ORLANDO, Fla. – Vi Ma wasn’t always growing and building AANHPI businesses as the president of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce in Central Florida.
Before that, she was a young girl no more than 10 years old, selling street food in Vietnam to help her mother, father and four brothers survive after Saigon fell in 1975.
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Her father fled to Orlando by himself right after North Vietnam took over to help provide for his family. Ma, her mother and brothers reunited with him in Central Florida nearly seven years later, escaping the control of the Communist regime.
“We came here for freedom, for education and also it’s a future for our own kids... My parents, you know, my dad worked so hard (his) whole life, fled himself and came here, and of course, he worked two or three jobs to help us survive back in Vietnam,” said Ma, who entered the small business world herself after her father got sick.
It was born of the need to create a more flexible schedule to care for her father and turned into her spearheading the AACC, a local organization that helps advocate, empower and grow both current and future AANHPI business leaders in the area.
Ma said it’s her mission “to encourage and support the economic growth and sustainability of the Central Florida area community by building bridges and serving as a resource for the Asian American Pacific Islander business community,” something her father had to forge and find for himself.
She and her chamber, which was established back in 1986, do just that through networking mixers, business development workshops, award galas and youth mentorship programs, among a slew of other events and activities.
And Ma knows what it’s like to enter the business world as an immigrant in Cental Florida. She started at a McDonald’s drive-thru, flipping hamburgers and working the cash register part-time in high school.
“You know, the tough part for us was the language,” Ma said. “Because when I came to United States, I didn’t even know what’s yes mean or no mean... especially at that age. I wish I was born here.”
She went on to take a series of odd jobs, including a restaurant server, pool bartender and EPCOT front gate attendant.
But in her time as chamber president, not only has she seen her own career growth, but she’s witnessed the AAPI community grow around her, even after a global pandemic.
“After the COVID... I think that we are doing pretty well. I see all the friends and family business owners,” Ma said. “I see that they get back on their feet, even though some of them is fast, some of them is slower. But at least I see the growth.”
From the Mills 50 district to Orlando’s own Chinatown, Asian American Pacific Islander-owned businesses cover a lot of ground in Central Florida, proving to be more than a monolith.
“We see a lot of Vietnamese business owners.... around (Mills 50) and much more. Now, it’s kind of like (blended) in with others. Like Chinese, Japanese, Koreans,” Ma said.
She said she thinks it’s important that the grocery stores and restaurants are all within walking distance in that area.
“I’m glad... the way Asian American Pacific Islander businesses stay close together in one area like this. I think it’s more convenient for the tourists, convenient for the visitors, convenient for us,” Ma said.
She said it’s essential for all the diverse heritages and cultures in Central Florida, and across the nation, to unite and be a voice for each other, adding the older generation should act as the role models for this practice so the younger generation can follow.
“My philosophy is together we’re stronger,” Ma said. “I realized that without my mentors, without my friends without my family, without all the business or community leadership out there, I couldn’t be who I am today.”
Ma emphasized her organization is just one of many looking to help the community.
“If you start to have any issues, questions, or you need to have guidance, just step up and speak up. People are helping. We are one... of (a) couple hundred resources out there, you know. So just reach out to us and we can guide you to the right place or the right person. And you can get whatever you want.”
To learn more about the Asian American Chamber of Commerce in Central Florida, visit their website.