‘I Was Burned Out From My High-Profile Job, So I Started A Family Business With My Mom’
This article is part of Ambition Diaries; read the full series here.
Four years ago, Cassandra Lam left her job as a media buyer, feeling burned out after working with a difficult client. Her next move? Running Mama Lam’s, the Malaysian curry paste and hot sauce brand built on the recipes of her mom, Christine. Today, the two work on the business together, with Cassandra, 32, overseeing day-to-day operations, and Christine, 58, developing recipes and serving as the head chef when they’re in production, working out of a commercial kitchen in Queens. “I’ve always loved food, and I guess that started from when we were kids,” Cassandra says. “My dad is from Hong Kong, so his cooking is very Cantonese-style, and my mom’s dishes are more Malaysian-Chinese style. We did a lot of mixed cooking.” Her hope is that Mama Lam’s can help popularize Malaysian cuisine in the U.S.
Christine came to Queens from Malaysia in 1985. “My sister was here, so I said I’ll learn English and then I’ll go home,” she recalls. But after just a few months in New York, she met her husband and decided to stay. After holding a series of part-time jobs, from working in a dim sum restaurant to washing hair at a salon, she worked from home as a travel agent while raising Cassandra and her sister, Carissa. She still balances her work at Mama Lam’s today with a job as a bookkeeper for a sock company.
As part of the Ambition Diaries project in partnership with The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, the pair spoke with Fast Company about the challenges of running a small family-owned company, navigating sexism in selling to supermarkets, and how the pandemic impacted their outlook.
The following conversation between mother and daughter has been edited for length and clarity. Click here for more Ambition Diaries stories.
‘YOU’RE YOUNG, YOU HAVE TO TRY’
Cassandra: [My sister] and I were never pressured to do any typical Asian roles like lawyer, doctor, or whatever. I ended up wanting to do advertising because it’s a very collaborative industry. And fun, not like accounting, or being a doctor where there’s so much school that’s involved. I ended up within advertising and media buying. I was on a team for three years with a very difficult client, [a major movie studio]. It’s rewarding in the industry to work on a top client like that, but it comes with a lot of pressure and stress. I left and then went to Hawaii and Australia [for a few months]. [When I returned to New York] I decided to do Mama Lam’s full time. We had started it as a side hustle when I was working full time.
Christine: I was happy. But I know that business is not that easy to build up. And my brother-in-law, my husband too, they say, “Why did you let her do your sauce? She can get a better job and high pay.” I said, you’re young, you have to try, right? So, try.
‘A LOT OF PEOPLE DIDN’T TAKE ME SERIOUSLY’
Cassandra: In advertising, it’s very female. But now working in the food industry, it is pretty tough because the first couple of years, I would go and pitch to supermarkets and most of the store managers were male. And a small, little Asian girl comes in, [saying] “Do you want to try this?” Luckily some of them did say yes, but there were a lot of people that didn’t take me seriously.
Christine: That’s why after that I think I said, maybe it should be a male to do the business, I don’t know.
Cassandra: Well, nowadays we have a distributor that’s mostly a male sales team which helps; they work really well with me and respect our brand and us. They’re able to be on the ground and deal with that sexism that’s going on, which sucks. We have to find the right people to work with who understand our brand, who we are, what kind of business we are, because a lot of other food businesses out there right now are backed by VCs or have heavy investments. We’re still family-owned, making the product ourselves.
‘YOU’RE WORKING HARD, BUT YOU HAVE TO BE SMART’
Cassandra: Last year was tough. I was working all of the weekends, and then [my fiancé] was just like, “You have to make sure you give me one weekend every couple of months.” So, now we plan vacation time.
The way we usually run production is in a condensed part of the year, so I try to forecast how much inventory we want, so we would go in about two to three times a week and run production for about four months or five months. Unless something changes, then you have to adjust. Like in 2020, we just stopped because there was no point. Right now, and in 2021, we were able to shorten the production schedule a little bit because we moved kitchens and got more equipment, and increased production output. You’re always telling me, “Don’t spend too much money, you have to keep your expenses low, cover overhead costs.”
Christine: You’re working hard, I know. But you have to be smart.
Cassandra: I believe that the product is good. Every year as we grow, I feel like, okay, we can do more. I feel like what people were going through with remote work in 2020, I had gone through two years earlier when I quit my job. I was just solo, either by myself or with my mom. So I felt like I just had to find ways to keep the business going. I knew holiday markets weren’t going to be there, so we tried farmer’s markets, and online was doing really well. When the pandemic hit, it was like, okay, what’s the next step? It didn’t kill my ambition. I see Mama Lam’s curry paste or hot sauce being in everyone’s kitchen.
Lauren Vespoli is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Atlas Obscura, and Hemispheres.
Alice Proujansky is a documentary photographer covering women and labor: birth, work, motherhood, and identity.
Co-published with Fast Company.