As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Queena Wei. Queena is the Managing Director of Copyfree Document Imaging & Solutions. Copyfree Document Imaging & Solutions is a Strategic Partner of Canon U.S.A.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory?” What led you to this particular career path?
Copyfree is a 2nd generation family-owned enterprise. My parents founded the business over 40 years ago and it was an American Dream story as they immigrated here to the United States in search of a better life. They started with nothing but a few hundred dollars in their pocket and were able to build a successful business that not only put food on the table, but provided my brother and I with college degrees as well as the foundation that we needed to take our business to the next level. For as long as I can remember, the business has always played a critical role in our upbringing and taught us entrepreneurship, commitment, resilience and the value of hard work since we spent most days at the office after school in our earlier years. However, it was never the intent or the expectation that the 2nd generation would take over the family business or continue on with the legacy.
I started my career as a Consultant for Deloitte & Touche, LLP’s Advisory practice in IT risk management consulting, with a focus on IT project management, regulatory compliance and readiness, and business process improvement. I then went back to school to pursue my MBA, with an emphasis in Entrepreneurship and Executive Leadership and followed my “passion for fashion” after graduation working for a global luxury fashion brand based in NYC where I oversaw international sales expansion for several distribution channels in Asia. By that time, I was 8 years into my career, and my brother, who also graduated from business school, had already returned and was already immersed in the family business. The idea of entrepreneurship — being able to “build, create and make an impact”, also the primary reason of why I went back to get my MBA, served as guiding force that ultimately drove me back to the family business.
Now, almost 15 years after running the family business, I’ve come to realize that it’s all come around full circle and everything does happen for a reason. I’ve been able to leverage my experience in sales, client service and IT consulting, a plethora of skills that have come in handy in this line of business, to proactively help clients optimize operational effectiveness and workflow productivity in the office technology space.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you?
I don’t know if I necessarily have one specific story that comes to mind, but can definitely share my experience working in the family business since family dynamics, inherent in generational family-owned businesses, are all quite unique. In a family business, every decision made on a daily basis can have an impact on the entire family as well as the company and ultimately, the growth and sustainability of a family business lies in the fine balance between meeting the needs of the business and the expectations of the family members involved.
Being in the family business has given me a whole new perspective and meaning to having work-life balance. Before I started a family, I had returned from the east coast and was living at home while working with my family at the same time. We would work 10-hour days, and then head home, just to see each other at the dinner table again and candidly, it was really challenging to have a clear delineation since work and family became one in the same. Family business is definitely not for everyone and it really takes work to be able to function as a cohesive unit, but also put aside differences for the greater good of the business. There were (and still are) more challenging days, where we don’t necessarily see eye to eye on certain issues and often times, we need to remind ourselves to refocus on making sure that both the interests of family and the business are met, all while trying to maintain a positive and professional dynamic day in and day out. It’s taken years for all of us to be able to openly communicate and navigate this dynamic where we can now “agree to disagree” and ultimately, we can at least agree on the fact that family comes first and the priority would always be to avoid discord so that we can protect both the business and family.
None of us are able to achieve success without someone’s help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped you get where you are and can you share a story about that?
I strongly believe that any successful person has to have a support system, whether it be personal or professional. I’ve realized that the saying “it takes a village to raise your child(ren)” also applies to running any successful business and I am thankful for all those that have all played a part in our success:
- Without my parents’ entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and commitment over the last few decades, we wouldn’t have a legacy to continue. From humble beginnings, they showed us that the American Dream was indeed possible and it was up to us to take advantage of the foundation they built to so that we could continue to advance future generations.
- Without my brother, also my better half at work, we would not have been able to get to where we are today. I’m extremely grateful that both my brother and I decided to take this path in running the business together and even more fortunate that we’ve been able to share in our successes and challenges. We are a family of Trojans (both graduated with business degrees from USC’s Marshall School of Business in Entrepreneurship) and we are not only appreciative for the education that we were fortunate enough to receive, but also proud of the fact that we’ve been able to take the family business to the next level.
- Without the support of my spouse and partner, I wouldn’t be able to do all the things that we’re able to do, both at home and work. Running a business requires dedication and long hours. I’ve learned over the years that this is not something that everyone can understand or tolerate. It takes a lot of indirect sacrifice from our significant others to allow us the commitment that we have to the business.
Our Team — without our team who are at the forefront of what we do, we wouldn’t be able to carry out our vision. They are at the forefront of everything we do.
Our clients — most of our clients come to us through word of mouth and referrals, which is the biggest compliment any business can receive. Our clients understand our value proposition and we are grateful for the opportunity they provide for us to continue to support them day in and day out.
You are who you choose to surround yourself with and I am especially appreciative that I have a strong network of friends, family, mentors, business partners, and other like-minded entrepreneurs that inspire and motivate us to dream bigger every day.
OK, thank you for that. Let’s jump now to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
It’s pretty ironic because working in the fashion industry for several years (where women make up the majority of the workforce), I made my way back to an industry that is predominantly male, so I’ve personally experienced both sides of the spectrum and in a way, almost feel like I went backwards in my career because women empowerment has always played such a large role in my upbringing. There is certainly an intimidation factor based on misconceptions and admittedly, some of these barriers have been self-imposed based on societal gender roles and familial obligations. I remember going on a dealer incentive trip when I first came back to the family business about a decade ago and when I showed up with my husband, naturally, everyone assumed that he was the dealership principal because the majority of leadership that was present on the trip were also primarily male (with their wives accompanying them).
Finding work-life balance is challenging enough in today’s world with working women also tasked with raising families. Experiencing some of these misconceptions in the workforce first hand creates another layer of obstacles and I can understand how these societal pressures consequently create barriers for women to create companies and hold leadership positions.
Likewise, I belong to several other business leadership organizations and the perception holds true across the board, especially when there are distinct generation gaps and leadership is predominantly male. However, I’m privileged to be a part of these organizations where there are iinitiatives to embrace women and minority business owners and I’m proud to be a part of this movement.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
I mentioned earlier about the importance of having a strong support system for personal and professional development so that as an individual, you allow yourself to create and embrace opportunities for advancement and that all becomes part of the journey. I’ve been involved with several philanthropic and business networking organizations over the years and currently serve on the Executive Board of the Asian Business Association of Los Angeles, proactively helping Asian-American entrepreneurs gain access to economic opportunities and advancement within the community, advocating for women and minority-owned businesses. People need to educate themselves about the resources available to small businesses, women-owned businesses and minority enterprises and believe it or not, there are a ton of resources out there. Education is half the battle and once you equip yourself with the proper tools, you can move onward to accomplishing what you set out to do provided you have all the other pieces of the puzzle lined up. Plugging into organizations that you can gain from, as well as give back to, allows you an opportunity and a vehicle to be part of the greater good, and once you’re “plugged in, ” chances are, you’ll find others that are in the same boat which will provide you with the confidence to help push you forward and uplift one another at the same time.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman leader but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become leaders?
I believe a large part of why women are great leaders is because of their innate ability to wear multiple hats interchangeably, while seamlessly expected to do so. When starting a family, we operate under the premise that if we choose to focus on our careers as well as our family, we will have to play dual roles as both a career woman and the caretaker. I only say this only because I’ve also conformed to certain societal expectations whereby, I’m expected to lead not only at home, but also in the workplace. When women are making decisions, I feel that they tend to be more relatable and take more of a holistic approach to problem solving because they are more empathetic and show more compassion and concern for one’s collective well-being (at home and at work). In business school, when I was learning about the topic of “Executive decision making,” I didn’t have enough experience to put into context the true meaning or impact of transformational vs transactional leadership styles. I feel that women take more of a transformational leadership style whereas men exemplify more of the latter. Covid-19 was a perfect example of this.
When the pandemic hit, I knew we had to take a look at all the challenges our workforce was facing because I was facing the same exact challenges as a working mom. For example, the kids had to adopt virtual learning and we had to figure out the best way to balance child care and work at the same time. While my father was more concerned with getting everyone back into the office so that we could be most productive, I had to think of other factors so that we didn’t have to force half of our workforce to choose between their family and work. We ultimately ended up implementing a remote program to accommodate everyone while navigating the pandemic. In general, most women or stronger people leaders with both a strategic approach and focused execution because of their ability to build relationships with their peers instead of taking a more command and task-oriented approach. This leads to more respect, retention of employees and a boost of morale, and equality in the workplace.
I always tell my daughter that the “the future is female” and it is my hope as a woman in business and a woman-owned business, that I’m able to share my personal experiences and continue to encourage other women to continue to embrace and make great strides in today’s society as women leaders.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I think a lot of people have a misconception that all founders fit a certain profile, either have the same personality or characteristic that make them “ideal founder material.” If I think about who in my network of people have started their own businesses and are successful entrepreneurs, I can easily name different genders, personalities, ages, backgrounds, education and can honestly say that no two founders are really the same since their entrepreneurial journeys and backgrounds are all so unique. The one thing that they do have in common is their entrepreneurial mindset — having the desire to create, reinvent and continue to make a positive impact.
Another common myth is that people glorify the fact that “you are your own boss and work for yourself.” Most founders that I know actually find themselves working harder than they’ve ever worked for anyone else because you aren’t just working for yourself. On the contrary, if anything, we always feel like we work for everyone else on everyone’s schedule because you need to do what it takes to get things done, even if it means backing everyone up or wearing multiple hats until you can relinquish or fill a role. You’re working for your team, your employees, and your clients who made the decision to join you because they believed in your vision and a lot of the times, you have to go over and beyond and work even harder to make sure that you don’t let any of them down.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder or leader? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder or leader and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular’’ job as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
I spoke about this earlier and strongly believe that everyone can have a “founder” mentality pursuing entrepreneurship in their own way through different means and different scales which appears in different outlets, through business ventures, side hustles, hobbies, community engagement, etc. Entrepreneurs have the confidence and positivity to be able demonstrate that whatever they have to bring to the table, tangible or not, they will leave the world a better place than they found it.
However, leadership is the key to perseverance and sustainability and I feel that there are definitely some key characteristics that differentiate successful leaders from others. Leadership is believing that you have the power to inspire, create change and have a positive impact on others. One key attribute is knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are and being able to adapt quickly. That way, you know what you are really good at tackling face-on so that you also have the foresight to ask for help in other areas that aren’t necessarily in your wheel house. Successful leaders also tend to be more open minded and embrace continuous learning, open dialogue, and transformation. Entrepreneurs have the confidence and positivity to show people that they are going to be in good hands. Most people I know who are better suited for a corporate position have preference to be subject-matter experts in their field with the freedom of working independently. There is definitely nothing wrong with that because a lot of the times, this also has to do with personality, but I don’t think that that they possess the desire for continuous learning and advancement nor do they have the “do what it takes attitude” which are all crucial to leading successful organizations.
OK super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder.’’
1. Positivity. Some people always look at the glass as half empty but I think it’s so important to look at the glass as half full so that you can continue to fill it! As a leader, you’re going to have your bad days too, but it’s especially important to be able to lead with a positive outlook so that you can provide inspiration and motivation when people need it most!
2. Grit. Maybe it is because I am in Sales but I have grown thick skin over the years but you have to have the “never surrender’’ mentality. No never means no, it just means no for now. I have had people say no but two years later, they come back and become our largest client. It is about grit and persistence. 9 out of 10 businesses fail, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying.
3. Confidence. You have to be confident in yourself and know that you bring something to the table. If you don’t value yourself and you can’t demonstrate that, people aren’t going to see the value that you bring as a leader, an employer or as a service provider. Trust your vision and continue to believe in yourself so that you can continue to tell your story.
4. Know Yourself and Be Humble. Know your strengths and weaknesses and the areas where you need help. You can’t do it all yourself, but it’s important to trust your instincts and have the ability to self-reflect. We all need humility so that we can become the best version of ourselves.
5. Build a Support System. Surround yourself with people personally and professionally who are like-minded so they can help guide and support you through your journey. These are the people that will join you in celebrating small victories and milestones (while humbling you along the way) and uplift you in your defeats (when you need it the most).
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My position as a woman business leader provides me a platform to educate, bring awareness and serve as an advocate and resource through community involvement of sponsorships and business organizations that I’m involved in.
In terms of our company, a big part of the reason why my brother and I came back to our family business was not only to continue the legacy, but also be able to build a business that can thrive in this competitive market here in Los Angeles. I can’t say that we’ve made strides in making the world a better place with what we do per se, however, I can say that so long as we’ve impacted our employees and our clients in a positive fashion, we’ve succeeded in fostering the type of company that we’re proud to have evolved into over the last four decades. We lead with core values that have always defined our company and continue to foster new ones which serve as our guiding principles in leading the company to our fullest potential.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There are so many movements that I would want to initiate, but I am a huge proponent of mentorship and an advocate of women empowerment. As a mentor or mentee, I always see it as a give-and-take relationship and I have always believed in the “pay-it-forward” mentality. I can honestly say that I would have never come as far as I have without the mentors and teachers that I’ve had along the way. If people realized the value of taking the time to be kind and generous, all while sharing their experiences, this would allow a platform for continuous learning and mutual knowledge sharing and could have a tremendous domino effect. What you might think might the smallest, most trivial thing may actually turn out to have the biggest impact on a person’s life journey. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by strong women, both personally and professionally and would want to continue to pave the way and be able to provide a platform to cultivate other women leaders, just as others have done for me.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in business, VC funding, sports and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why? He or she might see this if we tag them.
This is a really tough one because there are so many amazing entrepreneurs out there that I aspire to meet, just so I can hear about their interesting journeys first hand. However, since we’re on the topic of women leaders, I would have to say Sheryl Sandberg, the author of “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.’’ She has been such a great advocate for women business leaders and she herself says women can’t be expected to do it all and some of this inequality actually comes from barriers that women create for themselves through internal discrimination and societal gender roles and expectations. I can definitely see where some this can handicap women in business because it’s been and continues to be a struggle for myself as well. I also want to lead by example and be a role model for my daughter so that I can show her that “when there’s a will, there’s a way” and she can be anything she wants to be when she grows up without having to think twice about some of the things that we’ve faced in our career. We need more leaders who are outspoken and confident of their position to show other women what is possible if we continue to break down these societal and personal barriers by being in these leadership roles. I would love to ask her about the things she has had to encounter and what she foresees for the future, as well as ways that women leaders can continue to inspire other women in similar situations in the workforce. It’s so important that we continue to break down these barriers and harness an environment that encourages female voices in positions of power so there are more equitable opportunities all around.