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by Millie Chu
I was an immigrant child who arrived in America with interested eyes and a candid heart. I am the daughter of a seamstress who worked in a sweatshop and a father who was a taxicab driver. He held a second job as a cook where he offered to work for free to gain experience while he was attending culinary art school. My parents and I immigrated to the United States from China when I was four years old. They did not have much more than the clothes on their backs, a few dollars in their pockets, and with three small children living in the slums of New York City. We moved to Michigan when I was eight years old, and by the time I was eleven, my mother and father had worked so hard that they saved enough money to start their own restaurant business. They began with much weight on their shoulders, spoke very broken English, and started their life in America with nothing to their name.
At eleven years old, I, too, began my journey learning about business through my parents’ aspirations. Since my parents spoke broken English, not many could understand them. They brought me along to meetings with attorneys, accountants, contractors, and vendors to help them translate. Granted, I didn’t know what anything meant; I just did what they asked me to. I watched, listened, implemented, and over time I learned. We eventually built two successful restaurants along the way. Unbeknownst to me, these experiences would one day empower me to think about why I do what I do today.
When I was fourteen, my mom became very ill. My father and I took her to the emergency room. The doctor explained the situation and said, “Miss, we need to perform surgery right away. We need to do it now. If we wait, she will die.” I asked, “What is the chance of survival through the surgery?” “50/50,” he said. I was able to be in the room with my mom when they submitted the anesthesia. I held her hand as she laid on the bed. I could tell she was drifting away. I’m trying to not shake or cry. I wanted to be strong for her. I said, “Mom, you have to get through this! I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.” She looked at me and said, “My daughter, you can do anything. Don’t be afraid,” and her eyes slowly closed.
She survived, but was unable to work for the next several weeks while in recovery. She managed the administrative duties such as bookkeeping while my dad managed the kitchen. Since she couldn’t work, she told me: “Bring these items to me, and I’ll teach you.” And for the next several weeks, I did the bookkeeping, old-school with paper, pen, and ledgers. This was over twenty-five years ago before QuickBooks and spreadsheets caught on! I thought to myself several times, Goodness, I hope I calculated this correctly! Luckily, my father reviewed my work. While kids my age were playing and having fun with their friends, I worked after school and on weekends and became a manager by the time I was eighteen.
When I became a legal adult at age eighteen, I chose to be completely on my own. My parents’ success gave me no excuse to fail. They were an example; if they could do it with the little they had, I could too. I was already ahead compared to what they had to start with. My mother and father didn’t want me to leave. My mom pleaded for me to stay. She didn’t want me to live a hard life and be out in the unknown; but I was ready to discover the unknown. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but leaving would give me the chance to grow further. It was hard to look at the sadness in her eyes when I walked out the door, but I knew I wanted to do this. My mother taught me to be strong, determined, and to always rise. I was going to show them what I can do. Was I ready? No. Where the conditions perfect? No, but I took the leap.
There’s a story in the book Over-Achievement by Dr. John Elliot where he shares a story of an Olympic skier. Many skiers had had their turn competing for the gold, and it was now his turn. The weather turned nasty, the slopes were not in good condition. They advised him to wait for the weather conditions to be right, but it didn’t happen, and time was running out. Against the odds, he made the decision to go anyway, and leapt forward. He looked messy, flailing around; he didn’t look elegant doing it. But then, he crossed the finish line and won the gold. The reporters flooded him with questions asking him what was on his mind. He replied that he wasn’t thinking about anything but the finish line. The conditions may not be right, it won’t look perfect; but through the storm, he won. At each stage in my life, no matter how difficult it became, I kept my eyes on the finish line and focused on rising, like my mother said.
My journey to this day had never been easy. There were people who constantly tried to tear me down. Some were supposed to be my friends, some passers-by, and some were family. They tried to make me feel worthless. They said I would never amount to anything and told me I was dumb. For a while, I believed them. One day, I chose to not listen to them anymore and supported myself through four college degrees and graduated with honors. One of the most important success factors that helped me was to understand my value; transformation begins when you know your worth.
Throughout my life, the conditions weren’t right. There were many storms, many mistakes, and many challenges that nearly put me in the grave. I had such stories I couldn’t speak of at the time because it would’ve broken my parents’ hearts if they heard. After years had passed, and I overcame the challenges, I told them stories of survival, loss, and victory. Their eyes flooded with tears and they asked, “Why did you not tell us? We’ve could’ve helped. We’ve could’ve protected you.” I responded, “I will never allow my problems be your burden. You have been through enough. But I tell you now because you taught me to rise and I want to show you that I did.”
It never occurred to me that the experiences in my life were ever extraordinary to share, but I later realized it wasn’t about that. Years ago, I was asked to be a public speaker at a women’s education event. When I was finished, I was surrounded by applause, women who expressed heartfelt thanks, and hugged me as if I were their sister. I saw the impact that awakening their spirit made; and in that moment, I knew that this was one of the ways I could help others break through barriers and live a more authentic, purpose-filled life. I was to share experiences of my journey so I can help others learn how to turn challenges into triumphs, the power of empathy and perseverance, and to know self-worth. I have done hundreds of speaking events on motivation, business, and entrepreneurship. I am determined to live my fulfillment not simply through speaking the words, but by vindicating it through action. Words without action mean nothing.
My work is four-fold and involves elements of business, entrepreneurship, education, and consulting. As a Faculty Affiliate at the University of Michigan, in the William Davidson Institute, I work with an amazing high-impact team in collaboration with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) in Washington D.C. We’ve launched a program in Istanbul and Gaziantep, Turkey. Our goal is to support the development of sustainable livelihood solutions through entrepreneurship, mentorship, and job creation in the food industry for Syrians and other refugees in host communities in Turkey. I recently traveled to Istanbul to train teachers and leadership staff on the Entrepreneurship Curriculum myself and others at WDI composed. Previously, for my work in Bahrain, I designed a plan to guide the development of an Entrepreneurship Coaching Platform and held train-the-teachers workshops on operational processes and how to coach entrepreneurs.
As a Certified Small Business Consultant for the Michigan Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in the Greater Washtenaw Region, I work with a brilliant, driven team that I consider family. We help launch businesses and positively impact the economy by strengthening existing companies, creating new jobs, retaining existing jobs, and assisting companies in defining their path to success.
In addition, I am the Founder of A2 LEAP, an executive coaching resource helping organizations in areas of leadership and professional development. Through organizing over thirty A2 LEAP community events, I have donated 1,200 hours of service on entrepreneurial and executive education and donated the proceeds to non-profits such as SafeHouse Center and The Women’s Center of Southeast Michigan.
As a teacher in higher education for over ten years, I’ve taught at a handful of universities and colleges in courses such as Business Management, Marketing and Sales, Business Communications, Entrepreneurship, E-Commerce, Operations Management, Human Resources, and Organizational Management. Most recently, I’ve been involved with instructing courses at Washtenaw Community College (WCC) and work in collaboration with the Entrepreneurship Center at WCC.
Furthermore, I serve as a judge for the Michigan Business Challenge (MBC), the largest business plan competition held at the University of Michigan, founded by the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business.
Through interactive training, experiential learning, and action-oriented implementation, I teach the mechanics of launching and sustaining a successful business, quantitative and qualitative essentials, and the consciousness of success. I have taught thousands of students, directly consulted over 400 companies, launch over 55 startups throughout my career, and aided in building organizations and entrepreneurial infrastructures locally and across the globe. My method entails teaching others how to holistically combine heart, mind, spirit, and knowledge to create the life they have envisioned.
My mission and passion is best described by a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Supreme Court Justice in the late 1800s: “The greatest tragedy in America is not the great waste of natural resources, although that is tragic. The greatest tragedy is the waste of human resources where the person goes to their grave with their music still in them.” My mission and passion is to ignite the fervor in the entrepreneurs and leaders of today and cultivate the entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow by guiding them to realize the music within them, and by doing so, I am also realizing mine.