Author Kyla Zhao rests a hand on the book "Valley Verified" in front of her and a bookshelf filled with books in the background.

Kyla Zhao’s ‘Valley Verified’ tackles Silicon Valley and big life changes

The author’s latest protagonists trades high fashion for high tech, just as Zhao did

Kyla Zhao with her latest book, "Valley Verified."

Courtesy of Kyla Zhao

Words by Samantha Pak

As the popular saying goes, “Write what you know.” It’s a message Kyla Zhao took to heart in writing her second novel, Valley Verified, which is partially inspired by her own life.

The book, which was released in January, tells the story of Zoe Zeng, a fashion writer who’s hit a dead end with her job at a fashion magazine in New York. So when an opportunity to work at a fashion app startup in Silicon Valley comes her way, she takes the leap. But once she arrives on the West Coast, Zoe second guesses herself. She doesn’t exactly fit in with her new coworkers and comes down with a huge case of imposter syndrome as she’s not sure how her high-fashion expertise fits in with this new high-tech environment.

Zoe’s struggles with her new life are something many can relate to—even if we haven’t made a cross country move or completely changed careers—including Zhao. The 24-year-old Singapore native, now based in the Bay Area, first moved to California for college, and aside from a brief stint back in her home country after graduating, has been in the Golden State since. Zhao also similarly went from working in fashion to working in tech—a transition she described as “jarring.”

I recently spoke with Zhao—whose debut novel Fraud Squad (2023) examined Singaporean high society—about her latest book, changing careers, updating our wardrobes post lockdown, and why she enjoys dressing up for work (even when she doesn’t have to).

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

A portrait of author Kyla Zhao, with long black hair, in a red floral dress, against a gray background.

Kyla Zhao's latest book "Valley Verified" was released in January.

Courtesy of Kyla Zhao

Samantha Pak: How and when did you start writing?
Kyla Zhao: I've always loved reading. I was a big bookworm, but I never imagined writing a book. I had such a big respect for authors and what they could do. I thought I could never measure up. I also didn't think it was possible for me to write so many words. But I have always been writing for magazines. I had my first internship when I was 16 at Harper's Bazaar. Writing for a magazine satisfies that writing itch, but it's not quite the same as books because ultimately, I’m hiding behind the brand name of the magazine.

I only really started writing my first book, Fraud Squad, during the pandemic. I was a junior in college at that time.

SP: Was it because you're at home, you might as well start a project like a lot of people did?
KZ: Yeah. I'm from Singapore and when the pandemic hit, everyone from university was going back home to their families. I really wanted to be with my family, but it was around the time every country was shutting down and if you left, you weren't sure if you could come back. Ultimately, I decided to stay put in California, but all my friends were gone. I was just living by myself in California for most of 2020. And I was really lonely, really homesick.

That's when I wanted to write a story that was set in my home country. That was my way of staying connected to home. Fraud Squad was my love letter to Singapore. Valley Verified is a love letter to my adopted home since I was 18.

Fraud Squad was my love letter to Singapore. Valley Verified is a love letter to my adopted home since I was 18.

SP: Where did you get the idea for Valley Verified?
KZ: It’s partly inspired by my personal journey. I used to be a fashion writer at Vogue back in Singapore after I graduated from college. Then a new opportunity came to work at a tech company in Silicon Valley. I couldn't really say no. I studied in Silicon Valley, so I've always had this appreciation and fascination with the tech industry. So I decided to accept this new job and moved from high fashion to high tech.

I was 23 at a time. I was still trying to figure myself out and what I wanted to do. Looking back, these were all universal and relatable feelings, but back then I felt very alone. I didn't dare tell anyone because all my friends just seemed like they've got everything figured out. I channeled all that confusion, bewilderment and frustration into writing.

SP: You talked about the big, jarring difference between high fashion and high tech. What were some examples?
KZ: The role that I was hired for wasn't going to be wildly technical at first, which is why I felt okay accepting it. I felt like I could do it. But right before I joined, they did this internal reorganization, and suddenly I ended up on a much more technical team—software engineers, data scientists, everyone with STEM degrees. And here I was, I spent my time writing about fashion, and I studied communications back in school.

I had to learn how to code. Every single day, every single minute, I felt like it was a constant game of trying to play catch up, trying to not look stupid, so that people wouldn't judge me or think that I don't deserve to be there.

Book cover for "Valley Verified," by Kyla Zhao, surrounded by pink and blue clothes and accessories.

The cover of "Valley Verified."

Courtesy of Kyla Zhao

SP: I really liked that you had three different women: Zoe, the main character; Lillian, one of her bosses; and Bernadette, the Nordstrom stylist who becomes Zoe’s friend. I appreciated that you showed these different ways that women can be successful. Because it's always like, “You can't do it all. Either career or family. You can't do both.” And with Bernadette, she says, “I left my old career because I want to start a family.” And it's okay to want that.
KZ: Bernadette was interesting to write. Women have to pick and choose, and if they choose something over their career, it’s like, “You're setting back feminism.” But every single choice is valid. Bernadette also struggles. She knows that this is the best move for her and what she wants to achieve. But she has been very successful in her career and so to give that up, that definitely takes a lot of adapting and adjusting.

SP: Zoe’s very aware of name brands and designers. But when she goes to work her first day, everyone's just in jeans and T-shirts or hoodies. It's a big culture shock. Was that something you experienced when you made that transition to tech?
KZ: For sure. I love dressing up a lot. If I'm going to be spending eight to nine hours working at a job, I might as well try to feel better about myself as well. Looking a certain way helps me feel that. It's just a little way of preparing myself for the day ahead.

I remember this one time when a lot of bigwigs were flying into the office from different parts of the country, and the world. I came in and I was wearing these bright orange pants. One of the executives looked down at my pants and he was like, “Wow, I see someone decided to wear their fun pants to work today.” It was in a really nice way. And it’s so funny to me because in fashion, I would have been pretty tame. (In fashion) you probably would have cut a bunch of holes in very strategic places. But I really do appreciate how (in tech) I can also dress down if I don't feel like dressing up sometimes.

If I'm going to be spending eight to nine hours working at a job, I might as well try to feel better about myself as well. Looking a certain way helps me feel that.

SP: I thought it was interesting when you're talking about AI (in the book). Now that Zoe’s in tech, AI is helping them, but when she's talking to her friends back in New York, they're like, “As journalists, it's stealing our jobs,” and they're very concerned. That part felt very real because you see these things in the news. It was an interesting contrast between the tech people in her new world, and her old world.
KZ: This contrast is really apparent to me. Even though I'm no longer in fashion, I'm still very much in the writing world. I work closely with artists and some publishers are choosing to use AI instead of real illustrators. So it's something that I do hear about on a consistent basis. Then I go into work and everyone's like, “Yeah, this is what AI can do for data storage and data analysis.”

My book came out at a very interesting moment. ChatGPT is out. Bard (now known as Gemini) is out. I wrote this book back in 2021 and AI was still definitely a big thing, but it wasn't really part of the normal daily conversation the way it is now.

SP: Zoe makes this cross country move and she ends up drifting from her friends in New York. Was that something you experienced?
KZ: Yeah, for sure. I think that's actually something that a lot of people my age go through, even if they’re not moving. It's just hard to stay connected with old friends because everyone gets into their own lives. And then they get new friends, new partners, and the longer you go without talking, the harder it becomes to catch up. So you have less motivation to catch up and it just becomes this vicious cycle.

SP: Zoe is at a startup and it's a very small company. They've only got six employees. Are Zoe’s co-workers based on anybody in particular, or are they amalgamations of a bunch of people?
KZ: Amalgamations, I would say. There are certain quirks and habits from my friends that I took—with permission—and gave to my characters. For instance, one of the characters has Lego flowers at their workstation because one of my friends who's an engineer has that. Apparently it’s quite popular among engineers. I didn't know that. So I put that in as well.

SP: Valley Verified is very much that contrast between tech and fashion, just two very different worlds colliding. Eventually, Zoe and her new coworkers find their way and they figure out their groove, but it's definitely a process.
KZ: Yeah, for sure.

And I have noticed that talking about this book with people in Silicon Valley, it gets a different reception than talking about my first book. On one hand, this is set in Silicon Valley, so people naturally relate to it more. I think for the first book, everyone's like, “Oh, this is about high society and fashion.” But now they're like, “Oh, it's about the tech industry. Yeah, that's so relevant.”

SP: Yeah. It's that whole conversation about anything women enjoy—or that's made for women, by women—it's often looked down on or just deemed as easy or frivolous. It doesn't get as much respect from society in general. And you look at the book cover, which I love, but it looks like it could be frivolous. But there's also a lot of substance to this, which I really appreciated.
KZ: Yeah, thank you. For my first book, I was hearing mostly from a slightly younger crowd. For Valley Verified, I've been getting messages from people of all ages, and at all different stages of their careers: People like me who are just starting out, to people who are very high-ranking executives at tech companies. It's quite incredible. And even people who are retired but used to be in the tech industry and they’re like, “Yeah, I was kind of sad that nothing has changed in the tech industry. All the issues (are still there).” It's amazing that this has been resonating with a wider audience.

SP: In terms of the gender makeup, has it been leaning one way or another, or has it been split in terms of the response you've been getting?
KZ: In general, my books, because they're women's fiction, skew to a predominantly more women-centric audience. But I actually have been getting more messages from male readers this time around, compared to my first book. Just last week, I got a message from this guy, and he was like, “My wife read it and she doesn't work in tech, but I do, and she was like, ‘You should read this. You might find it relatable.’” And he was like, “I found myself laughing at some of what you wrote. And then I showed it to my buddies who also work in tech.” That's kind of cool.

Published on April 2, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.