'Be prepared to give everything'
Sometimes getting bored on the job is a good thing. After graduating with a communications degree from the University of Maryland, Chinese native Mei Xu looked for her ideal corporate job in Washington, DC. No such job appeared though and she ultimately accepted a job offer with a New York-based company in the medical equipment industry. Mei realized all too quickly that she was disenchanted by the joyless, mismatched work she faced each day, and knew it was time to try something different.
Together with her employed, but equally unenthused husband, Mei quit her job and founded Chesapeake Bay Candle and Pacific Trade International in 1994. While the couple may have had meager beginnings, creating makeshift candles out of their Annapolis home and using soup cans as early molds, their company has gone on to become one of the largest candle/home fragrance suppliers in the world. Chesapeake Bay Candle is widely known for purveying contemporary scented candles, alternative home fragrances, and home decor pieces to top retailers like Target, Kohl's, Pier 1 Imports, and JC Penney. What's more, Mei's empire continues to build momentum with its newest brand addition, Blissliving Home, which proffers bedding, decorative pillows, home fragrances, and home accents pieces.
I sat down with Mei to learn how she honed her skills as a young entrepreneur and developed her keen eye. While I imagined that she would describe a childhood surrounded by the finer things, she explained that in fact, she could not have had a less material upbringing.
As a child, Mei experienced China during the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao. This meant that worldly possessions were not valued or appreciated. In Mei's words, people simply didn't "own" things. Mei recounted that there was "not the material abundance that we are so used to in today's consumer societies. There was no focus on fine arts, culture, or any beautiful things. Life was not as easy. But this particular background strengthened me. It gave me a mental toughness that I otherwise would not have had."
That toughness has served Mei time and again. As a budding entrepreneur, Mei explained how the barriers she faced differed depending on her stage in life. The first hurdle she encountered was not due to her being a woman, but based on the fact that she was so young. Vendors had a hard time seeing Mei as the company owner and primary decision-maker during those first global business trips.
Mei also had scarce resources, human or tangible, as a new business owner. She cited that calling on her own personal advisory council was invaluable. "My mentors have allowed me to step on their shoulders to get a better perspective, rising above my current vantage point. A great mentor will not just criticize you; they will give you candid feedback and support your success." She strongly encouraged other entrepreneurs to engage mentors but to manage the relationship carefully, noting, "A mentor is not your mother, father, psychiatrist, or girlfriend."
Later, when she had two young sons, Mei had the oscillation of work/life balance to contend with. She was candid in sharing that there's often a measure of remorse associated with being both a mom and a professional. Said Mei, "If I'm at work, I feel guilty about my kids, and vice versa."
Over the years however, she has found ways to integrate her work and personal selves. Rather than over-thinking balance, Mei uses her passion as an anchor: "If you do something you love, it won't feel like work, and you won't count the hours. The fact that I love the product we design and sell just makes everything easier; it allows me to blur the lines between my personal and my professional lives."
Our conversation culminated around a specific point: Creating a winning corporate brand is critical, but sculpting one's own personal brand is perhaps more important. Mei advised, "You will exceed your highest goals if you love your work and your field. Figure out what your special traits are and what it is that you enjoy, and be prepared to give everything." A simple piece of work wisdom indeed, and yet all too often overlooked and under-practiced.
Surely, the luster of Mei Xu's considerable success must make the little girl from China seem a distant acquaintance. And yet, you can't help but feel in Mei's presence that the perspective of that little girl still matters. Said Mei, "The China of my childhood sharpened my eyes for beautiful things. When I started my life in the US, this specific background helped me to identify and detect beauty in things that I may not have noticed if I had grown up in any other environment. I owe my keen eye to those early years."
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