The executive producer of ComplexCon, Isis Arias, breaks down the meaning of leadership and why to stay curious
To look for someone during ComplexCon is like spotting a Pigeon SB Dunk in a crowd. Besides the constant traffic of people, you’re also surrounded by art and streetwear activations that have the power to overwhelm your visual stimuli. Like an endless stream of the best content on the internet — your mind races, and eyes continuously swipe the room with the mind double tapping and taking notes. I kept my eyes peeled at the long and winding line starting to form around me. Fans dressed in the flyest and elite branded garb standing by for Takashi Murakami, but I was the only one waiting for someone else. Within an instant, she spotted me. Unassuming, Isis Arias approached me wearing a black knit midi dress, Bred 1s, and a clear purse that tucked away an off-mode walkie talkie. There wasn’t a way to expect she's the executive producer of ComplexCon, the boss behind one of the biggest consumer conventions for streetwear. But you immediately sensed that she is someone important. You felt her strength and a command in her stance, yet you also felt a sense of grace and poise. It’s the finesse and edge of being a woman executive, the nurturing and inviting side that meshes with direction and vision. She went right to work. The line, which I learned was for a meet-and-greet, now snaked between stanchions. Every guest excited, but patient. The flow of getting each guest to Murakami worked like clockwork. The exchange between Isis and Murakami was warm each time as she placed a memorabilia for him to sign. It was a particular process, but you felt the comfortability between the two — a trust, that while Murakami was the star of the show, Isis was the one running it. After awhile, Isis’ crew took her lead and led the rest of the meet-and-greet. From afar, you can see how she leads through mentoring others, giving guidelines and direction, but allowing her team to own the moment.
After an hour of Murakami’s meet-and-greet, we started walking the floor of the convention. We weaved through guiding Murakami, his entourage, and security as Isis shared stories with me of how her leadership is interchangeable with mentoring. She pointed out that I just witnessed an example with the meet-and-greet, and how the point lead absolutely killed it. As swarms of people would crowd us, Isis would navigate through the crowd effortlessly. We’re gliding from one side of the convention to the other and I asked her more about her thoughts on mentorship.
CHARLIE KANE of FYG: What do you think you can get out of a mentorship?
ISIS ARIAS: I think it’s the access with someone who’s got more experience than you or different experience than you. Because sometimes your mentors are older, wiser, and sometimes they’re just peers that might just not be that much older or wiser to a degree, but they just have a different experience. I think when I am trying to learn something new, I’m putting out the effort to better myself and look at executives across the field. I think at any age you can benefit from a mentorship.
FYG: Did you know that mentorships are a really crucial and valuable thing for you when it comes to growth? Did you always know to seek this out?
IA: Well I guess for me, my first real mentor was my mom. Like she helped me have a professional sense of self. Just based on how she expected us to carry ourselves — how we were expected to answer the phone, speak a certain way, etc. You hear as a young adult to go find a mentor. In terms of having one, I haven’t just had one, but different groups of people that I had met over the years to help me grow and help me gain skills that I needed over time whether it’s hard or soft skills.
Even if you’re not able to do all the things you wanted to do — if you put a chip in the glass ceiling, and someone came behind you and knocked on it, that chip is going to become a crack, and that crack is going to become a hole, and we all sort of just push forward. What’s been really important to me is that I might not be the best to ever do it, but hopefully someone who comes behind me is able to do it better.
Isis is constantly mentoring, whether it’s how she manages her team, how she answers messages, or her infamous Pep Talk Tuesdays that features an IGTV video and also a weekly newsletter of themes around encouragement, vulnerability, and connecting to your value. Week after week she shows up for herself just as much as she’s showing up for others. As we made our way backstage and into VIP, I’d glance around to find her in team huddles or 1-on-1s with her team, fixing any missed opportunities or gathering updates. It’s no coincidence that Isis lives and breathes a mentoring approach when she grew up in a teaching and nurturing environment and sees these learning opportunities as a way to get better. Some people can see mentoring as a task, scheduled dates, or text or email chains. For Isis, it’s a constant exchange and building another person.
FYG: What is your idea of leadership?
IA: There’s a few different thoughts here. The leaders that I knew were fearless and curious. Even if they weren’t really sure, they sort of acted fearless. I feel that though the best leaders supported me and allowed me to grow. They allowed me to sort of fall on my face and still made sure I was picked up and supported, and we learned some things together. I’ve taken this as a management direction now. I don’t micromanage. I give direction and expect people to follow through and do it the way they need to with guidance. You can’t really screw something up to kill a company in a day. And there’s obviously mistakes probably worse than others. But until you learn something, and learn it because you’ve done it, then that’s how you grow. And for me, the best leaders in my life have allowed me to grow — allowed me to explore and continue to be inspirational. There is sort of a selflessness to a degree, because you’re showing a way and paving a way.
FYG: Do you feel like being fearless, curious, and selfless is taught today in education when they talk about leadership?
IA: Not necessarily. I don’t think anyone is super innovative by playing it safe. And I don’t think in school systems you’re taught to challenge. I think in school systems you’re taught a structure. You are taught authority. You are taught how to learn a certain way. I don’t think there are certain things that are taught in a sense, but are learned over time.
Throughout the floor, Isis is constantly being stopped. To her team she'd immediately ask, “how are you feeling?” As she passes others and says "hi," they always asked how she is and compliments her on the success of the first on the road ComplexCon. She even gets stopped by attendees periodically, disarming any complaints using transparency and appreciating the value of their input and experience. She puts the humanity behind a corporation, a reminder that people, businesses, and even ComplexCon are continuously evolving and to extend empathy during growth.
FYG: Do you feel like vulnerability is important in a leadership role?
IA: Yea! Vulnerability is important. Because if you don’t show who you are, you’re not open. I think being vulnerable is accepting challenges and taking them head on. I think in corporate settings you’re not allowed to be emotional, especially not as a woman, right? So it’s difficult in professional settings. You know you try to be tough, handle business decisions, take risks, and do all those things which are important. But I do think there is a set of vulnerability you have to have just to even do the role. You never want to shuttle your soft side so people don’t take advantage. But you do need to have a sense of sensitivity to what your staff is doing and help balance that. Being able to have real human connection and empathy, vulnerability plays into that factor.
The biggest misconception of being a boss, climbing the corporate ladder, or owning your business is treating leadership as a performative role where we act tough or too authoritative. When in a position of influence, being inaccessible also becomes a stereotype, making us feel like our biggest heroes are too busy and unreachable. By the end of our time together, I’m talking loudly trying to tune out JUICE WRLD while I’m seeing Murakami in the corner of my eye wilding to "Fine China." Isis humbly stands towards the back with me and we talk about her plans after ComplexCon Chicago wraps. Somehow she’s mastered answering back texts and conversing while being present. And even then, after one conversation with Isis you feel renewed. You can really sense her grace and power. And it’s a beautiful balance to observe a woman of color in an executive position that’s defying guidelines of who and what an executive should be. She can be a mentor. She can be a mentee. She can be a leader. She can be stern and determined. She can be kind, straightforward, hip, patient, and intelligent. She’s carving out spaces for the future and for the culture, as she’s continuing to claim her space as well.
FYG: So many people reach out to you, but I feel like you’re just inviting in that way. Even if you’re super busy, why do you take the time to mentor others?
IA: For me, it goes in part with what I do. I work in youth culture. So there is a benefit to me. As much as I’m helping to give advice from an experience perspective, I like hearing what people who are just entering the field are doing or people who are navigating that part of their lives. From a perspective who’s younger than me, I like knowing what it is they are listening to, what they are doing -- what is the cultural thing? So it does help me keep me on my toes on what’s going on in the industry. Even if you’re not able to do all the things you wanted to do -- if you put a chip in the glass ceiling, and someone came behind you and knocked on it, that chip is going to become a crack, and that crack is going to become a hole, and we all sort of just push forward. What’s been really important to me is that I might not be the best to ever do it, but hopefully someone who comes behind me is able to do it better.
FYG: Do you have any advice for anyone who’s working towards being in your similar position?
IA: At the very least I think people are afraid of hearing “no" and that you’re going to be a failure. And I always tell people, “Do not be afraid.” Failure comes with lessons, right? But also understand that sometimes you gotta look at it in a different way. Sometimes you need to pivot. Sometimes you’re going in the right direction, but facing the wrong angle. And sometimes, things are not for you. I always speak to people about staying curious because that is always something that’s going to allow you to ask questions to navigate the direction you need to go.