“More opportunities for inclusion in the media makes me optimistic about the US’s future. This is because a lot of our ability to dream comes from watching others who look like us or we can relate to, who have done it already.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Vanessa Malzahn. Vanessa is the owner of Leela Ryan Dog Biscuits, a plant-based treat company for the well-treated dog. Her products have been sold at Whole Foods, West Elm and Barkbox. Vanessa also consults with entrepreneurs who are looking to stand out online through branding photography and strategy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Haiti, a country of contrast and in a time of transition.
The contrast of Haiti’s natural beauty with its strong tradition of art and culture are often overlooked for its poverty and unstable government.
When I was growing up in my hometown of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, it was a quintessential Caribbean city.
The streets were filled with life, music, and a certain joie de vivre (love of life). Art was also everywhere. Paintings were sold not only in exclusive galleries, but alongside the road.
On the way to school, I distinctly remember the hustle and bustle of my city, driving down the mountainous roads overlooking the turquoise water, honking and waiving other families starting their day, maneuvering the car around vendors approaching trying to sell fruits, water and fried plantain chips.
There was a carefree friendliness of that time and that culture that is hard to describe unless you grew up with it.
Even more important than this was family. Family, not in the sense of just our household, but capital F family, as in my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and all the people who were like family, like my godparents and my mom’s friends.
Every Sunday was a celebration. What looked like a party was dinner. What tasted like fried meat and rice and beans was a kind of faith; not just the Catholic faith that permeated the culture, but a kind of faith where we were as strong as each other and needed one another to celebrate and lean on.
I basically grew up a Caribbean girl, living life in the capital city during the week and escaping it in exchange for the countryside and beaches on the weekends. It was really lovely.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
My immigration story is probably similar to countless others: a series of events beyond my control like military occupations, failed coups, economic embargos, all of which honestly played a part, but the real trigger for my family was that my mother remarried a Haitian-American.
My parents decided that my mom, brother and I would be the ones to make the big move.
And just like that, at 11 years old, speaking only French and Creole, the plane left Port-au-Prince and New York City became my new home.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
The year was 1994.
It was June. Summer vacation had just begun, but the country was unstable due to the embargo.
The day we left was the last day flights were leaving Haiti.
If you were American, this was your final shot to fly out of the country instead of waiting for the unpredictable fate of an unpredictable country.
The airport was frantic.
I remember being nervous, but not fully understanding what was at stake. I didn’t appreciate that my dad was an American citizen and had to be on that plane, nor did I get that this was going to be my last day living as a Caribbean girl.
We landed in New York City and enjoyed our summer never thinking about starting school or our new life. We visited my cousins and had a carefree vacation.
I didn’t start feeling like an outsider until September when the school bell rang in the courtyard and I didn’t understand a single English word anyone was saying.
Then it hit me. This is going to be hard.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My mother definitely made the move more manageable. She eased my fears every day and made me feel like I was just like the other kids.
There were a lot of children of immigrants at my school, but no one came from a Caribbean country.
My new friends were from China, Mexico, Indonesia, and Poland. Countries I only had read about just a few months prior.
I had to learn to find what we had in common and build from that without downplaying the parts that made me different. My mom helped me navigate that seamlessly and it still serves me today.
There was also these unsung angels who changed our lives: a kind Jewish couple taught my brother and I English. They came every day and read with us and worked on our pronunciation. By Christmas, we were both fluent and we never saw them again.
So how are things going today?
Today, I’m doing great! I’ve got this kind of mantra that I say to myself: why not me!
My typical day is choreographed, which means that it is much more like a dance than a schedule.
After law school, I worked for a large Japanese corporate bank. My job was tedious and predictable but unfulfilling.
My life as an entrepreneur has an echo of the kind of joie de vivre of my memories of growing up. It allows me to get up as early as the sun rises, work on projects, then make coffee for my husband and walk our dog together.
There’s a lot I’ve learned and struggled with. It is definitely a hustle and a grind, but it’s the kind that is satisfying and brings me joy. For that, I’m grateful.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
There’s this great saying by Rumi, a 14th century mystic: “Be a ladder, a lamp, or a lifeboat. Walk out of your house like a shepherd.”
I fell like my happiness has enabled me to encourage other people’s joy.
Being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone. But no one is made for unfulfilling work either.
I participate in a lot of online forums, meetups, and masterminds. The network of people I’ve connected with both online and offline has helped me as I continue to build my businesses.
I started working with fellow entrepreneurs starting their own businesses and guiding them through the process and teaching them what I wish I knew when I started.
Though I’m not wired to give people the shirt off my back, I am wired to help people learn how to get their own. That’s how I’ve been able to bring goodness to the world.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
I’m not a particularly political person, however, my heart has been touched by the images of families being separated and so I would definitely keep families together.
I would also have a path towards amnesty and citizenship for residents who have lived here for so many years, especially for minors who came to this country and have basically only known it as home.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
a. This is a country of immigrants, you’re in great company. Pick the dream that would make you uncomfortable to tell everyone out loud and dare to go after it.
2. Reverse engineer your dream into a clear plan.
a. The key to making a dream come true is to see the end result you want and then go back up step-by-step to see how you can get there.
b. For example, when I wanted to start my dog treat company, I worked backwards and figured out everything I would need, packaging, a commercial kitchen, insurance, recipes, etc. Knowing all those steps made it easier to map out a clear plan to make it become a reality.
3. Find a mentor.
a. Who do you know online and offline that has the thing you want. Reach out to them for guidance. Whether you have to work for free, pay for their time, or work on a genuine relationship for a long time, the benefit of having someone who has done the very thing you want is invaluable.
4. Educate yourself.
a. Take courses, read books, listen to podcasts, learn. There is so much information available to us. Take advantage and learn.
5. Take action.
a. Having a plan is great, but if you don’t actually take action towards that plan, it will never get you to your goal. The key is to take action that actually moves the needle. There is a difference between busy work and work that gets you to your goal.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
I would say that more opportunities for inclusion in the media makes me optimistic about the US’s future because a lot of our ability to dream comes from watching others who look like us or we can relate to, who have done it already.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Oprah obviously! She has been an inspiration at a core level. She is the kind of woman I want to become, helping make the world a better place.
Gary Vaynerchuck, a fellow immigrant, also fascinates me. His drive and hustle, transparency as he grows his business, and ability to use social networks in such a genius way is truly amazing. I fell like he has been a mentor from afar through his books and podcast, but to meet him and have his specific input would be a dream.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Instagram is the best place to connect with me!
@vanessa_malzahn is where I share my life as an entrepreneur and @leelaryan is all things dog and about my dog treat company.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, Authority Magazine, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.
Originally published at medium.com