AAPI leaders share how, by starting their businesses, they’ve honored their culture and heritage

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a monthlong celebration of Americans from all over the continent of Asia and from the Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. AAPI Month is held in May because it was on May 7, 1843, that the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the U.S., and because the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S., worked on by mostly Chinese workers, was completed on May 10, 1869.

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In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, In The Know by Yahoo hosted four entrepreneurs to discuss what it was like starting their businesses and how they’ve been able to incorporate their culture and community into their work.

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The event was held on May 3 in Manhattan at the Chinese restaurant Phillipe Chow and was moderated by In The Know’s Poppy Shen.

The speakers included Christine Chang, the co-founder of the beauty brand Glow Recipe; Sean Ro, the co-founder of Lunar Hard Seltzer; Trisha Sakhuja-Walia, founder of Brown Girl Magazine, and Jason Wang, CEO of Xi’an Famous Foods.

From left to right: Sean Ro, Poppy Shen, Christine Chang, Trisha Sakhuja-Walia and Jason Wang. Credit: In The Know
From left to right: Sean Ro, Poppy Shen, Christine Chang, Trisha Sakhuja-Walia and Jason Wang. Credit: In The Know

During the discussion, each of the panelists highlighted how they carved out a space in their respective markets and introduced new flavors, ingredients and stories to a wider audience.

“People like food, they just don’t want to try something they don’t know anything about,” Wang told the audience. “It was about making [the food] accessible to people.”

Xi’an Foods was started in 2005 by Wang’s father as a food stall in a basement in Flushing in Queens, N.Y. He served food from his hometown that he missed and wanted to eat, and the timing was fortunate — people were traveling more than ever and Chinese culture was having a moment.

Wang, who was working a corporate job at the time, decided to set up a small website and advertise a translated menu to help his dad’s business. Now he’s CEO, and almost 20 years later, he runs nine locations all over the city.

“A lot of what we do is tied to our culture, and that’s very fulfilling,” he said. “It’s not just about being a business, it’s about being an institution.”

That’s also how Ro felt when he started Lunar Hard Seltzer, the first Asian-American hard craft seltzer. The market for hard seltzer was already established — and arguably, oversaturated — but by introducing flavors that he grew up with, Ro and his co-founder were able to find a niche in the market.

Lunar now has four flavors — none of which are the typical lemon-lime or black cherry flavors that Ro credits with leaving people with “seltzer fatigue.” Instead, Lunar uses real, premium fruits and ingredients from Asia, like yuzu, plum, passion fruit and lychee.

“It’s a mainstream medium, but with new flavors and no artificial flavoring,” Ro explained. “We’re bringing in something different to the industry.”

Chang also adopted Ro’s strategy of bringing something different to an established industry. She worked at L’Oréal right after college and grew up with a love for skin care, but after moving back to the U.S. from Korea, she didn’t understand why so many Americans hated washing their face.

“Why isn’t skin care a joyful ritual?” she asked herself at the time.

Glow Recipe initially started as a marketplace for Korean beauty products, now a familiar as K-beauty. Chang and her co-founder noticed that the U.S. seemed to be looking to Korea for the latest in beauty products, but the educational element Chang grew up with, the information on the role of certain ingredients — and why it was even important to wash your face in the first place — seemed not to be widely known.

Glow Recipe is arguably one of the biggest names in beauty products right now. While the brand doesn’t consider itself “K-beauty,” it does take from it certain elements: being cruelty-free, clean and using fruit-focused ingredients.

“K-beauty is everywhere, and has trickled down to every possible medicine cabinet and beauty brand,” Chang added. “We are bringing together [a K-beauty] philosophy — just as a New York beauty brand.”

Sakhuja-Walia, who grew up in the New York suburbs as an Indian American, said that at the time she discovered Brown Girl Magazine, she “couldn’t believe brown girls were writing about themselves across the U.S.” She was trying to go to law school and writing for the publication on the side, and when the original owner wanted to shutter the operation, Sakhuja-Walia stepped up to buy her out.

“I want Brown Girl Magazine to be accessible in every shape and every form,” she says, explaining that until that point, “Nobody was thinking about running this as a business.”

Since then, Sakhuja-Walia has edited thousands of pieces of writing and worked with hundreds of freelance writers. Brown Girl Magazine has published around 10,000 pieces of original content, she says, and continues to grow.

“I am truly grateful to the platform that we’ve built using community-driven, user-generated content,” she told the audience at the panel. “I would not be here if not for the thousands of brown girls who contributed their love and time.”

Watch footage from the event in the video above to learn more about the panel.

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, In The Know by Yahoo is highlighting changemakers who are impacting the world through cultural advancement, community leadership and entrepreneurial innovation. See all of our coverage here.

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