Eddie Huang on Embracing Your Inner Weirdo, Being an Outlier and Never Selling Out
Entrepreneurs never have it easy – not even the famous ones like super-opinionated Eddie Huang.Known for his no-holds-barred personality, rawness and humor, Huang, an entrepreneur in many spaces including food, design and writing, faced pushback – as many founders do – before finding success.
Raised in Orlando, Fla., Huang, a Taiwanese-Chinese-American, spent his early years, trying to fit in – be part of this “vanilla American monoculture.”
“Until the age of 10 or 11 I really resented being Chinese. I was constantly picked on, I didn’t know why we had to do everything the hard way, or why my mom just had to cut my hair with a colander in the bath tub,” Huang tells Entrepreneur.com “I realized that no matter how hard I tried I was never going to fit in, and I learned to embrace who I was.”
Huang has built a mini empire by following this mantra. After leaving the corporate world as a lawyer, Huang first dipped his toes in the entrepreneurial world by creating a line called Hoodman Clothing before segueing into the world of food with the opening of Taiwanese bun shop Baohaus, followed up by restaurant Xiao Ye – both located in New York City.
While Baohaus is still around and considered a success (second location coming to Los Angeles), Huang’s Xiao Ye failed, with a reviewer from The New York Times blasting it. From this, he learned an important lesson: “You’re only as good as your worst day.”
Huang has also written two books, his most recent being Double Cup Love: On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China and his 2013 memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, which got turned into an ABC sitcom with the same name. Huang’s criticism of the show was highly publicized with a tweet storm stating that he didn’t recognize his life in the show.
He later penned a piece for Vulture, stating, “This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won’t take that gamble right now,” he wrote. “People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network’s approach to pacifying them is to say we’re all the same.”
And that sameness, fitting into some sort of mold, is what Huang continues to keep pushing back on – from his upbringing to how he should behave and his entrepreneurship path.
“In every industry, people have tried to silo my identity and creativity. The food world wanted to claim me as a chef and apply the standard kitchen rubric to me for quite some time. Television wanted to distill and divide what it meant to be Taiwanese-Chinese-American and present it in least common denominator form,” he says. “But I’ve worked hard, pushed back and forced everyone I worked with to respect me as a whole human being and executive in all my endeavors.”
Now as the host of Vice’s Huang’s World, Huang is just getting started. He recently teamed up with Adidas for a shoe line and may collaborate with HBO for a one-hour drama. With all the highs and lows, Huang is looking forward to sharing his lessons with entrepreneurs and aspiring founders at our upcoming Entrepreneur 360TM Conference, occurring on Nov. 16 in Long Beach, Calif.
Before he headlines our Entrepreneur 360TM Conference, we caught up with the unabashed Huang to talk about his “inner weirdo,” why he insists on being involved in so many ventures, and the reason he credits his mother for his success as an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneur Media: You grew up in Orlando, Florida. How did that culture influence you?
Eddie Huang: What culture? Ha ha, nah I still love my people in Orlando, but in terms of culture, it was a very young city trying to form its identity when I was there. Orlando was this urban sprawl that saw itself as a burgeoning cosmopolitan city because of all the tourist traffic, but we had no roots. The cultural vacuum was filled by bros, vanilla American monoculture and nouveau riche tendencies really exemplified by the sports teams and timeshare economy.
EM: For the Entrepreneur 360TM Conference, we have “embrace your inner weirdo,” as one of your life principles. How has that mantra helped you as an entrepreneur?
EH: There was definitely a time in my life where I wanted to fit in. Until the age of 10 or 11 I resented being Chinese. I was constantly picked on, I didn’t know why we had to do everything the hard way, or why my mom just had to cut my hair with a colander in the bath tub. Not only was I an outlier at school Monday through Friday, but my relationship with black culture and liberal ideas made me a real alien at Chinese school on the weekends. I realized that no matter how hard I tried I was never going to fit in, and I learned to embrace who I was. Anything can be a strength or weakness, it’s all about being aware and spotting the issues.
In every industry, people have tried to silo my identity and creativity. The food world wanted to claim me as a chef and apply the standard kitchen rubric to me for quite some time. Television wanted to distill and divide what it meant to be Taiwanese-Chinese-American and present it in least common denominator form. Even Vice saw me narrowly as a host for quite some time, but I’ve worked hard, pushed back and forced everyone I worked with to respect me as a whole human being and executive in all my endeavors.
Once Eddy Moretti at Vice gave me the opportunity to EP [executive produce] Huang’s World, expand the format to one hour and forget about trying to define myself as funny or serious or journalistic, we really took off. People are seeing through my books, Baohaus andHuang’s World that intelligence takes many forms. It doesn’t have one face, voice or vernacular.
EM: Also, for the Entrepreneur 360TM Conference, you state how important it is to embrace the unknown, yet, for many entrepreneurs that can be scary. How did you get over that fear?
EH: Nothing is absolutely unknown besides death. I truly believe that. You don’t know EXACTLY how things will turn out, but if you do your research and get in tune with your instincts, you can make very educated guesses. I just make sure I can live with the worst case scenario before I do something and don’t look back once the decision is made.
EM: You have had some ups and downs in the entrepreneurial world. What did you learn from the closing of your restaurant Xiao Ye?
EH: Don’t ever blink. You’re only as good as your worst day. I never want to take an L [loss] like that again. I make sure to devote the same consistent focus and energy to everything I do.
EM: For your book Double Cup Love, The New Yorker writes, “Huang is determined to tease out the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which Asian-Americans give up parts of themselves in order to move forward” What did you have to give up to become a successful entrepreneur?
EH: People didn’t understand everything I was saying at once. I’ve built my house brick by brick. If you look at my interviews from when I was a streetwear designer to the opening of Baohaus, I’ve been saying the same things. I just keep saying it in different ways that work in the audience’s favor. As an other in this country, you have to swallow your pride and constantly say things in a way that others will accept or understand. It’s laborious, tedious but necessary work.
In the past, I gave up a lot more of my identity but with my success, I’ve been able to reclaim parts of myself I gave up as part of the toll to get where I am. Right now it’s about buying back the neighborhood piece by piece.
EM: You tend to have a lot of irons in the fire — cooking, travel, sneakers, designer, TV shows, writing a book, etc. How has being everywhere, versus just focusing on one thing, helped you as an entrepreneur?
EH: I’m constantly inspired and seeing things from different angles. You never know where the next pitch is coming from. I never want to be flat footed. I want to be on my toes forcing you onto your heels.
EM: Is there a person or life event you credit for your success as an entrepreneur?
EH: My mother. A lot of moms tell you nice things that sound good but blatantly aren’t true. My mom always told me I’d have to work harder and smarter than other people in this country. Knowing that early on really helped. She taught me the value of relationships, money and the struggle.
Her family fled the Cultural Revolution and sold buns on the street in Taiwan. She never let me forget it. She always told me to do it for my family and that I was standing on the shoulders of giants. A lot of people died so that I could be born in America and have the few opportunities I did have as a kid. I never took it for granted.
EM: You have a huge following on social media. Why do you think it is important to engage with people directly?
EH: That’s how you eat. Without the fans, you don’t get to work. I love the fans. Engage the fans, disagree with the fans but don’t disrespect them.
EM: What is the number-one lesson you have learned during your entrepreneurial journey?
EH: Give a little more day to day, lose a little here and there but maintain your dignity. Give yourself up to your core values, and play it long. I’ve slipped at times, taken Ls, but no one can say I’ve been inconsistent. I’ve stayed true to my values since day one and made my work about something bigger than myself.
EM: If you could do it all over again, what you do differently?
EH: I wish I knew how long it took. I remember always saying to Raf (manager/attorney) “Yo this is our break!” I’d try to say and do everything with every project. Now I realize it’s never one thing. It’s not about a “big break.” If you are on a mission it’s never over. You just keep doing it brick by brick. I would have told myself don’t get too high, don’t get too low, just stay in the middle ground.
EM: What is next for Eddie Huang?
EH: My favorite thing to do is still writing. I got a script with HBO for a one-hour drama. I have a screenplay with Josh Bratman at Immersive Pictures, and I want to produce more. I love writing and working with writers. I know how to get things made and draw out the soul of projects. I’ve done it for myself, but I want to help people get closer to the essence of what they want to say just like Chris Jackson, Rafael Martinez, Elena Bergeron, Eddy Moretti and my family — Evan, Emery, mom and dad — have done for me.
Catch Eddie Huang at the Entrepreneur 360TM Conference, occurring on Nov. 16 in Long Beach, Calif. Use this link to save $100 off the ticket price.