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Cassie Cheng

Cassie's parents were both raised in Taiwan, eventually finding their way to California. And like most immigrants living on the West Coast, they dreamed and prayed (and whispered their hopes in small Asian circles) that their eldest daughter would one day aspire to become … a doctor. A physician. A software engineer. 

Really, anything but an artist.

It wasn’t that they didn’t support Cassie’s creative dreams. Far from it. They just got caught up in the hype with all the other parents. They wanted to make sure she found a job that could pay. Not just in exposure, but in real money.

Toying Around

Cassie figured if she had to follow the traditional path, then she could at least have fun while she was doing it. She decided to start making and selling her own brand of plush friends. She called them “talkproof toys.”

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This wasn’t just some Etsy account that she managed from her parent’s garage. In the ten years that followed, Cassie served as founder and designer of the company. She sold over 500 plush items in more than 30 countries. Her work was featured in Stuffed magazine. She received an overwhelming amount of shout-outs on the web. And she later extended her brand into a line of Collectible Pastry Pals.

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And somehow, in the midst of her success, she remembered to go to school.

Back on the Path 

When Cassie graduated from her highly-selective, academically-competitive high school — an institution with students so intense they had to award 30-something students the title “valedictorian” at commencement — she went straight to college. Well, community college. Not because she couldn’t get into to a four-year school. But because she really had no idea what she wanted to be studying and didn’t see the point in paying to make up her mind. She was also, you know, running her own company, which kept her pretty busy.

She fell into sociology and criminology. That is, of course, until she started channeling the voices of her parents: What can you actually do with that degree? Are there any PAYING jobs that you can apply for? What about internships? She transferred to UCLA, changed her degree to anthropology, and continued to question what was next for her life.

She knew she wanted to do something creative. But her parents might not approve. And even if they did, she didn’t have the degree she thought she needed to pursue it.

Then she had another idea.

Living Every 90s Kids’ Dream

If she couldn’t openly join the creative world, Cassie felt pretty confident that she could sneak her way into an office where creative people worked.

She started applying for non-creative internships throughout the California area, and it didn’t take long until she heard back. You may have heard of the company — or perhaps watched their programming in your Saturday pajamas. Their logo is a giant orange “splat,” and they’re the only business celebrated for “sliming” their employees.

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That’s right. In the summer after her junior year, Cassie started working for Nickelodeon. Not as an artist, but as a Content and Community Manager. What does that mean, you might ask?

“I worked on this multiplayer game called Monkey Quest. If you’re familiar with Club Penguin [Author’s note: I was very familiar], my job was basically to monitor the discussion boards, find all the words that kids shouldn’t be saying, and make sure that they weren’t giving out their addresses to strangers.”
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Her office space was covered in Neopet murals and stuffed animals. And it was there — among the pictures of Poogle, Chomby, Quiggle, and Moehog — that Cassie first learned what an art director was. She remembers the artists in her office complimenting her work, and getting a taste for that sweet, sweet personal validation. She wondered if this might be the path for her.

But all good things must come to an end.

Before graduating from college, Cassie managed to squeeze in one more small internship. This time at a little animation studio called DreamWorks. She spent her 9-to-5 working with the international consumer products team, but took advantage of any opportunity to fraternize with the creatives. 

When she finally crossed the stage at UCLA, Cassie had two impressive internships under her belt, a degree in anthropology, and no clue what she was going to do.

Joining the Circus

For three years after her schooling — after all the toys, all the Neopets, all the slime — Cassie found herself back on “the path.”

She started working jobs in healthcare, much to her parents’ not-so-secret delight. In the positions that followed, she learned how to speak with the elderly (apparently old women love her), trick children into the dentist chair, and convince people that health insurance might actually be a good idea.

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Around 25, she remembers going through a quarter-life crisis (“or maybe it’s a mid-life crisis,” she predicts ominously). Once Cassie finished paying off her loans, she decided enough was enough. It was time for her to do the thing that everyone told her not to do. She quit her job in August, moved from San Francisco to Atlanta, and when Labor Day rolled around, she started her new life … at the Circus.

“So, I applied to this design school in Atlanta. It’s called the Circus. It's like taking the two days before your final exams — you know, the ones where you’re just cramming it all in. Take that and stretch it over two years. Like, I’m pretty sure we all just drank Soylent for the whole first quarter. We were into it.”

For the first time, Cassie was able to bond with her creative community. Not as someone backdooring her way into the industry. But as one of them.

When she thinks back on the experience, she recalls that the Circus might have been the first time that she didn’t need to ask, “Is this where I’m supposed to be? Should I be doing something else?” Partly because she had no time, but mostly because she had found her people and her passion.

Making Art That Speaks

When asked about the future, Cassie notes that she’s still figuring it out as she goes.

She’d love to work on branding for a brewery. Or maybe a food truck. Or maybe a restaurant. Then we get into a 15-minute conversation about the best food in California, as well as the top places to eat in Atlanta, Austin, St. Louis, and more. Honestly, only ask Cassie about food if you have a napkin at-the-ready to wipe saliva from your mouth.

Then she brings us back to the topic at hand.

Despite the name of her plush brand — Talkproof Toys — Cassie has a desire to create art that gets people talking. She tells me that maybe, one day, possibly, she wants design art that challenges the stigma of depression and anxiety in the Asian community. She wants to create something that starts a conversation, that helps people who are dealing with mental illness. Then she laughs to herself.

“That’s just a right-now thing,” she reminds me, “Who knows what I’ll do next?”