I had the incredible honor of being a guest at the state dinner in honor of Prime Minister Abe on Tuesday. As a small business owner who manufactures locally and exports internationally, I know first-hand the incredible opportunities that TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) could help unleash (read about our partner Egg Press's recent trade mission to Japan for just one example!).
As a sat in under the crystal chandeliers of the White House under the gaze of a portrait of George Washington, I deeply felt not only the incredible opportunities that global trade offers to U.S. manufacturers and small businesses, but also the transformative power of global commerce to remove barriers of perception that segregate people worldwide and often escalate to violent conflict.
Goods, services, and brands provide a common ground around which people can connect and relate to each other. When I was growing up in Taiwan and China in the 1980s, the McDonald's brand literally represented the U.S. constitutional values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (per the “happy meal"); people flocked there to get a “taste,” literally and figuratively, of the American good life. Today, Apple hold a similar power to confer feelings of joy to its customers. That's because, U.S.-made and -designed products represent our values -- creativity, quality, freedom, to name a few -- and will increasingly be in demand as the Asian middle class booms and their tastes mature.
My seat at the table, directly across from Mrs. Obama and Prime Minister Abe, was also a shout-out to the vital importance of small businesses and local manufacturing: making products that people love, giving people the opportunity to shop local, and creating jobs that people take pride in and that allow them to gain real experience in all aspects of running a business. Dozens of Hello!Lucky’s (the company I founded in 2003 with my sister) past employees have used their experience as a stepping stone to coveted jobs at larger companies such as Paperless Post or Williams-Sonoma, leading business schools (Kellogg and Cornell), and to starting businesses themselves.
As small business owners, we often feel the pressure of “not enough." When I graduated from Stanford Business School in 2002, for example, everyone left to join a tech start-up that might become the next Facebook, or a venture capital firm, or a consulting firm or investment bank. No one left to start a small business. It conferred low pay and low status. Likewise, as a small business owner, there are not enough resources, and not enough time in every day. The threat of failure looms large, the need to scale to cover overhead costs is pressing.
Obama's invitation was a wholehearted gesture to small business owners that we are enough -- that our effort deserves to be respected and applauded, even if we are not creating billion dollar market caps or six-figure paychecks. As many small business owners know, true joy comes from within and expresses itself in meaningful work, strong relationships, and embracing business and life as a creative endeavor.
Finally, I felt deeply honored to be present as a woman business owner. As I discussed briefly with Mrs. Obama over dinner, women still face many challenges in the workforce, starting with the lack of guaranteed paid maternity leave. However, small businesses offer incredible entrepreneurial opportunities for women, from setting their own schedules and timeline and creating a family-friendly work culture, to creating new products and services and having control over hiring and firing decisions. The only ceiling in woman-owned small business is in how much she can earn — and that is decided by her business model and her market, which discriminate on price and quality, not on gender.
So thank you, President Obama and Prime Minister Abe, for your wholehearted support of women, small business, and local manufacturing. We are so very grateful!