The path to lasting success often starts with a leap of faith. Mei Xu has taken two great leaps in her life. At 23, she left her home in China to come to the United States. Three years later, while still adjusting to a new country and life, she quit her job without a backup plan to start her dream business. In the years since Xu’s company, Chesapeake Bay Candle, launched in 1994, it has grown into a multi-million-dollar corporation, selling some 350 million candles and employing 145 workers at its Rockville and Glen Burnie, Maryland, headquarters. Last fall, Newell Brands purchased the company for a reported $75 million.
Here, Xu shares how faith, ingenuity, and a love of Bloomingdale’s helped her reach her wildest career dreams.
A BOLD DECISION
Growing up in China in the 1960s and 70s, we didn’t have a lot of career choices. I graduated from college a month after the Tiananmen Square uprising. All students who graduated that year were disbursed to factories and farms, away from big cities. I was sent to work at a mineral export warehouse in a cold, northern city, and I absolutely hated it. So, I did something bold: I resigned.
After two years, I came to the United States to study journalism. When I graduated, I went to work at a high-tech medical company in New York. By then I was married, and my husband worked in Washington, D.C. I would commute there every weekend to be with him.
When you are new to a country, the first thing you want is some financial security. So, as glad as I was to be working, I was miserable at work. I was paid $19,000 a year, and I had a really mean boss who was always finding something wrong with my work. I was very lonely and having déjà vu of when I was in that northern city in China. I remember missing my bus to work on more than one snowy morning, and just standing in the snow, crying.
THE SPARK OF A NEW IDEA
To cheer myself up, I went to Bloomingdale’s almost every day. People hate to be sprayed with those fragrances on the first floor, but I loved it. I also loved the fashion floor, where the minimalist looks of the men’s lines were being translated for women. Upstairs on the home floor, however, it was a different story. It looked like a grandma’s home. I would say, “Where is the contemporary décor?”
One day, my husband said, “You’re so interested in this. Maybe we can quit and start a business.” I said, “Are you sure?” It was a little scary. We only had a bit of savings. But we thought about it, and we didn’t have children or a mortgage. So, we just said, “OK, let’s do it!”
We resigned from our jobs in the fall of 1994, and started doing research. Friends from China sent me samples of things they liked: silk flowers, musical dolls, and decorative, unscented candles that we called “Magic Glow candles.” We brought these goods to a North Carolina gift show for feedback, and found that people were most interested in the candles. By the end of that year, we had made over $500,000 in sales.
“One of the biggest tips I have for women who want to change careers or start their own business is this: You’ve got to take the leap sometime.”
After the Christmas season, though, we lost a lot of buyers. That’s when we learned that our Magic Glow candles were too seasonal. We decided to make scented candles for every season — beyond the mulberries and hunter greens that other candle companies were selling.
We met Peter French, owner of the French Color and Fragrance Company, who was a very good mentor. He taught us how to mix fragrances with colors and wax. One evening, we came home very excited to try making pillar candles in our basement. We didn’t have all the right supplies — we were using Campbell’s Soup cans as molds and were missing a crucial ingredient that blends the fragrance oils with the wax — but we went ahead anyway. As a result, that batch of honeydew melon candles had a snowflake-like texture. It was beautiful, and it became our signature look.
I remember showing it to Bloomingdale’s, and the buyer was breathless. He said, “Finally, some modern colors and complex scents!” We were able to launch the Chesapeake Bay Candle collection in late 1995. But the biggest hurdle was production. We persuaded my sister to open a factory in China. We would buy fragrance in the United States, ship it to China, and produce our candle designs in a large quantity. We were off!
One of the biggest tips I have for women who want to change careers or start their own business is this: You’ve got to take the leap sometime. I’ve met so many women who really want to make a change, but they get stuck juggling between their home, their kids, the job they have, and the job they want. My advice? Take advantage of the Internet as a tool to test your product. Put it out there, and set a timeline for yourself: If you don’t have some positive momentum by a set date, maybe this wasn’t meant to be. If you do get a positive response, then it’s time to go all in.