Bee Nguyen has always had a passion for issues related to education and entrepreneurship opportunities for women and girls. She was selling real estate in Atlanta when she founded the non-profit Athena’s Warehouse in 2009 to empower and educate underserved teen girls in her city. It started with a simple idea: connecting women in Atlanta with at-risk girls in the community by donating gently-used cocktail and bridesmaid dresses to the high school girls who needed them. From there, her mission expanded to provide mentoring, enrichment programs, and advocacy initiatives to help the girls gain confidence and independence. In addition to serving as the Executive Director for Athena’s Warehouse, Bee is a member of the Atlanta Regional Board Millennial Committee, a mentor for the Wren’s Nest, and a fellow with the 2015 Georgia Women’s Policy Institute program. She also hosts and facilitates a series of racial justice conversations called What We Talk About When We Talk About Race. Outside of community work, Bee spends her free time running, biking, and hiking with her family and friends.
How did your former career/job prepare you for running your own business? I spent the bulk of my early career selling residential real estate in Atlanta, which prepared me for running my own business. The autonomy combined with connectivity to clients and a city I loved provided the perfect environment to nurture my entrepreneurial spirit.
What was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome before launching your business? Starting my business as a side venture was not difficult, but acquiring enough funding to run the organization as the full-time Executive Director proved to be a bigger, riskier decision.
How long were you in business before you started to see real growth? What do you attribute that to? I started the organization in 2009, but did not take a paycheck until November 2014. I made personal sacrifices, ensured we delivered effective and meaningful services, and worked multiple jobs to pay my mortgage.
How did you fund your dream? I held several jobs for many years to ensure financial stability for the organization, using my house, my car, and volunteers to help me fulfill the mission. Once the organization developed a solid reputation, we were able to raise funds from donors and build a safety net that allowed me to devote 100 percent of my time to it.
How do you organize your day to best optimize your time? Describe a day in your life. The best part about my work life is that every day is different. I prioritize maintaining a very active life, which means I typically get up early and go on a run in the morning and then bike to my meetings. And you best believe that I bike in heels! For office work, I gravitate towards coffee shops to keep my surroundings fresh. On programming days, I am with our participants in the afternoons at the high school.
If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be… Running for political office or opening up a Vietnamese gastro-pub. I’m dying for a place that serves Vietnamese iced coffee with a shot of whiskey.
Five years from now I see myself and my company… In five years, I envision replicating our programs and bringing them to a secondary community. I also want to prime another young lady to take over the organization, preferably a woman who has graduated from our programs.
The key to balancing it all is… Keep a young and vibrant spirit, explore your hobbies, tell people what you think, and make time for your family and friends.
If I had to do it all over again I would… Forgive myself more readily and easily for my mistakes, sleep more soundly at night, and read more books!
The most important thing I have learned so far is… Be true to yourself. At the end of the day, you have to accept who you are, so best to embrace it, learn from your weaknesses, and use your strengths to your advantage.
LET’S GET PERSONAL:
I am most proud of… My ability to be honest with myself and others.
My favorite getaway is… Des Moines, Iowa. My family resettled in Iowa in the late 70s and my childhood is full of precious small town memories created during my family’s early years in America. I still have a lot of family there, and it’s the only place in the world I visit that makes me never want to come back to Atlanta.
My favorite nail polish, lipstick, or scent is… Chapstick! In any brand (except maybe Lip Smackers).
My favorite TV show or movie is… I’m a sucker for Six Feet Under. I relate to Claire and Brenda the most because they are so brooding and no-nonsense.
I try to achieve mindfulness by… I’m actually very terrible at this, but I do journal occasionally. And I like to cook and bake to clear my mind.
My favorite non-business book is… Anything related to the immigrant experience. But I absolutely love The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Right after I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns, I opened the book back to the beginning and started reading it again.
One talent I wish I had is… Swimming. I have a fear of water but a love of the beach and the lake, so my inability to swim makes it difficult to fully enjoy either place.
A woman who inspires me is… Frida Kahlo. I love her vulnerability, strength, and the paradox illustrated through her identity as a badass woman while having a relationship with Diego, who overpowered her in some ways.
My favorite quote is… “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou
Tell us what LIVING THE DREAM means to you: For many years in my life, I struggled to fit into a more traditional notion of success: a stable career, a partner, a house, and pets. I dismantled all of this in favor of what felt true to me, leaving a steady job and my husband and disappointing my family and friends. For several dark years, I searched for the things that made sense to me and appealed to my passions and beliefs. After a lot of pain and failure, all of these things have fallen into place for me. Living my dreams means being authentic in all areas of my life. My interactions are intentional, meaningful, and enable me to connect with the things I care about and the people I love. And most importantly, I’ve learned to really enjoy my own company and believe in who I am and the work that I am doing.
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Image: [Jared Caldwell]