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Celebrating Female Vietnamese Entrepreneurs: Cali Nguyen of Smitten Kiss

I am so excited to share this interview with you! This month I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend Cali of Smitten Kiss. Smitten Kiss is a team of professionals who carry their passion in event planning and building wonderful relationships. Paired with industry knowledge, creative imagination, and impeccable client services, Smitten Kiss brings a wealth of support and information. They pride themselves on their ability to project, plan, and executing flawlessly.

Without further ado, let's dive in! Check out my past interviews here!

Photo by Kenny Wong

Coming from an Asian background, my parents wanted me to be a lawyer. Did you have similar pressure from your parents and how did you overcome that?

There is a term for the demographic of first-gen kids born on American soil. We are called "American Born Children," simplified as ABC's. Even with the knowledge that raising a family in the United States would greatly affect their views, my parents, like many Vietnamese parents, didn't stutter with their expectations. They placed education as a top tier on the totem pole of the American dream. They wanted nothing more than to produce high-performing, intensely conservative individuals.

My weeks were filled with Sunday Buddhist school, Vietnamese school, extra math tutoring, and daily piano practice and lessons. We spoke only Vietnamese in the home, any of my Vietnamese friends that called and didn't politely ask for me in our language, my dad would simply hang up. Dinners would take place at 5 pm, and my goodness, if I sat at the dining table 2 inches too far off the chair, I would be scolded. My deeply rooted Vietnamese parents never actually said to me what they wanted me to be, they only wanted to make sure that whatever it was, that it would have been created at an Ivy League. There was evidence that this 10-year-old once wrote about her dreams of making it to Stanford University. But that stayed a dream.

I was the only sophomore in my AP Calculus class, I was the only kid who couldn't attend night dances, and it felt like I was the only kid who had to be home right after school to practice piano while everyone else was having the time of their lives being 15. The truth of the matter is, I never overcame the pressures, I was lost in it. I fell off the deep end in high school and was subdued for years following after.

How did you get started? Did you always know you wanted to do this career? If no, what was the path you were on before?

I did everything backward in life and so all of this happened much later than most would think. I dibbled dabbled at office receptionist jobs, and then it led to real estate for a few years. It was my experience as an Executive Assistant to C-suite executives that gave me the proper foundation on how organizations work, especially the differentiating factor between managing and leadership. Running parallel to my corporate job, I honed my skills in hair and makeup, meeting many creatives and brides in the industry. It was such a fun time for me and I had realized how much I loved the weddings and events industry, though I was sure I couldn't make a living doing it. I didn't think I would be paid enough to survive in Silicon Valley as a creative. My corporate job gave me financial security and the weekend gigs gave me an outlet to be authentic to my artistic side.

It wasn't until 2014 when I made the jump into starting SmittenKiss LLC. My then-partner, Will Zhong, who ran many e-commerce businesses, was a huge motivation in that decision. When we met, he believed in my ability in running my own business. At the time, I knew nothing outside of my corporate job. The comfort of an every other Friday paycheck and a 401K was my one-way ticket to retirement in my 60's. Now, please hear me out, I still feel that the corporate job option is still a good path. Unless you have flames burning that passion and don't you dare run out of fuel, because running your own business is TOUGH. It took a lot of coaxing but I decided if I was going to take a gamble, that it would have been on myself. I pulled everything I had out of my 401K and decided to open SK. CRAZY!!

What are some challenges you see as a woman, and being a person of color?

Good question, but a tough one. Generally, I am a very positive person and so I don't focus on factors that hold me back. I'm compelled to understand the landscape before I engage my time and focus on anything. When it comes to landing corporate contracts or building clientele I don't study or ask about who else is being considered. I firmly believe in our services and having high emotional intelligence is also key to our success. Spending time studying others is crucial in other areas, but in what I do, it's a distraction. I rather focus on our ensuring my team is solid, which in turn will create good services. I do however see that there are issues when it comes to raising a family while being a high functioning business-oriented individual.

I find myself scrambling to get the children to school, providing home-cooked meals, dealing with co-parenting issues and schedules. Most of the burdens fall on the women's shoulders- at least for me, they do. I lack proper rest and my energy does get drained. As far as financials go, I might be a bit too forgiving with pricing our services. I don't know if that is the fault of being soft-hearted or a woman. I am still trying to understand that.

Being Asian as an adult was never an issue for me. But with the current rising civil and social issues, I have joined alliances to help bring awareness to our community and across the nation. It's important that we pay tribute where needed-- I am firm on supporting and building more equity for minority-based groups.

Do you have any advice for other women/men that want to start their own business or be their own boss?

I have been asked this many times, and it feels like it all boils down to these few things. Find something you are passionate about, something you can see yourself doing day in and day out. Because when you are working those long hours, you know that this is for yourself and not someone else's dream. Have grit – there are days when you will fall, you will cry and you want to wave that white flag, but don't. This is where grit is really important. It's a positive, non-cognitive trait and fully based on perseverance to get to that goal you have.

Make sure your goals are audacious- I know many will tell you to have SMART goals (you know that usual business language of measurable and realistic goals), but sometimes you have to let yourself dream it out first. Then work your way down in creating the logical steps to get there. Don't get so caught up in the "what if it goes wrong?" but think of "what if it goes right?" Understand your threshold on when it would be smart to pull back and ensure you do everything in your capabilities to not hit that threshold, but when you do, also be smart enough to scale back or pull the plug. Fixing a sinking ship is also very dangerous. After knowing these points, go crazy with your dreams =)

Photo by Kenny Wong

As I got older, a lot of things my parents taught me now resonate - do you have anything that you've learned as a child that today you live by?

Culture is IMPORTANT. Schedule is IMPORTANT. Predictability in the home is IMPORTANT. I learned all of this from my parents, and also adaptability to change. All of these things put together will help children grow to be responsible, compassionate, and reliable.

I’ve always fought my culture and wanted to be Western as I saw our culture's beliefs as so antiquity. Now as a mother, I am teaching my daughter about our heritage and also our language. How do you merge both cultures in your life today?

I make sure my daughters follow most of our traditions growing up. We are all aware their language development is heavily flawed when speaking in our Vietnamese tongue, but the girls try to regardless. We do give modern twists to our traditions and try not to be rigid like my parents and they have respected our ways. Though my girls are outspoken and rarely fit the mold of Vietnamese children raised in VN, I know they try their best to respect our wishes. Pop culture and social media influence have changed a lot of this generation's perspective and so we do find ourselves debating some issues. Mental illness awareness is a major taboo in Asian cultures but now it's slowly emerging as a topic of discussion. That being said, breaking the barriers with me is not the tough part. It's more of the grandparents and their grandchildren that experience the void.

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