The movie Crazy Rich Asians released to a frenzy of buzz not only about Asian representation but also, about the wealth and opulent lifestyles on full display. The cars, the fashion choices rivaling those in The Devil Wears Prada and of course, the ring! Clearly, the world has a voracious appetite for fantasies of billionaire bling. And as home to the world's highest number of billionaires, Asia is fueling a lot of this fascination.
Of course, stereotypes can reflect a slice of reality. But as a second-generation business owner from Vietnam, where my parents built our family's company Tan Hiep Phat from a mom-and-pop yeast business that my father ran in the 1970s out of a tiny room at home into Vietnam's largest privately-owned beverage company that turned down a $2.5 billion buyout offer from Coca-Cola, I know that there is another side to the story. One that holds priceless lessons for anyone aspiring to achieve and maintain large-scale success.
That is the far less glamorous but infinitely more important aspect of hard work, dedication, sacrifice and, especially, rigorous values that it takes to achieve and sustain wealth. This has been the story for many of Asia's wealthy individuals and families who have risen from humble origins and grueling socio-economic conditions. (Chinese billionaire Zhou Qunfei, head of Lens Technology, a former factory worker who often works 18-hour days and “keeps living quarters in her office," is just one example.)
As I discuss in my new book, Competing With Giants, how my own family founded its business and ultimately built its fortune against a devastating backdrop of war, crippling trade sanctions and record hyperinflation. In the face of deprivation my father learned not only to be innovative but to always stay humble and grounded. This has provided the foundation for our company's and our family's culture of hard work.
The long-term viability of THP is directly tied to my family's values and worth ethic. This ethic is driven not by dreams of grandeur and glamour, but by a set of principles and core values that are light years away from those brandished in Crazy Rich Asians.
It is these principles that have made our success a reality and keep it real so that it remains sustainable. If you are an entrepreneur or an aspiring entrepreneur, adhering to these principles will increase your chances of reaching your business goals:
View wealth-building as a journey, not an objective
Always remember that the real value of money is the path one takes to achieve it. It is not an end in and of itself. For entrepreneurs, this means mapping out a clear vision for the company that aligns with its core identity and establishing granular business plans that project into the future - even as far as 10 years out. My family's company, THP, has a vision to expand throughout Asia and beyond with new and exciting brands. Next, commit to the plans, modifying as needed in response to external changes while resisting the temptation to get diverted by promises of sudden, short-term gains if these do not align with the company's fundamental goals. This was my family's mindset when turning down Coca-Cola's $2.5 billion buyout offer in 2012.
Strive for results, not personal riches
Personal riches come and go. That's why results and growth that endure over time must be the primary goal of any entrepreneur. But results are not just about numbers. They encompass a broad range of areas such as the success of strategic partnerships, the strength of relationships with suppliers, the quality and efficiency of production methods and employee satisfaction. Focus on designing and Implementing systems to list, track and monitor all areas of activity, from sales and operations to employee and client relations, and on analyzing the data day-to-day rather than on counting cash. Material wealth may well follow, but the satisfaction of seeing results is far more real.
Never take success for granted
Having riches today does not mean we are entitled or guaranteed to have them forever. There are two things I believe can help entrepreneurs stay grounded in this reality. First, maintaining a humble lifestyle - quite the opposite of the lifestyle presented in Crazy Rich Asians. My own family lives in an apartment above one of our factories.
When traveling, we often take Ubers and stay in AirBnBs. The second is to take action each day to achieve your goals. This means taking chances and always learning from both your successes and your failures--which are inevitable and should be embraced as a source for valuable lessons. The more chances you take, the more opportunities you will ultimately uncover.
Know your values and put them first
Integrity is priceless, and will carry you much farther than the promise of “big shiny objects." When Coca-Cola offered to purchase THP in 2012, the conditions clashed with our vision for the company. We rejected the offer, walking away from a $2.5 billion payday. If the deal had gone ahead, it would have been the largest-ever foreign acquisition in Vietnam's history by deal value. It still would be the second largest today. But it was far more important for us to uphold our values and respect what our company stands for. Values should be the ultimate foundation of entrepreneurial decision-making.
Understanding and upholding your company's values is essential to its long-term viability. THP rigorously adheres to and is guided by a set of 7 core values, including; customer satisfaction, responsibility to the community and society, the spirit of business ownership and believing that nothing is impossible. We have no regrets about passing on the Coca-Cola opportunity: time has proven us right.
Serve your customers diligently, even in challenging times
Owning a company means, above all, serving the customers who depend on you to provide reliable, enjoyable brands that are delivered on time. Every interaction with them matters, no matter how small or big. When problems or challenges arise, it is incumbent on you, the business leader, to rise to the occasion and find a way to meet your customer's needs. Very often, this will mean putting your own needs last. For many people, staying humble and grounded becomes ever more difficult as success grows. They start to believe their own hype, a breeding ground for arrogance and the kind of hubris that leads to mistakes. So keep dreaming big. But as you do, keep your focus and your aspirations in the right place.
It's the question on everyone's tongues. It's what motivates every conversation about whether or not Liz Warren is "electable," every bit of hand-wringing that a woman just "can't win this year," and every joke about menstrual cycles and nuclear missiles. Is America ready for a woman president?
It's a question that would be laughable if it wasn't indicative of deeper problems and wielded like a weapon against our ambitions. Whether thinly-veiled misogyny or not (I'm not going to issue a blanket condemnation of everybody who's ever asked), it certainly has the same effect: to tell us "someday, but not yet." It's cold comfort when "someday" never seems to come.
What are the arguments? That a woman can't win? That the country would reject her authority? That the troops would refuse to take her orders? That congress would neuter the office? Just the other day, The New York Times ran yet another in a long series of op-eds from every major newspaper in America addressing this question. However, this one made a fascinating point, referencing yet another article on the topic in The Atlantic (examining the question during Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential bid), which cited a study by two Yale researchers who found that people were either the same or more likely to vote for a fictional male senator when told that he was ambitious; and yet, both men and women alike were less likely to vote for a woman when told that she was ambitious, even reacting with "feelings of moral outrage" including "contempt, anger, and disgust."
The question isn't whether a woman could be president, or whether a woman can be elected president – let's not forget that Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than the wildly unqualified man currently sitting in the oval office – it's whether or not it's appropriate for a woman to run for president, in a pre-conscious, visceral, gut-check way. In short, it's about misogyny. Not your neighbors' misogyny, that oft-cited imaginary scapegoat, but yours. Ours. Mine. The misogyny we've got embedded deeply in our brains from living in a society that doesn't value women, the overcoming of which is key for our own growth, well-being, and emotional health.
Why didn't we ever ask if America was ready for Trump?
That misogyny, too, is reinforced by every question asking people to validate a woman even seeking the position. Upfront, eo ipso, before considering anything of their merit or experience or thought, whether a woman should be president, that, if given the choice between a qualified woman and an unqualified man, the man wins (which, let's not forget, is what happened four years ago). To ask the question at all is to recognize the legitimacy of the difference in opinion, that this is a question about which reasonable people might disagree. In reality, it's a question that reason doesn't factor into at all. It's an emotional question provoking an emotional response: to whom belong the levers of power? It's also one we seem eager to dodge.
"Sure, I'd vote for a woman, but I don't think my neighbor would. I'd vote for a woman, but will South Carolina? Or Nebraska? Or the Dakotas?" At worst, it's a way to sort through the cognitive dissonance the question provokes in us – it's an obviously remarkable idea, seeing as we've never had a woman president – and at best, it's sincere surrender to our lesser angels, allowing misogyny to win by default. It starts with the assumption that a woman can't be president, and therefore we shouldn't nominate one, because she can't win. It's a utilitarian argument for excluding half of the country's population from eligibility for its highest office not even by virtue of some essential deficiency, but in submission to the will of a presumed minority of voters before a single vote has ever been cast. I don't know what else to call that but misogyny by other means.
We can, and must, do better than that. We can't call a woman's viability into question solely because she's a woman. To do so isn't to "think strategically," but to give ground before the race even starts. It's to hobble a candidate. It's to make sure voters see her, first and foremost, as a gendered object instead of a potential leader. I have immense respect for the refusal of women like Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and pioneers like Carol Mosley-Braun, going as far back as Victoria Woodhull, to accede to this narrative and stick to their arguments over the course of their respective campaigns, regardless of any policy differences with them. It's by women standing up and forcing the world to see us as people that we push through, not by letting them tell us where they think we belong.
One of the themes I come back to over and over again in my writing is women asserting independence from control and dignity in our lives. It's the dominant note in feminist writing going back decades, that plea for recognition not only of our political and civil rights, but our existence as moral agents as capable as any man in the same position, as deserving of respect, as deserving of being heard and taking our shot. What then do we make of the question "is America ready for a woman president?" Is America ready? Perhaps not. But perhaps "ready" isn't something that exists. Perhaps, in the truest fashion of human politics, it's impossible until it, suddenly, isn't, and thereafter seems inevitable.
I think, for example, of the powerful witness Barack Obama brought to the office of president, not simply by occupying it but by trying to be a voice speaking to America's cruel and racist history and its ongoing effects. By extension, then, I think there is very real, radical benefit to electing a chief executive who has herself been subject to patriarchal control in the way only women (and those who others identify as women) can experience.
I look at reproductive rights like abortion and birth control, and that is what I see: patriarchal control over bodies, something no single president has ever experienced. I think about wage equality; no US president has ever been penalized for their sex in their ability to provide for themselves and their families. I look at climate change, and I remember that wealth and power are inextricably bound to privilege, and that the rapacious hunger to extract value from the earth maps onto the exploitation women have been subject to for millennia.
That's the challenge of our day. We've watched, over the last decade, the radicalized right go from the fringes of ridicule to the halls of power. We've watched them spit at the truth and invent their own reality. All while some of our best leaders were told to wait their turn. Why, then, all this question of whether we're ready for something far simpler?
Why didn't we ever ask if America was ready for Trump?