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.
Following are excerpts from "Unleash the Girls, The Untold Story of the Invention of the Sports Bra and How It Changed the World (And Me)" By Lisa Z. Lindahl
There is an idea that has popped up everywhere from Chaos Theory to Science Fiction and New Age memes known popularly as the "Butterfly Effect." Simply put, it is the notion that one very small thing—the movement of a butterfly's wing say, or the ripple in a lake caused by a pebble being thrown into it—can cause tremendous effect far away: the butterfly's wing a tornado, the ripple a large wave on a distant shore. Cause and effect, does it have limits? The field of physics is telling us that it takes only observation to bring a thing into being. We cannot consider these areas of investigation and not acknowledge that everything—everything—is in relationship in some way or another with everything else.
So, it is evident to me that commerce of any kind is, also, just about relationships. It all boils down, on every level to this simplicity. While we usually think of relationships as occurring between people—it is far more than that.
I used to teach a course in entrepreneurship specifically for women in The Women's Small Business Program at Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont. I made this concept of relationship and its importance central in how I taught the marketing thought process. I would stress that for a product or service to be successful, it had to meet a perceived need. There is a need, and it wants to be met; or it may be thought of as a problem to be solved. Or there may be an existing solution that is less than adequate.
For example: In my universe as a runner there already were a plethora of bras available, but they were inadequate for my purpose. The relationship between my breasts, my running body, and my bra was creating discomfort and distraction. A new solution had to be found, the relationship occurring when all these things came together had to be fixed. Utilizing this point of view, one sees a set of issues that need to be addressed—they are in relationship with each other and their environment in a way that needs to be changed, adjusted.
Nowhere is this viewpoint truer than in business, as we enter into more and more relationships with people to address all the needs of the organization. Whether designing a product or a service or communicating with others about it—we are in relationship. And meanwhile, how about maintaining a healthy relationship with ourselves? All the issues we know about stress in the workplace can boil down to an internal balancing act around our relationships: to the work itself, to those we work with, to home life, friends and lovers. So quickly those ripples can become waves.
Because Jogbra was growing so quickly, relationships were being discovered, created, ending, expanding and changing at a pace that makes my head spin to recall. And truly challenged my spirit. Not to mention how I handled dealing with my seizure disorder.
"My Lifelong Partner"
Let me tell you a bit about my old friend, Epilepsy. Having Epilepsy does not make any sort of money-making endeavor easy or reliable, yet it is my other "partner" in life. Husbands and business partners have come and gone, but Epilepsy has always been with me. It was my first experience of having a "shadow teacher."
While a child who isn't feeling she has power over her world may have a tantrum, as we grow older, most of us find other more subtle ways to express our powerfulness or powerlessness. We adapt, learn coping mechanisms, how to persuade, manipulate, or capitulate when necessary. These tools, these learned adaptations, give a sense of control. They make us feel more in charge of our destiny. As a result, our maturing self generally feels indestructible, immortal. Life is a long, golden road of futures for the young.
This was not the case for me. I learned very early on when I started having seizures that I was not fully in charge of the world, my world, specifically of my body. There are many different types of epileptic seizures. Often a person with the illness may have more than one type. That has been the case for me. I was diagnosed with Epilepsy—with a seizure type now referred to as "Absence seizures"—when I was four years old. I have seen neurologists and taken medications ever since. As often happens, the condition worsened when I entered puberty and I started having convulsions as well—what most people think of when they think of epileptic seizures. The clinical name is generalized "Tonic-clonic" seizures.
In such a seizure the entire brain is involved, rather like an electrical circuit that has gone out as a result of a power surge. I lose consciousness, my whole body becomes rigid, the muscles start jerking uncontrollably, and I fall. Tonic-clonic seizures, also known as "grand mal" seizures, may or may not be preceded by an aura, a type of perceptual disturbance, which for me can act as a warning of what is coming. The seizure usually only lasts for a few minutes, but I feel its draining effects for a day or two afterwards. Although I would prefer to sleep all day after such a physically and emotionally taxing event, I have often just gotten up off the floor and, within hours, gone back to work. It was necessary sometimes, though definitely not medically advised. I'm fond of saying that having a grand mal seizure is rather like being struck by a Mack truck and living to tell the tale.
Having Epilepsy has forced me to be dependent on others throughout my life. While we are all dependent upon others to some degree—independent, interdependent, dependent—in my case a deep level of dependency was decreed and ingrained very early on. This enforced dependency did not sit well with my native self. I bucked and rebelled. At the same time, a part of me also feared the next fall, the next post-convulsive fugue. And so I recognized, I acquiesced to the need to depend on others.
The silver lining of having Epilepsy is that it has introduced me to and taught me a bit about the nature of being powerless—and experiencing betrayal. I could not trust that my body would always operate as it should. Routinely, it suddenly quits. I experience this as betrayal by my brain and body. It results in my complete powerlessness throughout the convulsion. Not to mention an inconvenient interruption of any activities or plans I might have made.
Hence, I am the recipient of two important life lessons—and I was blessed to have this very specific and graphic experience at a young age. It made me observant and reflective, giving me the opportunity to consider what/where/who "I" was. I knew I was not "just" my body, or even my brain.
So, who or what did that leave? Who, what am I? Much has been written about trauma, and about near-death experiences, both of which seizures have been classified or described as. I won't delve into that here except to say that experiencing recurrent seizures and the attendant altered states of consciousness that sometimes accompany an episode (the euphemism for a seizure) changes one. It deeply affects you. It is both illuminating and frightening. It opens you up in some ways and can close you way down in others. For me it made it easy to consider the possibility of other ways to perceive, of other realms. And as an adult I became interested in quantum physics, where Science is pushing and challenging our long-held perceptual assumptions. Me, who was poor in math and disinterested in Science while in school! So if not merely body and brain, who am I? Spirit. And with Epilepsy's tutelage, I was encouraged to question, seek, try to understand what lies beyond.
Living with Epilepsy has also given me great strength. In realizing the futile nature of trying to have "power over" Epilepsy, I developed a deep well of "power within"—that inner strength that comes in the acceptance of that which one cannot change—and looking beyond it.
Through my experience building the business of Jogbra with the unique lens afforded me by my Epilepsy partner, I came to understand more fully the nature of power and what it means to be truly powerful.
Specifically, that having power and exercising it is not simply a manifestation of the ego. It need not be "power-tripping." It is how I wield my power that matters, making the all-important distinction between creating a situation of power over, power with, or empowering and having and creating strength in oneself and others.
Being powerful is a big responsibility.
To put all this another way: do I choose to create situations in which I am able to wield power over others? Or do I choose to empower others, sharing my strengths with them, while nurturing their strengths as well? The first is not true power. It is control. The second I believe to be the essence of true and positive power: strength. And integral to creating a more harmonious world, oh by the way.
While this may be apparent, even basic to others, it was an "aha!" moment for me. Too often in the years ahead I would give away my power and question my own strengths,. Time and again, however, my inner strength, my shadow teacher's gift, helped me survive and thrive until I could take responsibility for and embrace more fully my own power.
© Lisa Z. Lindahl 2019