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June 2024
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Lisa Sun Redefines Confidence

The 2024 Golden Gavel recipient has gone from lacking gravitas to owning it.

By Ruth Nasrullah

2024 Toastmasters Golden Gavel recipient Lisa Sun speaking onstage in white dress with hand on hip
Photo courtesy of Gravitas

Lisa Sun’s track record of success makes her a natural choice to be the recipient of this year’s Golden Gavel Award. After all, she is the founder and CEO of the inclusive clothing brand Gravitas, as well as a national bestselling author and a popular speaker who has presented at some of the biggest corporate conferences around the world.

Those accomplishments, however, are only part of her story. A precocious student, she skipped two grades and entered high school in Southern California at the age of 12. She set her sights on an Ivy League university, but her parents, who were immigrants from Taiwan, worried that a top-tier private college was beyond their financial reach.

They began searching for ways to support their daughter’s college aspirations. A friend in their community told her father about student speech competitions sponsored by service organizations. These contests offered the winners college scholarships from 5,000 to 10,000 USD, and he suggested that she might benefit from Toastmasters, of which he was also a member.

“He told my dad ‘Why don’t you and your daughter come join us at a meeting and see if you like it?’” Sun recalls.

Although she was too young to join, the club invited her father to attend meetings. That opportunity helped him improve his English skills, while allowing her to occasionally observe and study the club speeches.

Ultimately, Sun won more than 20,000 USD in speech competitions over the course of her high school years.

So how did a girl who entered high school two years ahead of her junior high classmates grow up to be a professional speaker, business owner, and author? It started with her family.

The Strength of Immigrants

If you ask Sun who she is, she answers that first and foremost, she is the daughter of immigrants who owned a Mongolian BBQ all-you-can-eat restaurant in Fontana, California, a city that in the early- to mid-’90s still had something of a small-town feel.

“My parents’ restaurant was really the center of a lot of activity in this little city and the thing that was really meaningful was to see what it takes to create something from nothing,” she says.

Her parents also instilled in her the value of working hard. She held several part-time jobs while in high school, saving toward her college tuition. She helped in the restaurant as well.

“I always say I cut my teeth on the family business because from an early age I was working in the restaurant,” she says.

Life in the Corporate World

After finishing her degree at Yale University, Sun took a position in Washington, D.C., with McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. She worked in their global fashion and luxury practice, making her way up the management chain. That experience, she says, taught her client service, the value of friendship, and mentorship skills. She takes pride in having been one of the few women of color in the boardroom.

However, after a decade of long hours, high pressure, and constant travel, she decided to leave McKinsey and take a year off.

Although Sun treasured her experience with McKinsey and describes it as the place where she learned critical leadership skills, it was time for a break from the fast pace. By this time, her parents had retired to Taiwan, and during a visit there, her mother encouraged her to find a new job. Sun reflected on the work she had done, what had been rewarding, and what had inspired her personally.

One incident particularly stood out.

“My first boss at McKinsey told me I didn’t have gravitas and told me to buy a new dress, look in the mirror, and love myself,” she recalls.

She took that comment and used it as the foundation for building a company. She formed Gravitas in 2013, as a retail clothing brand with a goal of creating dresses that would fit and flatter women of all sizes, from 0 to 24W. She filed a global patent for her size-inclusive apparel, with a mission to catalyze confidence.

Her clothing instantly resonated. A month and a half after launching, Gravitas was featured in Oprah and People magazines and on the Today show. She began receiving emails and letters from women describing how Gravitas dresses had given them the confidence to navigate professional and personal life events.

“We had this groundswell of support and what ended up happening was we realized that through our products, people were sharing their life stories,” Sun says.

The Science of Confidence

In her book Gravitas: The 8 Strengths That Redefine Confidence, which came out in September 2023, Sun drew on a quantitative study on the idea of confidence in America taken from a 1,000-person survey of women from a range of backgrounds.

She points out that while confidence is often seen as a reflection of performance, the dictionary defines it as an understanding and appreciation of trust in your own abilities. In other words, a mindset.

“[The survey] identified eight different types of confidence,” she says. “Most of us have two or three—my mom has all eight—I only have four. The whole idea is to change the language around what it means to be confident.”

The eight types of confidence—which she dubs “superpowers”—are leading, performing, achieving, giving, knowing, creating, believing, and self-sustaining.

“What we realized is that we’re all born fully self-confident,” she says. “Ask any 5-year-old what they’re the best at in the world and they’ll tell you.”

The book essentially combines an analysis of how society tends to define confidence and an outline of concrete steps enabling the reader to identify their superpowers and rebuild a sense of confidence.

2024 Toastmasters Golden Gavel recipient Lisa Sun posing in blue and white outfit outdoorsPhoto courtesy of Gravitas

Bringing Gravitas to Speaking

Sun is also a professional public speaker. Her speaking agent, Matthew Jones, president and CEO of Leading Authorities, says she is a highly prized speaker by clients. “People connect with her,” he notes. “She comes from a very personal space—she’s telling her life story. She leaves a trail of happy people wherever she goes.”

Her speeches encourage people to cultivate the courage it takes to change direction in life, and go outside of their comfort zones. As the daughter of immigrants, she has seen firsthand how the power of self-confidence can propel people to a success they never imagined.

The Golden Gavel Award is particularly meaningful for Sun. She has never forgotten her time observing Toastmasters meetings, and feels that experience with her father provided her with invaluable insights she couldn’t have gotten elsewhere.

Today, she lauds Toastmasters as “one of the few places in the world where it’s risk-free and you’re encouraged to experiment.” She remembers being exposed to concepts like structuring a speech and the importance of timing.

“The kindness and generosity of those gentlemen in taking me on and coaching me and training me and being so proud when I started winning competitions was invaluable.”

Sun is now a role model to many, whether they are budding entrepreneurs, aspiring speakers, or perhaps someone like her—an exceptional first-generation American aiming to build gravitas to achieve success and fulfillment.

Learn more about Lisa Sun and Gravitas at on her website. Learn more about the Toastmasters 2024 International Convention.


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