How these AAPI entrepreneurs weave heritage into business | Bluevine

When you start a business, there’s an inherent bit of yourself weaved into it. An entrepreneur’s culture and values help shape a business’ mission, offerings, and how it runs, making it uniquely theirs

This month, we’re honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month by sharing the stories of Asian Americans who have weaved heritage into their business: Socola Cholatier’s Wendy Lieu and burger-chan’s Diane and Willet Feng. 

Connecting lineage to business

As a child, Wendy Lieu found a thrill in getting free chocolate samples. Whenever she’d help at her Vietnamese parent’s nail salon she’d pass a chocolate shop on her way, tasting treats that’d bring her joy. Entering her teenage years still with a sweet tooth, it felt natural to experiment with chocolate-making. Self-taught and determined to build something, she and her sister Susan opened up a farmer’s market booth in 2001 at 19 and 16, respectively.

Fast-forward twenty years, you can find Socola Chocolatier with a storefront in the heart of San Francisco, giving joy to customers from around the world. 

Our Vietnamese refugee parents’ work ethic and incredible determination to turn nothing into something gave us courage to keep going.

For Diane and Willet Feng, the values that they grew up with also played a significant role in building their business, burger-chan, a burger eatery that draws inspiration from Asian flavors. Identifying as Chinese-American, they both brought several of their values to the table, from a desire to attain perfection, to a willingness to work hard for it, and a strong support from family. They revealed that because following one’s passion isn’t typically encouraged in the Asian culture, the pressure for them to succeed was high—a motivator in itself. 

Our collective Asian heritage inspires us to be the best entrepreneurs that we can be.

Manifesting resiliency during a pandemic

After being a cook and a chef for nearly a decade, Willet Feng, co-founder of burger-chan, took the plunge and started his own restaurant, determined to run a place without many of the problems he faced in the industry including improving food safety, staff conditions and support.  

When the COVID-19 hit, burger-chan lost 75-95% of their business overnight. They were located in an office food court and thus foot traffic disappeared once lockdown took place and the offices emptied. They quickly pivoted and began offering delivery and teaming up with local organizations to feed front line workers, helping increase awareness of their business. But ultimately, the pandemic permanently closed their restaurant. 

They say when one door closes another opens. For Willet and Diane, this saying isn’t just because of fate but rather the endless grit that drives them, even in the most difficult times. They’re now building burger-chan 2.0, a new and improved version of their original store that’ll push the burger eatery to new heights.

Showing up for your community 

On top of the devastating effects of the pandemic this past year, the AAPI community, and women in particular, have endured increased violence. Wendy Lieu, overwhelmed and heartbroken, decided to take action in the way she knew best.

Throughout our lives, food has been a continuous thread of comfort and love. As a chocolate company, that’s how we knew we could show up. We were able to donate all sales of the Little Saigon Box for one week, $6,840, to AAPI Women Lead.

AAPI Women Lead fights for racial and gender justice. Through this initiative, Socola Chocolatier created an opportunity for their customers to take action and give back.

Like its people, America’s 30+ million small businesses are diverse, and their differences are a reason for celebration. If you’re a small business owner, consider connecting with and supporting other businesses in the AAPI community.


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