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What This Beauty Entrepreneur Learned Working On Her Family Farm

Jennifer Kapahi started learning entrepreneurship when she was 8. “Every dollar made was made with blood, sweat, and tears,” she says.

For Jennifer Kapahi, the cosmetics entrepreneur behind TrèStique, the earliest memories of her family farm date back to when she was a baby. It had been her grandfather’s farm for decades; he founded it with two brothers in the mid-1940s after emigrating from Hong Kong and serving in World War II. The farm for many years specialized in wholesaling vegetables to New York’s Chinatown. When her grandfather died, Kapahi’s father and mother–who had met in business school in Boston–took over the farm, then headquartered near East Moriches, Long Island.

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Jennifer Kapahi, cofounder of TrèStique

It’s when Kapahi was 8, though, that her memories of Sang Lee Farms become vivid, and not only because that’s when she started pitching in on the farm herself. That was also around the time the farm, and the family, moved to the North Fork of Long Island, and the entire business strategy was forced to pivot, since Chinatown had started favoring cheaper vegetables farmed in Mexico. “The business had to change from wholesale to retail,” recalls Kapahi—and she had a front-row seat from the time she was in grade school.

Gradually, and with some difficulty, Sang Lee Farms pivoted into a place consumers could come for specialty, and eventually organic, Asian vegetables. It was an effort that required an immense amount of education for Long Island consumers. “No one in Long Island knows anything about Chinese vegetables,” says Kapahi. Long Island staples were potatoes and corn; bok choy was an unfamiliar thing. So Kapahi’s mother, herself of European origin, and also a newcomer to Asian vegetables, began making recipe cards, organizing tastings, and offering samples out of watermelon stands.

The whole family worked and worked. Kapahi and her brothers were often on the farm every day in the summers. The family began experimenting with unusual vegetables and products, including edible flowers. Every day, Kapahi’s mother seemed to come to the table with new ideas. Whereas many an entrepreneurial kid grows up trying out a lemonade stand, young Jennifer helped run a flower stand featuring cut flowers in special arrangements.

For many years the farm was fighting for its life, and Kapahi remembers it as very stressful and difficult. Her parents worked 17- to 19-hour days, she says. She drew from those years a lesson: that “it was a really hard life, owning your own business. You’re sweating, literally, every day. It was just constant.” Was the possibility of selling the farm ever raised? “Nope, never,” she says without missing a beat. “My parents aren’t the kind of people to give up. They just work harder.”

It was a grueling life, but also a beautiful one. Their home-cooked meals used “literally the best vegetables on earth,” she says. And being on the farm was beautiful and inspiring. There were vegetables and flowers of every color. Their tomatoes grew in a variety of shades: green, purple, white, burgundy, black. The asparagus was purple, and the Japanese eggplants were nearly neon in their hue. “Everything had a little twist to it.”

Her mother’s ingenuity and her whole family’s hard work saved the farm, which her parents now run together with one of Kapahi’s brothers and his girlfriend. It stands on much firmer footing, Kapahi says, with CSA programs having a “huge impact” on cash flow. CSAs help farmers better forecast demand, and enables farmers to share risk with customers, since customers commit to buying whatever crop the farmer is able to produce. So if a worm gets into the farmer’s cabbage, you may be saddled with turnips two weeks in a row. It’s more humane consumption, she says. “You’re not saying, ‘I want asparagus, and this is only what I’m eating.’ You understand things happen in life, in business, in the world, and you’re going to be taking what the farmer has to offer you.”

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But the main things she learned from helping out with her family’s farm came from those years of struggle. Three lessons linger in particular.

First: “I learned the lesson that it’s not easy to be successful. Every dollar made was made with blood, sweat, and tears.”

Second: “Work ethic. Not giving up. That’s something that was instilled in me for my whole life, and I applied it to everything I did,” including college sports, where a bad back injury left her unable to walk without pain for two years. Powering through earlier challenges has prepared her for the vicissitudes of starting a young business.

The third lesson? “Small things make a big impact,” she says. “You have the ability, as an entrepreneur, to give customers a product that can change their life for the better in some small way.” She hopes her cosmetics, which aim to simplify beauty routines, achieve that with the women who purchase them. And she remembers how the vegetables her family farm sold transformed the lives of certain customers. She recalls one customer whose husband had advanced cancer; Kapahi’s mother helped the woman make soups from dark green leafy vegetables. (He went into remission, says Kapahi.)

Vegetables alone may not cure cancer—but most products do make a difference of some kind, says Kapahi. “What you’re doing can be important,” she says. “It can always have a bigger impact than you think.”

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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