By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Networking, sharing of ideas, solutions, and best practices.
That was the goal of the Northwest Asian Weekly’s Inaugural Entrepreneurs Award and Roundtable on Oct. 25 at China Harbor Restaurant.
Approximately 170 people attended the event, emceed by Tanya Woo, to support the 14 local business owners who were honored.
The event was inspired by one of the honorees, Tien Ha, the president of HACT Construction. He approached the Asian Weekly’s publisher Assunta Ng and asked, “How come Asian American entrepreneurs are so afraid to talk about failures?”
It’s a topic that can be taboo among Asian Americans, for fear of “losing face.”
Along with Ha, John Chen, Min Christ, Beth Johnson, Hao Lam, Yen Lam-Steward, the Le Brothers, Tim Lee, Synthia Melton, Dr. Xiao Ming, Ezhilarasan Natarajan, James Wong, Andy Yip, and Mei Young were also honored.
Yip was absent due to an injury.
Challenges and solutions
Google the word “entrepreneur” and you will find that it is defined as “a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.”
Leslie Lum, a Bellevue College business professor, moderated two panels. She asked the first round of panelists about the challenges they faced as entrepreneurs, and any solutions they came up with.
Lam-Steward, the former owner of Lam’s Seafood, said one of her biggest challenges, going from a small to mid-sized business, was attracting talent.
“It’s hard when you’re competing against the ‘big boys’ like Microsoft and Amazon.”
Lee, a real estate broker and owner of Real Homes Network, echoed Lam-Steward’s comments on attracting talent, along with coming up with a good product, funding, and daily operations. All those, he said, are problems that can be overcome.
What he could not solve, he said, was government corruption in China.
“If you go with it (corruption), you lose. And if you don’t, you also lose by losing business and opportunities.”
Lee said his solution was to focus on what he could control—implementing his core values of honesty, integrity, and fairness.
Beth Johnson, the co-founder of Flynn Family Lending, called herself an accidental entrepreneur.
“Unlike most of my peers here, I didn’t plan on running my own business. I helped to facilitate the success of my now-husband and growing his business. I am learning as I go, building the plane while flying it, so to speak.”
She joined an Accelerator program for entrepreneurs that offered resources, tools, and mentorship. Johnson also spoke to her unique challenge as an Asian entrepreneur.
“My name is Beth Johnson,” she said, holding up the sign with her name on it.
“There’s nothing Asian about it. I’m not white and I’m Asian, but I don’t speak Vietnamese. Our business name doesn’t indicate that it’s minority-owned.”
Adopted by a white family as an infant after her family fled Vietnam in 1975, Johnson said she is constantly working to bridge that gap.
Melton, the co-founder of Dimension Law Group, said it’s not always easy finding the balance between working on her business (marketing, employees, financing, etc.) versus working in her business—practicing law.
“I haven’t necessarily found the solution yet,” said Melton. But she said she is building teams to help her business succeed.
“Getting an accountant, a bookkeeper. We hired a business coach to help us put systems in place.”
Melton also pointed to the challenge unique to women entrepreneurs—being a wife and mother, something Lam-Steward also alluded to.
Chen, the CEO of Geoteaming, said he doesn’t see problems.
“We’re entrepreneurs. So there are no challenges, only opportunities,” he said.
Growth and opportunities
“Opportunity is something that you create. Not something that someone has presented to you.”
Ha, the president of HACT Construction, was among the second round of panelists, addressing the topic of growth and opportunities.
He said that when most people think about a business, they think of it as a pyramid: with the boss on top and employees below. Ha said it’s important to invert that and make employees the top priority.
“They are the number one human resource,” Ha said, adding that consistency in a company culture is crucial. “Develop your core values and stick with it.”
Hao Lam agreed. When you start a business, he said it’s mostly the owner who’s wearing multiple hats and doing many jobs. Echoing Ha, Lam said, “To grow a company, you have to grow the team.”
He quoted author Jim Collins about getting the right people on the bus in the right seats.
Brandon Ting, founder of Kizuki Ramen and Izakaya, said that if he had to build his business all over again, he would let go of the need to be perfect.
“Strive for excellence, not perfection,” Ting said.
Young, the founder of MY International Real Estate, talked about “the very important phone call I never made.”
She recalled a conversation with a neighbor, who happened to be the number two guy at Starbucks, about Starbucks’ expansion to China. Young jokingly asked what she should do if she wanted to open a store in China.
Her neighbor said, “Get in touch with my staff that’s in charge of Asian markets. Here’s the number.”
That’s the phone call she never made and Young said she’s glad because her true love is real estate, not running a Starbucks store. She opened a brokerage and she said she fills a niche that traditional brokerages don’t—working with English speaking and non-English speaking buyers from China, who want to invest in the Seattle area.
Natarajan, the CEO of CoreStack, said his biggest missed opportunity was the chance to partner with Amazon.
“In the early days of Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon visited our offices, begging us to become their partners,” Natarajan said. “We were looking at the trendsetters back then… Microsoft and Google. We didn’t expect them (AWS) to become a cloud leader.”
Wong, the CEO of Vibrant Cities, knows all about missed opportunities. He said he had multiple opportunities to buy property in South Lake Union.
“It was $6 million back then and I thought, ‘I’ll wait for the price to go down.’ That never happened!” said Wong.
He said the biggest driver of real estate values are jobs. And with tens of thousands of jobs yet to be filled in the Seattle-area, he said, “Now is a good time to buy (real estate). Don’t wait for the price to drop. That already happened last year… the median price of a home in Seattle was $800,000. Now it’s $715,000. We’re at the beginning of the next cycle already. Don’t regret five years from now that you didn’t buy.”
“When you’re passionate, you want to share it, whether it impacts one person or a thousand people.”
Bayley Le owns the GoPoke Restaurant and his brother, Jason, owns Dochi, a bakery for Japanese donuts in Chinatown.
Bayley said people become entrepreneurs because of the passion that drives them—a passion to provide a good or service.
“Bring people who have like interests together and continue to serve people,” he said.
As Asian Weekly publisher Assunta Ng said, “Entrepreneurs are more than job creators. You are innovators, problem solvers, game changers, and visionaries.
You are the real Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragons of this community. Be proud of your contributions.”
Congratulations to all the honorees.
Ruth can be reached at email@example.com.