Starting all over again in the US amid the pandemic: The journey of an expat entrepreneur

Expat interviews
  • Marie in Los Angeles
Published on 2022-05-13 at 10:00 by Nelly Jacques
With her partner, Marie moved five times in 3 years. She arrived in a new country in the middle of the pandemic, went through two lockdowns, and had to start everything from scratch each time (professionally and personally). She talks to us about her journey from France to Los Angeles, passing through New York.

You arrived in New York in the middle of the Covid pandemic. Can you tell us about your move and how it was on your arrival?

I arrived in the US a year before Covid with my husband and son. My sister and my British brother-in-law had already lived in New York for several years and greatly helped in our installation and integration. My husband had been a chef and restaurateur for 25 years in Paris (Paris Hanoi and Little Hanoi), and a master of Vo Vietnam, an ancestral Vietnamese martial art and reflexologist, his first job. We had discovered New York several years before and were mesmerized by this city's energy. It made us realize that we needed a change in our life. Our relocation was very long and winding, even painful at times. We were working as a family in Paris, and our will to move abroad was not understood, which led to losses and upheavals. However, we didn't give up, and all this made us stronger to overcome obstacles. Our project was quite clear. We had already established our business plan and were prospecting. A temple of body and mind well-being around Vietnamese culture was to emerge, mixing cuisine, martial arts, massages and Vietnamese art. Then Covid arrived, and life came to a standstill.

So how did you define your plan B?

Overnight, we found ourselves locked down in our Brooklyn brownstone (typical house), wondering what we were going to do in a future that seemed apocalyptic. New York was badly affected by the Covid, and there was basically no economic and social activity for months. I started giving French lessons to two kids at my son's school every day of the week. I pushed my husband to accept a job at a friend's restaurant in Greenpoint to do some take-out and earn a name on social media. One morning, out of the blue, I wondered whether I should start my own homemade bakery. I knew how to bake as I used to make desserts in our Parisian restaurants, and I've had a passion for baking since childhood. I created a post on Canva and posted it on Instagram: “buy a lemon pie, get a baguette”. That's how my micro-business started to take off, first in my neighborhood, then spread to Manhattan and Brooklyn. I worked 18 hours a day, alternating my preparations of bread and cakes at dawn, my French lessons in the morning, and taking care of orders the rest of the day while taking care of my son, who used to land in the kitchen every 5min wondering what I was doing. I developed a product line, watched a lot of videos at night, put together a menu, and became a social media pro. I will never forget this period as it is one of the most intense and wonderful moments I have lived. It was a dream come true, and that helped me gain confidence.

How did the idea of moving to Los Angeles crop up?

My business kept on flourishing even after the lockdown. I was starting to find my rhythm in my kitchen, investing in professional equipment and prospecting the right suppliers. Then, one day in June, my husband told me that he had got an offer in Arizona. There have been many weeks of confusion. One day we were ready to move to Arizona (without any certainty about the business). The next day, we wanted to stay in New York even though we were not convinced about being truly happy there. New York is quite an oppressive city and excessively expensive. What helped us decide to go to Los Angeles was a family evening with my sister and my brother-in-law, who had already lived in California. We settled down together and decided to leave New York for Los Angeles for multiple reasons. We took a leap into the unknown.

How was your move to Los Angeles, and how did this affect your personal and professional life?

We organized our move to Brooklyn in a few weeks while fulfilling daily orders. Then we loaded the car with the few personal belongings that remained and made a long road trip through the United States. The route was wonderful, interspersed with several stops in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona before arriving in Los Angeles 3 weeks after our departure. But I had to go back by plane to pick up my little cat Pinceau and help my sister finish their move, and we all flew back together with our 3 cats. Our installation in Los Angeles was facilitated by friends who sublet us their apartment for 18 months. However, California was locked down, and everything was closed for several months. My husband crisscrossed half of Los Angeles to find a kitchen where he could develop take-out, and I had to rebuild my entire community in a city that does not function the same way as New York in terms of network, geography, etc. So I started at a much slower pace, but this also allowed me to sit down with my homeschooled son and take the time to have a longer-term vision.

Today, the situation is improving. Where have you reached with your life plans in the United States? Where do you see yourself in the coming years?

The situation hasn't completely stabilized. My husband works in a French restaurant while developing private dinners and martial arts lessons. He still has his initial project in the back of his mind, and he feels lucky to be in a country of entrepreneurs. He knows that everything is possible, so he doesn't give up. Meanwhile, I have made my business legal. I still bake from home and develop a private clientele at my own pace. There is still a lot to do, and I don't know if I will create an establishment. All I know for now is that this is a dream come true.

Comparing New York to Los Angeles, how do you feel? Which city gave you the best experience, and why?

I love living in California. It seems incredible to me because I loved New York and I felt upset each time I left it, but I believe that it met my needs at some point in my life. Today, my needs are simple and more nature-driven. California is a natural gem with a lot of mountains, sea, deserts and cities. My family is here also, as we are only 5 minutes away. Besides, networking has helped us build our social circle little by little. Last year, I joined a network of women entrepreneurs, which opened up other perspectives for me. Changing your life twice in 3 years requires a lot of patience, courage and inner strength. The road is still long, but it is beautiful and feels right when you move towards self-realization.

Is there any advice you would like to give expatriates who wish to start a business in the United States?

I can only encourage them to take the leap. Moving and settling abroad is an extraordinary life adventure because it pushes us out of our safety and comfort zones. It opens doors to possibilities and frees us from certain chains. I don't really have any specific advice to give because the path depends on your life story. I can only humbly recommend to never give up. It takes time, and it requires patience and resilience. Sometimes you have to go through difficulties to thrive, but the experience is unique and regenerative. If I had to share my own experience with people, maybe it would dissuade many because it was difficult, but this is mine, and I do not regret anything.  

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