Sometimes there comes a point in our lives where we just cut through all the BS and get straight to the point. We have to. It’s a huge burden holding up a heavy mask. For Humanity’s Boutique owner, Ani Vong, her self-discovery was a challenging experience, yet, refreshing at the same time. If anyone’s able to uncover what goes on inside the head of a small business owner, Ani is the person to do this. She speaks candidly about the struggle of the work and life balance. To be honest, the work life balance is a mythical unicorn, if you ask me (but I wasn’t asked). You have to read on. You may get a couple tips on where to get your craft beer, too, if you’re a fan.
I get to feature Ani for this interview series kick-off. She’s one of the women (Masada being the other) who hosted the event that inspired me to create this space. Thanks for sharing your story Ani (Hey her birthday just passed – go say Happy Bday to her!). Let’s get candid, shall we?
Please introduce yourself. What’s your heritage background? I’m Cambodian, born in Thailand in the refugee camp on August 8th, 1981. I came here to the US two months later. I like to connect with people of all sorts of backgrounds and cultures. I like to hear people’s stories. I feel like when you listen to other people’s stories it makes you connect to who they are. Working here gives me a chance to see so many wonderful people that I would never have come across or would never have a conversation with.
What’s a unique story you’re heard? There are countless stories! There’s a story of a woman who was in an abusive relationship. She came in here to shop for herself. When I asked her what brought her into Lowell and into Humanity, she started to cry! I wanted to leave her alone as a way to respect her space. I wanted her to feel comfortable. She continued to talk about her long emotional, physical, abusive relationship. She had a child with this man. She came in to reward herself. She allowed and reminded herself that she’s worth that she’s someone that can make a difference in this world still. I can’t fathom going through what she went through.
She cried. When she was in the relationship she thought everything she did was wrong, like everything was her fault. He made her feel that way. Because she had a kid she was more attached to him because he manipulated her into thinking that no one else would want her and that there’s no one else out there for her and who will love her like he loves her even though he’s abusive. She went to the women’s shelter with her daughter and coming out of it, she finally was able to leave him.
I started to cry. It hits you. Everyone has a story and no one’s struggles are worse than the other but it’s your own struggle that you have to deal with and overcome. With her, she now wants to speak to other women about it. That’s one of the hundreds of stories I’ve heard.
Does your Cambodian American background help you connect with people and their stories? How? It allows me to empathize and relate to people fairly quickly. I’m coming from a background where I might not have gone through the war in Cambodia but my family did. I heard their stories and other Cambodian refugees who have gone through it, coming here to make a better life. When I hear other women’s stories, I have a soft spot for them because of my background. When your family goes through something, it makes me more aware of what others are going through.
What defines us is how we take opportunities, do we take these opportunities, do we just carpe diem?
Thank you for sharing that. Let’s shift a bit. What are some boutiques would you go to? This is going to be sad because I don’t do a lot of shopping. Not because I think my boutique is better. It’s because being self-employed doesn’t allow me room to spend like I can, although I do get to wear the clothing from here [Humanity boutique].
I appreciate that honesty. As a business owner, it’s not all fun and roses. Thank you. Regarding what we talked about earlier, “How are you doing? How’s business?” and you get “Oh it’s good, it’s going great, thank you!” That’s the answer that every person gives. What are you suppose to tell them? The truth? That you’re struggling? Over time, I decided that I’m just going to be honest. I love other clothing stores, too but I’m unable to go and spend money like that because money doesn’t come to me like that.
It’s a good thing your boutique carries a lot of cute clothing. Hahaha, it’s true, it’s true. So, boutiques that I love. I can share what I appreciate about other boutiques. Ten years ago I’ll be able to list the boutiques that I love from all over the country. But I’m a different person today. What I appreciate about going to other boutiques is how they treat me. It’s when I walk in. It’s not about price tags or how things look. It’s how you treat me when I walk in. Do you say hello to me? Are you sincere? Things like that. Honestly, if I visit a boutique and you ignore me, I’ll leave. I don’t buy anything even if it’s the cutest thing. I’ll never come back again. Maybe it’s because I have high standards for customer service.
What does play look like to you? Ohh, I love this question. Play for me is having a delicious glass of wine outside somewhere. Conversing with friends, strangers, whomever. I like to be out in the open air, to feel like I can breathe because I’m in here all the time within these walls. Play is also taking day trips. If I’m able to do one big trip, usually once a year, that’s amazing. But play for me is when I seek out day trips. That feeds my soul of wanting to just learn more, see more, do more, eat more, and drink more. That is play. I’m far away from the store. Aside from being a business owner, I’m a person that loves to travel.
I’m greater than my struggles.
What were some things that got in the way of doing more of what you love and how did you handle that? When it comes to owning your own business, I’m not in it to get rich. I wanted to be a part of something, I wanted to invest in my city, I wanted to help draw people in. And investing money and time, you want it to be profitable. But I don’t walk around saying “I want to be rich, I want to be rich.” So it’s tough when you’re in a relationship and you want to balance that out. You’re trying to compromise making someone happy but you have to make sure your business doesn’t fall over. Of course, it’s always money. It’s like how do you keep the cash flow going? I want to bring in more clothes but how can I if I don’t make any sales for the week? It could be the weather, people on vacation, because of anything. You rely so much on your sales.
By relationships, I mean either a romantic partner or friendships and relationships with family. I want to go to my friend’s kid’s birthday or you want to go out to have a drink or a nice dinner. You want to be able to make it to friend’s events but I’m always here working. I have to close the store early, or I don’t make sales for the day. I don’t have the flexibility of money coming in, and go to a party on a whim or planned. I hate saying this but I don’t have the money to do this and it has happened. I haven’t been able to go to a lot of friends events because I’m always working. I’m always working! OMG, I’m always working! It’s the life I’ve chosen right now. If I’m not working for work, I’m working on something else. I didn’t realize that until now! You see people always work and years go by and friends have their own lives and you’re missing out on everything because you’re always working. I don’t want that. Maintaining a healthy work life balance is hard. I don’t have children right now and it’s still hard. If I had children I’ll probably freak out!
The relationship and money thing are related because I can’t go to a birthday because I have to make sales. I can’t leave work early. We’re talking honestly about opening up a business. People don’t see all of that. They see you as in “Oh that’s great, you own a clothing store, cool, that’s amazing, that’s wonderful” It is! But I also have struggles just like you.
How do you handle that in the past? Not well! In the beginning, I try to make time for everyone and then I started to feel guilty. All I did was, I need to focus more on the store so then I focus more on the store and then I didn’t make time for anyone else. Then I feel guilty for that, too. It’s a constant internal struggle. After a while, you know what I want my friends to know that I truly love them and care about them. I do appreciate all their support. I chose to open the store and they will have to understand that I won’t be able to be there for every single thing. While they chose to go into the work they do, the decisions that they made I respect the fact that I can’t hear from you because you have to spend time with family, taking care of your child and everything. Same thing for me, I have to take care of my business and I came to the conclusion that well what’s more important?! And I still don’t know what the answer is. But I don’t allow anyone to make me feel bad anymore, I don’t allow them to make me feel guilty. I don’t allow myself to feel guilty because if you’re always going to feel guilty, then something isn’t making you happy. Something needs to leave your life. Is it your business, is it your friends? It’s neither, nor. I took control of that. You know what, this is me and these are my friends and family and I love them all. I see you when I see you. Pretty much.
I always try to say that I have one shot at this. And no one’s gonna fuck it up.
How do you say farewell to guilty feelings? Right, you want to satisfy everybody and you think about yourself least. But you should be the first person because if you aren’t feeling great or healthy how can you keep up with these relationships around you. We don’t think about how far we’ve come. Because we’re too busy trying to get somewhere. So, I meditate. I’ve been doing a lot of meditation. More so over the last year. I wanted to get to my core. I wanted to not allow outside things affect who my true self is. This goes with the whole guilt thing. I would meditate and think if I’m at the center of myself and that I created and built something. If I don’t feel freedom from it, I need to let go of something that makes me feel negative. I tell myself that there are so many wonderful people in this city doing many great things, while I don’t know their struggles, I try to remind myself that I’m important, I, myself is important. I’m doing something I believe strongly about. If you aren’t on board with that because I can’t make it to something, then I can’t entertain why you’re upset. I can’t be bothered with any of that. It becomes a burden. If you’re doing something that you love, why does it become a burden? I always try to say that I have one shot at this. And no one’s gonna fuck it up. The work itself is very isolating.
So what I’m hearing, and it’s what I truly believe in, is that when the shit hits the fan, we get to remember our significance and that we’re good just the way we are. That’s what I’m hearing. Yes, that’s what it is!
What kind food hot spots can you recommend? I like going to breweries. I like having an amazing craft beer with great food like The Bissell Brothers. They’re one of the top breweries here. It’s child-friendly and dog-friendly with great beers, great people, and great food next door. There’s just so many places.
What’s your favorite beer? I like to try anything, IPAs, APAs and stouts. Recently Trillium has a beer garden at Rose Kennedy by the wharf. They have a great outdoor space with amazing beer.
When you’re most connected to yourself what does that look like? Whew! It looks like I’m dancing and skipping on the streets. It looks like I know what I want and what I’m doing and nothing else can touch me. It looks like I’m walking down the street and smiling. I do that anyway, but it’s more like I’m standing up straight, feeling very proud, that I’m centered and connected to my core and I know me! This is me, and if you don’t like me, then you can walk the other way. Confidence and certainty.
On your best day, how do you feel? On my best day, I feel like the work that I do is rewarding and that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing at this moment in my life. I feel like I’m making a change. It sounds so cliche. I’m making a difference someway somehow that someone’s taking notice. Someone is looking for some type of inspiration. It could be the smallest thing. It could be someone walking by my shop window and they like what they see. My best day is knowing and feeling that I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m doing it right. And I’m feeling inspired. When I get all my work done!
On your worst day? I feel like that I’m fake. As in that, I’m lying to everyone. It may look like I know what I’m doing, owning a business or whatever, but I don’t. I feel like I’m pretending, I feel like how could I ever think that I can run a business. That’s my worst day. I feel like how long will I keep this up. Sometimes, it’s a masquerade. On the worst days you take off the mask and you look at yourself and you’re like you haven’t been doing all of this. You’re doing it daily but don’t reflect how far you’ve come and that it’s important to do that. I don’t do that because I’m always on the constant go to get somewhere. When I take off the mask, I feel like I’m fake, I’m phony, I just feel like I’m not getting anywhere in life. I feel like sometimes I don’t even want to do this. On my worst day, I don’t even want to wake up and come to work. I want to be in bed and not talk to anybody.
What I’m hearing is that there’s self-doubt. I think there will always be doubt.
How do you celebrate with others, what does it look like to you to enjoy time with friends and family? It looks like meeting somewhere on the street and hey let’s go to some of our favorite places in Lowell. On my worst days, it gets turned around quickly when I’m with other people. We could be hanging out, eating, drinking, there are great foods and we’re talking. I picture us talk about everything and nothing at all and everything makes sense. As I look around me there are people smiling and chit chatting. And that could flip my worst days to me feeling a part of something that’s greater. I’m greater than my struggles. Because everyone here is going through something different but the same. It’s a great reminder for me that I’m loved by many people. That sharing the love with other people, the love of life, the love of Lowell and everything, it makes me feel very empowered. Tomorrow I’m back to being inspired and I’ll continue my work.
What inspires you or puts you in awe? Seeing women that I know doing things that make them happy. Just seeing things that they do that they have so much love for makes me feel very inspired and in awe. I could continue what I’m doing. All the women around me make me feel like I can actually really do it. We could be going through something but when I see a post from you or someone, on a stressful day but you’re showing me that you’re doing something, you’re creating things, you’re motivating yourself to do something. It helps me creatively. I think, okay I’m gonna go to the store and move things around. Those are my inspirations and my awes.
We’re drawn to passion, we’re drawn to people loving what they do and that really helps. Yeah, those are parts of the reminders of that. I have to continue doing what I want to do because everyone else is doing that. I’m not in a competitive mode or feeling envious, I feel more like I’m so proud to be part of this community and amongst all these great women.
What are your must have items to throw a stylish impromptu gather? My must have items would have to be something to help me make mimosa or wine. LOL. That’s always my must have for get-togethers. I’ll bring the bottles.
Recipes? Nope, more parts champagne than OJ, haha.
What are some things that need to be in place to help you connect, play, and celebrate more? Time and I wish that I have a home of my own to do that more. For now, when I invite people to small gatherings, it’s at Humanity. I’ll have food, wine, or BYOB. So this space is utilized for impromptu gatherings.
Upcoming projects? I’m working on a project called Style of Humanity. The founder of Humanity, Franky Descoteaux, approached me early in the year with this brilliant idea. We wanted to start a Vlog. She had this idea that she wanted it to do an interview style vlog with entrepreneurs in Lowell. When I say entrepreneurs I mean artists, designers, stylists, bloggers, etc. For them to share their story in a raw way. Most times when we see designers, we talked about the face mask. “Yes you can do this, too, this is great~!” We want to show the other side, the struggles in becoming a designer, the struggles of owning your own business. We wanted it to bring that to light. Lowell is a destination of many things. We wanted to bring the spotlight to some of the amazing work that these women are doing. We interviewed 3 women already. We have so people we want to talk to. We got a grant from the Lowell Cultural Council which allows us to produce 6 videos. We’re hoping that people will have a good reaction to it and that they want to learn more about what other’s are doing. We’re hoping to put it out by the fall.
What do you embrace about yourself? This business, the work I’m doing, may not be here any longer. I don’t know the time limit on this. If this was to go down then this would be okay. See this is getting to the core because I’ll probably cry now. If this fails I struggled with “Ok, I’m gonna be embarrassed.” Everyone’s gonna think I’m the laughing stock of the town. How will I pay my loans and all that stuff? Then over time, I’m just like “No, I’m doing the damn thing. I’m doing my own damn thing and I’m gonna do it to my best ability!” I think over time, this year, especially this year, I hit a crossroad, I hit a major cross road. In April, I hit a crazy wall where no money was coming in, money was leaking out, I felt like I was drowning. How do I get more money? You know all of that. So going through all of that, I finally felt better, after 3 months. Through all the tools I told you about. By being inspired by everyone around me and reminders of that. With all that said I’ve embraced the fact that this may not be what I’ll do for the rest of my life and that is OKAY. Because you have to try and try new things. If this didn’t work out okay “So what!” I shouldn’t be embarrassed because I did something that I wanted to do. I did something. That’s what I embrace this year. It’s made me feel so much better. I don’t know if this is what I’m supposed to do, Chhavy, I don’t know. I don’t know if the work I’ll do will eventually be profitable and will make me happier. Right now I don’t feel like I’m happy. Is anybody truly happy? We don’t really know that right? So once I embraced the fact that “You know what I did this shit and this didn’t work out”. I have nothing to apologize about. As long as I did everything that I could possibly do then I will be satisfied with it. I embraced that. It’s scary but the weight of the world was off my shoulders. I felt pressured a lot to do and be here. After talking to a lot of people, I’m not fully responsible for trying to make a city greater. I have to embrace that it’s not my sole responsibility. At the end of the day, if this no longer serves me, it continues to make me unhappy, lose sleep, not making any money, taking out more loans, in debt, knock on wood, bankrupt, I don’t know. Then I’m fine with that.
On FB’s memories, on June 1st, I shared a photo of my dad a few years ago but a photo of him in the early 80s. It was a beautiful picture, somewhere in Boston, on the pier. He was looking out. I saw what I wrote and I started to cry. I wrote, “If anyone knows that life is not guaranteed, it’s me”. Because I don’t have my father. I said I want to love as much I can, do as much as I can, live as much as I can. There are people who can’t do that. He lost his life at 35. I feel lost when I turned 35. I kept thinking “Is this why everything feels upside down for me?” Do I feel like there’s no guidance between 35 and beyond, that now I feel like what I love to do is not what I want to do? I saw that picture and caption and thought “Man there are so many people out there who don’t have a chance to do anything. I have this chance, this opportunity to open a store to fulfill the dreams I have right now so I’m gonna do it with all my might until one day I can’t do it at all because I’m embracing the failure because it’s not a true failure. I’ve done it, I’ve learned and I’m moving onto the next thing. Not a lot of people know this and that’s okay. I didn’t have the motivation to do anything. Everyone tried to help me figure out how to get grants, make money, I appreciate it all but when the person in charge of everything but doesn’t have motivation and inspiration, nothing can be done. That was me, since April. Then when I saw the photo on June 1st, I was like “Wake the fuck up Ani, wake up! No more excuses!” And I have an inspiration at home. My Mom! If you can’t do it anymore that’s okay too. If you want to stop that’s okay too. Because everything will be okay. You can’t stay at a place where you’re just so unhappy. I embraced all of that. It’s fitting that you’re interviewing me now because a few months ago, I would have given you some bull shit. Not that I wanted to be dishonest because I wouldn’t know what to say to you because I didn’t know myself. Now that I do, hey listen, this is amazing but if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t define me at all. At the end of the day, it’s not what defines us. What defines us is how we take opportunities, do we take these opportunities, do we just carpe diem? At the end I did something and I felt great that I did.
Ani deserves snaps for showing courage and for sharing openly. The world needs to see us for all that we are. Not just for what we produce or how much of ourselves we can sacrifice, but our whole selves. Thank you so much for sharing!