My personal experience as a Korean-immigrant businesswoman and how I navigated cultural and language
Leah shared her personal story with WeWork at their River North office location last week and also wanted to share it with you here as well. :)
I’m the owner of a small business in Lakeview called Choc Choc Cosmetics. Choc Choc means well-moisturized skin in Korean. We’re introducing a wide selection of Korean skincare products along with small, cute pieces of accessories and clothing from Korea. We also love to share Korean culture with everyone out there!
Choc Choc started in 2015, and now it’s been over 6 years. I can’t believe that we survived through the pandemic, and I’m so thankful to all of our customers who have been supporting and loving my business for many years.
Before I start, I guess I need to tell you a little more about my background and how I came to live in the USA. I lived in Korea until I became a college student and, obviously, my strict Korean father recommended studying abroad to expand my perspective. Of course, I said YES. So, I came to the US when I was 24 years old. To me, the age of 24 was a little odd because I was not exposed to another culture at all until that point. Plus, it seemed to me that a lot of people came to the US much earlier in their life, so I felt a little late in comparison. I ended up enrolling in a small college in New York. I remember day 1 of school. I literally didn’t understand anything the professor said. Living in a whole new country was tougher than I thought. Honestly, my pillow was wet with tears for a couple of days. However, these hard days and unfamiliar experiences only pushed me closer to becoming the woman I am today.
If someone asked me now how I was able to open the business and navigate my business for 6 years with all the language and cultural barriers that I struggled with a lot, I would say these three things.
First, I am appreciative of where I’m from.
When I was a student in Korea, I was the one who was always the leader of the group, but after I came to the US, I lost a lot of my confidence and felt my status as a minority. Even though I became comfortable with expressing what I meant in English, there were times that I felt difficulty to deepen the conversation with people. There were miscommunications due to cultural differences. Even though I really tried to adapt to this culture, I always felt it was something really different than who I am.
A favorite moment of mine was when one of our customers told me “OMG you have a beautiful accent” and I literally thought she was being sarcastic with me. After she saw my confused face, she said again “Leah, you have such a beautiful accent. I love to hear it.” That time, I just realized that it can be such a beautiful thing to someone and there is no reason to feel shame about it. Because it’s part of me. After that, I’m so much more comfortable talking to my customers. I actually came to like my accent.
I also realized there are lots of people who love K-pop, K-drama, K-fashion, and K-food- just everything about Korea. This makes me so happy and proud of where I’m from and I no longer feel being a minority is something negative. The more I loved where I’m from, the more I was able to love what I’m doing at Choc Choc which is introducing Korean Skincare to everyone. Sharing Korean culture with everyone is one of the special parts of my store. We post lots of things about Korean culture on our social media and people tend to really like it.
So if someone is new in this country, I really want to say to them just to be proud of where you’re from. It’s not your flaw, but a perk of you. It’s your strength, not weakness.
My second point is I cultivate expertise in my field.
I was just a young kid who loved skincare and makeup, but when I tried to open my business, I realized there are lots of things that I have to study more and focus my efforts on. Cultural and language barriers can’t be an excuse for the knowledge of what I’m doing for my business. I have an old note where I wrote down many words I needed to sell the products. I practiced it whenever I had time. These extra processes wouldn’t be necessary for some people, but it was for me. When I look back, all of these extra steps eventually made me a stronger person as a business owner. I’m still learning lots of new things and try not to be lazy to educate myself about what I’m doing here.
I always dreamed about having my own product one day, and thankfully, I had a chance to produce our own skincare a year and a half ago. I went to Korea and participated in producing our own product. I experienced lots of new things, and I had a wonderful partner who taught me every single step of manufacturing. It was such an incredible and educational trip for me, and this journey made me be more confident with what I’m doing. I will continue to cultivate my own expertise and professionalism as much as I can for my business.
Finally, my last point is I have wonderful and supportive people around me.
I think this must be the most impactful factor for me to be able to be in this stage.
I was a perfectionist and didn’t really lean on others, especially with my business. I didn’t hire any workers for a long time because I was scared of not having complete control. I think I had a pride issue at that time. I trusted only myself and didn’t ask for any help from anybody.
Now at Choc Choc, we have 3 workers with me plus lots of helpers occasionally when I have special projects or events. Since we’re still a small local business, I can’t hire tons of workers but I’m so thankful and happy that I realized it’s impossible to do everything by myself.
I have been having wonderful workers at Choc Choc so far. I think I’m so lucky for that. Everyone who worked at Choc Choc was absolutely amazing, and they all have their own strong points that cover my shortcomings. Even though I’m really trying, I’m still me with lots of flaws or maybe extra downfalls from being an immigrant woman here trying to run the entire business by myself. They’ve been the most helpful and supportive people. They literally correct my grammar for social media content, teach me all cultural things that I need to understand more, how to pronounce difficult English words, and how to be a good person that they can also lean on to keep my business at its best version.
Talking about family can be so obvious and boring, but it’s an important part of me. My whole family is in Korea, and even though they can’t be with me physically, they have been emotionally and mentally supporting me a lot. And of course, my husband is the one who really has my back. Even though he is busy with his own business, he always tries to make time to help me.
So, no matter if your business is big or small, I hope you have amazing people around you to help you navigate the path you’re going down.
Choc Choc moved to a new, bigger location at the peak of the pandemic. Around that time, we had to close our offline store for a total of about 5 months. I was very insecure about the decision that I made to move the location in the middle of chaos. Of course, I’ve seen lots of small businesses shut down, and seeing those things made me feel extremely worried about my future. But when I remembered the journey that I went through, it helped me to stay strong even if I’m surrounded by all the uncertainties. I believe in who I am and where I’m from. I still tried to grow in that blurry situation and during that time, I truly leaned on people around me. Together, we prepared Choc Choc to fly higher.
So, my business Choc Choc, it’s really starting to fly into a new era. I have a shining future that I’m drawing in my mind. There will be some obstacles, but I can surely get over them. Since I’m extra proud of my culture, I’m dreaming to have some workshops in my store someday related to Korean culture, and in the future, I really want to open an authentic Korean street food restaurant in Chicago. I’m dreaming of so many things every day, and I know for sure they will happen sooner or later!
I hope this story I have shared, if nothing else, can at least give you some bright inspiration!
Spoken by Leah Kim