Hannah Bae is making ice cream that’s anything but vanilla
Running a business

Hannah Bae is making ice cream that’s anything but vanilla

In honor of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month QuickBooks is spotlighting AANHPI-owned small businesses, their stories, and their journeys to success. Check the Small Business Stories hub all month for more inspiration.

Name: Hannah Bae

Location: Brooklyn, NY

Business: Noona’s Ice Cream

Tell us a bit about your business. 

Noona means “big sister” in Korean. After winning best flavor for our signature Toasted Rice ice cream at an NYC annual ice cream contest, Noona’s was created in 2016 with the goal of making a line of Asian American ice cream flavors and doing it with a whimsical and playful palette unlike anything else in the category. It’s inspired by my passion for creating bigger, better, and more inclusive shelves in the ice cream aisle of America’s grocery stores. 

Flavors range from beloved classics (think Black Sesame, Taro, Matcha Green Tea, and Yuzu) to whimsical fresh takes (imagine Turmeric Honeycomb, Mochi Cookies & Cream, Red Bean Chocolate Chip, and Vegan Rose Ginger). All our flavor inspirations come from my story of growing up Asian American and my passion for creating flavors that taste good and make us feel good because they authentically reflect the joys and struggles we all experience in a desire to make sense of the world and feel a sense of place.

What makes your small business unique from others? 

Noona’s is here to reflect the faces, flavors, and culture of America now and tomorrow, while staying true to our roots. When you spot a pint of Noona’s, it’s clear how joyful and proud we are of our Asian American identity and how much we want to share that joy and deliciousness with all of you. I want to change the ice cream aisles of our neighborhood grocery stores through celebrating diversity in the ice cream community, championing Asian American flavors, and amplifying the people behind the supply chain and production. The brand slogan, “Trailblazing Asian American Ice Cream,” reflects our vision to expand our taste buds, have fun with flavor, and taste with an open mind.

Why did you decide to start your own business? How did you get started? 

I couldn’t work for someone else. I had too many ideas and dreams. I’m an idealist, a dreamer, an overthinker, an overfeeler, an overachiever, and a worry wart. I put my entire being, heart, and soul into my actions and work. I deeply enjoy being hyper-focused and creating meaningful work with long-lasting authentic results. 

What is the biggest lesson you learned in the first year?

Always have a backup plan…and then another one. As many as you can.

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a business owner? 

You’re constantly problem-solving. There is no end. I guess this is not surprising, but it’s amazing how many things can go wrong in a single morning.

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Always have a backup plan…and then another one. As many as you can.

What were some things you needed to teach yourself about running a business? How did you learn those things?

You need to be okay with figuring things out as you go. There’s so many situations that you can’t necessarily prepare for. You can put yourself in a position to succeed and be disaster-proof but none of the preparation ever makes situations any less hard when the mishaps and problems arise.

I am pretty much a self-taught entrepreneur, but isn’t every entrepreneur? That’s what makes owning and running your own business no easy feat. You need to have thick skin. You need to roll with the punches and expect to get hit some. You learn your strengths and weaknesses and figure out how to strengthen your strengths and not let the weaknesses hurt you or your business. You can do this by learning new skills or finding people that excel at the things you suck at. You learn to stay humble and be a constant student of the game.

How does running your own business make you feel?

Creating and running my own business keeps me driven, passionate, and focused. It gives me a space where I can be myself and take full responsibility for who I am and who I’m about to become. It gives me a space where I can let ideas flow and let my dreams become realities. Running a business is incredibly rewarding. All the stress, uncertainties, blood, sweat, and tears mean something because there is intention and vision through it all.

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome?

I bootstrapped my business and have grown Noona’s Ice Cream without any partners, investors, or outside capital. The truth is most businesses do not start or operate this way. Most businesses have outside funding of some sorts. Making Noona’s Ice Cream a truly profitable business has always been the aim and I’m proud to say that we are, although it is smaller than most. Working on healthy margins and building strong relationships with our manufacturers and suppliers are always constant challenges as these must be closely monitored and maintained over time.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs looking to start their own business? 

There’s a lot of boring “office work” involved in entrepreneurship. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.

What is your best advice to other small business owners for hiring and retaining staff?  

Practice leadership. Be present. Check in on staff. Never look down on anyone in life; we are all the same. My staff works for me but I will never talk down to anyone or think I’m better than someone. 

How do you manage to wear every hat that your business demands? 

By not sleeping! [Laughs]  Well, for the first three years I really only took two hour naps and never really slept. Balance comes later. You tell yourself in a couple years you’ll be sleeping eight hours and life will be different. You’re not sleeping, or eating well, or exercising, or relaxing, or doing anything but working at the start — so you can have all those other things later. And yes, I do get my eight hours of sleep now and can do other things besides work. Somehow, I even managed to get into amateur boxing. Who knew? Let life be absurd. Enjoy it. Work hard. Have a vision.

What challenges do you feel are unique to AANHPI business owners? 

That’s a tough question and I can’t speak to other people’s struggles. My struggles are not solely because I’m Asian American. Being Asian American is a factor, but I’m not going to sit around trying to dissect that and theorize. People can disagree with my attitude, but it’s kinda like pondering nature versus nurture… it’s not one or the other.

What are your proudest moments? 

The day I became a big sister (a noona), the day I launched Noona’s Ice Cream and won best flavor for our Toasted Rice on launch day, the day I started my boxing training and the day I registered for amateur boxing, and the day I decided to just dream and do great things. 

What are the next big plans you have for your business? 

I’d love to create an ice cream sandwich line. 

When you’re having a tough day, who or what inspires you to keep going? 

Structuring my thoughts and feelings succinctly into a poem has always inspired me to keep going. That or opening up a collection of poems by one of my favorite poets. And extra sleep. Sleep always helps.

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Enjoy it. Work hard. Have a vision.

How do you maintain a work/life balance as a small business owner?

Work/life balance cannot be maintained on a daily basis. Instead, the balance comes in increments of time. There are times where I just go-go-go nonstop and then there are times where I can relax a little bit and slow down. I barely slept in the first few years of business and now I can typically get a full night of sleep. Some years are rougher than others. 

What’s your “power song” and why?

My power song is “God Bless The Child” by Billie Holiday. The blues gets me.

To learn more about Noona’s Ice Cream and support the business, visit their website or check out their adventures on Instagram.

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