I didn’t sleep very well on the last night of my vacation in deliriously hot Palm Springs. Perhaps it was the desert heat that cast my dreams back to the days of my family’s dry cleaning business. See, I grew up in the midst of the fancy garment care industry: distinguishing wool blends from nylons, spot-treating stains with a variety of strong-smelling chemicals, and starching shirt collars to proper stiffness by hand.
Here were my first lessons in business. I watched as my mother turn into an astute expert of her own small business, forming relationships, then friendships, with her loyal group of core clientele. I practiced my own CSR skills during the long hours that our storefront stayed open, as a convenience to our customers. I folded paper inserts onto hangers (“thank you for your business”) by the boxload, since it was cheaper to put together the pieces instead of buying them preassembled.
Here too, were the hard knocks that the glossy starting-your-own-business pamphlets never covered. I watched as mom and dad were subjected to racial slurs in affluent, middle-class North Vancouver. I observed as my dad chased out the door one particular customer that muttered, ‘chink,’ for something as small as an unlifted stain. I stood silent witness as a customer irately pointed to his watch outside of our door, after my dad had failed to appear on time one early morning. He had suffered a head-on collision with a car that had suddenly swerved in from the opposite direction. I watched as my family bore it all stoically, not from any language barrier or misunderstanding, but due to the simple truth that every sale added significantly to our bottom line and livelihood. Here, I think, is the true cost behind those damning words, the customer is always right.
Those years in my family’s dry cleaning business taught me patience and compassion in my professional conduct. It also meant that I would never hesitate to speak out against racism and discrimination, regardless of the situation or audience. I’ve had enough of the passive role society expects us to play, closing one eye to uncomfortable situations in favour of general acceptance and accord. In my own, small way, just as my folks did before me, I am part of a movement that resolutely challenges ignorant behaviours and stereotypes, and chooses to do business with like-minded individuals and corporations that take no shit.
Thanks, mom and dad, for being there first and showing the way.