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An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Find your true life calling — I was born and raised in a rural farming village. I spent my first 19 years there and had never been anywhere else. Despite the fact that farming was all I knew, I never saw myself as following in the footsteps of my family for generations and remaining in the village. I was always curious what is out there, what is next. This curiosity allowed me to set higher- ordered goals in life and ensured I never settled for less. Once you find your true life calling, there’s no other option but to pursue your dream– it doesn’t feel like hard work and I enjoy every day.

As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Huong Wolf of Quilling Card.

Huong Wolf is the co-founder of Quilling Card, a fair trade greeting card company. Huong had previously worked in Marketing throughout Southeast Asia and the US for large corporations such as Unilever and L’Oreal. After years working towards someone else’s dream, she decided to leave the industry and pursue her entrepreneurial spirit and passion for the art of quilling. In 2011 Huong and her husband Raphael decided to take this passion and turn it into a flourishing greeting card company — making this beautiful art form more accessible and placing it in the homes of admirers all over the globe.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?

I am a native of Vietnam and spent many years working in marketing at global brands like Unilever and L’Oreal. About 10 years ago, I began to get the entrepreneurial itch and began considering, alongside my husband, how I might make a change. A friend of ours in Vietnam asked my husband to check out a quilling factory. To be honest — he was in textiles and thought she was referring to quilting, and while I had purchased a piece of quilled art for our apartment in Saigon, I wasn’t familiar with quilling as a business.

Once we toured the factory, I was hooked. We quickly considered how we could make this intricate art more widely available, and I immediately knew that there was a US audience for these handcrafted, luxury greeting cards that were really more like pieces of art.

We created the LLC that night in our apartment in Saigon and I soon was leaving my job in marketing to run Quilling Card full time. That was over a decade ago, and we have since moved to the US, where Quilling Card’s headquarters are based. We also have hundreds of artisans we employ in my home country of Vietnam, which is a point of pride for me.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We just completed one of the most exciting projects in our company’s ten-year history when we captured two Guinness World Record titles! We received titles for Most People Quilling Simultaneously and World’s Largest Paper Mosaic (Image). This was an incredible undertaking that took months of planning and thousands of hours from our staff. In the end, we created a quilled replica of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that stands about 19 feet high and 15 feet wide. This is a traveling art piece that we are bringing to cities across the US, so that’s been exciting. It’s also inspired a new line of our greeting cards representing famous pieces of art (starting with “Starry Night” of course!), which has been a great exercise in creativity for our designers and artisans.

We have established a number of socially-minded and mission-driven projects in our decade in business, including a program in Vietnam that employs deaf workers and a Braille line of our Quilling Cards. But what all of them have in common is creating good, fair jobs for hundreds of artisans in Vietnam — jobs with which they can share their talents, use their hands and make a fair wage in good working conditions.

In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?

There is not another company that does what we do at the scale we do it. Each quilled card takes an hour to make by hand and is its own piece of art — but we sell over a million cards each and every year.

What stands out for our customers is the incredible care and uniqueness of our quilled cards and that they are small pieces of art, as opposed to standard printed greeting cards. Many of our customers collect and frame their cards. We also ensure that each card is blank inside. I believe that greeting cards are so personal and our goal is to encourage authentic sentiments inside them — it really creates a keepsake every time you receive one of our cards.

Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?

Yes! Starting a greeting card company in the middle of a digital revolution was definitely met with a few raised eyebrows. In fact, my boss at the time laughed at me when I resigned and told him what I was going to do, reminding me that quilling was a dying art.

And at the time, it was, but part of our mission with the business has been to preserve quilling, an ancient Egyptian art. As a result, there are hundreds of artisans in Vietnam who are skilled in quilling and who are making a living doing it. I’m incredibly proud of that.

I’ve always had faith in my decisions and my ability to work hard and solve problems, and that’s how I have managed to continue even when people have thought it “can’t be done.”

In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? 🙂

Today, 10 years in, we are a multi-million dollar greeting card company that’s proven there is a vibrant market for quilled cards and an audience for handmade, artistic products like ours.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My significant other — who is also my business partner — is the one I am most grateful for in this journey. I struggled for the first three years of building the business, during which time I was also raising two young children and learning how to navigate life in a new country. It was a lot to manage, but my husband continuously encouraged me whenever I had any doubts and would remind me along the way that challenges are to be expected, saying, “Huong, you forget that you are building a business.” Fortunately, my husband is a lifelong entrepreneur and has walked this road before, equipping him with the ability to support me in that way. He has given me the best advice and insight into navigating entrepreneurship. Beyond his partnership at work, he is a supportive husband and wonderful father to our children. When I am traveling for work — exhibiting at trade shows across the country or visiting our Vietnam facilities — I have peace of mind knowing that he will be taking great care of our children at home. Likewise, when I am home with the kids, I trust that he will get things done in the office. We are truly a great team. We share a lot of sweat equity in life.

It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?

I can think of three pivotal moments where I ignored naysayers in my life, each of which has helped me build resiliency as an entrepreneur.

The first instance was shortly after I finished high school in Vietnam. My family lived in a rural farming village in the Mekong Delta region, where it was not uncommon for girls to drop out of school as early as freshman year. At best, some girls would complete high school through senior year, but that would be the end of their academic careers. As expected, after graduating I didn’t advance to university like my three older brothers. Rather, I stayed and helped my family with farming work. I then started to think about the lives of my friends who married young, similar to my mom who married at the age of 17 and had me (her 4th child) by 25. Their days were spent on a farm, raising water buffalo and chickens, and following a traditional lifestyle known to the women in my village. It didn’t take me long to come to the realization that I was meant to follow a different path in life.

Despite the fact that in rural Vietnam there is a belief that women do not need a higher education, I applied for and won a scholarship to go to university in pursuit of a degree in education with the goal of becoming a teacher. I’m proud to say I did it… I broke free from the norm and left my village by the time I was 19 years old, moved to Ho Chi Minh City, and began working towards a degree.

The second occasion was later in my career, when I was working as a senior brand manager for Unilever in Vietnam. Despite an upward trajectory for my career and a boss, coworkers, and company I loved, I felt like it wasn’t enough. I wanted to earn my MBA overseas to experience education outside of Vietnam’s communist education system.

Once again, I applied for many different scholarships offered to Vietnamese citizens to go to Japan, Australia, and the United States. I didn’t receive most of them.

I shared my intention with my direct boss, and he discouraged me from pursuing a graduate degree, telling me that Unilever would teach me everything I needed to know in business, and that he didn’t believe getting an MBA was needed to help me advance my career there. Despite his feedback, I continued my search and finally won a full scholarship with stipends to study in Vancouver, Canada for my MBA. I once again stood against the norm and left Vietnam for Canada at the age of 27.

The third occasion was ten years ago, when I sent in my resignation letter to my boss at my last corporate job to start Quilling Card. He asked me what I planned to do after leaving, and I told him that I planned to start a company selling greeting cards. He laughed so hard and said “Huong — the greeting card industry is experiencing negative growth. You want to launch a business in a declining industry?” I responded that these would be no ordinary greeting cards — and here I am 10 years later.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)

  1. Find your true life calling — I was born and raised in a rural farming village. I spent my first 19 years there and had never been anywhere else. Despite the fact that farming was all I knew, I never saw myself as following in the footsteps of my family for generations and remaining in the village. I was always curious what is out there, what is next. This curiosity allowed me to set higher- ordered goals in life and ensured I never settled for less. Once you find your true life calling, there’s no other option but to pursue your dream– it doesn’t feel like hard work and I enjoy every day.
  2. Don’t be fooled with golden handcuffs — To be honest, it was a very difficult decision for me to leave my dream job to move to Canada to get an MBA. While leaving my village for my undergraduate degree felt like an easy decision, this leap was riskier: I had a job I loved and things were continuing to improve for me where I was. I had the infamous pair of golden handcuffs: everything that I had dreamed of, a great career opportunity with a prestigious company, great salary and perks, a terrific job that many people would sell their souls for. I was able to see past the content and comfort to the larger picture — it’s essential to continue to do that in order to grow.
  3. Tighten your belt and roll up your sleeves — Transitioning from a BIG corporate job with BIG budget and BIG agency to a bootstrapped startup was extremely challenging. When I went to work for myself, I had to tighten my belt and roll up my sleeves. I had no pay the first three years. I had to use my resourcefulness and common sense to make decisions, instead of the expensive market research I was used to. I became a woman who could wear many hats within my business, which has helped me strategically as we have grown and hired.
  4. Work smart and hard but don’t forget to play harder — Many people say work smarter, not harder. I disagree strongly: combining smart and hard work gives you even greater results. Often, I work around the clock due to the time difference between Vietnam and the US. In many instances, I burn the candle at both ends with sleepless nights, long haul business trips, and the guilt between juggling family, business and friends. However, I have learned how to manage the 24/7 nature of my work. I recharge my energy by running marathons and doing yoga. When I put my sneakers on it’s my “me time.” I don’t listen to music when I run but I run silently and jot down mental notes. I bring my yoga mat on business trips. I can stretch and do yoga in the hotel room, or between the airports waiting for next flights. I also make sure I do not miss out on any great sightseeing or activities during trips. If I can sneak in a day or two I will …and yes, I do stop and smell the roses along the way — literally and figuratively.
  5. Always raising the bar and ask for 1% extra everyday — The difference between the naysayers and the doer is that extra 1% every day.

What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?

My favorite quote for resilience is Buddha saying:

What you think, you become

What you feel, you attract

What you imagine, you create

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I have spent all my energy for the last 10 years on promoting and preserving the beautiful art of quilling. This is a lost art in many parts of the globe. I want to create a moment to revive this art and help it to flourish for new and younger generations.

Can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you for these great stories. We wish you only continued success!

Huong Wolf of Quilling Card: They Told Me It Was Impossible And I Did It Anyway was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.