Keep going- resilience is the only way forward. There will be setbacks along the way, but it’s essential to keep trying and keep moving forward. For example, this year due to COVID travel restrictions we were unable to bring our overseas workers from China who are instrumental in assembling the lanterns onsite. We were able to pivot and enlist the help of local workers to help build the lanterns instead. The change in plans created a very tight timeline, and it took all hands on deck, myself included, to get the festival across the finish line.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Xiaoyi Chen.
Xiaoyi Chen is the founder of LuminoCity Festival — an annual immersive wonderland of light sculptures and art installations in New York City. Chen was born and raised in Zigong City, located in the Sichuan province of China, which is the epicenter of lantern manufacturing and lantern festival production. She held the magic and childhood memories of the annual lantern festival close, and after attending Pratt Institute for graduate school, Chen decided to share the experience with NYC. The first LuminoCity Festival took off in 2019 with great success and will continue to return to the city for years to come.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! The story of LuminoCity Festival begins with my childhood. I grew up in Zigong, located in the Sichuan province of China. Every year, the city hosts an annual lantern festival that attracts over two million people from around the world. As a child, I was captivated by the experience and watched the lanterns grow in size and scale with each year. I knew I had to find a way to bring the lantern festival tradition to the United States in order to share the magic I experienced as a child.
After graduating from Pratt, I started to think about how I could bring this experience from my childhood to New York City. I had visited local light festivals including the famous Dyker Heights Lights during my first holiday season in the city, which gave me a sense of the current market. The goal with LuminoCity Festival was to bring together traditional lantern making techniques with modern design in order to introduce a new experience altogether. LuminoCity Festival is more than just a light festival- it brings together illuminated sculptures, storytelling, and culture unlike anything the city has seen before.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I first started my journey with LuminoCity Festival, the biggest obstacle I faced was learning to stay true to my vision and tune out the critics. I don’t have a background in business, I’m young, and at the time I didn’t have the necessary capital raised in order to launch the festival. Despite these challenges, I was insistent on pursuing the vision that I had for LuminoCity Festival and was determined to find the resources to make it work. There were times when the process was slow and I made mistakes along the way, but I wouldn’t change anything because I learned so much about how to run a business and ended up with the festival I had always dreamed of.
I also discovered that the event and production industry is very male-dominated and that I faced even more obstacles due to my age, race and gender. There were times when I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously or was not expected to speak up or give a firm opinion, especially when it came to raising money for the business.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When things get hard, I focus on what I can do to solve the problem in front of me. I reevaluate plan A and look for where I can make adjustments or improvements. I use my judgment to find certainty in uncertainty, and to make the impossible possible, even if it looks like I am putting all of my eggs in one basket. This singular focus on making the best plan possible and focusing on the work is what keeps me going.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Right now I am at a place where I feel like we have planted the seed of LuminoCity Festival and that it will continue to grow as long as we stay on the right path. At times it feels like we are walking on the edge of an abyss and that every move is one step further into the unknown. It could be solid ground or it could be air beneath our feet. The important thing is to keep going and to put one foot in front of the other in order to build towards success.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t think it was a mistake, but when I was first starting out I learned how important it is to find the right talent and fit for the team. At first, it was really hard for me to let members of the team go who weren’t a good fit. I came to realize that I couldn’t make decisions based on my own personal comfort or perception, but rather that I had to make the best decisions in the interest of the business.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
With many holiday light festivals already established in New York City, it was important to find ways to make LuminoCity Festival stand out. The global pandemic made this even more challenging as we had to find new ways to make the experience safe while still presenting a dazzling light display. This year, we were one of the only large-scale outdoor holiday festivals in New York City and we had to implement new health and safety measures including mandatory masks, social distancing, and hand sanitizing stations throughout the festival in order to keep guests safe. We also presented over 7,000 light sculptures that spanned over 10 acres, which are handcrafted by a team of skilled artisans in China. Lastly, the Lumi character, a magical light bulb and the host of the festival, helps to differentiate LuminoCity Festival from other lantern events in the city.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
No matter your title or department, I encourage others to jump in, get their feet wet, and take responsibility for their work. Some days will require physical strength when it comes to helping out on site, while others will include long days of sitting at a desk. For me, no task is too small. I personally go in and set up the office that we use while on site and make sure every detail is correct — from setting up the Wifi to stocking pens. At the end of the day, the best way to avoid burnout and continue to thrive is to roll up your sleeves and do the work.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s hard to choose just one person! This year I am especially grateful for the entire LuminoCity Festival team who produced a successful event despite significant hurdles due to COVID 19. Without their support, hard work, and dedication over the past few months we wouldn’t have been able to put on the festival. I am also grateful for my close friends. So much of my day is spent on the festival that it is crucial to have friends who are outside of work that I can go to for their support and outside perspective.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
LuminoCity Festival has brought goodness and joy to thousands of New Yorkers and visitors from outside of the city. To me, success looks like seeing the smile on a child’s face when they come to visit and the laughter that families share while walking through the lights. It has been a difficult year for so many, and we are happy to create an experience that literally provides light to others.
By staging the festival this year we were also able to provide jobs to many who may have otherwise been out of work. 2020 took a huge toll on the economy, and we were proud to be able to offer opportunities for people to work and take part in the festival.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Utilize your network. As an entrepreneur, networking is an incredibly powerful tool. I often rely on my close friends who I can talk to about the business and where we need support. It’s helpful to have an extra set of eyes and ears who can share opportunities by word of mouth and recommend people they may have in mind. I’ve also had great success through casual chance encounters. Once I met a lovely couple during a trip to San Francisco. We stayed in touch and they ended up coming on to help us with user experience and accounting!
- Find your community. For anyone who is interested in starting their own business, I would recommend either finding a friend who is also starting their own venture or joining a meet-up or start up group where you can exchange ideas and resources. There’s only so much you can learn from books and Ted Talks! When I was preparing for the 2019 festival I connected with another woman who had experience in running her own businesses in both the non-profit and the for profit sectors. Her advice and wisdom was invaluable to the success of LuminoCity’s first year.
- Keep going- resilience is the only way forward. There will be setbacks along the way, but it’s essential to keep trying and keep moving forward. For example, this year due to COVID travel restrictions we were unable to bring our overseas workers from China who are instrumental in assembling the lanterns onsite. We were able to pivot and enlist the help of local workers to help build the lanterns instead. The change in plans created a very tight timeline, and it took all hands on deck, myself included, to get the festival across the finish line.
- Commit to the path. Being an entrepreneur is extremely time consuming and there is very little work-life balance. This is not a path for everyone and it takes a significant amount of commitment and resilience. It was not until LuminoCity Festival was already underway that I realized that this company was much bigger than myself and that I would need to hire outside help. My strong commitment to my vision and seeing it through helped me to find a way forward and grow the company with confidence.
- Be comfortable being solo. It’s important to recognize that the business starts and ends with you. Whether it is a partner, investor, or team member, you have to be prepared to continue doing things without this person. This is something that I have learned while growing the LuminoCity Festival team.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement has already started! LuminoCity Festival has fulfilled my dream to share the experience of my hometown lantern festival with the world. It is important to me that we are able to extend the opportunity to find the joy and magic in the lights with the local community as well. This year, LuminoCity Festival partnered with charities including Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, Tickets for Kids® Charities and Astor Services for Children & Families to brighten the holidays for children. We will continue to partner with the community for years to come in order to spread as much good as possible.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Readers can follow LuminoCity Festival on our social media channels below: