Recap: Renaissance’s Next Generation Networking Events

For over 20 years, Renaissance Economic Development Corp. (REDC) has devoted itself to strengthening New York City’s immigrant entrepreneur and small business community. This is critical work for the city’s overall small business climate. According to a 2017 report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, immigrants account for more than half of the city’s business owners. However, in recent years Renaissance has observed a growing number of our immigrant clients either reach or near retirement, leaving the future of New York City’s small business community up to a new generation.

That next generation is the theme of a series of small business networking events Renaissance recently launched, holding the first near our Chinatown office on May 29 and another on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in June 28. Our inaugural Next Generation event featured commentary from a panel of four entrepreneurs at three companies who have worked with Renaissance in the past: Michael Tan of specialty ice cream shop Eggloo, Tim Joo of leather accessory designer Haerfest, and brothers James and John Kim of acclaimed poke restaurant Sons of Thunder.

Family was a common theme throughout the evening: Michael mentioned that before starting Eggloo, he was working with his mother, while Haerfest and Sons of Thunder are both jointly run by brothers. Often, the families had to make significant sacrifices to start their businesses: Tim’s brother Daniel, for example, sold his car to help them raise enough capital to start Haerfest, while the brothers’ parents watched over all of their belongings as they traveled around the country looking for manufacturing partners.

Despite that support, skepticism among the entrepreneurs’ parents was another common thread tying many of their experiences together – despite their parents’ background as entrepreneurs themselves. Tim’s parents, for example, were Korean immigrants who owned multiple stores throughout his youth. While Tim worked at the stores and credited that experience with helping him learn customer service, his parents wanted him and his brother to be doctors. However, in Tim’s words, he and his brother were “rebellious,” and their parents were skeptical about their choice to go into business together.

James and John’s parents also came to the United States from Korea, owned a business (in their case, a deli), and harbored similarly high hopes for their sons – as well as similar initial disapproval of their career choices. James, for example, spent 13 years as a pastor before opening Sons of Thunder, and noted his parents did not want to him to be a pastor or own a restaurant. “I had the distinct privilege of disappointing my parents twice,” he cracked.

But thanks to the dedication and persistence of Michael, Tim, James, and John – both to their businesses and to their families – that parental disappointment did not last. John said that when he and James first started Sons of Thunder, their father asked him, “Do you have any idea how hard this can be?” But he quickly realized that his sons did understand that, and were fully committed to their idea. Once their parents grasped how seriously they took their commitment to their business, James said – despite the fact that by his own admission, he and John “had no idea what we were doing” at the beginning – they became Sons of Thunder’s biggest fans.

Their parents are not alone – each of the businesses featured at our Next Generation events have developed their own loyal following, through being mission-driven and people-focused. John said that while running a restaurant has given him new respect for anyone who has a job managing people, he also thinks it’s one of the most rewarding parts of running a business. He said that he and James are constantly asking themselves how they can help their employees: “How do we use the platform we’ve been given to impact up to 70 lives? How do we invest in them?” James added that when the brothers began Sons of Thunder, they envisioned the restaurant being a place where their employees could experience personal and professional growth: “It wasn’t just a business for us, it was a mission.”

Pedro Carrillo, chief of staff for New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera, attended the event and left impressed with both the entrepreneurs’ commitment and personal philosophies. “It was great listening to you talk about your vision,” he told the panel. “You’re values-driven.” Tim noted that being values-driven is increasingly important, and that for businesses to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, they must “stand for something.” Michael concurred that “it’s okay to be different,” and James noted that while Sons of Thunder strives to be different by purchasing higher-quality ingredients that increase its overhead costs, it ultimately pays off: “Our loyalty is through the roof.”

Their loyalty to each other is through the roof, too. John said that he and James used to joke about opening their own restaurant long before starting Sons of Thunder, but once the idea began to seem like a real possibility, they both knew that if they were going to do it, they wanted it to be with each other. The same went for Tim and his brother, a relationship Tim said has gotten closer since they went into business together. John mentioned that his family keeps him grounded, but it’s also what made him think big: his parents came to America, he noted, to give him and James a chance to live the lives they wanted to lead. It was a sacrifice that paved the way for the next generation.