This is the first of a series of posts I will be writing to tell the many stories of The Rare Orchid and the journey I have been on with my company for the past decade.  I have attempted many times to blog, but have never found the time to truly commit to it (just running every single aspect of a company by myself....that's all!), and always ended up letting my "particular-ness" (aka OCD-ness) hinder me.


Firstly, I want to forewarn readers that these posts will be raw, and mostly unedited... because if I don't do it this way they just won't get done. 


Secondly, if you don't know already, I am long-winded. I'm a talker....there is no getting around that!  That being said, I would also like to warn you that some posts will be long....very long.  But in fairness many of the tales on this crazy journey have a lot of details and without them the story is not complete.  However, a dear friend and mentor of mine suggested that if I get stuck I should just post pictures and write about them..... so sometimes there will be short ones too ;)


Since this post is "The Beginning", I will tell you some background info about me so you can truly understand how TRO began. 


I am a 5th generation Chinese American who grew up in Palo Alto, CA. When I was growing up, and in particular the side of town where I grew up, there were very few Asians.  There was not that much ethnic diversity at all.  This fact, along with socio-economic differences (Palo Alto was, and still remains, a town filled with many extremely wealthy people), had a huge effect on me during adolescence concerning my identity.  


I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that encouraged creativity and had many artistic talents of their own.  My maternal grandfather is a talented photographer who after retiring won a scholarship to get his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Academy of Arts in San Francisco at the age of 76.  I actually attend my grandpa's college graduation (see picture below!), and he has continually been an inspiration for me both in my creativeness and in life all around.  


My maternal grandmother also has creative talents as a skilled seamstress and knitter, and I definitely inherited my meticulousness from her. She and my great aunt taught me how to knit, and I spent a lot of time as a kid knitting all sorts of things and watching them create most of my clothing and Halloween costumes from scratch.


My family and I at my grandfather's graduation from the Academy of Arts. I'm the one rockin' the floral dress =P

My grandfather's graduation from the Academy of Arts. I'm the one rockin' the floral dress =P


Knitting on my grandparents' patio as a kid.


My mom is also an avid crafter of many mediums and taught art at the local children's museum when I was growing up.  When I was young she made stained glass pieces and other crafts which she sold at craft fairs, where she also let my sister and I make things to sell - so I started young with selling at fairs!


It's from my dad that I got my entrepreneurial spirit, my tenacity, and my "gift of gab". He and I have always had a special relationship and he has constantly been the my rock through the ups and downs of both life and business.


I've been very blessed to have a supportive family, whether it be in life, school, or my career.  I certainly did NOT grow up with a "tiger mom" or dad, I mean I majored in Sociology and Asian American Studies and sell clothespins and paper for a living!


One seemingly random but notable tidbit of information about my childhood is that I grew up playing basketball for a Japanese American basketball league (there weren't a lot of Japanese in the area so I was invited to join).  I mention this not only because playing "J league" basketball taught me valuable lessons that translated into how I built and run my business, but also because spending so much time in the Japanese American community I was exposed to all sorts of Japanese and Japanese American cultural aspects - including arts and crafts.  I am often asked how I got in to Japanese paper, and the real answer in its most simple form, aside from chiyogami washi paper just being an incredibly beautiful art material, is basketball.


I spent a lot of my adolescence searching for my identity and not feeling like I belonged, and eventually found comfort by getting involved in the Asian Pacific American community.  I finished school at Palo Alto High in 1998, but technically am in the class of 1999 (no, it was not because I was smart - it was actually because I hated high school that I finished early).  


In 1998 I started attending De Anza Community college, where I eventually earned an A.A. in Ethnic Studies and spent a lot of my time being involved in many local APA community issues.  I am a huge proponent of the community college route, not only for financial reasons but also to help those in transition who might not be ready for a four year university out of high school.  For someone like me who was only 16 and not sure what I wanted to do, it was perfect (and only $8 a unit when I attended!)


I always knew I wanted to go to UCLA, ever since the 1996 basketball championship (there's a reason my jersey number was 31 - Ed O'Bannon, baby!)  I transferred to UCLA in 2000 as a Junior and LOVED my time there.  Because I transferred and never lived in the dorms, I tried to become involved with a lot of extracurricular activities to meet people.  I really wanted to play intra-mural basketball, and sort of naturally gravitated to the Nikkei Student Union (Japanese American student group) since their team was made of many people who also had played J-league growing up like I did.  Eventually I became highly involved with NSU outside of basketball, as well as a few other groups that were active in the Asian American community issues.


In 2003 when I was set to graduate from UCLA, I had a grand plan of going to get a dual Masters in Asian American Studies and Social Welfare.  My goal was to become a social worker in the Asian Pacific American community and specialize in youth leadership.  I naively only applied to one program (at UCLA) thinking for sure I would get in since I had a letter of recommendation from Don Nakanishi, the head of the Asian American Studies department at the time. When I found out I wasn't accepted to the program, I freaked out.  I wasn't ready to move back to the Bay Area, but didn't want to stay in LA either.


And then there was Hawaii.....


Hawaii, oh sweet Hawaii.  I had never been there before in my entire life but had always dreamed of it.  Growing up I watched C&H Sugar commercials and hoped to visit such a paradise some day.


Usually when asked, I like to tell people that it was a mixture of panic and destiny that brought me to the island of Oahu, but in reality I followed a boy - who dumped me 3 months after I got there....  


Truth be told, I probably stayed in Hawaii mostly because I didn't want go home with my tail between my legs.  Although I've always had a great support network, nobody thought it was a good idea to move or that this boy was a great match for me.  But I had managed to find a job as a case manager working with adults with developmental disabilities for a private non-profit, and after all I was living in Hawaii - one of the most beautiful places on earth. Eventually I would move to another company doing the same type of work, and spent a total of 3 years in the social welfare field.  Probably the most important thing I learned from those years was that I actually didn't want to be a social worker.  Whenever I have the chance to talk to students who are about to graduate college, I always advise them to take a year off before plunging into more school (and more debt).  I could be $40k+ in the hole with a Master I wouldn't have used.... I'm so glad I didn't go down that road!


Those first years in Hawaii were definitely a dose of culture (and life) shock for me.  I was raised in some what of a bubble and had never truly been exposed outside of it, and really didn't know the real responsibilities of life.  I was living in the more country part of the island and really scrounging to make ends meet.  In retrospect I can be thankful for those times since it taught me some valuable lessons and lead me on the path I'm on today......but I won't lie, times were tough.


I made around $22,000 a year in my social service job, with no real chance for upward mobility.  As you might have guessed, Hawaii has one of the high costs of living in the country.  Milk, when not on sale, can cost $8 a gallon!  Determined to make it, I looked for opportunities to make money on the side... and that is how I discovered the unique community of craft fairs in Hawaii.

 Follow me @TheRareOrchid to keep up to date on new posts if you want to hear the next chapter of my story!

  • June 22, 2015
  • Meredith Lee
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