The small business leadership journey is filled with triumphs, but it’s also filled with various challenges and obstacles. 

Whether you’re looking to start a business or looking for some inspiration, we have advice from three Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) small business leaders who,  by recognizing the power in themselves, have been able to reach small business success.

Here’s how:

Start with you

No matter what kind of small business you have, you are the foundation it’s built upon. It is an extension of who you are — your identity as an individual — including your values, your vision, and even your heritage. 

So share it.

By threading a piece of your personality or culture through your business, you’re taking an extra step towards connecting with your community. 

And the more your community knows and recognizes you as a person, the more they’re willing to support you.

Not sure what I mean? Take a look at these three businesses and how they blended themselves with their business.

Seoul Kitchen

Seoul Kitchen is an authentic, modern Korean restaurant located in suburban Massachusetts. Having grown up in the restaurant industry, Jay and his wife Debbie opened the restaurant to share honest Korean food and culture within their Westford community. 

The Bread Project

Immigrating from Nepal, Executive Director of The Bread Project embraces her AAPI heritage and uses it to help other immigrants
Usha Gongal, Executive Director of The Bread Project

The Bread Project provides food prep and baking job training and job placement assistance to help immigrants, refugees, and justice-involved individuals integrate into society.

Usha Gongal, current Executive Director of The Bread Project, went through the program herself when she immigrated to the US from Nepal. And, with her intimate understanding of the process of integrating into a new society, in a new country, she’s able to help individuals with high barriers to employment become self-sufficient through stable, fulfilling work.

Unique Inc.

Unique Inc. Markets provides large-scale pop-up Unique Markets across the country that elevate independent designers and business owners. Sonja makes sure she’s fueling the fires of small business owners everywhere.

In her panel-style speaking engagements, Sonja realized she was the only person of color in any given setting. By seeing this as an honor and opportunity, she’s remained confident in her role. She’s made sure that diversity and inclusivity are priorities for her team, and Unique Markets successfully elevates minority-owned businesses — a large percentage being women in the AAPI community! 

“Representing people is important. If you’re one of the only people that looks like you, don’t let it discourage you. There’s power in that. They’ve been there, but now It’s your turn.” – Sonja Rasula

The one thing these three small business owners have in common, besides belonging to the AAPI community, is that each of them established themselves as the people behind the business. They not only embraced their heritage but they shared it with their community and made it a part of their work.

Expand your network

Networking can be as simple as reaching out to a friend from your past to catch up, or as complex as attending a large-scale national conference.

Everything and everyone is an opportunity. If you live with this mindset, you’ll be better at networking in a natural way. 

“Network with other business owners, Asian and non-Asian.” Jay Chung

Tapping into supportive resources within a community that you identify with, like Ace NextGen, nurtures your mindset and provides support from others who have been in similar shoes.

Seoul Kitchen

Jay advises being involved in the community in meaningful ways. 

“One of our core missions is to support our community.  We started a charity called ‘Eat To Give.’ We give $1 to our charity for each Bibimbap or Korean Taco ordered (our top-selling items).  In turn, ‘Eat To Give’ supports our local food banks and soup kitchens.  We raise approximately $25K each year.  100% goes to charity.”

Although non-traditional in terms of networking, there is no better way to show what your business values are than by giving back to the community.

The Bread Project

Networking is important for every industry  —  especially nonprofits.

Besides being great for bringing in donations,  Usha finds that networking helps her on a personal level as well.

“I advise fellow business owners to network with other AAPI members and organizations and use the common background and experiences to find support, resources, and motivation.” – Usha Gongal

Usha immigrated to the US and found that having a community to support her in the transition helped her adjust. 

A person’s identity and culture are important, and being able to tap into a familiar culture can help ease any negative feelings or doubt that small business owners may experience along the way.

Whether you connect with others through business organizations, local community groups, or charity events, networking and community involvement allow the local community to see the person behind the business while simultaneously allowing you to get to know your community better

Practice open-mindedness

There will always be obstacles in the small business journey, but those obstacles shouldn’t make you abandon your business spark.

“Challenges are frustrating but there’s opportunity in challenge.” – Sonja Rasula

Unique Inc.

For Sonja, one of the biggest challenges was during the pandemic. She needed to find a way to keep Unique Markets, an in-person local business market, growing. She took the challenge of the pandemic as an opportunity. 

Since her business model was completely taken away, she created an online shop with her local sellers for customers to browse and buy. She also created a YouTube channel to share advice. 

Facing challenges is inevitable, and although pitfalls are not pleasant, they can help guide you toward improvement. 

Sonja now hosts a podcast with business advice for small business leaders and her markets are back up and running! 

Ask, receive, and provide

Sometimes we need help, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. People want to help.

And, more often than not, leaders are looking for ways to mentor others. All you have to do is reach out  —  and that goes both ways.

The Bread Project

Having immigrated from Nepal, Usha understands the massive challenge of moving to a new country as well as the significant drive that immigrants and refugees have for new opportunities in life.

Usha’s advice?  “Be open to reaching out to those who are already in the field and seek guidance and support from them.”

Seoul Kitchen

Jay agrees! Jay enjoys helping others in his community and he lets this part of his personality shine through in his networking. 

“When you seek to help others, expecting nothing in return, you often get a ton in return!” – Jay Chung

By showing his true self, he finds that his community supports him even more! And while Sonja, Usha, and Jay all agree that other business owners won’t have all the answers, keeping an open mind about other people’s journeys and identities, along with your own, will help you adapt to each obstacle before you. 

Help others to grow

“Grow slow and steady and recognize the roles and people that you need.” – Sonja Rasula

When it comes to running a small business, growth should be external as well as internal. 

Unique Inc.

As a woman of color, Sonja is proud to say that Unique Markets lives its values and helps women in the AAPI community grow and obtain their entrepreneurial goals.

A majority of her sellers are women, and a majority of those women are members of the AAPI community. 

Being alone in your identity doesn’t mean you’re an outsider, it makes your perspective and your influence unique. This goes for any demographic, not just those in the AAPI community. 

By showing her unique identity as the person behind her business, she allows others to be inspired to grow around her.

The Bread Project

The Bread Project is aimed at helping people with barriers to employment gain financial independence.

Usha’s goal is to help community members get a second chance at living a healthy, independent life.

When she came to the US, Usha knew how to run a business — she had founded various businesses in Nepal. But she needed to be able to transfer those skills to the US, where rules, regulations, and culture are very different.

As Usha progressed, she learned new skills and grew her personal resume. 

Now, Usha makes sure The Bread Project helps the community grow as well.

Let your marketing work for you

Small business owners are constantly on the job — about 39% of small business owners work over 60 hours a week. 

Time is everything. With so much to do to keep your business running, marketing can sometimes end up as the last thing on your list.  

But it should be the first. Jay, Usha, and Sonja all agree — balancing your vision with online marketing is absolutely necessary.

Seoul Kitchen

“Make sure you have passion and a sound business mind.  If you only have 1 of these, partner with someone that has the other.” – Jay Chung

Partnering with someone who can help you with things you’re not familiar or comfortable with can help you attain your goals.

Jay has partnered with Constant Contact since 2020. And, being the time-saving and family-oriented man that he is, Jay uses automation in his marketing mix. 

“Auto-generating birthday coupons/anniversary coupons ensures that our guests always celebrate their special occasions with us.”

Besides sending out special occasion emails, Jay makes sure his customers know him and his family personally and finds that with personal connection they’re more likely to celebrate their special occasions within his business.

The Bread Project

Usha and Lynn Luckow, Chief Development & Strategy Officer, also use email marketing to communicate with their customer base. 

“Email marketing plays an ever-increasingly significant role in the success of our nonprofit business.” – Usha Gongal

Since the Bread Project is a nonprofit, donations are necessary for the organization to succeed. In November and December alone, the Bread Project raised $20,000 through email marketing.

That chunk of money goes to future trainees who are looking to turn their lives around. The more money they raise, the more people Usha can help.

When fundraising, Usha and Lynn are strategic in their communications..

“Take advantage of the philanthropic spirit of the Holiday Season!  Introduce your mission and impact to as many new folks as possible, and communicate in the most personal way possible to your core supporters.”

Their nonprofit newsletter and email communications help raise money to empower more people. And, Usha gives her contact information out in almost every email  —  lending transparency to the person behind the business.

Unique Inc.

Sonja, a long-time user of Constant Contact, also swears by email marketing because of the large number of contacts she communicates with. 

“Hands down, email marketing is the lifeline of our business.” – Sonja Rasula

With over 14,000 sellers across the US, Sonja doesn’t know how successful Unique Markets would be without email marketing. Still, email is just one part of her online marketing strategy. 

“Email and Instagram work hand in hand. The community is on our email list, but they can check in with us every day on Instagram. We create hype on social media and then send an email with an action. This can catapult businesses.”

Using social media from a business perspective can get complicated. It requires forward-thinking and strategizing. 

Sonja’s approach? Keep it simple.  “Use what you feel most comfortable with.” 

For example, Sonja mentioned that she doesn’t use TikTok. Figuring out how to use the platform and what to film to put on the platform took too much of her time and energy, and didn’t reach the right audience for her. 

Instead, she sticks with Instagram, where most of her customer base operates. It’s also something she’s very familiar with in a personal sense.

Using a tool that puts all your marketing tactics in one trackable place helps you save time and energy to spend stoking your business fire.

Recognize the power in your identity

The feeling of being a perpetual outsider is something that minorities in the US face every day. But as these business leaders have mentioned, there is power in everyone’s identity. 

No matter who you are, starting and growing a business is a large task. Learning from those who’ve been in your shoes before is one of the best ways to prepare and learn how to adapt to challenging situations. 

By showing your network and community who you are, moving forward with an open mind, and letting your marketing work for you, you’ll find you and your community will grow together.

Let yourself shine through, as the person behind your business, and see how empowered you become. And see how you, your business, and your community grow together!

Feeling inspired to share more of your heritage with your audience? See why Jay, Usha, and Sonja trust Constant Contact to help them reach their goals.