I’ve had many conversations over recent weeks that underscore the Asian American experience during the last year and beyond. There’s been much to learn, both as allies to other communities while unpacking our own histories and experiences. We’ve learned to take up space and share our stories, all while navigating the grief and joy that really can exist together. For me, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month has meant celebrating the beauty of our community’s collective cultures and diversity, while taking the time to educate and learn the importance of our stories.

This opportunity to celebrate our heritage and share our stories brings me joy after a year of so much hardship.

I consider myself lucky to have been able to surround myself with inspiring AAPI creators, storytellers, founders, and friends that have made me even prouder to be a part of this community. It’s a privilege to amplify their work as leaders in our community who continue to push for greater representation, reclaim their cultures, and share what being Asian American means.

The founders I’m highlighting here are just a handful of the awe-inspiring talent and leaders we have in the AAPI community, and my hope is that even outside of AAPI Heritage Month, we can continue to support these change-makers for the work they’re doing. This is also a reminder to support the local AAPI restaurants, grocery stores, and businesses both now, and beyond. These businesses and brands make our communities what they are, and it’s a joy to be able to celebrate them.

Vanessa Pham: CEO + Co-Founder Omsom

Omsom is a new Asian pantry staple that makes cooking your favorite Asian dishes with uncompromised flavors and hard-to-find ingredients possible in any home kitchen. Vanessa and Kim Pham, first-generation Vietnamese-American sisters, started Omsom to reclaim the cultural integrity of Asian cuisines that are often diluted in the mainstream grocery aisle. Each of their rip-and-pour starter packets (which are to be paired with fresh protein and vegetables that the consumer purchases separately) includes all the specialty sauces, aromatics, citruses, and oils that are the foundations of Asian dishes.

The Pham sisters work with acclaimed chefs who are lauded in the industry and have connections to these dishes that run deep. In May 2020, they launched their Southeast Asian Line with Vietnamese Lemongrass BBQ from Chef Jimmy Ly of Madame Vo; Filipino Sisig from Owner Nicole Ponseca of Jeepney; Thai Larb from Chefs Chat & Ohm Suansilphong of Fish Cheeks. In October 2020, they launched their East Asian line with Korean Spicy Bulgogi from Chef Deuki Hong of Sunday Bird; Japanese Yuzu Misoyaki from Chef Maiko Kyugoku of Bessou; and Chinese Mala Salad with Amelie Kang of MaLa Project.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… a commitment to integrity, a penchant for analytics and problem solving, and a very talented sister/co-founder.

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry is… more BIPOC founders and leaders and more funding going to them!

The best career advice I always give is… be relentless about surrounding yourself with mentors, investors, and peers that you trust, share values with and can have fun with.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… it’s an honor to be a part of all the multitudes that make up Asian America—there’s no one monolith.

I’m committed to amplifying the diversity of Asian American stories, perspectives, and flavors through Omsom.

Amy Truong: CEO + Founder PARU

PARU offers specialty teas from small farms around the world, offering small-batch blends developed and tested in-house, and tea experiences from tastings to educational workshops. Amy and her partner and co-founder, Lani Gobaleza, met while studying international relations in Japan in 2010, so a lot of what PARU does is inspired by their time and community there—design, culture, and focus on pure ingredients. The work is also inspired by Amy’s family’s international roots; her grandfather did business in Vietnam, Japan, and France, where tea culture is more common than it is here. Based out of the Point Loma neighborhood of San Diego, PARU will be opening a second and flagship location this fall in La Jolla, which will also feature a gallery to showcase work by talented artists – ceramicists, photographers, illustrators, and designers.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… focus, patience, and passion.

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry… is more interest in under-represented tea-producing regions, especially Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand, where you find some excellent teas, as well as less gate-keeping and more sharing.

The best career advice I always give is… that you don’t have to be perfect when you start. You just have to start—that’s the hardest part.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… as a Vietnamese American, I can partake in different cultures and still have them be my own.

Photo by Eliesa Johnson

Yia Vang: Chef and Owner at Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai

A trained chef that has been featured in the New York Times, Bon Appetit, PBS, CNN, and more, Yia currently runs Union Hmong Kitchen, a pop-up in residency at MidCity Kitchen in the Twin Cities, and the team is in the process of opening their first brick and mortar restaurant, Vinai, which will open later this year. The dishes Vang serves are a representation of Hmong culture, stories, rituals, foods, and flavors. Vang does a lot of cooking over fire and uses ingredients that are originally from Southern and Eastern Asia, but also sources local ingredients in Minnesota. That is why Hmong cooking is not exactly the same everywhere—it may be different for Hmong people who live in Oklahoma or California. As tribal people, the Hmong have always adapted and been resourceful. The method of hospitality is just as important as the ingredients. Every dish has a narrative and offers an opportunity to learn something.

Growing up, Vang’s parents believed in eating at the table together for dinner. It was a time to take a pause in their lives and connect with each other. The table was a big part of family life, and at the table, they connected with each other and shared a meal. That is also Vang’s vision for Vinai, a place where people can come together over food and spend time together. Vinai is the refugee camp in Thailand where Vang was born, and it was a beacon of hope for his parents and other people who had survived challenges that are hard to even imagine. Vang wants Vinai to be that place of hope too especially after this past year when we can now appreciate the value of being together once again.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… I kind of break this down into three categories:

  • determination, tenacity, and work ethic
  • imagination, flexibility, and imagination
  • respect for tradition and desire to honor my family and the legacy of the Hmong people

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry… is sustainable, equitable solutions across the board, so that it’s clear to every vendor, every customer, and every staff member that they are interacting with a culture that values culinary integrity and the ethos of hospitality, where it’s just a given that we look out for each other. When we start from this world view, everyone feels seen and treated fairly, workers are paid fairly, have access to benefits, and feel a part of something.

If businesses say that they value diversity and inclusion, they should show it through their actions as well. It should be infused through everything, not treated as a trend, that’s how we can have the real conversations and build relationships for lasting and positive change.

The best career advice I always give is… to show up every day and be ready to learn, no matter what position you are in.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… as an Asian American, I am aware that there are so many unique people, cultures, and traditions that all fall under that one overarching term. I am proud of being Hmong, because we have such a deep rich story that is also no interconnected with American history. I am proud because of the values and traditions that my parents have taught my siblings and me. I am so proud to carry those things with me and share the stories with others through food and through the way I am with others.

Mio Larasati and Rahul Gindwani: Co-Founders Allawake Coffee

Allawake simplifies your morning brew. As easy as hang, drip, and sip, you can enjoy a cup of fresh pour-over coffee in easy-to-use single-serve drip bags. Allawake is about small batches, big flavors, and nitrogen-sealed individual packs that make the easy-to-use drip bags perfect for rushed weekday mornings or Saturday sunrise hikes.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… adaptability, passion, and learning. As someone who is new to the CPG industry, we have found that wanting to learn is a huge advantage. When you want to learn, you open yourself up to new ways of scaling and growing your business. Adapting to different scenarios and being able to correct or even change your perspective and strategy is also something that is very useful. The last and certainly most important quality is passion. You need a passion for what you are doing. The passion that we have for great-tasting coffee is what drove us to start this business in the first place and it continues to push us to provide our customers with quality.

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry… is that we think the coffee industry has done a great job with creating and developing a healthy relationship in every aspect. From fair trade practices to maintaining and developing farms around the world, we’re excited to see what the future of coffee holds. We believe that when we take care of one another, the coffee will taste that much better.

The best career advice I always give is… learn, learn, learn. We cannot emphasize enough how important wanting to learn is.

Don’t expect anything to be handed or given to you when you do not have a willingness to learn. The results of your work will reflect how much you have learned and will ultimately lead you to your goals.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… we’re appreciative of the mindset that a lot of Asian Americans have. As a first-generation Asian American, I appreciate the opportunity that is given to me by my parents to strive for success. Knowing the struggles that my parents had when they came to the United States has given me a very grateful perspective and pushes me to do my best.

Julie Nguyen: CEO + Co-Founder Methodology

Methodology is a luxury, sustainable meal prep service for business professionals known for delivering ready-to-eat food in reusable glass jars—now delivering in Seattle, Portland, Northern CA, and Southern CA. The menu is designed using the latest nutrition research to optimize gut health and longevity.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… empathy, discipline, and courage.

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry… is more responsibility around how what we feed our customers and how we package it impact customers’ health and the health of our planet.

The best career advice I always give is… keep doubling down on what you’re good at and so passionate about that no one could compete with you because your obsession with the area is completely illogical.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… I love the unique aspects of our culture, including its almost universal love of food and the generations of knowledge passed down about how to use food as medicine.

Aishwarya Iyer: CEO + Founder Brightland

Born to elevate the simple moments in the kitchen, Brightland supports small family farms, traceability, and analog living. Brightland’s hero products are consciously crafted virgin olive oils and fruit-forward vinegars from California.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… tenacity, optimism, and a healthy dose of naiveté!

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry… is more genuine impact, less virtue signaling.

The best career advice I always give is… it’s a marathon and in the end, you’re racing only against yourself.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… of the values I was brought up with around family, community, togetherness, food, and love.

Farah Jesani: Founder and Chief Chai Officer One Stripe Chai Co.

One Stripe Chai is a woman-owned South Asian beverage brand that offers authentic, small-batch masala chai concentrates and blends, crafted to be enjoyed from the comfort of your home or at your favorite coffee shop. Using tea sourced directly from a small organic and biodynamic family-owner farm in Assam, India, One Stripe Chai is brewed in Portland, or with a focus on taste and simplicity.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… persistence, curiosity, and adaptability (I’m still working on getting better at the last one!)

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry… is that I’d like to see more diversity in every aspect of the food and beverage industry, from product offerings and ownership to leadership roles within companies.

The best career advice I always give is… never stop asking questions. The worst someone can say is no, but if you don’t ask you’ll never know!

I’m proud of being Asian American because… I’ve gotten the unique opportunity to be completely immersed in two different cultures simultaneously my entire life. I see this as a huge strength in that there is a high level of flexibility needed to be able to move back and forth between different cultural norms and languages.

Lisa Li: Founder + Chief Flower Officer The Qi

The Qi is a wellness brand on a mission to empower people to feel more joy, beauty, and inner calm on the daily basis through the power of healing flower teas.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… curiosity, inspiration, and persistence.

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry… is I’d love to see people stop or buying fewer bottles of water or other ready-to-drink beverages in bottles/cans. Instead, bring your own water bottles!

The best career advice I always give is… don’t be afraid. Even when you’re afraid, do it anyway.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… I’m proud of my heritage.

Pooja Bavishi: Founder Malai Ice Cream

Malai is a Brooklyn-based ice cream company that draws inspiration from South Asian-inspired whole ingredients and unexpected twists on classics. Their eggless ice cream has purer, more robust flavors, as well as the lightest, creamiest textures you can find. Malai was founded in 2015 as an homage to the nostalgic, aromatic spices and flavors of Pooja’s childhood.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… curiosity, resilience, and passion.

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry is… adapting to the notion of what is mainstream of normal. Food has been centered around Western flavor profiles for a very long time, and anything else is often flagged as “exotic”. But the fact is that Eastern cultures have been around for far longer than has been accepted in the Western food scene, and should be portrayed as such.

Perspective in food should be welcomed and celebrated, and differences should be embraced. I see some change already, but there is also a lot of work that can be done.

The best career advice I always give is… ask a lot of questions and never stop learning. You should always strive to be better than what you are today.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… my culture and heritage are a huge part of my identity, and the desire to share that was the reason I founded Malai. We not only share the flavors of my heritage, but also the principles through our service—everyone is always welcome, the experience of delivering joy through food, and the importance of giving back to the community around you. I am so proud that my heritage of being Asian American is the front and center of everything that I do at Malai.

Maggie Xue: CEO + Founder Us Two Tea

Us Two Tea brings the best farm-to-cup experience. Using high-quality tea sourced directly from small farmers in the mountains of Taiwan, and biodegradable tea sachets, they make sure that you can get that delicious flavor of loose leaf tea sustainably, on the go, and without losing quality. UTT not only shares Asian tea culture with the community but also shares the Asian American experience, striving to inspire future generations to embrace and be proud of their heritage culture, over a cup of tea.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… determination, discipline, and do not give a F* about others’ opinions.

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry is… that I hope all tea brands can switch the plastic/paper tea bags to biodegradable tea bags. It releases billions of nano-plastics into our cups and creates tons of waste for our environment. It’s time for the change.

The best career advice I always give is… that it’s never too late to change industries or careers. What’s important is to find a job that makes you feel fulfilled every morning when you wake up and the rest will follow.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… it’s an honor just to be Asian.

Harshit Gupta: Co-Founder Madhu Chocolate

Madhu Chocolate makes Indian-inspired bean-to-bar chocolate, based in Austin, TX. The inspiration came from Harshit’s mom, Madhu, and her cooking which he grew up with back in Mumbai. Madhu uses lots of spices, nuts, and flavors in the chocolates that are commonly used in Indian desserts. One of the signature chocolate bars, Masala Chai Dark, uses the same spices and even the same tea that Harshit’s mom uses back home to make her morning and evening chai.

Three qualities that got me to where I am today are… relentless dedication to my tasks, my goals, and my responsibilities (ask my husband, he’ll tell you “relentless” is the appropriate word!) I’m always listening for constructive feedback to improve on our products and our business as a whole, and being naturally curious about the world around me, and always eager to learn new skills and practices.

The change or impact I’d like to see in/from my industry is… this industry is so white-washed and so Western-centric and could stand to be much more diverse considering the global nature of the chocolate trade. I would also like to see a shift in consumer habits moving away from slave-prone Hershey’s and Cadbury to ethically sourced, equitable sourced, way about fair trade chocolate. This may mean the end of “cheap” chocolate, but it seems obvious to me that a product that requires slave labor to keep prices down shouldn’t be cheap, to begin with.

The best career advice I always give is… be ready to pivot, be ready to change.

I’m proud of being Asian American because… growing up in a traditional Indian household meant “we” took precedence over “me”. This helped me nurture the values of family and community as a whole.

To have that understanding and be able to grow in America’s melting pot where diverse cultures and traditions are honored and celebrated is just amazing.

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