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This AAPI Heritage Month, we’re sharing the stories you may not know behind some of your favorite AAPI-founded brands. Dive in below and return throughout the month for more features – this is the first installment of the series.
Founded by: Lisa Li
“I felt exposed to start a brand that was so personal to me. I’m an immigrant from a small coastal city Northeast of Beijing. I work with small family-owned farms across China. ‘Made in China’ still has a bad reputation in so many people’s eyes for being cheap and low quality – which isn’t the case. Then COVID happened and with it, the rise of Asian hate crimes. It was really hard on the soul.
Most of my life I’ve felt like an outlier. My dad left us when I was really young. When I was 14, he ran away again and became a monk. I visited him with my mom at his temple in my mid-20s. That was the first and only time I ever had dinner with both of them together. There was a lot of trauma I had to heal from, but having faced so much adversity makes me feel more empathy towards others and the world as a whole. You have no idea what the other person might be going through in life.”
Founded by: Evelyn Tao
“I've always loved making things with my own hands, even as a kid. Growing up, I constantly watched my mother, aunt, and grandmother obsess over one craft after another (Japanese washi, quilting, doll-making, cross-stitching, parchment crafting, crocheting, knitting, and macrame-beading to name a few). My mother went through a phase of macrame-beading where she was making phone charms shaped like the Pink Panther, and various other animals using Swarovski crystals. I would accompany her to the bead market where she would stock up on crystals, and to keep me entertained, she would buy plastic beads for me which I’d turn into bracelets alongside her as she was beading intricate little crystal animals.
My current line of beaded bags and accessories started off with me merely wanting to craft a beaded purse for myself, which I asked my mother to teach me how to make. I started posting pictures of the Tulipa bag on social media, and started to receive a lot of inquiries. Four and a half years later as a small business, I still bounce around new ideas and R&D with my mother.”
Founded by: Elaine Tran
“I am overwhelmed with pressure – almost everyday. Pressure comes with the territory of becoming an entrepreneur, employing over 80 people. Eventually, with experience, your tolerance of pressure becomes higher. There are definitely times I wish life was easier and all the problems would go away. But I tell myself, ‘Don't wish life is easier, wish you were better.’
COVID was the hardest event to overcome. At that time, we had cancellations from the majority of our customers and the week of the stay-at-home order was announced, we saw the lowest sales we’ve ever done. I thought my business was going to close down forever because of the lockdowns, and because no one would wear swimsuits. Overnight, we pivoted to manufacturing face masks made from swimwear fabric. A few weeks later, our business skyrocketed and we ended up having the best year ever.”
Founded By: Alicia Tsai
“It has been a journey to get to where I am now, feeling accepted and content. When I first came to the U.S., an Asian transplant, there was an inevitable desire to fit into the ‘American crowd.’ And instead of feeling accepted, I felt suppressed and started to lose my identity. As I grew up, I realized that acceptance from others was not what I needed – I needed acceptance from myself. I learned to find the voice to tell the stories of my heritage. It’s empowering and liberating to find this self-acceptance and while I know this is an ongoing journey, I’m happy to take it one day at a time.
The wellness of the world keeps me up at night. I know this sounds cliché, it’s really how I feel. In the past two years, the world has gone through so much hardship. As a small brand, we would love to do as much as possible to make a difference, no matter how big or small it is. It can be as simple as promoting wellness through our products, showing our support to other minority groups, or pushing further on our sustainability effort. There is always more we can do, and we want to do better and help make a difference.”
Founded By: Jiake Liu
“For whatever reason, there aren't that many premium brands that were started by founders of Chinese origin. ‘Made in China’ has a stigma and consumers generally do not associate ‘premium’ with it, so that was definitely a challenge when I first started. I believe in changing people’s opinions through hard work, integrity, and persistence. The performance fabrics on our outdoor sofas took 14 months to develop. The right decisions are often harder to make, but making them repeatedly many times over the course of years has helped us earn the trust of our customers and challenge preconceived notions about products ‘Made in China.’
I immigrated with my parents to the US when I was 13. The city we moved to, Huntsville, Alabama, did not have a big Asian population. Initially, it was very hard to fit in. Most of my friends came from completely different cultural backgrounds, and I felt I had two different lives – at school (American) and at home (Chinese). I've never viewed it as a disadvantage. Today, I know this double identity serves me well as I navigate building a business that's able to take advantage of the Chinese supply chain and the American market.”
Founded By: Sabeena Ladha
“The hardest part for me was (and still is) imposter syndrome. Even after I heard insane sales and feedback of how beloved the product was ... I still thought it was a fluke. Candidly, that is also what keeps me going and drives me. Imposter syndrome is often something we try to ‘overcome,’ but I think it's a double edged sword – it keeps me on my feet and keeps me hungry as well.
I used to feel like I was living a double life, especially in corporate America. I wouldn't call myself edgy, but I have tattoos, I'm outspoken, I curse, I break the rules (and enjoy it). I dress a little over the top for corporate America, and am a little direct. I used to dim all of that to try to gain acceptance from executives at work and honestly, society. DEUX is the first time I've felt like I'm not leading a double life or trying for acceptance. I'm really proud of the culture we've built at DEUX. We bring our whole selves to work, all the quirks and eccentricities included.”
Founded By: Stephanie Lee
“My mental health crisis was the hardest time of my life and equally is what I’m most proud of. As a woman of color in my late 20’s, I dove off a cliff into a deep depression. I didn’t have tools, resources or a community around my emotional wellbeing. As a result (and because of privilege), I found an incredible therapist and was able to devote my energy to radical self inquiry and exploration. It’s because of everyone who showed up for me during this time (my dog, family, friends and therapist) that I am on the other side of it and why selfmade exists. I also got a tattoo to commemorate getting out of that depression.
There have been several hard parts about launching my own brand. In the beginning, it felt like I was preparing to jump out of a plane and volunteered to go without a parachute. I had to unlearn the internalized messages from my immigrant parents of safety and survival and shift thinking to the possibilities. I learned to let go of my death grip of a predictable paycheck and the safety net of health insurance. And I believed that even the prospect of failure is worth the experience. It’s about following through on the idea that if I’m going to take a bet on anyone, it better be myself. And reckon with the immense privilege I have in order to do this.”
Everyone goes through challenges and hardships. Through each obstacle is another lesson learned and it’s no surprise the owners of our favorite AAPI brands have been so successful. We’ll be back to share more stories next week.
Shop our favorite AAPI owned brands in this article below:
Hero image via @notimpressed.nyc