LOS ANGELES >> On a stormy Saturday, Raina Huang settled into a corner at the La Habra Crab Shack and gorged her face on a spicy 10-pound seafood boil. She wolfed down mussels, clams and Dungeness crab while looking straight into a camera that was filming for her YouTube channel.
“Oh my God, the garlic, it’s so yummy. Lots of places don’t marinate it right and they don’t give you this much sauce,” she gushed, on cue. “My mouth is definitely on fire.”
In her junior year, the 25-year-old left UC Riverside, where she was studying business, to become one of the few Chinese American competitive food eaters in the U.S. At 5-feet-7 and 135 pounds, she once polished off a 4-pound burrito in six minutes and for a recent promotion devoured 100 chicken wings.
Initially, her foreign-born father worried that his daughter was losing the chance at a well-paying, prestigious career.
But Huang’s risky move earned her entrance to the newly founded Asian Hustle Network, a California-based support group and social hub for young Asian American professionals and serial entrepreneurs across the globe, many of whom are children of immigrants who toiled at multiple, more conventional jobs to give their kids a shot at stable lives.
Her new gig as a competitive eater and social media influencer — she’s the star of 600-plus videos — finally has won her father’s approval.
“I’m actually surprised with her character right now, once I got used to her choice,” Wil Huang, an IT engineer, said about his eldest daughter.
Huang, who hails from mainland China, described himself and his wife as “more traditional,” adding that he intends to teach Raina’s younger sister, who’s studying pharmacology, “to work 8 to 5 in a corporation or some research firm, simply to do a regular job.”
“But with Raina, we accept that she can handle it,” he said. “I told her if this is what you choose, you need to find a way to survive — and she actually did. She is strategic.”
Bryan Pham, who started the Asian Hustle Network on Facebook with Maggie Chui, the founder of Prism Apparel, said that diversity in background and profession is what makes members stand out.
He had gone to a startup event at UC Berkeley and wondered why there was no online network just for Asian professionals. “We wanted a network where we can lift each other up, share resources, make an impact. I knew that we could be stronger together.”
Pham’s mother, Lai Vuong, reminds her son about the sacrifices that the family made in order for him to succeed.
“Like many Asian parents, we worked endless hours to prove to our children what it takes to achieve and we went without so they could have what they need,” she said. “Do you think Vietnamese elders have the luxury to just sit and relax? I know the elders can be unreasonable. We don’t explain why our children need to be doctors and lawyers. We just know that having lived in wartime, we want what is safe, what will protect them when there is crisis. The money you earn in those careers is your protection.”
When the network launched on Nov. 8 it immediately resonated with self-styled doers, investors, inventors and all manner of entrepreneurs going against the norm who flocked to the group’s Facebook page and invited hundreds of their friends to join in. That momentum has helped the network surge to more than 13,000 members. Pham, Chui and group moderators aim to hit the 1-million mark.
The group boasts chief executives, chief financial officers, some people who were temporarily homeless before cashing in on success and other people with polished resumes listing MBAs, PhDs, Ivy League educations, expertise in such industries as real estate, import-export and multinational financing, or work for Fortune 500 companies.
One member reminisced online about living the sweet life with his cookies that were chosen by Business Insider as Best Chocolate Chip Cookie in California. Others have posted about their high-level promotions in Silicon Valley or winning on “Shark Tank” or delivering TED talks.
Linda Nguyen, president-elect of the Asian American Business Association of Orange County and a new AHN member, said that the difference between this group and other business associations is “the difference between old world and new world thinking.”
“This network is not just for referrals — we talk about vulnerabilities, about failures that lead to success. It’s almost confessional,” Nguyen said.
“People around the world share about the time when they totally crash and burn and how they dug themselves out,” she added, “and during this moment, when mental wellness is at the forefront of society, this process can help relieve the loneliness of doing business.”
Regina “Push” Estrada, the Filipina American behind Gold Leaf Ink, an upscale tattoo studio in San Francisco, said that group members’ “experiments, failures and success give us a lesson to learn.”
“We’re all looking for our own niche and this network has really hit on something that never was available before,” she said. “In this space, we can be ourselves and express ourselves — without judgment.”
Group co-founder Pham grew up in the San Gabriel Valley watching his Vietnamese American parents run Tony’s Appliances and never take vacations. At 30, he’s based in the Bay Area and has moved beyond a software engineering background into property investment and working as director of strategic partnerships at Startup Grind Berkeley, where he unites startup communities and helps them get funding. He also has a podcast, “Crushing It in Real Estate.”
Some Asian Americans, he said, “believe there’s a bamboo ceiling over their heads, that they can’t achieve on their own or are stifled by what their parents expect of them.” He pays his parents’ monthly mortgage on their Temple City home.
Part of Pham’s motivation is knowing that Asian Americans “aren’t well represented at all, especially in the majority of executive seats around America.” But by combining forces within the network, he believes, that can change.
“We can build on each other’s connections, we can seed entrepreneurs, we can boost mentorship. Ultimately, we can be billionaires. We can hustle.”
Entrepreneur Lisa Song Sutton, 34, would agree. The Arizona native, daughter of a Korean mother and a white father, followed the traditional path, enrolling in law school at the University of Miami, then working in a firm focusing on business litigation.
“It wasn’t a matter of me going to college — it was, ‘Which graduate school will you enter?’” she recalled of the expectations that surrounded her. “We always talked about goals.”
Sutton kept practicing law, even after being crowned Miss Nevada in 2014, becoming the first person of Asian descent to win the title that led to more than 500 community appearances and a TEDX talk on building community.
Along the way, she and close friend Dannielle Cole teamed up to open Sin City Cupcakes. Their alcohol-laced desserts became so popular that they garnered business from vendors exhibiting at Las Vegas’ famed Consumer Electronics Show; Twitter placed an order for 2,000 treats. The women’s bakery has expanded to Dallas and they’re eyeing a third branch in Southern California.
“When I think of hustle, I think of grit, that mental toughness, that moment when you get up and do the work on the day you don’t want to do it. The strength of the people in this network symbolizes that,” Sutton said.
To Huang, the network is vital to her career because it has attracted countless members fronting food or restaurant investments, forming an ever-expanding pool of clients for her to tap.
She said that eating competitively has allowed her to better understand nutrition and propelled her travel to 15 states, along with Spain and Taiwan. Recently, she headed to Hawaii, where she had appearances at a pancake house, two burger hotspots and an eatery known for loco moco, a Hawaiian dish.
Come 2020, she’s hitting the Southern U.S. and Japan. She has plans to diversify her repertoire with travel videos.
“I ate a lot all my life, but I really didn’t know about food challenges since it’s not really visible in Chinese culture,” she said.
Her father worries for her health. But after discussing her career with his Chinese friends, he realized that internet celebrities are increasingly a thing “in our homeland. For some reason, they broadcast wherever they go and people are fascinated.”
“Raina is smart,” he said. “Asian parents have to realize it’s not just grades.”