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Entrepreneurship is in Lillie Nguyen’s blood. Her mother … and her grandmother … and her great grandmother … and her great-great grandmother all started businesses of their own.
As the founder of Bliss and Sparrow, a vegan, mostly organic skincare company, Lillie is proud to carry on the family tradition. She sees her small business as a vehicle to improve not only her community but also deliver solutions for underserved consumers — while doing so in a sustainable fashion.
Against the backdrop of National Women’s Small Business Month, Lillie shares the inspiration for her entrepreneurial streak and explains why owning a small business of her own is so gratifying.
“A small business is a vehicle to improve not only the surrounding community but also deliver solutions for underserved consumers.”
Longitudes: How did you start your business?
Lillie: I started my business, Bliss and Sparrow, in 2017 selling sugar scrubs and eczema cream from home. After struggling with eczema for years, I found myself uninsured with my condition getting worse.
My fingers would crack and split open in the middle of the night, and the pain was unbearable. I spent so much money going to doctors, but none of the creams they prescribed healed my eczema. I was a stay-at-home mom and worked only part time, so I couldn't afford to continuously waste my time and money trying to get relief. I had to find a way to heal my skin and pain.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in science and a background in experimental research, I set out to make my own dry skin balm. It healed my skin and my family’s and friends’, so I kept making it. A year later we decided to sell it. We sold it in farmers markets on the weekends and at nail salons owned by friends and family. Eventually, we added more products, but our balm remains our best-selling item.
Longitudes: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
Lillie: Entrepreneurship runs in my family. My great-great-grandmother became a widower at 28 years old in Vietnam during the 1920s and 1930s when it was a taboo to remarry. She survived by working off her land — it was very rare at the time for a woman to own land on her own. My great grandmother made brooms and fermented products and tea. She held a large estate and raised my grandmother and great aunt there.
My grandmother owned land with her sister and had a business making fermented soy beans and chrysanthemums tea. They also weaved baskets and produced straw bamboo brooms (the kind you would find in every Asian home today). Sadly, she died at 25, when my mother was just four years old.
My mother grew up during the Vietnam War and would later move to the United States to bring us out of poverty. She bought her first salon 22 year ago, which was the first Vietnamese owned and operated in Fairfield, Connecticut. Her business afforded my brothers and me a wonderful life and great education. She’s my hero, and I hope to do that for my children, too.
To keep the legacy going, I named my business after my daughter, whose Vietnamese name is Sparrow. I was pregnant with her when I started making homemade balms, so it made sense to name it after my first born. Business runs in my 5-year-old daughter's veins as well. She loves helping at our store. She likes selling to customers. It's a fruitful start, much in the tradition of the women in my family.
Longitudes: What are some of the growing pains in running your own business?
Lillie: The growing pains were harsh, beginning with making a fresh start. Six years ago, I moved to Atlanta from New Haven, Connecticut. I was pregnant for the majority of the time, having two kids back to back. I had no money for marketing or packaging.
We put all the money we had into product samples and testing of the first items. We used free marketing tools like social media. I joined online groups and friended people to sell in my area, made flyers, shared Facebook statuses and posted on Instagram every day. Eventually, I started to get customers.
My business grew by word of mouth and personal recommendations. We then had enough money to open a 2,600-square-foot store. I am doing much better than I was a year ago, and I can finally see my hard work paying off.
My current struggle is reaching people beyond my area. I took a gamble this past summer and went on Shark Tank Vietnam. The episode should air sometime this season. At the end of the day, I am a small business owner doing everything possible to get into the market.
Longitudes: What’s the most rewarding part of your journey as a small business owner?
Lillie: It’s the impact my products and services are making in people's lives. I am helping families who can't afford medical prescriptions for a balm for their child. Parents and kids thank me for being in business.
I feel a sense of gratitude and fulfillment selling my $20 balm like you wouldn't believe. Soon I will give people in my community jobs. I am not only helping my family but the families of those around me. That's what small businesses do.
My parents were small business owners who employed people in our community. Through the years, I have seen their employees start their own businesses and provide a better life for their families. I love seeing that — small businesses can transform lives.
Longitudes: How has e-commerce changed your business?
Lillie: I want to give customers premium ingredients without the premium costs. That's why we decided to sell directly online so we don't have to go through distributors, and we can keep prices low. Right now, up to 40 percent of my business is online, and I hope to grow that number as high as 80 percent. But I have to balance this growth with meeting the needs of some of my older customers who don’t shop online.
Digital marketing has become one of the main ways we communicate with our customers. I know so much information about my customers simply from the products they buy.
I understand their needs and preferred price points. I can help my customers pick the products that will best go with their skin based on their past purchases. We are always communicating with our customers.
“Digital marketing has become one of the main ways small businesses communicate with their customers.”
Longitudes: What are your main logistics challenges?
Lillie: Getting products to customers quickly has been a struggle. When my customers need products right away, I use UPS.
They’re always the quickest way to get products to customers, especially within the state. I love my UPS guy. He picks up my packages even when I'm sending them from home. Plus, he knows what time I open, and he works with me on scheduling. It’s so convenient.
Longitudes: What does National Women’s Small Business Month mean to you?
Lillie: This business is the fruit of my thought, labor, heartache, tears and perseverance. I own this specific business because there is no one else on the planet who cares about these products and customers more than me.
I can inspire my children to overcome whatever predisposition or prejudices life puts in front of them.
It's the impact that you make with your products and services on your community and in the minds of young children. It's all about what a woman can do for her family and her community.
That's what having a business — and National Women’s Small Business Month — means to me.
Header Image: Charisse Kenion/Unsplash
Longitudes explores and navigates the trends reshaping the global economy and the way we’ll live in the world of tomorrow: logistics, technology, e-commerce, trade and sustainability. Which path will you take?