Podcast by InnovatorsBox®

Curious Monica: Season 3

Love the Story You Live in By Looking Forward Instead of Dwelling in the Past with Yao Zhao

Curious Monica – a Podcast by InnovatorsBox®. Hosted by Monica H. Kang.

The Curious Monica podcast features candid conversations with innovators in thriving organizations across various industries. In each episode, host & founder of InnovatorsBox, Monica Kang interviews her friends in diverse fields about what they do and why they love what they do. If you’re curious too, you’ll gain incredible insight into the workplace patterns that can change the way you think about work, no matter what industry you’re in or who you are.

Tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your preferred platform of choice!

In this inspiring episode of the “Curious Monica Podcast,” host Monica H. Kang sits down with Yao Zhao, the visionary founder of 50Hertz Tingly Foods. With a past deeply rooted in renewable energy and rural electrification, Yao shares his transformative journey into the culinary world, aiming to introduce the unique flavors of Sichuan pepper to a global audience. His story is not just about changing career paths, but also about bridging cultural gaps through food, and he discusses the challenges and breakthroughs he has experienced along the way.

As we celebrate Pride Month, Yao also opens up about his experiences growing up LGBTQ in Asia and navigating the business world as a minority founder in the U.S. His tale is one of overcoming adversity with optimism and resilience, emphasizing the importance of staying calm and focused in the face of challenges. Yao’s commitment to innovation and diversity shines through as he discusses his future aspirations for 50Hertz Tingly Foods and shares valuable insights for aspiring entrepreneurs. This episode is a compelling exploration of how personal identity and professional passion can intertwine to create impactful change.

Guest: YAO ZHAO

CEO and Founder

I'm on a mission to bring the floral aroma and delightful tingling sensation from Sichuan peppers to your food and drinks. The Guardian called me a “rebel with a ‘tingly’ cause”, and I aspire to be the “Sichuan pepper guy”. I am passionate about educating people about this unsung spice from my hometown. Born and raised in Chongqing, China, I devoted the first 10 years of my career to clean energy development and rural electrification, most recently with the World Bank in Washington DC. When I am not reaching out to customers or battling supply chain woes, my main hobbies are downhill skiing and scuba diving. Hokkaido, Colorado, Zanzibar, the Maldives, and Raja Ampat are places that have many of my happiest memories.

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Episode Shownotes

1. Title of the Episode:
Love the Story You Live in By Looking Forward Instead of Dwelling in the Past with Yao Zhao

2. Host:
Monica H. Kang, Founder & CEO of InnovatorsBox

3. Guest:
Yao Zhao Founder & CEO of 50Hertz Tingly Foods


4. Key Topics Covered:

  • Transition from renewable energy to the food industry
  • The unique qualities of Sichuan pepper
  • Challenges and successes in entrepreneurship
  • Navigating life and business as an LGBTQ Asian founder
  • The importance of resilience and calm in leadership

5. Highlights:

  • Yao’s innovative approach to introducing Sichuan pepper into global cuisine
  • His reflections on being LGBTQ in Asia and as a minority founder in the U.S.
  • Insights into the importance of team building and financial planning in startups

6. Quotes from the guest:

  • “Every adversity is an opportunity.”
  • “Calm is the strength in any circumstances… It shall pass.”

7. Some people suggested that we should learn from:

Danny Taing of Bokksu: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dannytaing/


8. Contact Information for the guest:

Yao Zhao can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram and via email: [email protected]


9. Closing Thoughts by Monica Kang:

Monica reflects on the importance of embracing challenges as opportunities for growth and the need to continuously advocate and educate ourselves about diverse communities.

10. Episode Length and Release Date:
Episode Length: Approximately 48 minutes
Release Date: June 10, 2024


00:00

Monica H. Kang
What do you do when you find a gap? I think this is a question you keep hearing every time you tune into this show, right? Cause a lot of our innovators are often in this situation. You find a gap, a challenge or problem, and they scratch their head and say, wait, what if I can do something about it? Well, today’s guest is no different, and as he’s still building out his business, it’s inspiring to see how far he’s already gone and how much further he plans on going. Meet my friend Yao Zhao. He is the founder of 50Hertz Tingly Foods and is on the mission to rethink how he can bring Sichuan pepper flavor into all food and beverages that you enjoy and snacks. He is passionate about educating people about this unsung spice from his hometown. 


00:52

Monica H. Kang
He is born and raised in Chongqing, China, and devoted his first ten years surprisingly not in food, but in clean energy development and rural electrification. In fact, this is where we met. We both went to size Johns Hopkins University, one of the top international studies school in United States in Washington DC. He has continued to build his career in that space and he worked in the Middle east, which we’ll speak about in a little bit. But he’s been back in DC working at the World bank and at a certain point scratching his head wondering, geez, like what if I can do something with this flavor? Because while he was cooking, he realized that this is actually great. Why are we not using it more? And it was also around the time hes been wanting to do something different from his day job. 


01:43

Monica H. Kang
Well, he found a gap and he solved it and he has grown really fast. His product is already available in many of the small and medium sized stores that you will find. So stop by a local grocery store and look up 50 Hz tingly Foods and you’ll be surprised to find his oils, foods, drinks and snacks available. And of course you can also get it at his store and request your local stores to get something too. But all I have to say what really cements our conversation with him that you’ll notice is his pure optimism and courage. Of course, as we’re celebrating pride month, I’ve had to ask what it was like for him to grow up in China. Being asian and gay, it’s not easy. 


02:29

Monica H. Kang
And as many of you might be noticing, its not really something that we talk enough about in asian culture or what its like in Asia. He has a happy story to share and one of the things youll quickly catch is his eye. Optimism triumphs the obstacles and challenges that he constantly faces, even in his business today. So he’s here to remind you that don’t let the past stop you. Instead, you choose what the narrative you want to write. And live and manifest that. So, with further ado, meet my friend Yao. 


03:08

Monica H. Kang
So very excited to have my friend Yao here. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Yao. From the different chapters. Since our way back grad school. Very excited to have him on the show today. Both to talk about his personal and professional chapters. And so, let’s dive right in. So, Yao, I guess, first question, maybe with a quick warm up. You travel a lot now. Even more. So, how do you manage your time? Because I know you just came back from China not so long ago. From your recent work in doing more field research. 


03:40

Yao Zhao
Actually, I just came back from Egypt and LA. So, yeah. 


03:45

Monica H. Kang
Okay. Excuse me. I’m sorry. There was another trip in between. 


03:49

Yao Zhao
That’s true. No, I think I manage it by being savvy with technologies. For example, you know, I can get a lot of work done on my phone. I don’t mind work. I don’t mind working late into the midnight. I don’t mind working on the road. And I have some support from a small team. That’s very important. And I think, in general, I just love being on the road. I love the energy. It sort of energized me. So, yeah, I love that version of me, actually. So it’s quite exciting. 


04:33

Monica H. Kang
Love it. Well, it speaks very much the volume of the person. I met Yao since way back in 2000. Wow. Can you believe it? 


04:39

Yao Zhao
It’s been a while. Yeah. 


04:43

Monica H. Kang
Well, I want to go back a little bit further down the memory line. To bring us back to Yang. Yao, where did you grow up? How were you as a child, and what did you wanted to do when you were a child? 


04:54

Yao Zhao
I was born and raised in Chongqing, China. So for those who don’t know about Chongqing. So it’s actually a huge city. It’s a city of 33 million people. That nobody has heard of. No, I’m kidding. It’s a big city. It’s a big city in the southwest part of China. And it’s. So I was born and raised there, and I was a. I was a decent student. I was recommended by my high school to go to Beijing. As one of the diplomatic trainees to China foreign Affairs University. So I was in Beijing for college. And it was a very small school, sort of like an elite school to train, to be trained as diplomats, chinese diplomats. And then. So I spent four or five years in Beijing as a college student. And I. That was a good time? That was 2006 to 2011 ish. 


05:51

Yao Zhao
So Beijing Olympics, you know, everything was rosy at the time, and I had a great time in Beijing. And then after that, I traveled a year, backpacked a year all over Asia, India, Southeast Asia. Then I applied for Saez, and then I met Monica. 


06:12

Monica H. Kang
And fast forward, you’ve continued to now stay in DC. I know you’ve gone back and forth to Asia for and all around the world with your work in different projects, but before you became and worked on your company and now got the nickname of the Citron pipper guy that you have aspired to, you are also, and you’re still continuing climate change and environmental work. Tell me a little bit more, how did you get first interested in that? 


06:40

Yao Zhao
So at grad school where Monica and I met, were at Johns Hopkins. Size, which is a really good international studies program, I focused my study on renewable energy, on clean energy and economics. And then after that, actually I went to the Middle East. I was working in the UAE. Yeah, I was working in Abu Dhabi for two years. I was working for international Renewable energy Agency. At the time, it was actually the youngest international organizations in the world. So I was there for two years. So that was basically that was laying my background in renewable energies. And then after two years, I moved back to DC. I found a job at the World bank, also working on clean energies. And then actually the work function has shifted a little bit. 


07:33

Yao Zhao
Actually, I think back then, this was more than ten years ago, the whole industry was focusing on renewables. Solar windows, actually, now actually the solar wind are so passe now. I’m just kidding. It’s actually not passe, but it’s just, you know, it’s sort of proven the cost has reached parity with the fossil fuels. And so now the focus has been, okay, how can we put more renewables on the grid? How can we pair electric vehicles with renewables? How can we have more batteries in the system to have to reach 24/7 renewable energy to reach net zero? So I think there’s actually more energy efficiency efforts all over in the industry. So, yeah, so this energy has shifted quite a bit, but yeah, so that was actually the other passion and my other career. Yeah. 


08:33

Monica H. Kang
And when did you get into this other entrepreneurship world and why? 


08:38

Yao Zhao
I started to have entrepreneurial urge in 20, I think 18 ish. I think a combination of factors. I think I was turning 30 and I wasn’t completely happy with just climbing the ladder at the international organization. And I thought I could do something more entrepreneurial and more creative. So I had a lot of sort of internal exploration in terms of who I am, what I want to do, what I’m good at. And I think one factor as an immigrant, actually, so I’m actually an immigrant. Right. So I came here only when I was 23, and I think one important factor was I got my green card, my us green card. So, yeah. So that freed up a lot of options. Right. You can do anything. You know, I’m not bound by the world bank. I’m not bound by anything I can do. 


09:37

Yao Zhao
The sky’s the limit, right? So it just really got me thinking, okay, what can I do with this freedom now that I’ve. Now I’ve got it. So, yeah, so I think all of this combined. Okay, I think I’m ready to do something different, something more fun, something more creative. So that’s why. Yeah, that’s the genesis of this journey. 


09:59

Monica H. Kang
I love it. And out of all the ideas, why this particular idea is something you wanted to do and meaningful for you. 


10:07

Yao Zhao
So in 2018, I went home for the chinese new year. My mom was making a cucumber salad. It was a very simple dish, cucumber salad with garlic chili oils. And she finished it off with some green Sichuan pepper oils. Like this, actually. This one? Yeah. So I had it. I was like, wow, this is amazing flavor. It’s like, you know, very aromatic, very citrusy, and it’s a bit tingly. And I thought, this is amazing. I grew up eating this, but I haven’t. I’ve been around the world. I haven’t had this flavor for a long time. So I came back to the US with a bottle of the green super oil. I just found it on, in the market. And then my partner was cooking a pasta dish back in DC, and we added the green shrimp oil in the pasta. It was quite amazing. 


11:05

Yao Zhao
It really elevated the flavor and sensation, and it worked really well with the parmesan cheese with the carbs in the pasta dish. And I thought, wow, this is kind of something interesting. This is something quite unique. This flavor, this sensation, it’s numbing, tingly. Not many other. No other ingredients are doing. Can provide this. So, yeah, so I started doing research, and I started. I started this whole company with this green sushi pepper oil. And then we have expanded since then. So, yeah, I sort of stumbled upon it. And then I think the more research I do, I realized, wow, it’s actually, it is a very unique spice. It’s a very unique ingredient. It’s indigenous to China, and it’s also indigenous to where I’m from, and I want to champion on this and I think I’m the right person to do it. 


12:02

Yao Zhao
If it ever becomes a thing, I feel like I have the capability and the background to do it. 


12:10

Monica H. Kang
And why is it named 50 hz? Tingly Foods? Where did it get the idea for the name? 


12:17

Yao Zhao
Yeah, thank you for asking that. So this came out of my research in that initial phase. I did a lot of reading and I read about a lot of things. I came across this paper. It’s published in 2013 in the Royal Society preceding B. 


12:37

Speaker 4
It’s published by the head of the neuroscience department at the UCLA. The paper is basically saying Sichuan pepper, the buzzing, tingling, numbing sensation. It vibrates, it makes your tongue vibrate at 50 hz. That’s the buzzing frequency. 


12:58

Yao Zhao
I didn’t know and I thought it. 


12:59

Speaker 4
Was super interesting and at the time I was ideating the business so I thought actually why don’t I name the business as 50 emailed the professor and he was actually delighted to hear someone is kind of, you know, use his scientific work. Right. So I actually went to see him two years later. 


13:24

Yao Zhao
Yes. 


13:25

Speaker 4
I actually met him in person. It was, he was cool. 


13:27

Monica H. Kang
It was very nice reading his paper. 


13:29

Speaker 4
Oh yeah, of course, yeah. 


13:31

Yao Zhao
I sent him a lot of. 


13:32

Speaker 4
He actually posted a selfie with him holding the oil actually. And then, and then. And posted on his twitter. Yeah, someone else sent it to me actually. I don’t use Twitter. 


13:42

Monica H. Kang
So did you get to try your products? 


13:44

Speaker 4
Yeah. 


13:45

Monica H. Kang
Oh that’s amazing. That’s amazing. And are you doing this now full time or are you still working at the bank and balancing this? 


13:56

Speaker 4
No, I’m still doing some part time consulting work for the bank. 


14:01

Yao Zhao
Yeah, yeah, yeah. 


14:02

Monica H. Kang
How do you manage your time then? Is that why you were in Egypt? The bank? 


14:06

Speaker 4
No, actually that’s not. I did actually travel a couple of times for the bank while working on this. That was a really bad actually because I remember I was in Saudi actually last year I was in Saudi for the World bank work and I actually have to, were also actually in target, were in the target accelerator program so that was really hard. I guess I was like on the conference calls like three, four pm am and I have to wake up at seven to go to like client meetings. That was, that was a very tiring, exhausting a few days that week, but. 


14:44

Monica H. Kang
You made it and I know you’ve been getting a lot of recognition. Congratulations. I mean it is super inspiring and exciting to see your growth because how long has it been now? It’s been few years. 


14:55

Yao Zhao
It’s been four years. 


14:56

Speaker 4
So since the pandemic. So I started right after the pandemic. I officially started. I started ideating, you know, since 2008. 


15:04

Yao Zhao
Right. 


15:04

Speaker 4
So 2018, but I officially started 2020. The pandemic hit. I had some time, and we’re working from home. So I said, okay, I started this. Yeah. 


15:17

Monica H. Kang
Well, one of the things I want to get a chance to explore deeper is just, like, how one chooses to do all of this, right? Like, when we hear these amazing stories online and, like, hear, like, innovators, like, that’s cool. 


15:29

Yao Zhao
Cool. 


15:29

Monica H. Kang
But, like, let’s go down to the nitty gritty, because as you have point hinted gently that it’s not easy. There are some sleepless nights, sleepless travel that you go through, and then on top of that, just also, like, different relationship. Now you’re needing to, like, know even more people, keep track of your old people, clients and new business, and actually need to do more business development. I’m curious, maybe if we dive a little bit deeper into that now that it’s been four years, what would be something that you would say, man, if I get a chance to sit with Yao, who’s just starting this tomorrow, this will be one advice I want to share with him. Knowing what I know for the past four years, not only doing business, but also balancing all of this on top of the work that you have. 


16:18

Yao Zhao
I think a few things came out of this journey so far. I think Tim is very important. Having a team, having a partner, you know, on this journey. I don’t know how founders can do, can, you know, can build a billion dollar business on their own. It’s. I just found it so hard. I mean, I did it. I did it for the first almost three years, actually, two and a half years. I had some help, of course, along the way, but I think officially, I have incorporated, like, a co founder only until, like, the third year or two and a half years later. So it’s. Yeah, so I think if I have to do this all over again, I think having a partner at the very beginning could be useful. Share the ideas, share the journey together, and make the decisions together. 


17:20

Yao Zhao
So I think that’s one takeaway. I think the other thing is, I think it’s okay to be scrappy, to be bootstrapping, but, man, it is nice to have some financial backing. And I got very lucky because I can tell you in a bit, because of some opportunities of New York Times and stuff like that. But I think it is nice to know. Do this properly, really plan it out. Having a business plan, but I don’t have any of this, to be honest with you. When I started, I was being very scrappy. I was sort of, I didn’t know what I was doing. But I think, you know, having, I don’t know, a mood board, a branding and all of that. Now I’m, like, building it. Like, I’m, like, catching up. So, yeah, it’s a sort of a tricky balance, I think. 


18:10

Yao Zhao
But definitely having a partner, having a team, I think it’s very important from the get go. Yeah. 


18:16

Monica H. Kang
Building on people. I think it’s so important also how you hire and fire and recruit them and maintain and retain them. Tell me a little bit more, what are some tips and tools that helped you not only to hire the right people, but retain them? 


18:34

Yao Zhao
I know it is hard. I mean, I think, as you know, you are a fellow founder as well, entrepreneur. I think it is hard, and it can get very personal, can get very emotional. And I have actually, I think the journey of entrepreneurship is also a journey of sifting through people, good ones and bad ones. Actually, most are just mediocre. You pay them to do something, and it’s a normal distribution at the bell curve. It’s just mediocre people. There are once in a while, you meet some really excellent people and how to keep them. I think money is important. You know, I think financial incentives are definitely helpful if you have some backing, you know, but also, I think we try to, you know, tell the story. You have to tell them something. We’re building where, you know, I’m not just selling peppers. 


19:34

Yao Zhao
I’m just selling suture peppers. We are creating a new category in food and beverage. We’re creating a new tingly numbing sensation. And if we are successful in the future, you are one of the people who made it happen to me. That’s very attractive to me. I hope that’s attractive to them. I’m trying to sell that story as well. But at the same time, on the other end of the bell curve, you also meet some very bad people. Right. You know, and you get burned, and it’s terrible. Like, I. I mean, you probably. I don’t know if you are lucky enough not to have encountered this kind of experience, but, yeah, I mean, I have had. Right, right. So, you know, you meet some people, they’re. They lied to you, they took your money and ran away, and it all happened in those circumstances. 


20:30

Yao Zhao
I just have to really, you have to brace yourself and say it’s not entirely your fault. You have to just let it go. It’s tough. It’s really hard. I mean, you really. Quite a few times, just like you. Yeah, yeah. As a young, especially as, you know, a young company, you. Yeah. And you learn something out of it. 


20:53

Monica H. Kang
So building on that a little more, I mean, how do you balance when there are those difficult moments? Right. Like, I think as leaders, as innovators, there’s always going to be a moment where, like, things just completely do not go well. Maybe it’s because of the bad person environment situation out of hand. Maybe I’m actually the bad person in that context. Right. Sometimes we’re the very bottleneck to the problem as well. What do you do when that happens? How do you get back up? What helps you navigate those difficult moments? 


21:26

Yao Zhao
I think time helps. You just need to give yourself some time, and then it will dissipate. That heart feeling, that self doubt. It will help eventually, but also when you’re in the middle of it. I think talking to people helps because you found out, oh, I’m not alone. Every founder are hurt, every hunter are burned by these things. So I think talking to people you trust, having a community, not even a community, just, you know, having, I don’t know, two or three people you trust, mentor or just fellow founders, fellow entrepreneurs that you could talk to, you could trust. I think talk to them really helps. And then you also need to build a very strong mental shield. Just have to tell, I literally have to tell myself, like, I need to get up and then keep on going. 


22:26

Yao Zhao
Like, you know, this will pass. Like, this will pass. And, yeah, it is so hard. And actually, we recently had, it just, it’s just unavoidable. And, you know, it’s like, it’s just pray, you know, hopefully, you know, this year we don’t get another burn like this, you know, and then, you know, you hire better, you know. Also, I think I learned a couple of things. One, never pay anyone in advance. You know, if they ask you to pay them in advance, you know, salary or anything, I would be very careful about it. I think the second thing is, if you have to pay a contract and then there’s no installments, you have to pay in one go, there’s no recourse. I probably wouldn’t do that ever again because then you’re really beholden to their, I don’t know, kindness, generosity. Right. 


23:28

Yao Zhao
So, yeah, I think these are the things, you know, I think as young founders, you’re so enthusiastic, you tend to trust people. I think it’s true. I think in general you should. But after a few accidents you learn to, you learn something. So. 


23:49

Monica H. Kang
Yeah, well, it speaks of the importance of like how to balance kind of the open naivety spirit to keep trying and doing something new. Yet the realist voice of like, okay, is this being perhaps too generous and like, you know, assuming only goodness versus like, have I really checked all the boxes and kind of balancing that? Both, I think ends up being very hard, as you pointed out. Hopefully the good intention is manifested and sometimes it’s on the reverse too, right? I think sometimes as a service provider I’m on the opposite side where maybe because they’ve had experience being burned by other people, they were like, oh, Monica, we’ll have to pay you 30, 60 days later. But in the meantime I have expenses. So that piles up. 


24:33

Monica H. Kang
So it’s a whole systematic question that you raise of how those experience both as founders but also in business cycle that causes a bigger opportunity and gap for both parties. But thank you for raising that because I think it’s so important. These are the type of things that I think on paper we don’t really know. We don’t get to know and how to navigate it until we’re in those moments. And speaking of also the whole industry experience, and as you’re growing, I’m curious, I don’t know if you’re allowed to say this, but would you want to do your business full time and if so, when would you want to do it? 


25:13

Yao Zhao
Yes. Yeah, of course I want to do the business full time and I want to also bring my team together back in DC. So actually my co founder, we actually, were World bank colleagues and she has actually moved back to Singapore. So. Yeah. And when I think I will know when it’s ready, like I will know right now. I feel, I feel it’s okay to balance it out. But yes, the goal is to actually, the goal is actually to do this full time and then really to expand. I was actually ready to, I was actually ready to jump this year, but then we had something happened and then we’re just like, the timing, the momentum was not there yet. So. Yeah, but eventually, yes, for sure. 


26:09

Monica H. Kang
And for your contacts, for our listeners, your product is already in some of the stores, right? Could you list some of the places so that way people know where to find it and you have some examples right now you can share right on the video. 


26:20

Yao Zhao
Yeah. So we started the business online, right? So Shopify and D, two C direct to customers. So our website, 50 hz, sorry, actually, 50 Hz foods, definitely online. And then we are actually in quite a few stores in DC, New York, the Bay Area, Portland, Seattle, Boston. So the major cities, not a lot, actually. These are sort of all ad hoc. You know, either I knocked on their doors or they found out about us through some channels and reached out to us and, hey, can we carry your product? Yeah. So we have the oils. We have the oils. The oils are Sichuan pepper oils. Super aromatic, tingly. You can use it as a finishing oil. Think of truffle oil. Right? You can just drizzle things you like. Pasta, scrambled eggs, noodles, dipping sauce. Really, really excellent. Very easy to use. 


27:26

Yao Zhao
And then, and then also, of course, the peppers by the actual sushi peppers, actually, I don’t have any around me, but it’s the actual sushi peppers you cook with it. Mapo, tofu, kompow, chicken, all of these famous chinese dishes, you would need them. And then these pantry items. Actually, we also do a lot of food service. We supply to restaurants, actually. High end restaurant, Michelin star restaurants sometimes, actually. And then, actually, as I said, we’re not just selling peppers and oils. I really want to champion a new flavor and new sensation. It’s like eating pop rocks. It’s kind of a new sensorial experience. So I thought, what’s the best way to champion that? Snacks. So best seller at the moment is actually this. 


28:24

Monica H. Kang
That’s amazing. 


28:26

Yao Zhao
It’s. Yeah, like tingly suture and pepper, peanuts. So this is actually our best seller, actually. I don’t, again, like, we have sold out. So I couldn’t show you the can, but this is actually our mini sample size. So, yeah, this is actually our marketing weapon because we use this to give away, to sample, to sponsor events. And then since the peanuts, we also have expanded into chocolate, actually, and beer. So, for example, this is one product. This is tingly brittle. So it’s chocolate toffee sausage, caramel toffee candy. And with the green shrimp pepper, it’s numbing. It’s quite good. So, yeah. So we are in quite a few stores in the major cities. Yeah, yeah, I love it. 


29:26

Monica H. Kang
I know, definitely in Washington, DC, where we’re currently tuning in from. When I go to especially a lot of the asian stores, I always see y’all’s product and I tag him. It’s in the picture, like, here you go. I know you already know it’s here, but super fun to see and so really excited and excited to continue to see your growth. And thank you for kind of breaking down behind the door of what happens and how you got to where you are building on all of this, you’ll be remiss to not cover the other big theme as we celebrate Pride Month this month. I think we don’t get to talk enough about how tough it is growing up LGBTQ in Asia is. 


30:08

Monica H. Kang
And I would love to kind of hear if maybe we can explore that a little bit with you, given your journey and how it honestly is right now. How was it for you growing up? Was it. Did your parents recognize and understand? Was it hard coming out? We love to hear your story because somebody out there is still probably navigating those chapters and questions. 


30:29

Yao Zhao
Yeah. So I’m LGBT. I’m part of that community. And I. And I, you know, I grew up in China, right, in not even a first tier city. I’m sort of a second tier big city. And then I think, actually, to be honest with you, Monica, I personally, I have never felt being discriminated against or being bullied. I’m also very comfortable with myself from the get go. I never really struggled with my own identity. So I consider myself very lucky. Right. Because I know a lot of people, they do struggle and they have been bullied and stuff. I mean, I also think now, since you asked this question, like I was thinking growing up. Yeah, I mean, there are some bullies because, you know, I like to play with girls. 


31:26

Yao Zhao
I like to, you know, I like to play, you know, some games that deemed more like, you know, more girly. And then some boys would call. Would call me out. But I never felt like it’s. I never felt like, so worked up because of that. So maybe because I’m very insensitive on these things. I’m not. I’m not very sensitive or I’m not being defensive about these things. So I feel like I’m okay. But I know a lot of people is not that lucky. Right. And then being in the founder. Right. And I’m not only LGBT, but also API minority founders, there are a lot of support, actually, when you are in that category. So, for example, I mentioned earlier were in the target accelerator program. 


32:26

Yao Zhao
And I have to give a lot of credit to target because were very lucky to be selected to be in this program. I think there was only 20 founders selected per cohort, and they really focused on minority founders, like asian, Black, Latino, and also they give a lot of support. And there are also a lot of chamber of commerce for this kind of groups. For example, like, we are registered a us chamber of commerce for API founders. We also us Chamber of Commerce for LGBTQ. And these organizations also provide a lot of resources to help you. They have gatherings, they have prodigy and mentor programs that I’m part of. So I actually think it’s how you turn your disadvantage to advantage. And also buyers at Whole Foods, target, they also have a quota. 


33:35

Yao Zhao
If you are registered LGBT or API or women owned founders, then you would have a step up in their, you know, in their selection process. So, yeah, I think, you know, you have to. You have to have a strong mind to fend off all these negativities, and then you can focus on. Okay, there are actually a lot of support being minority founders and then how you can leverage them. So, yeah, that’s my takeaway. And I think, yeah, I’m not a. Maybe I’m not a very typical experience, but I’m totally okay being who I am and then pursue my career and my business. 


34:25

Monica H. Kang
And I appreciate you sharing that because I think it’s so important for us to explore all these different journeys. Right. As you said, despite the minority identity sometimes being a challenge for some, that difficulty might not necessarily look that difficult, or it looks different. It looks different in a way. And I still hear, though, one thing as you’re sharing that it still brings curiosity, is that you kind of nailed it when you said it to yourself of, like, you know, change adversity into opportunity. That that mindset is something that drives you and has a very strong kind of foundation. How do you. How did you build that? Because I think that itself is part of the gift, perhaps, that you’ve noticed early on. Okay, fine. You don’t get me. Fine. Let me find my people. Let me go seek opportunities. 


35:18

Monica H. Kang
You kind of had that early on. And I’m curious, like, what helped you build that? Because for some, they’re still lurking to learn how to cultivate that or, like, hone that. So what helped you hone that voice? Because that’s part of your strength. 


35:32

Yao Zhao
Absolutely. I think it’s not just because of entrepreneurship, just anything, life. It’s the story you tell yourself what story you want to get out of this, because, you know, any adversity is opportunity. Right. And then, as I said, you know, I was burned by some bad people, and then. And then it becomes a story. And then what do you tell yourself about that? You can. You know, you can beat yourself about it, you know, but you can also tell yourself, look, I’ve tried my best, and then I’ve learned these lessons, and I can actually turn that story, and I can tell that story. And so I think I have that mindset also through hardship. Right? Like, you know, I think growing up, I don’t necessarily have a very happy childhood. My family just being a very traditional chinese family. Mom and dad divorced. 


36:30

Yao Zhao
And there’s a lot of conflict and fights. You just have to, you know, climb out of it and then. And you realize actually everything is about a story you tell yourself. And then you have to. Yeah. You just have to get up and going and then don’t look back, you know, just don’t dwell on the past. And I’m not someone who really dwell on the past. I’m also. I also consider myself very lucky because I don’t remember much, to be honest. I think. I think my memory is really bad. A lot of the trauma that I know maybe happened in my past, in my childhood, I don’t really remember, to be honest. Like, it seems like my memory has this protective mechanism to sift out the negativities. And so I almost always look forward. Yeah. And I don’t dwell on these things. I don’t. 


37:37

Yao Zhao
I don’t. Sometimes I be nostalgic. Like, I’m actually, you know, I like to being nostalgic sometimes. When I go to Chongqing, I spent actually, nowadays, after the pandemic, I spend a lot of time in Chongqing. And I really enjoy it. And I like that nostalgia, but it’s the happy feeling of nostalgia. I don’t dwell on the negative things. Everyone has some kind of trauma in their childhood, but I don’t seem to remember it. So I really focus on where I’m going next. Am I going to Egypt? Am I going to LA for a trade show? And what’s next. So I focus on what excites me and, yeah, that’s how to get myself out of negative thinking. 


38:30

Monica H. Kang
That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that and reminding us how normal it is to how we could feel, but also how we can we have control and take that step of what we want to tell. What’s the narrative you want to tell ourselves? It’s so powerful. Speaking of which, talking about the future, let’s explore a little bit about that. Where would Yao, 510 years in the future would like to be and why? 


38:59

Yao Zhao
Yeah, I really want to bring this business to a certain scale. I want to see our tingly products being on the shelves in many stores. Like, you know, 1000 stores, 2000, 5000 stores. And I want to actually bring the revenue also back to the Sashimura farmers. We want to open up more demand from overseas and then to boost the sister pepper industry in my hometown. And I think as personally, yeah, I want to actually leave. I want to leave a very. I want to control my schedule. I really don’t see myself doing another copper job. Doing nine to five. Want to be able to see you at all hours. Like 03:00 p.m. For coffee if I want to. And then being productive. Right. I think being productive. But it doesn’t have to mean. It doesn’t have to mean. 


40:05

Yao Zhao
You sit in the office for 8 hours a day. Right. So I think being able to really control your finance, control your schedule. And then being productive and doing something you’re passionate about. In the next five to ten years. I think that’s really what I want to focus on. And really, I want to build a career out of this right now. There’s still. I mean, it’s a still tiny business. You know, you’d be very kind saying, the growth. Yes, we have shift something. But again, it’s a tiny business. And then, so, yes, I want to actually get more into. I want to build a team. I really want to build a team to support this. And then once we also feel right. We might raise some funding. To push this further to scale. And then build a team. 


40:55

Yao Zhao
So that’s my goal in the next few years. 


40:58

Monica H. Kang
Oh, I’m very excited. Because for other people where you’re at, it is not tiny at all. And for him to say, this is still tiny. You now hear the bigger picture where he’s already heading. And so, folks, you’re gonna say, I knew Yao way back when. When he was starting the early first few years. And to see the mega company that they will continue to grow. And so, thank you so much for stopping by, sharing your journey and your stories. And I don’t know. We say 03:00 p.m. For coffee. But you might be flying to another place at that time. Conducting another multiple meetings. By the time you do full time. So, no, appreciate it. And just remindering that. The reminders of how human all these questions are. How important it is that we reflect, explore, and continue the learning. 


41:41

Monica H. Kang
And so, congratulations again for all that you and your team has done. And look forward to seeing what you continue to do. Can’t believe how fast time has flown by. I know folks have already also enjoyed our conversation. As we wrap up, we remiss to highlight a few final questions with you. So, one of the questions I’ve asked all my guests. As we celebrate the different months learning about different innovators. In different kind of identities. And industries is just getting our guest help to better empower and learning about other innovators. And so, Yao, if you had to shout out three innovators that we should follow who happen to be somebody who is from LGBTQ, who are they, and how can we learn more about what they do? 


42:29

Yao Zhao
Three, I think, actually, the first who came to my mind is. His name is Danieliang. He is the founder of Bokksu. Bokksu is a subscription box for japanese snacks. He’s. I think he’s Vietnamese American, born and raised here in the US, but Vietnamese LGBT, super smart, went to Stanford, worked for Google, and now built a snack subscription box from Japan. Raised, I don’t know, I think, $20 million just doing snack subscription, you know? And I met him a couple of times in various location occasions. I don’t. I don’t know him that well, to be honest. But watching his journey and how apologetically he pursues his. His journey and he. He lead his life is quite inspiring, actually. I wish I had the guts and the audacity to be honest with you. Like, I feel I am. Yeah, I just. 


43:40

Yao Zhao
I just admire his business acumen. So, yes, he’s definitely someone also. I mean, again, it’s a still small company, but it’s all relative, right? Like, I think it’s a huge company, but they’re still growing. They’re still pushing. So Danny Leong from Bok Su, the other ones, I couldn’t think of any, actually, immediately out of my head, being LGBT, but. Yeah, but I would just name one. 


44:16

Monica H. Kang
And if you remember any names, we’ll follow up with you, so that way we can add it in the blog. So, folks, check out the blog as usual. That’s where we always share the highlights and the resources. Two other final questions is one, you’ve shared a lot of wisdom and insights as we reflected on this journey. What’s the final word of wisdom you want to share with our listeners no matter where they are in their journey? 


44:37

Yao Zhao
As an innovator, I feel calm is the strength in any circumstances. Just remain calm. And I have to keep reminding myself that, you know, sometimes I get very stressed out, and then it’s not very helpful, especially as the. As a leader, you’re leading a team, and then you are getting agitated, and it’s never. It’s the. That’s no one’s favor. Right. So I think calm is the strength. Just remain calm, and then things will work out eventually. Yeah, really. It really does, actually. I think it just, you know, you just have to, again, remain calm and tell yourself it will pass. It shall pass. Yeah. 


45:26

Monica H. Kang
The meme is not just for fun, it’s a real reference. Be calm and carry on. Truly. Thank you for reminding us. And the final question is, what’s the best way folks can stay in touch. 


45:37

Yao Zhao
With you, 50 hz foods or email me? Yao yowftyhertzfoods.com yeah, if you email me, I’ll get back to you right away. 


45:54

Monica H. Kang
Awesome. 


45:55

Monica H. Kang
No, thank you so much y’all for joining us. And thank you all for tuning in for another story. This is Monica, Akira’s Monica. I’m so glad I had the excuse to catch up with y’all, my friend as well. We’ve been so busy and we’ve been both traveling different places and so thank you y’all for joining us. And folks, we’ll see you again next week with another story. See you soon. Thank you. 


46:19

Yao Zhao
Bye. 


46:24

Monica H. Kang
Thank you y’all for the inspiration and powerful reminder that we are in control of our own stories. I really love that you shared that final wisdom is about how we can stay calm and how we should hone that skill as a leader. I agree, as sometimes when things get stressed, you know, it could get stressful. And it’s so important in how we show up to lead with certainty, with confidence to know that hey, this too shall pass. So thanks for sharing your story with us and thank you all for tuning in to another conversation with me this week. I hope this continues to inspire you and empower you no matter where you are. Please continue to send me your questions and insights and let me know what else you want to learn. 


47:12

Monica H. Kang
But for now, next week we’re going to continue our learning and meet another innovator as we continue to celebrate our special months. So I’ll see you soon. Have a wonderful day. Thanks so much for tuning in today’s episode. 


47:34

Monica H. Kang
Your support means the world to us. 


47:36

Monica H. Kang
So we’re so glad you’re here. Want to do a little shout out for those in the team who made this possible. Thank you to everyone at InnovatorsBox Studios. Audio engineering and production is done by Sam Lehmart, Audio Engineering Assistance by Ravi Lad, website and marketing support by Kree Pandey. 


47:56

Monica H. Kang
Graphic Support by Lea Orsini, Christine Eribal. 


48:01

Monica H. Kang
Original Music by InnovatorsBox Studios and executive producing, directing, writing, researching and hosting by me, Monica Kang, founder and CEO of InnovatorsBox. Thank you for continuing on the journey of how to build a better workplace and thrive with creativity. Visit us at innovatorsbox.com and get some free resources at innovatorsbox.com/free. We look forward to seeing you at the next episode. Thank you and have a wonderful day. 

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