Maxine Lau of Lahtt Sauce

 

A “lahtt” of people are talking about one of the hottest new items on the market.

Started in 2015, Maxine Lau began Lahtt Sauce as an idea inspired by the cooking of her father who was a chef in Chinese restaurants. Maxine, a USC Marshall School of Business graduate, is the CEO and co-founder of Lahtt Sauce,a gluten, MSG, and preservative-free chili oil, and aspires to make Cantonese flavors widely available to the public.

In the past three years, Lahtt Sauce has grown from farmer’s markets to retail spaces such as Milk and Eggs, Sprouts, and Erewhon. We spoke with Maxine and asked her about her experience as a business-owner and the challenges she faced. Lahtt Sauce has the versatile flavors to pair with soups, dumplings, or noddles.

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Brian Kohaya: What do you think your experience has been being a minority-owned business?

Maxine Lau: While there may be disadvantages, there are also significant advantages as well. I think being a minority has been very advantageous for Lahtt Sauce. Our product is catered towards our demographic and we have a very niche product. You’d be surprised – there are a lot of people out there who are willing to help, offer support, and want you to succeed.

B.K.: What is an important lesson that you’ve learned and how has it proven to be invaluable?

M.L.: An important lesson I’ve learned is the importance of community and resilience. For us, we started local at the Alhambra Farmers Market, built a strong and supportive community there, and now we’re going nationwide in Whole Foods in August. We’ve been going at it for three years. It went from something no one really paid attention to now going nationwide – that’s a big deal to our small team. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the support of our local community and continuous hard work.

B.K.: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced?

M.L.: Understanding our business model and having the right infrastructure in place to scale for growth.

B.K.: What advice would you give to up-and-coming entrepreneurs or someone who wants to begin their own line of products.

M.L.: I think I may have jumped into this a bit too early without significant professional business experience early on. Usually, many people do not venture out to start their own business until they’ve established their network and have a strategic plan. I would recommend to entrepreneurs that they gain more professional work experience, understand the landscape of their desired industry, and build their network prior to venturing out. It’s much harder to do it the other way around.

B.K.: Where do you hope to see your business in 10 years?

M.L.: Oh my gosh, in 10 years! I don’t know, in 10 years maybe I will still be operating the company or maybe it’s been sold to a larger food company. I would be happy either way. As long as it’s growing, supporting the local economy, and advancing our mission of improving the quality of authentic, health-conscious food and strengthening the local food system, I would be happy.

 


Michael Komai of Rafu Shimpo

It’s no secret that the newspaper industry is on the rocks these days. From the constant paywalls on online news sites to and a number of local newspapers being shut down, the industry has been in shambles for a long time. While dozens of newspapers, both community-based and mainstream, have come and gone in the past few years, one of the last remaining community-based newspapers is The Rafu Shimpo.  

Michael Komai is the publisher of The Rafu Shimpo, which has been in the Komai family for three generations. The Rafu is the last surviving bilingual Japanese-English newspaper in the country. Its well-documented financial struggles have been indicative of the state of community-based news as well as newspapers in general. But The Rafu at its core is a newspaper filled with perseverance and survival.

Established in 1903, The Rafu began as a Japanese language-only newspaper serving the issei community. In 1926, The Rafu expanded to an English section to serve the growing nisei population. After President F.D.R. signed Executive Order 9066, The Rafu shut down and Akira Komai, Michael’s father, buried the newspaper equipment under the office and recovered it three years later. Since then, The Rafu continues to be a community staple, serving the Japanese community and making sure their stories are told.

I fittingly met with Michael at Cafe Dulce in the heart of Little Tokyo. He spoke earnestly about the state of The Rafu and the issues it’ll face in the upcoming years. “The Rafu has issues remaining relevant to a younger audience,” Michael said. The older generation that grew up reading The Rafu is slowly passing on without sharing their trust of The Rafu to future generations. The Rafu staff are trying to remain relevant and connect with younger audience by focusing on social media campaigns and working with companies such as Japanegeles.

The Komai family is a staple of the Little Tokyo community. It was evident that Michael was familiar with every single business and organization in Little Tokyo. He lamented about how he doesn’t have enough time to tell the all the stories of the community. As more chains and non-Japanese businesses move into an increasingly trendy and gentrified Little Tokyo, Michael wants to highlight the people from the namesake of the land and help promote their businesses in order to keep Little Tokyo a community.

Michael is always looking for the next story and the next business partnership. Multiple times during our talk, he tried to recruit me to write about my own experience as a Japanese American. I believe this quality is what has led the Rafu to continue to be socially relevant today. At the heart of community-based media, it is the people. Without them, The Rafu would be another media organization that only serves to try to make the next buck, as oxymoronic as profit and the newspaper industry is today. The Rafu has and will always remain a paper that is centered on the stories of the greater Japanese diasporic community — as long as Michael has a say at least.

 


Lynn Chen of EARL Security

Lynn Chen is the CEO of EARL Security, Inc. which was founded in 1998. After her own house was burglarized while at work, Chen began her own security company to protect families and homes in her area. Chen is actively involved in minority-owned and small-businesses councils throughout the greater Los Angeles area including the Small Business Advisory Council, Rotary International, and Caltrans’ Statewide Small Business Council.

After hearing about ABA through the Chinese American Construction Professionals (CACP), Lynn became an active member even serving on its Board of Directors for four years. She is always excited to share her experience with ABA with anyone she meets. We spoke with Lynn to hear her stories as a minority-owned business owner and the advice she would give to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Brian Kohaya: What has your experience with ABA been like?

Lynn Chen: To me, ABA is a network. From the network, it’s inspiring to hear the stories of the other entrepreneurs and I get to see how other people do corporate and small business. Sometimes ABA has workshops with corporate organizations such as Southern California Edison who provide trainings for us. That is part of ABA’s benefit.

B.K.: What is your experience like being a minority-owned business?

L.C.: Twenty to thirty years ago, I got more discrimination from the Chinese than Americans. Corporate America has diversity programs, so they are used to working with people from all backgrounds. I used to have Chinese contractors tell me “Go home. Tell your husband to come.” Chinese women would pity me since I was working and not living a life of luxury and wearing designer clothes. The non-Chinese respected me more when I’m in plain clothes. Things have progressed. For a long time, I didn’t tell people I owned EARL Security. When I give my business card, I still don’t have a title. I do that today because when people look at me they think “I don’t make the final call.” If they find out I’m the owner, they’ll try to take advantage and try to get free labor.

B.K.: What advice would you give to an up-and-coming entrepreneur?

L.C.: I would ask them:

  1. How long can they work without income?
  2. How many employees do you need ?

To start a business, you don’t have income. You have your product, your service, and your overhead, and that’s it. Most businesses fail in the first 5 years because most people don’t know they need money. They need employees so people that will perform for them. It’s not how much you know, it’s how much money you can get from someone else’s pocket to your pocket. The people who succeed are the ones who know their numbers. If you don’t have the working capital, then you’re doomed to fail.

If someone doesn’t have a leg and you want them to run a marathon, it’s not encouraging. You can do it but it won’t be a winner. In order to win, you must see yourself to see how you can win.

B.K.: Thank you, Lynn for your advice to beginning entrepreneurs. I know the lessons are tough, but a business failing is even tougher. I’m glad you’re able to expose the harsh realities of the market to those who want to enter it.

 


Articles written by ABA 2018 Intern, Brian Kohaya.

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