Collaborative Lessons From Three AAPI Business Owners

What brands are AAPI founders building right now?

Here are three inspirational stories of AAPI founders in different businesses, who have grown their brands from scratch. First, there is Mayly Tao who is LA’s self-proclaimed Donut Princess, owner of Donut Princess Los Angeles, a donut bouquet delivery concept. She is the host of her podcast Short N’ Sweet: A Donut Princess Podcast where she explores mindset, women empowerment, and small business tips! You can find her ”Securing the Box” at @donutprincessla. She stars in the Donut King Documentary, as seen on Hulu and across domestic flights across the US. She also has her own YouTube where she visits Cambodian-owned donut shops and highlights their stories. She hopes to elevate Asian American voices and representation and vows to create a legacy for the next generation of Asian Americans.

Next, there is Charn Bak, a serial entrepreneur in food and beverage who started retail specialty coffee ventures in Boston (Thinking Cup) and Los Angeles (Barista Society). Bak currently resides in Los Angeles, California and is working on launching Boba x Ice Cream Summer 2022 nationwide.

Finally, there is Celeste Perez, a Filipino-American creative entrepreneur with experience in branding, product development, multimedia content creation, and marketing. Her latest food and beverage product is Droplet, a stress-balancing adaptogen beverage. Since its launch in March of 2020, Droplet has since won two Dieline Awards in Brand Identity and Packaging, and was a finalist in BevNet’s New Beverage Showdown, InnoBev’s Best Packaging Design Awards, and Expo West’s Best New RTD Beverage at the NEXTY’s. The brand is now available at drinkdroplet.com, Erewhon Market, Urban Outfitters, and over 450 independent retailers in the USA, Canada, and EU. Here is a roundtable interview with all three entrepreneurs on how they grew their own personal brands and businesses.

Goldie Chan: What has your career path been?

Mayly Tao: Like almost all traditional Asian parents, they wanted me to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Like most first generation immigrant kids, my first career was at the family business, DK’s Donuts & Bakery, as the timid cashier, standing on a milk crate to reach the top of the showcase. It was only a matter of time before my parents asked me the groundbreaking question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When I told them I wanted to be a social worker or a writer, they winced. Eventually, my mom persuaded me to be a news reporter as I left for college. It was only until my last quarter at UC San Diego, after interning for San Diego 6 CW Network, that I realized broadcast journalism was not for me. I took a PR and Marketing internship, hoping it would curb my interest but it also did not spark joy. After moving back to LA, my family asked me to help at the family business. I spent the next ten years establishing DK’s Donuts as a Santa Monica institution, creating its brand identity and hailing global attention. We sold DK’s at the end of 2021, and I decided to fully launch my own company, Donut Princess LA, as a donut bouquet delivery service, specializing in unique expressions and events. Within Donut Princess LA, I consult for local donut shops who wish to increase their bottom line and house Short N’ Sweet, a podcast on small business tips, AAPI stories, women empowerment, and mindset. I also created my own Turo business, Donut Exotics, renting vehicles to guests who travel to Los Angeles.

Charn Bak: I’ve been rooted in hospitality ventures and companies for most of my professional career. After school, I helped operate and manage private clubs, restaurants, and food & beverage-related outlets, which led me to open up my own businesses, primarily in the specialty coffee industry for the past decade. Since then, I’ve had exposure to several other industries, but have been pulled back into F&B recently with the goal to launch a new premium ice cream brand (Boba x Ice Cream) focused on introducing Asian American flavors with the magic of Boba.

Celeste Perez: I’ve never had a “real job”— I graduated into the Great Recession with a journalism and entrepreneurship degree from USC. I truly thought I was built to be somewhere corporate, climbing the ladder with cushy benefits and health insurance, but there were literally no jobs back then. I sent my resume to hundreds of job listings, heard nothing back, and felt terrible about it.

After a year of failing at getting a “real job”, I went back to school and really tried to do the medicine route (sorry, mom and dad!). When I quit, I started my first business, Nectar Skincare, an organic skincare line. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that I didn’t actually need someone to give me a job in order to use my skills and talents. It was 2011, Instagram was new! I formulated the product, designed the packaging, developed the website. It went viral during our first month. But I was so young and too afraid to ask for help back then, so I closed it after a year because I was overwhelmed. That experience taught me so much, though. The biggest thing I learned? I’m good at brand building. So, I launched a brand studio, Well Fed, to share this skill with others.

Since then, I’ve been the creator of my own career path. I wouldn’t call it “freelancing”, though. It feels a lot more like I’ve been playing the long game, honing my skills through lots of different types of projects. I needed the work, so I took whatever came my way. Whether it was a restaurant brand, a jewelry website, being production assistant, event photography, voiceovers, guiding food tours. If someone asked, I said yes, I can do that. Only now have I been able to take all of that learning and apply it to my own brands. We joke around and say I’m a “Swiss-Army Work Wife”.

Chan: Why did you start your own company?

Bak: I started my own company because I felt I had nothing to lose and am a bit of a risk-taker. I wanted to shoot my shot at an early age and get the experience of developing and building something from the ground-up and had the confidence to do so. There’s an appreciation and pride you earn when creating something from scratch, you hope others will enjoy and experience things the way you envisioned. This is what I love to share and prove to myself I could do it.

Tao: I started my own compan(ies) because I have a passion for serving people and creating memories through food. Food is one of my love languages, and being the Donut Princess means being able to deliver kindness and meaning to my community with each donut bouquet. Creating your own company gives you a sense of ownership and control that working for another person could not satisfy. I spent most of my life building for my family, and I was ready to build my own legacy.

The businesses that I’ve created that relate to the service and hospitality industry are fueled from my desire for impeccable service, which goes hand-in-hand with my passion for creating unique experiences. Starting your own company is not easy, and trust me, you’ll make some mistakes on the way. But building a brand and executing on a vision is worth the journey once it comes into fruition.

I’ve built my own companies to become financially independent and to have the flexibility to control my own schedule. I know that utilizing my energy will contribute to building an empire of my own. I get to initiate campaigns on topics and values I really care about. On top of that, I love being my own boss!

Perez: I started Droplet because I was literally physically sick and emotionally tired of having to fight my clients to pay us what we were worth. I would put my heart and soul into building their dreams from scratch, but every creative knows how hard it can be to get paid. Nearly 80% of freelancers say they’ve had to deal with nonpayment. Droplet was my form of self-care— I knew what kind of value I could create for others, so it was time for me to use my skills to create value for myself.

It came about so organically, actually! I put a meeting on the calendar and told my team that we were firing our clients and starting our own brand, whatever it would be. I was so scared that they would think I was crazy, but instead, everyone confessed that they’d been feeling so stressed about the situation, and we just went around sharing our stress relief tips. That’s when I found out we were all working with adaptogens! Adaptogens are herbs and botanicals that help your body regulate its stress response— but they taste funky. It was a real lightbulb moment, and I knew that we needed to be the ones to create something so good and so beautiful so others, especially women, could feel supported.

Chan: Do you believe in collaboration? How has it helped you grow?

Perez: Community is everything to me— whether it’s a community you’ve built or one you’re already part of, our impact is greater when we build together. None of us is meant to do this alone, it’s just human nature. And I know that whenever I push the boundaries, I do so for every Filipina, every API leader, every woman of color.

I’d spent a long time being the stereotypical “lone wolf”. It’s something we’ve been taught to romanticize as entrepreneurs, and the idea of being self-made sounds so glamorous. I failed a business because I didn’t understand the value of asking for help. The solo-preneur road is so limiting— it’s truly through others that we learn the most about ourselves. It’s through our communities that we can measure our real impact as creators.

I’d even say co-creation is my love language; being committed to each others’ growth and prosperity is the definition of love for me. From my own Droplet community to my team at Well Fed, I feel so blessed because I get to do what I love every day with people I admire and respect. The best work we can do is the work we inspire each other to create, and if it has a positive impact on the collective, I’m all for it.

Tao: I absolutely stand behind collaborations – whether that is through brand partnerships or with collaborating with others who share the same vision and values. It has helped me grow because it helps me get creative with the types of partnerships and it expands my reach beyond what I think I am capable of. During collaborations, it is a great opportunity for me to learn how things are done in different organizations, and what can be adopted into my own company. On top of that, I think collaborations are fun and they are my favorite campaigns to work on. I’ve had the pleasure of working with amazing brands and collaborating with Toyota, PPG, Amazon Studios, Activision, Doordash, and many more.

Bak: 100%. I think amazing things can happen with collaboration and believe relationships are the most important thing over any personal or business success. I would not have had the same experience without the ability to collaborate with talented founders and teams who shared the same vision to help each other as we grow. Some of the most memorable times I had were collaborating because it forces you to work together to produce a win-win with various folks.

Chan: What would be a dream brand or person to work on?

Tao: A dream brand to work on would be with Supreme – this brand has always impressed me with its limited edition releases, partnerships, and edgy designs with street apparel and accessories that has retained its value over the years. Supreme has always reinvented itself in pop culture and has earned the respect and street cred globally. With every vision for the businesses that I build, I keep Supreme’s “cool factor” in mind as a model for effective branding.

What I’ve realized in this digital era is that dream people can simply be a direct message away- I’ve been able to reach some amazing guests for my podcast (Short N’ Sweet) by direct messages or emails. What I’ve found is that when your why truly resonates with others, the universe will attract dream brands to work with you, even if you think it’s out of reach.

Perez: This is the dream! My dream brand to work on will be my next one, and then the next one, and then the next one. I’ve been so encouraged by the experiences we’ve had with brands we’ve created so far. It’s been incredible to see how they’ve come to mean so much to our followers and customers, when not too long ago these things were all just ideas floating in our heads. We love being able to trust that what we build will bring us closer to the right people, those who are meant to be part of our story. We do have some amazing partnerships in the works— can’t wait to share those with you all!

Bak: I feel that I am working on a dream brand right now on this path of launching Boba x Ice Cream with close friends, talented co-founders and partners, and advisors who I really look up to both personally and professionally. The ultimate dream for this brand is not only to shake things up in the ice cream industry by showcasing the phenomenon of Boba, but to share the cool things about Asian culture while using food as a vehicle to create a more inclusive and empowered future for everyone.

Chan: What is your favorite quote and why?

Bak: “I’m here for a good time, not a long time.” – Big Sean

I think about this at times as I’ve built other businesses, you need to remember to enjoy the process and have fun when building. There will be a ton of hurdles along the journey, and as an entrepreneur, your goal is to find solutions for your company and not take everything too seriously. You should enjoy what you do because life will always bring a new set of challenges.

Perez: “Honor yourself with your hustle.”

One of my best friends runs The Honeyblock, a wellness platform for BIPOC, and she’s one of the most inspiring people I know. During one of my lowest moments, she got me out to a yoga class she was leading to honor Nipsey Hussle. As she was teaching, she asked us to cup our hands and put them out in front of us to receive guidance from the Universe. Right when I did that, she walked past me and said, “Honor yourself…” and the song that was playing finished her sentence right on beat: “… with your hustle.”

Honoring myself was something I was struggling with at the time. Hustling for myself was, too. I wasn’t taking care of myself in so many ways, and I was so stressed out with the work I was doing for others. I was just so lost. But the line serendipitously reminded me that I needed to honor myself for all of it— all my work, all my determination, my skills, my generosity. It reminded me that everything I bring to the table for others is also something I could give to myself.

Tao: My favorite quote would be from Mother Teresa’s “Anyway” poem because she displays the best type of compassion towards mankind. “You see, in the final analysis, it was never between you and your God, it was never between them anyways.” When you are dealing with serving others, this is an important reminder of the carefree attitude to approach life. During your entrepreneurial journey, there might be some people who might not understand what you’re going through, but whenever I read this poem, it reminds me to be gentle with myself as well as others and to keep going.

Mother Teresa’s Anyway Poem

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;

Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;

Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;

Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;

Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;

Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;

Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;

Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;

It was never between you and them anyway.

Chan: Who inspires you and why?

Perez: My entire family inspires me. I grew up in a really Filipino, really loud, but also really supportive family. My parents immigrated to the US in their twenties and sometimes I get emotional thinking about how much they had to learn and how much they had to leave in order for me and my brothers to do what we do today. All of us are creatives (sorry again, mom and dad!), but I know we wouldn’t have been able to pursue any of this if our parents didn’t believe in us, if they didn’t cultivate a love for creativity in us when we were kids.

It wasn’t the easiest growing up in a place that lacked diversity. There was no such thing as blending in; we were outsiders and it was so obvious. My brothers and I dealt with bullying, othering, racism, discrimination, but we learned to have so much empathy because of it. Especially my brothers. Their perseverance is so inspiring. They have so much spirit, so much heart, and they bring joy to so many people! They make me laugh, they make me think, they inspire me to fight for what’s right. I’m really proud of them. We’re truly our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

Bak: My advisors/partners for Boba x Ice Cream, Brian Lee (BAM Ventures) and Dave Grutman (Groot Hospitality). Both because of the magnitude and impact in which they’ve created their incredible businesses and they both define what amazing entrepreneurs/people should be. Most importantly, they build genuine life-long relationships and give back by sharing their wisdom, time, and experience to the next generation with open arms. Absolute legends in my book!

Tao: My mom is my biggest inspiration because of how she leads by example and the trials and tribulations she’s been through. From surviving a genocide, landing in a country where she knew no one or the language, creating four successful businesses, providing for her family, and continuously thinking about her community and making an impact, this woman approaches the world with love even though her world was filled with heartbreak. She survived against all odds, something our immigrant parents were willing to do for us to give us a better opportunity. To me, her drive and intelligence as well as her grit and determination are traits that I constantly admire and strive for. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am today and I wouldn’t have her as a role model to guide me through the impact I wish to create on this world.

I reminisce on our tag-teaming in the kitchen together while we had our bakery and appreciate the time I got to spend with her, soaking up her wisdom and aura. I finally gathered her stories and self-published a book about our legacy together in time for AAPI Month: “An American Dream with Sprinkles: The Legacy Story of the Donut Queen and Donut Princess.” The book features an in-depth look into the Khmer immigrant migration story as well as the first-hand account of owning a donut shop to support our family in America. When people told me how much they resonated with my documentary The Donut King, I’m proud that I was able to tell my mom’s story and represent first generation immigrant kids on what their experience was.

My mom is also extremely spiritual who believes in giving back- and I model my philanthropic efforts from her. In 2018, we built a temple in Kampot, Cambodia. Later this year, we will be heading to Cambodia for another mission- we will be completing the building of our second temple in Kampong Cham, Cambodia and donating to over a thousand of the poorest members of the community.