The couple Tommy and Lisa Lau standing out of their Cypress, Texas coffee shop, wearing t-shirts that say “powered by coffee”

Asian American entrepreneurs: Lessons in resilience and recovery

Why many Asian American business owners value the power of family — and the positive impact it has on communities

When the pandemic took root, many small-business owners had to dig deep, adapting how they serve clientele, finding new ways to bolster finances and keeping employees, customers and themselves safe. In many cases, their struggles aren’t over. The last few years have been especially hard on minority entrepreneurs, including many in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, who in some cases have encountered heightened prejudice and hostility on top of the economic tumult COVID created.

Bank of America research found that more than 90% of AAPI small-business owners faced difficulties keeping their businesses open during the worst of the pandemic, far more than the 55% of all small-business owners who reported the same.footnote1 With a traditionally strong emphasis on family and community, it’s no surprise that 68% of AAPI small-business owners turned to family and friends for financial support or other assistance — far higher than the 43% of all small-business owners that did so.footnote2

“While almost all AAPI entrepreneurs reported additional stress around running their businesses, they remain determined and resilient,” says Carol Lee Mitchell, head of small business strategy at Bank of America. “Even as they faced immense obstacles, AAPI business owners took steps to move their businesses and communities forward.”

As the following profiles illustrate, AAPI small-business owners are using the experiences of the past several years to emerge stronger. To help, Bank of America is increasing support to AAPI business owners, providing funding through its second $2 billion equality progress sustainability bond and investing in the community through the $1.25 billion commitment to racial equality and economic mobility.

Friends, family, customers and employees made sure Hereafter is here to stay

Working in corporate finance in 2012, Yvonne Leung had a difficult time finding joy and meaning in her job. Seeking work she cared deeply about and inspired by wooden postcards she saw on a trip to Hong Kong, Leung started making laser-cut wooden greeting cards and selling them at craft fairs. Ten years later, her Los Angeles-based company Hereafter manufactures an array of personalized wooden gifts, ranging from keepsake boxes to decorative plant picks. Hereafter employs a diverse team of seven women, and the handmade products are shipped to retailers nationwide.

Entrepreneur Yvonne Leung standing under a sign with the name of her company, Hereafter.

Yvonne Leung, Hereafter

Leung had gone a long way toward fulfilling her dream of building a sustainable business — and then everything changed. “When the pandemic hit, everybody was really stressed about their well-being and the well-being of their families,” she recalls. “I felt a lot of responsibility.” Wholesale orders dried up as retail stores shut their doors, and the inability to have more than one employee in the studio at a time made it difficult to fulfill the orders still coming in. “We wanted to keep everybody safe, but we also had this want and need to make sure the business could survive,” she says.

For help applying for a Paycheck Protection Program loan as well as an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, Leung reached out to the Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program, an organization that receives support from Bank of America. Even with the organization providing invaluable guidance, the application process still took so long that Leung also had to use personal funds and help from her family to tide the business over.

When staggered in-person shifts began again, Leung and her team found that the business began growing as well, with more customers buying and mailing cards and gift in the absence of in-person gatherings. Another silver lining to the pandemic, Leung notes, has been the realization that the business can offer employees a flexible work environment and still succeed. “We want to make sure that the people in our organization are treated just as well as our customers,” she says. “If we’re not providing them a positive experience, how can they provide that to our customers?”

A coffee shop built a community of customers who rallied to its side

When husband and wife team Lisa and Tommy Lau opened L3 Craft Coffee in Cypress, Texas, their hope was to share their passion and knowledge of all things coffee. Combining Tommy’s 12 years of coffee manufacturing experience with Lisa’s MBA and background in marketing and finance, they spent five years saving up and developing a business plan before launching in June 2018. With tasting classes and a “Discovery Bar,” the Laus helped customers develop their palates for different beans and brewing techniques.

Coffee shop owners Tommy and Lisa Lau, with Tommy holding a cup of coffee

Lisa and Tommy Lau, L3 Craft Coffee

As they shaped the culture of their business, they also drew on their family-oriented belief system. “We try to get to know our customers on a first-name basis and have quarterly gatherings with our team to build a stronger relationship with each other,” says Tommy. Lisa concurs: “Tommy knows 90% of the customers by name, and they know him.”

By the time the pandemic hit, L3 had already built a strong community of customers who supported the store. In those initial months, the Laus adapted their dine-in/walk-in model quickly, providing a drive-thru-like experience and relying more heavily on online ordering and tap-to-pay for curbside pickup. They also ramped up sanitization and cleanliness and began offering prepackaged, large-volume to-go containers to help minimize in-person interactions.

“As people started feeling more comfortable, we started getting customers back because they knew it was important to help us stay alive,” recalls Lisa. Tommy remembers a customer giving a $100 tip for the team on a $1 purchase. “That’s the type of community that we have,” says Lisa. The café’s name derives from the business’s three values — love, laugh and learn. With customer volume back to pre-pandemic levels, the Laus plan to continue sharing their love of coffee, as well as plenty of laughs, as they spend time with their supportive community.


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