In March of 2021, our co-founders Andrew and Simon made a statement in response to the increased violence against AAPI communities due to the COVID-19 pandemic - the positive and supportive response from the HOLDEN community was deeply moving. As part of AAPI Month, Andrew and Simon sat down for an interview with a HOLDEN team member to talk about how their experiences as Asian-Americans shaped them and ultimately led to HOLDEN.
Because it's Asian American Pacific Islander month, I was hoping you could share a bit about how growing up Asian American has shaped who you are, and then we can talk about how that’s influenced how you built HOLDEN.
Simon: I grew up in the Midwest, and until I was in college, I had very few Asian peers. The towns I lived in were majority white, 90 something percent white. Literally not a day went by where I didn't acknowledge the fact that I was Asian and everyone else wasn't. It wasn't always bullying in the sense that someone would call me out for something that's different about me, but it would be really subtle. For example, playing baseball, I felt like I never had an opportunity to play any position that was important because I was written off from the beginning. I wasn't told by the coach that there are no Chinese baseball players, but I’m sure that influenced his decision to keep me in right field.
Andrew: I also grew up in a very suburban town, and I really did enjoy my childhood. While I had very genuine friendships, the majority of my friends at school weren't Asian, and I remember trying to minimize my differences so that I could blend in. My mom used to pack these incredible Korean lunches for me that I loved, but the other kids made fun of me because they smelled “foreign,” so I had to tell her to stop and just make me sandwiches instead so I’d fit in.
I also distinctly remember having to go to ESL class on the first day of kindergarten, even though my parents never chose to enroll me in it. The school just assumed it was something I would need. I didn’t have to go back after that first day since I passed the diagnostic test, but as a six year old kindergartener, that experience still sticks with me because it's something that made me feel different from everyone. All in all, I did have a good childhood, but the more I've been reflecting on it, there are definitely things that made me feel isolated.
You’ve talked about being taught to keep your head down and work twice as hard. This is an interesting moment because the whole “model minority” concept is being challenged. People are being encouraged to speak up and share these conversations and reflect on them. Is there anything you want to say about that?
Simon: I'm sure as a kid, I complained to my parents about being treated differently, but they went through stuff that I could never even imagine in the Cultural Revolution, like surviving off a lot less food than you should have as a child. So my parents would bring stuff up like that - and that's a problem in itself, not being able to share some of my challenges with them, because it was overshadowed by the struggles they had been through. That was something that pushed me to put my head down and work harder instead of talking about my feelings or whatever would've been more healthy at the time. Any success I've had is definitely partially attributed to that work ethic.
I do think about multiple instances where my parents would be talking to customer service trying to return something, or being in the store and being treated poorly because they didn't have a great grasp of English. I remember thinking my parents were being treated like kids by other adults because they had a lower English comprehension level.
Andrew: I have similar experiences too with my family in the store. One time, I clearly remember seeing the family that was helped before us get really friendly, amazing service. And then you can feel the tone shift when my mom would try her best to ask whatever questions she had. We’d be getting clearly worse service, and they would be short with us. As a credit to my mom, that never stopped her from getting her way - she would keep going in her broken English until she got her message across. I learned that because of our race, we were treated differently and got worse service, but I also learned by watching my mom to never settle for a lower tier of what you're trying to achieve.
As business owners, how has that impacted what matters to HOLDEN and shaped why you wanted to create HOLDEN the way that it is?
Simon: I think customer service is huge because that feeling of being treated differently for any reason, whether it's because you're Asian or whatever it was, we never want anyone to feel that way. That's a core tenet of the business, probably unconsciously because of those experiences we had. It's always been the number one thing we've focused on - making sure every single person felt like they were taken care of.
Andrew: When it comes to customers of color or LGBTQ couples, having heard those horror stories and bad experiences they'd had in store, those definitely triggered memories that we also had of feeling excluded, not represented, and being given poor service as a result of who we were. No matter who you are, any customer, any couple, gets the same highest possible quality service.
Simon: I think there are other positive aspects of how we were raised that have influenced the way we've shaped the business. I don't want to generalize in any way, but my parents and Andrew's parents instilled in us the importance of getting a really good value. From my parents, it was a matter of coming to America, not having a lot, and growing up without a lot, so you had to make the most of what you had. I feel like I personally have a really good sense of what's a good value and what's not. That was top of mind when we were making HOLDEN - everything we make I personally believe is a really good value. It doesn't mean it's the cheapest product, but for what it is, the service you get, and the fact that it's custom made, it is a great value in my mind. And we're constantly looking at pricing and making sure we're staying fair and transparent about all facets of the business.
Andrew: We also want to be as flexible as possible with our product selection so our customers can customize and design exactly what they want instead of just settling for pre-determined products that are already on the shelf and aren't exactly what they're looking for.
You’ve preferred to stay a bit more in the background when it comes to HOLDEN’s identity, keeping it about our couples. Could you talk about your decision to speak out now and identify yourselves?
Andrew: I definitely want to inspire the Asian-American kid out there who has dreams of starting their own business or doing something on their own. If our story can give them that extra push to go for it, that's one reason we're sharing our experiences. There really weren't that many people for us to look up to. In New York City we probably met a couple Asian American business owners who inspired us. Phil Chong (the founder of Canal Street Market) is someone we both looked up to, but there weren't that many role models in the small business or entrepreneurial space.
Simon: I don't want to generalize, but I have a lot of friends who were pressured into having very stable careers, and starting your own business is risky. No matter how good of a business plan you have, no matter how much funding you have, it is still ultimately more risky than having a stable career where you're guaranteed your paycheck every two weeks. I know for me, I'm lucky because my parents really supported me, but I know there's a lot of pressure - your parents moved across the world to make sure that they can put food on the table for you, so ultimately you could put food on the table for your family. For a lot of my peers, I know the idea of telling your parents you're going to quit your job and start a business is terrifying. So that's another reason why if we do become successful, we would want people to be able to see themselves in our shoes.
Andrew: But credit to our parents for supporting us.
Simon: You were pretty scared to tell your mom for a long time, dude.
Andrew: But you know, my parents have been extremely supportive. They're actually our biggest cheerleaders and my dad and my mom get so excited when I give them an update on what's happening.
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