Chinese/AAPI-Proud, Entrepreneur, Artist
My family was saying go into a profession or a field where you’ll come out making a lot of money. Go into accounting or finance. Something that will help you grow wealth once you get out of college. You’ll be able to find a job, make money, and you don’t have to worry. Because when they grew up, it was hard for them to go to school and get into certain professions. So they wanted to push me into accounting and finance.
I think along this journey of my baking business, I feel like I’m doing something that is not the norm for my family. In fact, not a lot of my extended family has been very supportive of what I’m doing and what I want to do with this career. But the tradition of what my parents grew up doing makes me want to really succeed in what my business is and where it’s going. Because it’s not very traditional to see entrepreneurship or starting your own business from where my family came from.
Growing up was very difficult for them. So finding a stable job and a business or a profession that makes a lot of money is something they’re used to. For me to go into entrepreneurship and start up my own business which is very risky…Doing this is very different from what they grew up experiencing. So it really makes me want to succeed and do everything that I can to make this business good.
I was born and raised in Maryland, specifically in the Germantown area. I love Maryland because of how diverse and how many different cultures there are. At home, it’s my mom, my dad, my older brother, and me; they’re definitely my biggest supporters. My dad has a really big extended family – he’s one of eight children. My mom’s family is also really big too – she’s one of six. So my extended family is very big – I have a lot of aunts and uncles, and quite a few cousins.
My mom was born in Vietnam, and then her family moved to Australia because they had family there. She grew up in Australia and came to the United States to visit her family, where she met my dad. When she came to the US, she got into cosmetology school; my mom is a hairstylist. When she was in Australia, she was a seamstress, creating wedding gowns and altering a lot of clothing.
My dad’s family had to flee from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Malaysia because of the war. They had to get on a boat where he said they were packed in like sardines. There were just people everywhere inside the boat trying to flee Vietnam to get to the camp, and then to get to the United States. My dad was sponsored by my aunt to come to the US because she had traveled to America first. My dad came to the US with very little money and a very big family. The older kids in the family would go straight to work and sacrifice learning, going to school, getting an education so he could send his younger siblings to school. He did a lot of odd jobs – whatever he could find to make money to support the family.
Hearing my dad’s story growing up, it made me realize that I need to work hard. My dad came here on a boat and sacrificed so much so that he could get to the United States. To give himself and his family a life, and better opportunities. To give me and my brother a better life than what he had growing up.
I have a Vietnamese background, but the majority of my culture is Mandarin Chinese. A lot of what we eat is Chinese food, but also Vietnamese food. We would all come together and bring food to someone’s house. Growing up we would always celebrate Chinese New Year. A lot of the traditions on Chinese New Year would be good luck, good fortune. Like, having oranges. There’s a tradition that you’re not supposed to clean up the week leading up to Chinese New Year, because they don’t want to clean up all the good luck that you’ve been having building up to that week.
I went to Chinese school growing up. I learned how to read, write, and speak Chinese. At the time I hated it because I just hated going to another class besides going to school. But now that I’m older I’m very thankful and glad that they pushed me to stay in Chinese school.
I remember in elementary school that I didn’t want to bring my traditional food that I ate at home to school because I didn’t want people to say “It smells weird!” or “It looks funny!” I remember asking my mom if I could have sandwiches with no crust, a Cosmic Brownie and a Capri Sun. All the girls at school had it. I would always come into lunch with a weird can or container, and people would say stuff. That made me realize we’re very different. I’m not going to get treated the same way.
In high school, I started connecting more with people that were similar to me. People that also had Asian cultures, Asian backgrounds, specifically Chinese backgrounds or Vietnamese backgrounds. They could bring their food to school. We would all be together, eat together. I feel like I gravitated towards them a lot more in high school when I was trying to figure out my identity and where I fit in.
When I graduated from high school, I felt like there was a stigma about going to community college, like, it’s not the typical “college thing.” But I ended up spending two years at Montgomery College – my county’s community college – and I’m glad that I did. Montgomery College really helped me figure out what I wanted to do, and I saved a lot of money, which is great. I felt very welcomed and at home; there were so many different people and cultures. I felt like we all understood each other.
I went in as an accounting and finance major since I thought I wanted to be an accountant or something in the finance field. But once I transferred to the University of Maryland – College Park (UMD) I realized I did not want to be an accountant. I couldn’t see myself working in a cubicle. That just wasn’t my thing. That’s when I transitioned into marketing and supply chain, and an entrepreneurship minor.
Leaving for school was my first time leaving home. I moved out and I lived at UMD for my junior year, and then the pandemic happened. So I finished my senior year and graduated at home. I’m so glad that I was able to move out and have my one year to myself, to be independent and on my own. I think it was really nice that I was able to do that and then come back home my last year.
When I was at Montgomery College I would just go to school, come back home, then repeat. When I went to the University of Maryland, the transition was hard because I was so used to going home and being in my bubble. My parents weren’t around to help me do little things. I had to cook for myself. I also felt like because I was at community college for two years, all my friends that were already at the UMD knew what they were doing. They already had their friend groups. It felt like I was a freshman; I didn’t know the campus. I didn’t know anyone right off the bat. I didn’t understand the life of being at school full time. I tended to gravitate towards people that looked like me. Both of my roommates are Asian. I really connected a lot more with them, because I was also home a lot more baking and doing my business. So I was always home at my apartment vs. going out and socializing with a lot of people.
When I was at community college, I realized I wanted to do my business – SweetsbyCaroline – full time. There was a program at Montgomery College that I found called the Southern Management Leadership Program. In that program they teach you about entrepreneurship, being a leader, how to run a business – the marketing, financial stuff – how to build a venture. That was the program that helped me get the entrepreneurship minor when I transferred into College Park.
Growing up I was very into crafting, artsy types of things. I used to paint a lot, like with acrylic and oil paints. I think my artistic background transitioned into my baking background – It’s just a different medium now. I’m using cakes and frosting, where before I was using canvases and oil paint and acrylic paint and paintbrushes as my medium.
I also liked to bake cakes and cupcakes with my mom. Then I learned about macarons and how hard they were to make. So I told myself, Ok, I’m going to try to make macarons. That was when it started. My friends asked if I would make things for them. I’d make macarons for my family. I would start posting about them on Instagram. I was just baking macarons all the time. Then I started taking orders.
While I was at Montgomery College, there was a business pitch competition called Raptor Tank. I pitched my business and I made it to the finals of the competition. From there, you pitch to a panel of entrepreneurs that are from Maryland who also have businesses. I won. For me, it was validation that I should pursue this baking career. I wasn’t sure it was possible until the competition. I realized I can do this, and that I should just go for it. This is a sign that I should try to pursue this passion of mine and turn it into a business. I built a lot more confidence throughout that competition.
When I transferred to the University of Maryland, that’s when I decided I wanted to learn about marketing and supply chain since these backgrounds would help with my business once I graduated. The Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship was my home at UMD. It was where I found people that were also doing similar things as me, and really pushed me the most for my business.
At UMD, I did another business pitch competition called the Pitch Dingman Competition. I also made it to the finals for that one. We had workshops every week leading up to the competition. One week we had a workshop that was on Q&A. We had entrepreneurs grill us and ask us questions about our business. I remember distinctly being in this room because the competitors were majority male, and a lot of them had a business partner. I was the only female in the room and I didn’t have a partner.
The panel of judges for the workshop were also majority male. The judges were asking the other contestants normal questions, giving them feedback and responses to their answers. But I felt like when it came to me, they were a lot harder on me. Really going in on the questions. At that time I was still growing and figuring out my business. I made that known during the workshop. It felt like they were attacking me and making me feel like I didn’t know my business. Or making me feel like what I was doing was more of a hobby than a business. They were really going in and asking me a lot harder questions than I think they were asking my other competitors.
I felt like they were targeting me because I was the only female there and I didn’t have a partner. I felt very targeted and very vulnerable. I think after that workshop it made me realize that I do know my business. I know my industry. The people that were in that room didn’t really know the baking industry because they were all in tech. I didn’t win the competition, which is ok. But after that workshop, I told myself, I’m never going to let someone come at me or put me down like that. I’m never going to put myself in a position where someone can do that to me and my character. It lit a fire in me.
I think going to school – being able to go to community college and going to the University of Maryland – has helped me with my business tremendously. Being a marketing and supply chain major, learning how I can apply things we learned in class to my business has helped push my business a lot. But I also think with the networking, the community that I was surrounded with, like, being able to find the Dingman Center, and the Southern Management Leadership Program…had I not been in school, I would not have been exposed to these experiences and these opportunities.
SweetsbyCaroline is a pop up bakery that specializes in gluten-free French macarons and boutique-styled cakes. Traditionally, macarons are circular, but I’m able to turn them into characters, like animals and put logos on them. I also think my Asian background, being able to put that into the flavors of my macarons, sets me apart from my competition. That’s something that’s very unique. When I first started my business I wanted to stay away from the Asian flavors because I felt like people wouldn’t enjoy it or be open to wanting to try those flavors. But as my business grew, I realized that I want to put more of myself and my background into what I make.
While I was at school I was baking from home as a cottage food business. In February, I moved into a commercial kitchen – called Maryland Bakes – located in Fredrick, Maryland. I think that will help with efficiency and productivity with baking. That’s really exciting. I sell at various markets and festivals around Maryland, Virginia, and DC, and customers can always place a custom order via website.
In the beginning, COVID slowed down the business. People were canceling their orders. They didn’t want to come pick up or meet to exchange. But it also helped the business, because I made it known to my customers that I was taking precautions. Putting trust back into my customers that I’m being safe. I pivoted to shipping or contactless pickup. It helped me adapt a lot quicker to whatever circumstance that I was in. Plus, people were wanting to support more smaller, local businesses and people of color.
I want to open up a bakery, but recently I’ve been thinking about a mobile cafe because of how COVID has been. Setting up somewhere, having people come to you, being able to travel with it. This would be probably two or three years from now. I also want to open up a shared commercial space, because going through the process of having to find a commercial kitchen, the paperwork and getting everything done for the commercial kitchen, it was very hard to find resources and information on how to do that. I had to figure all that out on my own, so I want to help other people that are going through that journey, or maybe who want to go down the path of getting into a commercial kitchen.
I really like what I do because I feel like I’m able to connect with and bring joy and happiness to people through my baking. Seeing my customers enjoy what I make or seeing my creation at their event or party. The fact that they’re able to trust me and my baking really makes me happy. I’m glad that I’m able to do that for them. So being able to see that is what pushes me to keep on doing what I do.
Over time, I’ve realized it’s very important to be able to take time for yourself so you can reset. Before I would go week after week full-on baking, taking orders, not sleeping. That’s not good! I’m still trying to grow the business, so I’m always saying, I’ve got to do X, Y, and Z. I can’t take a break! I’ve got to keep going. Otherwise, I’ll fail. But I was burning out. So in the beginning of 2022 I took a whole month off to regroup and focus on myself for the first time.
It doesn’t have to be a full month but going forward I go into my Google calendar and have marked off one or two weeks of each month. Specifically blocked them out in red so that when I start getting inquiries, I don’t start plugging orders into those weeks. I know that I have certain weeks to myself to just regroup, go out for coffee, or see my friends. That was something I didn’t do before. Especially when I was at school, I had to sacrifice spending time with my friends. My main priorities were going to school, getting my schoolwork done, and then coming home, fulfilling orders, trying to grow my business, get ready for the competition. So being able to see my friends and reconnect with them has been something I’ve been doing to take care of myself. It’s also made me realize who my true friends are.
I gravitate towards my friends for a lot of emotional support for my business. And on Instagram, I have this little Maryland bakers’ community. We have a group chat where we all rant and talk everything baking that other people just wouldn’t understand. So, a lot of my support has come from my baking community, a lot of my friends that have been there for me, and my roommates from College Park. Those are my people.
Making the jump to go into the commercial kitchen is something that I’m doing to take care of myself. I will be able to hire someone to come in and help me with baking. I’m getting out of the house, and now have a place to associate with my work life which will help take care of me more, and my mental health.
Fear was something that was and has been a barrier for the growth of my business. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into baking; it was very risky. But over time I’ve realized that sometimes you just have to see what happens, instead of being scared of doing something. Because you’ll never know what comes out of it. I’m most proud of where I am right now with the commercial kitchen. That was a really big step for me and got me out of my comfort zone. I’m also really proud that I’ve stuck to my guns. I’m not letting my extended family and what other people are saying affect where I want to go with my life. There was a lot of noise before that I was listening to, not really believing in myself and trying to do what other people were telling me to do.
I hope that going through my entrepreneurship journey, I’m able to inspire other people that want to start their own business but are afraid to because of their family or how it might seem risky. Sometimes your family isn’t going to be your biggest support group, but you can turn to your friends and find that community that you identify with and talk to those people. They understand what you’re going through, your struggles.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s something I wish I had done more of when I was starting my business. Trust was a big barrier for me. I’ve been doing the business just by myself for so long that it was hard for me to trust and let people in to help me. I think that is still something that I’m struggling with: asking people for help. I don’t want to be a burden to others. It’s hard for me to trust someone with my baby. My business is my baby. I don’t want anything bad to happen to it. I think trust, fear, and asking for help have been the biggest barriers for growing my business.
But I feel like I’ve figured out how to let people in, instead of being afraid to go for something. I’m more aware of it, and I’m working on it now. Ask for help and find resources wherever you are to excel your venture. I hope that I’m inspiring females that are wanting to start a business to just go for it. You never know what could happen.