commonalities and contrasts related to gender equity and workplace abuse between the fashion and tech worlds may not have felt the progression of movements like #MeToo.

“In fashion where most of the people on the ground are women, the leadership are still mostly white men,” she says. “We know from studying and researching psychology that white men hire white men as CEOs because people hire people who resemble themselves. So [they] invest in white men, even if those men know nothing about fashion and design.”

In tech, Zhao admits that it’s mostly men on every level. “With workplace sexual abuse, there was a lot of holding men accountable early on,” she adds. “They make a big deal for a while if something happens, but as long as those men make money for the stakeholders, they forget about it.”

Zhao believes that the solution is funding for women and people of color that’s long term and doesn’t position the recipient for collapse if a first collection or tech innovation fails. “People should be allowed to grow [as entrepreneurs] and have monetary help that doesn’t require they be a one-venture, instant success.”

Zhao celebrates that success is increasingly democratized by social media, which means one video posted online that goes viral can establish a new celebrity. She recently created her own TikTok account and already has roughly 131,000 followers. “You don’t have to have an agent and still, your life can change overnight,” she says. “With fashion and tech you have to then know how to turn it into something, but just getting a foot in the door of industries with so much gatekeeping is amazing.”

In the future, one of the primary topics Zhao plans to explore are female relationships, especially questioning the misconception that other women are always “the competition” and only a few can succeed. 

“When we see it that way, we’re letting men get away with something they’ve taught us to believe,” says Zhao. “When we see women as the reason we’re not successful, we don’t realize it’s a situation men have created by having made less opportunities for women.”

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