“Have you reflected yet on your first week?” my bro texted me from Peoria.
Life has been too busy for me to properly reflect on this journey I’m on. I opened Mama California Tea House Halloween weekend of 2015, and oh my—it’s on and poppin, crackin’ & sizzlin.
So here is a recap of what I’m learning as a new entrepreneur in Ibarra, Ecuador.
#1. I’m a Writer
As I opened the teahouse and worked endlessly to get things somewhat perfect, I realized I really still want to publish the “next, great American novel.” My greatest accomplishments and societal contributions will come from via my writing. I know this as I know my Romeo is somewhere out there (probably in Cali.) Last week, I was super disappointed that the latest editor with whom I spoke saw me as a “black writer.” If I must be labeled, label me correctly – “I’m an American writer who writes about L.A. folks, in and out of L.A.” Writing is what I can do without thinking too hard, the lesson I can teach with no prep, the thing that I seek out. At least now I have a super cool writing spot.
#2. “Monique” = Counselor
I read somewhere that “Monica” means advisor/counselor, and since Monique is a form of Monica, I guess I’m by default a counselor to others. This explains why for most of my life, people have felt super comfortable talking with me. I don’t know why, but my vibe is that of a person who is non-threatening. And it has only been enhanced, bc no one thinks of me as a real “gringo.” Just today, I had to say at least five different ways that I’m 100% American, lol. (“So you have residency in the USA?” “So is your family here?” “So you are really from here but just lived in the USA?”)
So, I talk with a lot of different people at my café. My bro said, “Oh, you’re like a bartender listening to everyone’s problem.” In a way, I am. “Why sip alone?” means “let’s chat while sipping tea.” It’s cool to be a defacto friend to people. I think no one likes to be alone but many of us live alone out of a place of hurt and fear.
There’s always something that needs to be done, and it’s all on me. My employee looked to me to tell him what to do during down time. (Um, you don’t like chillin?) Dirty floor, dirty bathroom, dirty dishes, dirty table – it’s on me to clean and clean it well.
#4. Think Smart!
I’m just not there yet. I told my bro, I’m working at 80% because I’m not working smartly. I really need to step my organization-delegation skills up, so I’m at 90%. I know I can make this biz thing a lot smoother if I get my mind right.
The rationale for pricing is hard. But one has to stick to the price. Sometimes, I worry I’m charging too much, but I know my competition out here (as an avid café/coffeehouse visitor, I know my prices are on point with other cafes and bars in the area.)
#6. Stick to Your Vision
I listen to tons of YouTube videos with business people giving advice. Most successful ones say you must create a vision and stick with it. It’s so easy for one to change him/herself for others, but your vision is just that “your vision.” I’m reminded of my personalized bar for Mama California. It was not properly done when I first saw a pic on FB, and I was some kind of pissed. The homie Trish was like “Ask for a discount!” But I wanted my bar idea; I was paying for my bar idea that the carpenter said he could create. Needless to say, I expressed my sentiments and things got done. Now, everyone comments on how nice my bar and table are. Stick with your vision and don’t cut corners.
#7. Balls up – Handle it!
I have to be 100% BOSS when I’m dealing with people in a business setting. If people are not producing the things that I need to get my shit done properly, then I must deal with them in a direct and professional manner, so there is no confusion on what must be done to make my business successful. A lot of time, people feel better after my straight talk because they are proud of their product. Sometimes, calling out people help them to grow to the next level.
#8. Being Happy & Healthy are Important
Lately, I have been experiencing physical pain; it’s like my body is saying you are doing too much and not properly taking care of yourself. This week, I started making the time for 30 mins of yoga/meditation. I make sure my make-up is decent (I can hear chico chocolate calling me out about my “natural look.”). I go to the nail salon regularly. I make my meals ahead of time, so I’m not left to eat numerous cupcakes at my shop. I go to my salsa dance class on Wednesday night bc it makes me happy. Happiness is so important bc if I’m not feeling myself I can’t pass on the positive energy to others and create a space that has a hippie-chill vibe.
#9. Adjust, Adapt, Advance, but Stay in Your Lane
I really don’t want to sell coffee, and I don’t feel I have the space to make “real food.” However, people want coffee and real food; so, I’m teaching myself how to properly make coffee drinks (after being scolded by a Gangnam-Korean who wanted, what else, Americano. Koreans love them some Americanos.) I’m also testing out recipes for paninis, salads and soups. I’m not trying to make empanadas, humitas, almuerzos and other Ecuador favorites. I need to stay in my lane, and my lane is “Cali” with a Korean-officetel-kitchen.
#10. Soft-sell things
I hate dealing with people who are money hungry. I mean, damn, I get it. You need money to survive and money comes from you selling things. But nothing kills my vibe more than seeing dollar signs in the eyes of a person with whom I’m talking. So as I give out free samples – a hella new concept in this area – I say, “in the future, you can buy/visit…” And sometimes they come back and buy a cupcake.
#11. The next phase of life has arrived
After opening my shop, I felt life had jumped ahead to the “next chapter in life.” I guess this is how folks feel when they have their first child, buy their first home, get married, get a major job promotion. For the past few years, I had the feeling like I wasn’t living up to my potential. I was on the five-year-break-from-life, and it had played itself out; I knew it in Seoul. But on opening this teahouse, I innately knew life had shifted. I wasn’t a dorky student looking for a teacher to shape my view of the world and form my life happenings. It was me driving the car on the path that God had created.
#12. It’s true: “You’re never really ready; you just have to start.”
There were many things that I needed to (and need to) do in my teahouse, but I just wanted to start it. I needed to not be a talker in life, but a doer. I like to set goals and achieve them in a timely manner.
#13. Fear is Real
I have had to learn to lose my fear and put myself out there. Bad Spanish and all, I have to speak with people and promote my business. I have to have small talk in Spanish, I have to handle my business in Spanish, I have to understand the Ecuadorian people/culture – these are all scary-ish things. Expats can say what they want, but operating in a foreign land is not an easy task. You may seem normal in your American mind, but you can look like a complete idiot in an Ecuadorian’s eyes. But in one of the motivational videos that I have watched, someone said feel the fear and move through it. Steve Harvey talks about it a lot, and he is doing pretty well.
#14. I’m 100% Afro-Am. I’m 100% gringo. Soy la Negra Gringa.
I used to feel a pressure to assimilate more into white, mainstream culture. But this is me unapologetic. I think “doing you,” as Russell Simmons says, is quintessential for achieving your potential and contributing something authentically unique to the world. Besides I know I’m not unique; I listen to Sway in the Morning, The Steve Harvey radio show, and KJLH, so I know my mannerism is reflective of a Afro-Am community.
#15. Getting Fired Gives You Freedom
I’m not saying I’m happy that my boss fired me bc I think race and gender played a role in the poor manner in which I was treated at Yachay. But being forced to reflect on one’s life goals and having to ask oneself, as P. Diddy spoke about in his commencement speech at Howard, “What am I going to do now?” is a game changer. It makes you cut the fat off and dive right in to the lean, mean work of living. I know that I can suffer a defeat and keep it moving (Maya Angelou has a great quote about this.)
#16. I’m an Entrepreneur
My mom said I have been assertive all my life, and now it is paying off as a boss. I feel I am just as capable as anyone to implement good ideas on how to love life more (for me, it’s with tea, cupcakes and people). I had this former colleague who has this shame of being born in a developing country; she reads ferociously in an attempt to gain “showtime-knowledge” (i.e., big words she can throw out in conversations with Americans and Europeans.) Although my family is from South Central L.A., I have never felt inferior to others; I went to school with a diverse group of L.A. folks, so I know I can hang with the best of ‘em. Therefore, my ideas are good enough to create and maintain a business.
#17. Sharing is Caring
Small business owners need to communicate with each other and share information. This is my philosophy in life, which doesn’t always settle well with American English teachers abroad (whole other story on the ESL-mind-game that expats play abroad.) My last boss always wanted people to upload work material to the communal dropbox, but he was extremely slow to lead by example; henceforth, teachers were reluctant to upload material and most didn’t. Therefore, I share information and have genuine chats wit fellow business owners; in return, they share information, too. Living with others is something you just do, but succeeding with others takes dedication and diligent work. Ain’t no half-stepping (I’m the Big Daddy Kane.)
#18. I’m Happy to Come to Work
My life is far from perfect (Romeo, oh Romeo…), but I’m delighted to come to my teahouse. I like baking cupcakes that people devour. I like sharing teas inspired by my travels. I like sitting at the table and writing. I like looking out the window and smiling at people. I’m perfecting my teahouse skills, and, as Chef Ramsay said, the money will come; you must first get your craft down. So I’m fully in teahouse training, and I think I’m doing pretty well given I have never had a business, never worked in a tea/coffee house, never trained in cupcake baking, never been a boss/supervisor. But what I have is a decent public education from the great city of L.A.
#19. “No man is an island.”
I can’t do it all by myself.
#20. Keep it Real, Keep it Simple, Keep it Flowin
This has been my life’s motto for more than a decade. I can’t remember exactly how I came to this view, but it’s the truth. Life is a tricky, sticky situation at time; you just have to keep your head down and work hard. And with this saying, when people’s time in your life runs out, let them go and keep it moving. Having complicated relationship is a dam to your flow and it makes your phony.
#21. Life outside the business
I now understand why many new businesses close within three months in Ibarra. People constantly ask you about your business and you feel like you are not succeeding fast enough. But if you commit yourself to one year of having a business, you will give your business time to start and develop. I heard a fellow expat, business owner say, “I don’t want my business to consume my life.” This is true. My teahouse is one aspect of me. I have my writing, my teaching/research career, my friendships, my dating challenge, my traveling, etc. Now that the month has finished, I can pull back more, so I don’t get consumed and burnt out. I want to love my business but not be obsessed with it. #amalavida #lovelife