Today, we’re excited to feature three artisans whose wares harness the power of their cultural heritage—from beauty products shaped by trips home to Indonesia and all-natural incense inspired by Laotian tradition to porcelain pieces that began as an ode to Chinese history.
First, we spoke with Alison Alten, co-founder of Middle Kingdom. With her husband, she designs and sells unique pottery that brings together the ancient Chinese tradition of porcelain with contemporary craftsmanship from the East and West. Then we met with Tricia Chen who co-founded Nusa Holistick with a friend after the two realized they could take their passion for ingredients from their families’ home countries and turn it into a skincare and wellness brand. Finally, we caught up with Jennifer Champa, founder of Magixstyx, who’s turning the rituals of her youth into all-natural incense products that anyone can enjoy.
Of course, paving your own way has its own set of challenges. But these three founders are holding tight to their commitment to make the world a healthier, more beautiful place—embracing their past for a brighter future ahead. Read on for their stories.
Faire: Tell us about the origins of Middle Kingdom and what inspired you to start this business.
Alison Alten: In college, I majored in East Asian Studies and went to China as an exchange student. During that time, I met my husband, Bo Jia, who is now my partner in this business. He grew up in China and was trained very intensely from a young age in fine arts. When we met, he worked as an exhibition designer and was a painter. Since I was really into Chinese art and Chinese history, and he was very interested in Western art, it was kind of a meeting of the minds and cultures.
After we got married and I got my master’s, we decided to start a company. We wanted to explore our mutual interest in art while also using a medium that could help us connect with and attract more people. So we decided on porcelain, a medium that is synonymous with China. China is where the first clay was discovered; it’s where the first kilns went into serious production. All the history, technology, and artistry actually came from my husband’s home province. Growing up there, you didn’t really think twice about it, but then being removed from it, you realize, “Wow, this is really something.”
Faire: What’s been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced as a business owner?
Alison Alten: You start a business because you want to do what you want to do. If you’re selling porcelain or you’re selling widgets, you have this vision for your company and then you run up against all the other forces that influence your existence. For us, the largest thing has been navigating the U.S.-China relationship. When they’re arguing at the top, then all of a sudden, the tariff rates go up or public sentiment turns one way or the other, and you have no power to control any of it. It feels dangerous.
Then there’s a lot of the day-to-day, nitty-gritty stuff. There’s a tariff increase; there’s a shipping delay; UPS goes on strike. Those kinds of petty problems can really influence small businesses because we don’t have the kind of cushion that a larger company does or the market share to say, “Well, we’re going to get our own fleet of trucks.”
Faire: What’s been one of the most rewarding parts about running this business?
Alison Alten: One was being collected in a major museum—the Victoria and Albert, in London—as exemplars of late-20th-century production. That was an incredible honor and something we didn’t seek.
The other thing that has been an incredible boon to us is that we had the flexibility to be home with our kids and to be present. On the one hand, I was just saying how you work 24/7 if you’re self-employed, but on the other hand, we were always there for our kids.
They were also able to see what we do. I mean, we joked that they saw how the sausage is made. They don’t have any misconceptions about how you make a living now, which I think was a valuable lesson for them growing up.
Faire: What kind of impact do you hope that your work has on others?
Alison Alten: We always want people to have and know about beautiful objects. Because these creations are not just pretty objects. They also speak to the people who made them and speak to the people who admire them, collect them, and honor them with use.
That’s really at a base level what it means to be human. You’re not just here to consume resources and go your merry way, but you’re here to create a life with as much beauty and purpose as you can. So this was our chosen medium, and we’ve been able to be part of people’s everyday lives. They use our dishes when they set their tables, so we actually get to be part of celebrations.
I think it’s so fun to hear from people who say, “Oh, I went to dinner, and they used your plates.” Or, “I was at a party, and they used your serveware.” It’s just really nice to know that people have cherished the things they’ve bought from us. It’s not just another thing.
Faire: Do you have any tips or tricks for other small business owners or hopeful entrepreneurs?
Alison Alten: I was actually asking my husband about this, and he said, “Just be honest.” You have to act with integrity in whatever you do and just be honest and transparent. I mean, you don’t have to give people your secret formula, but if you say you’re going to do whatever it is—you’re going to ship this stuff or you’re going to make that thing—you try your darndest to do that. Because that builds people’s trust in you and in your process.
Faire: Tell me about the origins and founding of your business.
Tricia Chen: My partner, Rebecca, and I have been friends for many, many years. I have experience in holistic nutrition, and she is in the esthetician field. My background’s Chinese, and Rebecca is half Indonesian. Often, we would travel home and use these really cool ingredients that are super exotic and plant-based for our hair and skin and as natural perfumes. When we would bring them back to Canada, our friends would fall in love with what we were using. We eventually came together and decided to combine our interests and entrepreneurial spirit and turn this into a business. And that’s how Nusa Holistick (formally Holistick) came to be.
Faire: Tell us about some of the challenges that you’ve had as a business owner.
Tricia Chen: We recently did a huge rebrand, which was very expensive and time-consuming. In addition to that, one of our biggest challenges is scalability.
As a small business, you’re always worried about cash flow. Your vendors have to be paid first. All your raw materials and your supplies have to be paid first. You always have to make sure your payroll is paid. When you also want to scale and grow, everything that you’re making needs to be put back into the business. That’s one of the biggest challenges, being mindful of the cash flow and growing at a steady pace.
Faire: What have been some of the most rewarding parts of running this business?
Tricia Chen: I find a lot of things rewarding about entrepreneurship. I think it’s in my blood. I love that Nusa Holistick is something that Rebecca and I dreamt up in our heads, that we have this vision for it, and we’ve been able to see it from start to finish. Any little idea that we have for products, for our brand, for our ethos, it always just starts off with the smallest idea. When it comes to fruition, it’s super rewarding.
As a small business, we don’t do our business for ourselves. It’s really for our community and for our clients. When we hear that feedback, when we read the reviews, when we see fans in person at our events and they tell us just how much they love the products, that always just hits our heartstrings.
Faire: What are your hopes for the future of the business as you continue to grow?
Tricia Chen: We want to get ourselves into more people’s routines and to spread the word about who we are and what we do.
Another huge thing that we’ve been doing since last summer is growing our community with virtual and in-person events. Because of the pandemic, we really had to go out of our comfort zones and be out there online, which we’re not in our personal lives. During virtual events, we teach people how to use good-for-you skincare and introduce really simple things into your routine.
We’ve now transitioned into doing in-person events, too, where we blend skincare, beauty, and wellness together. We’ve even been teaming up with other women-owned businesses in the wellness space to do these really fun interactive events where you walk away feeling like you’ve learned something, like you’ve connected with other women and built these long-term friendships, and you feel so good about the brand and products. That’s something else that we want to grow with our business.
Faire: What kind of impact do you hope your products will have on other people?
Tricia Chen: I always want to create simple-to-use products that I personally stand for and that I personally use. I never want to complicate people’s routines.
We also want to show a lot of our behind-the-scenes to illustrate how we conduct our business and how we’re trying to make a positive impact on our environment and the world. We want to make sure that our ingredients are well sourced, that they’re always the best grade out there, that our packaging and our bottles are the best they can be, and that they’re recycled.
We also always give a portion of our sales back to the environment. We’ve been working with a rainforest and wildlife foundation for many years.
Faire: What are your tips for other small business owners or hopeful entrepreneurs?
Tricia Chen: When you first start out, you want to be everything. You think you’re going to sell to everyone. But, when you’re actually able to be more niche and really understand what you do, you also start to understand what you don’t do, what products you won’t put out, and what you stand for.
When you own a small business, there’s a lot of multitasking. There’s a lot of problem-solving—and being creative with your problem-solving skills because every day you feel like you’re putting out a fire. But you need to have a positive mindset and understand that this, too, will pass. Always look for creative resolutions, keep up the momentum, and boost morale.
There’s such a community of us small business owners online, so if you’re just starting out or you feel like you’re alone, come look for us. If you want other people to support you, show support to other small businesses and build that little community for yourself. You’ll always learn something new from another business owner. Reach out and build your community. It’ll make your entrepreneurial experience that much better.
Faire: Tell me about the origins of your business. What inspired you to start Magixstyx?
Jennifer Champa: As a first-generation Lao American, I grew up watching my parents burn incense regularly to commemorate ancestors, protect homes, bless unions, and welcome new family members. As I got older and began living farther from my family, burning incense was a way for me to connect and learn about my own heritage as well as learn about incense rituals all over the world.
The traditional and sacred art of burning incense with real plants for healing dates back thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, most of the incense on the market today is dipped in synthetic fragrances that are toxic for us and the environment. I’m a physical therapist, so advocating for wellness is at the core of what I do, create, and share. I created Magixstyx because people deserve to honor themselves with high-quality ritual tools as they evolve on their spiritual journey.
Faire: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a business owner?
Jennifer Champa: The biggest challenge I’ve faced both as a business owner and artisan is dividing my time between making inventory and marketing products and keeping it all fun and enjoyable. It can be difficult to decide what direction you want to go in, but as long as I keep my purpose in mind, I find that I can figure out what my next task is. Burning incense slows me down and allows me to think and intentionally plan out what would benefit my customers and the collective best.
Faire: What’s been the most rewarding thing about owning this business?
Jennifer Champa: The most rewarding thing about being an incense maker and having a spiritual business is connecting with like-minded individuals who use incense regularly to improve their mental and spiritual health. I am honored to provide an all-natural ritual tool to the incense community, and it is so rewarding as a maker to see people who enjoy using your products.
Faire: What are your hopes for the future of the business?
Jennifer Champa: My hope for Magixstyx is to share awareness of the healing properties of plants. Plants are a life force that have spiritual, practical, and healing purposes. Tapping into the potential of plants allows for us to harness their potency. Plants have been used to treat imbalances in the body for thousands of years, and my hope is to continue learning, educating, and growing the incense community.
Faire: What kind of impact do you hope your work has on others?
Jennifer Champa: I hope that as an incense artisan, I can showcase the extensive history and vast healing power behind the ancient art of incense. Incense is a way for you to get in tune with your mind, heart, and soul as you intimately connect with nature. I have gathered plants from all over the world with different properties to create purposeful blends for aromatics. From honoring the labor of harvesting and sourcing sustainable materials to using eco-friendly packaging, each incense stick is thoughtfully formed for your intentions.
Faire: What tips or tricks of the trade have worked for you along your journey that you’d offer to hopeful entrepreneurs?
Jennifer Champa: I find that checking in on my emotions and taking care of myself is important for my mental health. Being in a good headspace when I create incense is meditative. This makes the transition from maker mode to marketing mode a little easier. I find that connecting with the incense community in person has helped me improve my products. I enjoy being able to get constructive feedback and learning from the wisdom of others.