Business growth · 6 min read

Asian Heritage Month: How a Small Business Came to be with Immigrant Values

To celebrate Asian Heritage Month, Nancy, of Freon Collective, reflects on all that her refugee parents have accomplished and the values that they instilled in her as she started her own business.

Asian Heritage Month is an opportunity to learn about and celebrate the achievements and contributions of Asian-Canadians who have made Canada into the country we know and love. 

As a child of Vietnamese immigrants, and a small business owner, I’m celebrating this month by sharing my personal story of growing up with my parents, how my experiences have shaped who I am, and how my business, Freon Collective came to be. 

Freon Collective is a low-waste, eco-friendly lifestyle brand that I started in early 2019. It wasn’t meant to be anything more than a hobby (you’ll come to learn that I have too many hobbies). I approached Freon Collective as a hobby, but my parents always instilled the value of hard work in me. With that thought in mind, that’s how I’ve grown it to be the nationwide brand it is today. 

At 18 years old, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, my mom left her family, her country, and all she had ever known. She fled Vietnam alongside hundreds of thousands of people between the 1970s and 1990s in a mass migration known as The Boat People. These vessels were small, cramped, and there were constant threats of starvation, sinking, pirates, and more. When she reached Malaysia, where she was reunited with my uncle (who had made the same journey earlier), she met my dad and eventually had me. 

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During this time, my parents went through many struggles while they were seeking resettlement in more developed countries. They were separated for a year and a half when my mom left for Canada with a six-month-old-me in her arms. She worked day and night jobs to support the both of us and raised enough funds to sponsor my dad to come to Canada.

As immigrant parents who did not want their child to go through the same struggles they did, my parents actively encouraged a more traditionally “safe” route: focus on academics with the hopes it would lead to a stable career. Despite this push, they never discouraged my creative pursuits. When I was interested in learning piano and violin, they worked music lessons into the family budget. When I became interested in photography, they purchased a camera for me for my birthday. When I eventually became interested in sewing and design, they helped me buy a sewing machine — so long as I continued to pursue academics — they were content knowing I was also taking sewing courses in high school. 

When it was time to choose a post-secondary option, I knew I wanted to study fashion and design. My parents were never able to receive higher education — I would be the first in the family to go to university. They wanted to support me, but naturally, my parents had reservations. Likely because I would have to move across Canada and my choice was so different from what they had in mind. After all, what kind of jobs would there be in the fashion industry, besides the obvious one of fashion designer? Still, I was determined and I packed my bags and moved across the country to attend fashion school. 

While I was studying for my undergrad, I worked part-time as a sewing instructor at a local business in Toronto. My mom worked actively to support me, even though she had doubts about my career choice. At this point in her life, she had gotten her GED, worked several jobs from hotel housekeeping to factory jobs, serving, and eventually becoming a nail technician and opening her own nail salon. As soon as I graduated, I landed a job with a local children’s clothing brand, where I honed my sewing skills and continued to work as a sewing instructor on the weekends.

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As if a full and part-time job wasn’t enough, I started a lifestyle and beauty blog on the side. This began as a creative outlet for me to continue my photography and writing passions, but it eventually became a third job. I would wake up in the morning and edit photos, write posts, and then do the same in the evenings after work. When my blog gained more traffic, I started attending events, growing my network, and learning more about the marketing and advertising world. Like my parents who had worked several jobs when they started their lives in Canada, I found myself doing the same. 

A major hurdle (and blessing in disguise) came when I was just two years out of my undergrad. The clothing manufacturer I had been working for was going out of business. Despite still having my part-time teaching position and blog, I had no idea what I was going to be doing next. I felt like I had failed — a fear that many children of immigrants know all too well. I thought, “I should have listened to my parents.” After all, my parents worked day and night when they were reunited in Canada to support their families back in Vietnam. Like most immigrants, they didn’t have safety nets to fall back on in times of crisis. It was common for my parents to take the overtime shifts, working twice as hard to counterbalance their language deficiencies. They saved every penny to buy their first house, bring my mom’s family over, and provide a comfortable life for myself and my siblings. They worked so hard to give me a life where I wouldn’t have to worry, and here I was, practically going to be jobless in a few weeks. 

When my parents came to Canada, they took any opportunities that came to them and never said no. They knew that nothing was going to be handed to them in this white-dominated country and lived with a mindset of work and survival. I witnessed this firsthand, so when the opportunity came up for me to take over the manufacturing side of the company I was working for, I decided to go for it. After that company closed, I moved everything I would need into my 500 square feet condo and opened Freon Collective. I was now self-employed and starting a business with no formal business background. 

Freon Collective began as a small-batch production company. I would work with other businesses to sew their products, produce patterns, design samples, and more. A few months into this, I started Freon Collective’s in-house brand. I made a few sets of reusable cotton rounds, opened an Etsy shop and was completely blown away when they sold out within the first few hours. 

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The colleagues I had met in the blogging industry were incredibly supportive and instrumental in helping Freon Collective grow in those first few months. Before long, I found myself taking product shots by day and editing photos by night. I was sewing every day, shipping out orders, fulfilling wholesale accounts, and participating in my first local markets. You could say all of the creative pursuits (photography, writing, sewing, etc) that I had when I was younger came full circle. 

When I started Freon Collective, I had no idea this brand would become what it is today. Let’s be honest, running a business is hard. It’s unstable at times, it’s 10x more work than anyone thinks it is, and you — yourself — are responsible for all of the decisions. As overwhelming as the past few years have been since opening a small business though, I know this is where I was meant to end up after all. 

As I reflect on Asian Heritage Month, I can see the parallels between my mom’s life and mine. When we were both 18 years old, we left our families and hometown. We worked, went to school, and eventually opened our own businesses. My mom worked to support her family, and as I’ve grown older, I find myself wanting to work to continue my parents’ Canadian dream. I want to make my parents proud, and for them to know that everything they’ve done to come to Canada and build a life here wasn’t in vain. 

If you’d like to learn more about Asian Heritage Month and Vietnamese Boat People, please visit the following resources: 

About the Author: 

Nancy Mac is the owner of Freon Collective, a Toronto-based low-waste lifestyle brand. She is passionate about design, sustainability, and supporting local businesses. Her products have been featured in several publications including Chatelaine, Buzzfeed, and Who What Wear. 

Learn more about Nancy and Freon Collective at freoncollective.ca and @freoncollective 

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