Looking around at the green plant wall and flowers, Pen explains ‘I chose these [decorations] because it reminds me of the fresh fruit and green of Thailand. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. We ate a lot of sweet potatoes and sugar cane. Nature is very pretty and healthy.” Her inspiration for the interior design of her tea house, like her product of healthy, flavorful milky tea served with tapioca pearls, has the same optimism as her overall outlook on life.
Her mother had to flee the Burmese civil war and was forced to take refuge in a Thailand refugee camp. Her family grew together in a small bamboo home amongst hundreds of other families. When her younger brother contracted measles, her mother invested all her energy into saving the then small seven-month-old baby boy. “She did everything she could to save him. She paid for expensive medicine with what little we had. She gave him a lot of nature medicine and washed him with bamboo shoots. This meant I was on my own a lot,” Pen told me, “I was left alone a lot. Many neighbors helped me, but we had very little.” Perhaps this is where Pen’s strong sense of independence, woven with a dedicated responsibility to her family, was developed.
As customers came into the shop, smiling and chatting, debating their tea flavors, the conversation would pause – the moments that created her business success would come and go – and then, just like that, she’d slide back into her childhood. The years of her childhood are dotted with difficulties. A large monsoon flood overwhelmed the entire camp, forcing everyone to move. Another occasion was when rising waters left her stranded at school. “I did not like school much after that,” Pen said.
With English, Karen, and Burmese all being spoken in the camp and school, the center was a flurry of activity even though refugees were not allowed to work. In fact, it was dangerous to leave the confines due to the prejudices that existed. My dad had to sneak in and out of the camp to work. It was dangerous.” Pen recalled. “It wasn’t until I was nine years old that I learned that money existed for the first time!” simply because money was not part of daily life in the camp.
But in 2011, everything changed when an unexpected knock sounded at the family’s door. A humanitarian worker was going door to door inviting families to emigrate to the United States, Australia, and Canada. Pen’s family volunteered to go, but days and weeks went by without instruction until suddenly a message arrived that if they wanted to go, the time had come, and they quickly needed to prepare. Go where? America was the destination. The 2011 tsunami pushed the day back, but after much waiting, the family arrived in America. Suddenly finding themselves in a world outside their small refugee camp existence, Pen and her siblings are immersed in a new, modern world. “It was 2011. We had no vision of the world. She remembered we rode an elevator for the first time and got dizzy!” Her family lived in St. Paul before moving to Willmar six months later, where work was available at Willmar Poultry. “It was hard. We did not know anything. I spoke English, but I learned from an Australian. No one could understand me with my Australian accent,’ Pen exclaimed. This added an extra challenge to attending high school, but Pen graduated high school and began taking classes at Ridgewater College.
When the opportunity arrived to visit her grandparents in Thailand, Pen took a sabbatical from school, finding that it was no longer the right path for her once she returned. While scrolling through TikTok, likely during a rare break from her jobs, it dawned on her. “I saw people, young women, like me, opening businesses. They were happy and had done it themselves!” she says, and you can see the rest of her story unfolding in her eyes.
She wanted to do the same thing: start her own boba tea business and bring the traditional drink to Willmar. At once, she asked people about it: how do you start a business? “People told me I couldn’t do it, that I needed $20k. I did not even have $2,000, and I did it!” Pen had been working four different jobs at this time, often going from job to job and not even going home – the one she had independently bought for her mother and brothers – for days at a time. “I knew I could do it. And I just did it.” Without wasting time, Pen started talking to other business owners downtown. Soon, she heard about the ‘Elevate Community Business Academy, a free 12-week business education course hosted by the EDC for those living in or near Kandiyohi County. While attending the classes, Pen signed a lease for her current location. She went to work. “I had to do a lot by myself. But everything I learned I learned from Elevate.” she boasted. She also credits the owners of Chaw’s Asian Market, successful academy graduates, and Southeast Asian immigrants with her success.
Shortly after graduating from Elevate this spring, Pen opened her doors. “I just did it. I moved fast. I did not wait. And here I am!” she told me. The door opens, and two men walk into the tea house. They smile and look around. One sits on a stool, posing for a picture, in front of a green wall decorated with a neon-lit “Pen House Boba” sign. The man’s friend snaps photos and explains they are working on promoting his new business, located next door, and needed the lovely backdrop of Pen House Boba for advertising. “I know them; they are neighbors here,” Penn says. “If you focus on downtown, it is pretty. In the evening you see amazing sunsets. Everyone is so nice; it feels very comfortable.”
Pen is saving money to send back to family, friends, in Thailand, and why not? “I have everything I need now,” she smiles. When asked, “What is your advice for those who want to start a business of their own?” It doesn’t take Pen long to answer, “I must do this myself. I have to motivate people around me to do something. You’ll hear the negative but must listen to the positive. Do it, don’t talk about it, words without action will not [make something] happen.” So next time you need a little pick-me-up, know that Pen House Boba in downtown Willmar serves a fine cup of tea and a healthy cup of optimism and motivation.
*This article was published as part of the Fall 2023 EDC Newsletter*