Photo: Greer Gattusso
This post was originally published on NOEW.org. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is a festival celebrating entrepreneurship and innovation in New Orleans. See it all happen this year March 19-24, 2017.
Memories of adolescence have Juley Le feeling nostalgic about days of caring for her younger siblings, helping them with homework assignments and shuttling them back and forth from home to school.
With her parents working 12 hour days, Le was tasked with helping to look after the family early on. As the fourth of seven children, her older siblings in turn, looked after her.
“They (her parents) usually worked from 6:00a.m. until about 6:00p.m. so essentially, my siblings and I raised each other,” Le says.
But at dinner, the entire family came together. Le recalls that her mother and father were constantly concerned with ensuring there was enough rice to feed the whole family, a staple of their Vietnamese culture and home.
“They were so busy trying to provide a better life for us, and we were taking care of ourselves independently. I remember feeling frustrated at that age, because my parents were constantly working and they couldn’t show up to my school for the PTA meetings. As a child, you just felt out of place. But as an adult, I think it has built a lot of character,” Le says.
It was far from a typical American teenage life.
But such is the story of Le and so many other first-generation Americans who grow up keeping one foot in two worlds.
Le’s parents immigrated to the United States nearly forty years ago from Hue in central Vietnam, and eventually settled in Houma, Louisiana where they established a small business in the docking and fishing industry.
After nearly four decades of intense labor, they established and grew several successful businesses in the seafood and hospitality industries. Le says their work ethic has been an astounding example to her.
“It has been the biggest influence on my life. They started from less than nothing, and then turned it over and really embodied the American dream – they went above and beyond the American dream,” Le says.
Their example has guided her in her life and served as a motivating force. Rather than leaning on her parent’s successes, Le says she is more interested in creating her own path.
“For me, it’s not about living off of their American dream, but building my own,” Le says. “I want to make sure that everything I build is from my own doing, with the same diligence as my parents, and the same grit, but in a different framework, and for myself,” Le says.
Her parents, like many immigrants, became entrepreneurs by necessity. Without traditional education or training, they were required to create a livelihood for themselves.
“Their work ethic, their discipline, their ability to just do it is very powerful,” Le says.
Her generation, unlike her parents’, Le says, has the resources along with the American opportunity to make it happen.
“I think it’s a really beautiful balance,” Le says.
As a first-generation daughter, she says her non-typical childhood and lifestyle has instilled a no excuses attitude in her work life.
“There’s this grit that’s unsaid. There’s this ability to anticipate what we need to do instead of being asked to do it. And that comes from our parents. It comes from watching our parents build something out of nothing, it comes from all the things we saw as we grew up.”
And beyond working hard to achieve individual success, Le says her parents’ commitment to provide for their extended family, has given her a sense of responsibility for her own community.
“It’s not just about themselves, it’s not about the immediate, it’s about your collective. And that says a lot for me with what I’m doing today,” Le says.
Building on The Dream
Le’s been building on her own dreams since 2007 when she began her career with Teach for America as a teacher at ARISE charter school in New Orleans’ Recovery School District.
Like many first-year teachers, long days in the classroom left her exhausted and depleted. She wanted to source creative inspiration for herself and her students. So, she looked outside of the classroom. She began blogging and writing as a creative outlet, and that’s when Upperlyne & Co., her lifestyle blog, was born.
After her teaching term ended, Le was recruited to work with a software testing company in Nashville, all the while, continuing to work on Upperlyne & Co. But she was desperate to return to New Orleans. When she was offered a job with a technology startup, she accepted without hesitation.
But by that point, her entrepreneurial light had been sparked. And there was no turning it off.
So, in the summer of 2014, she decided to take a leap of faith. With no savings, cushion, or financial runway, she left her job to delve full-time into Upperlyne & Co.
That’s when things took off.
It’s been a breakthrough year for Le. She’s worked with big brands like West Elm, Condé Nast, Bon Appétit, Garden & Gun, and Madewell on digital marketing and content creation. Last year, she was honored as the winner of Harper Bazaar’s Fabulous at Every Age award in New York.
She’s had her head down working on business development for clients, whether it’s helping to establish and develop their retail company, building their online presence, or creating social media campaigns. Through her work, she’s adding a creative approach to their business by styling and creating a story for them to share with their customers.
But what does that mean exactly?
“Clients come to me and say, I don’t know how to get my retail business off the ground,” or “I don’t know how to brand my Instagram,” or “I really love the way you do this; can you apply it to my business?” So the development work goes hand-in-hand with the consulting,” Le says.
The other half of her time is dedicated to developing Upperlyne & Co. through content creation, and partnerships with brands to create mutually beneficial content helping to expand their digital influence.
But in a digital world filled with seemingly glamorous jetsetting and leisure lattes, Le cautions not to be deceived by the “Instagram allure.” Carefully curated photos give the impression that the lifestyle is relaxed but Le says that’s just a part of the job.
“Even when I’m traveling, a lot of it is for work, so I’m always documenting, I’m always “on.” So, it looks like I’m on vacation, and it looks very easy and effortless, but it’s actually work,” Le says.
A lot of work. Last year, she had two days off.
But when asked about the work demands, she quickly waves away any sign of grievance.
“As an entrepreneur, it’s not glamorous, it’s a lot of hard work and very little sleep. But I’m always reminded how lucky I am to be able to do what I do, and I want to leave New Orleans better than I found it,” Le says.
Making her Mark
Of all the aforementioned accomplishments, Le says there is one thing that excites her the most.
“I’m most proud of being able to shed light on New Orleans. I think in 2008, no one was paying attention to New Orleans. I’m really just proud to be a part of that growth,” Le says.
During that time, the city was still deep in rebuilding and recovery mode, trying to come out of the shadows of hurricane Katrina. Now, it’s earned spots on countless “best of” lists, with WORTH magazine recently naming it one of 15 of the most dynamic cities in the country. Young professionals are now flocking to the city that has become one of the greatest come back stories her generation has witnessed.
But Le says it was during those dark days that she saw the beauty of the city and fell in love with it. She wanted to be part of the rebirth of the city that she now considers her second home.
And make a mark, she has.
This year, her Upperlyne & Co. kitchenware line of stylish and functional aprons debuted, and the new Ace Hotel in New Orleans was the first to carry it.
Now, Le is working with partners on her next project, a coffee concept shop that is set to open in the booming Central Business District later this fall.
“I feel like my purpose is to have this platform to represent New Orleans in the way I see it, in a way that people can relate to, but also be inspired by,” Le says.
For the city that has served as her creative inspiration, Le feels like she’s created her space here.
But just when she thought things might slow down a little bit, Le recently announced (on Instagram of course) to the delight of her followers, that she and long-time partner, Josh Collins, are expecting their first child together.
There will be no slacking off this summer. But for Le, that’s what she knows best.
Carrying through the lessons she’s learned from her family, Le is leaving her mark on New Orleans, and building her own legacy.
“My good friend says once you know your identity and your purpose, it’s all through the ceiling from there. I’m always going to be working hard; I might as well be working hard on this dream,” Le says.