When your customers or your client is happy with your product or with the vision for your company. — There were many times where we get thank you notes from our clients. Receiving such feedback is so rewarding and up lifting. It most definitely encouraged us to do better!”
As part of our series called “My Life as a Twenty-Something Founder,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Paulo Wei.
Paulo is the Founder and Co-owner of Our Kitchen and is currently an undergraduate student at Columbia University. Prior to his education in Columbia, Paulo was a student at USC and transferred to a Music Conservatory in upstate New York. After being classically trained as a Bel Canto Tenor, Paulo applied and was accepted to both Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University School of General Studies. Born in Brazil and raised in Hong Kong/Beijing, Paulo is determined to create quality products for his customers.
Thank you so much for joining us!What is your back story?
“The back story for Our Kitchen would be since the beginning of COVID, I proposed and partnered up with The Tang NYC and The Tang Hotpot NYC in doing the frozen dumpling kit. It was a very strong hit at the beginning. We sold 7000 dumplings for two orders. Down the line, I was talking with a friend of mine, Jon Shim, that we should establish our own brand during this time. Since my mother has a farm in upstate New York that is 43 acres in size, I have decided to make the best of it. Therefore, the Oriental-styled farm to table — Our Kitchen was created.”
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways would you take out of that story?
“Do it yourself. I’ve learned that the hard way. Even though I am the co-founder for Our Kitchen, it does not mean I can get away of not knowing how to make the products myself. I learned this the hard way. There was this one time where I had to produce a large amount of dumplings for a client and the chef took an unexpected break. The chef did not have signal and the order was literally expected for the next day. If I hadn’t learned how to make the dumplings from scratch as a child, we would have been in deep trouble. I stepped in last minute and pulled an all-nighter in making dumplings. It is actually quite funny where normally my all-nighters would be in reviewing economic terms or computer science codes, I pulled an all-nighter for dumplings in the kitchen space. From this I’ve learned that I had to learn how to make all the products that is being produced under our brand. By doing so, I would ensure the quality and the consistency of our products.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
“Our Kitchen stands out because of the people behind it. Everyone behind the brand are heroes and great human beings. They are compassionate, honest, and can take on any kind of hardship. One story that I can think of would be when we got a huge order last minute. The client needed dumplings in a short time frame, normally we would not take it because we have a policy for large orders to be requested a week in advance. This client wanted it and had a family reason for such request. I brought this case to my team and asked if they were comfortable in accommodating the potential client. All of them said yes right away. I was deeply moved and touched by this. Originally Our Kitchen was supposedly to be named as Grandma Li’s kitchen as a remembrance of my grandmother who was an excellent chef. I proposed the name, and everyone was fine with it. However, as we made further progress with the brand, I felt bad that everyone was working under my grandmother’s name. Therefore, I spoke with grandma to see what should be done. She suggested why not name it Our Kitchen. I thought it was a great idea especially coming from her. She told me that way everyone gets to be a part of the brand that we are all nurturing.”
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?
“I owe my life to my grandmother and my grandfather for taking care of me as a baby. But I would call on my mother and my father in helping me to achieve where I am at today. There are so many people who helped along the way, my god parents, my team, my friends, and etc. however my mother and my father really did shine many insights for me while I was building this brand. My mother and my father separated when I was in third grade. Growing up with my mother, she has always been working 24/7. There wasn’t one time where she did not put down her phone while she was dining with us. Her hard work paid off for sure. Her integrity as a person and her hard-working ethics are something that I admire. So, while I was working on Our Kitchen, I would constantly remind myself of how my mother shaped and built her company from scratch. At the very start of our company, I would drive 3.5 hour every day back and forth while juggling Zoom university classes. I would wake up at 4 am and leave before the sun rises and get back to my apartment in the city at midnight. Looking back at it now seems like a decent accomplishment and a solid proof where I get to say to myself if I want it, I will make it happen. This is very reassuring for me. My father, also a business owner, is very similar to my mother and yet also very different. I honestly think the reason why they parted was because they shared too many similar traits as a person. They can and are best friends, but they cannot live under the same roof. During the time where I would travel back and forth, I would call my father who lives in Hong Kong. I would ask him for advice and just tell him what I was working on. He would suggest to me in hiring a driver for me or other ways that would make my doing easier, but I said no to all the kind offers. He was proud of me in saying no to him. He is this type of fatherly figure who would say things that would make you feel there’s an easy way out of a situation but deep down he wanted me to say no to those temptations. He lives by the philosophy of no pain no gain. Every time when I turn down his kind offers, he would break into laughter and say now that’s my boy.”
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
“I am! Our Kitchen is remodeling our location in Upstate New York to make it more winter-friendly and is planning and working on building a boutique hotel on the property.”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
“I have brought goodness to the world through the making of Our Kitchen by providing job opportunities for my teammates. Since Our Kitchen is still in its developmental stage, I haven’t made an impact on the world at large. But within our community, I am advocating on the importance of naturally grown food and the importance of taking care of one’s body. During this crazy time, I took on my team members as a crucial part of the development in the brand. It was a highly selective process where I picked everyone on the team based on their merits as a person. Learning from both my parents, I’ve discovered that it is more important to work with good people than people who are good at something. I am also bringing more attention to the need of eating a healthy diet and advocating for growing your own vegetables. In short, I am doing good to the world by advocating the important of paying attention to the mind, body, and soul.”
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
“This is a tough one. I recently read The Conference of the Birds in my class with Professor Shelley in Columbia University. I loved this book because it offers such a great insight on how life isn’t about addition but rather subtraction. Instead of building and chasing after worldly attachments and giving into desires, one should learn to focus within. I did my second argumentative essay on this text. It was really hard to come to peace with the idea of letting go of the things that I defined as important. But as I make progress with the essay, I discovered what is this so-called self that I am constantly obsessed with. After some discussions with my friend and as I’ve finished this essay, I think I am at a good place in understanding and balancing the concepts mentioned in the text.”
Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a twenty something founder. Please share an example or story for each.
“1.) When your customers or your client is happy with your product or with the vision for your company. — There were many times where we get thank you notes from our clients. Receiving such feedback is so rewarding and up lifting. It most definitely encouraged us to do better!”
“2.) Speak your mind and stick with it as long as it is reasonable. — There was this one time where I did not want to do the local market because I wanted to focus on the market within the city. My business partner thought otherwise. I communicated my point and explained what I thought. We did not reach an agreement at the end. I did not give in neither did he. Therefore, as a result he focused on the local market whereas I focused on the market in the city. Much to our surprises, both of us did really well in terms of sales.”
“3.) When there is a problem cut it right there and then. — At first, I hired a chef based on a referral from a family friend. The chef was not open to changing her flavor of taste based on the feedback from our customers. I talked with her multiple times, but she insisted that her taste or flavoring was the authentic taste of a Chinese Dumpling. I told my human resource team that we had to change a chef right then and there. The team started the search, but it was taking a long time. Therefore, I personally reached out and tested sampling from the previous chef applicants. Once I found the right chef, I switched the production team right away. Not saying the previous chef was bad, rather it is just a difference in taste.”
“4.) While working on a business with a close friend, remember to not take things personally. — My business partner and I are best of friends. We are practically family now. However, there are many times where we would have differences in the vision of the company. Such cases would result in heated conversations. There were many times where the both of us regretted working together but at the end of the day when we saw our progress as a company, we would always mend things. Open communication is crucial. When there is a problem, make sure to clear the air and address it. It is important to know that do not take things personally. It is a business after all. There are times where we would talk about person things and there are times where business is just black and white.”
“5.) Communication is key. — For everything that happens both internally and externally, make sure you address it accordingly. Things happen both good and bad in the split of a second, it is important to always be prepared. If you have a good mentality (knowing your purpose and the direction of your company) then things would reflect accordingly in the material world. I always had a vision to expand the company into the Hamptons community, I envisioned it and with the help of my mentor and godfather, it happened. There were many problems along the way, but if there is a clear goal then everything will fall into place.”
What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty-year-old who is looking to found a business?
“Do not rush. Make sure you observe clearly and judge with a sensible mind. It is very easy to judge based on one’s interest or passion. It is great to be passionate about a project but make sure that it is sustainable, and do it based on the resources that you have currently.”
We are very blessed that some of the biggest name 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?
“If I were to have a private breakfast with someone, I would love to have it with Anna Wintour. I attended the Vogue Forces in Fashion in 2019 and was shocked and amazed by how well-spoken she is. Hearing stories from the past and learning from her personally would really benefit me both in the development as both a businessman and as a person. Anna Wintour has the ability to stay relevant across multiple generations. This to me is an outstanding accomplishment.”
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!