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.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."