Small Business Tour: Mott Street Girls
Running a business

Small Business Tour: Mott Street Girls

Let’s start by having you each introduce yourselves.

Chloe Chan: Hi, I’m Chloe from Mott Street Girls. I'm one of the co-founders. Anna and I started Mott Street Girls around March of 2020. Previously we were actually tour guides at the Chinese American History Museum, which during the pandemic unfortunately closed down.

Anna Huang: Hello, my name is Anna. I'm the other co-founder of Mott Street Girls. Like Chloe said, we met at the local museum here in Chinatown, where we learned about Chinese American history. We thought it was really important to spread that history to the public.

Tell us about the meaning behind Mott Street Girls and how you guys came up with that as your name.

CC: It actually took a lot of work! I feel like that's one of the most important parts of the business. It's memorable, it's catchy. Our original idea was Overheard on Mott Street. But we were making our emails and our Instagram and we were like, you know what? That's kind of clunky and long.

Then we thought of Mott Street Girls, because it's not only named after one of the historic streets of Chinatown, but also the acronym is MSG which is a condiment frequently used in Chinese cooking, but also in other cuisines as well.

Had either of you thought about starting a business before the pandemic?

CC: I personally never saw myself as an entrepreneur because no one was an entrepreneur in my family. My dad always told me just get a corporate job—you know, work there 9-to-5, get your 401K, get those benefits. And I think even when Anna and I started Mott Street Girls, we didn't see it as a big deal. It was kind of just like a passion project, you know, maybe something we do on the side. We didn’t anticipate growing to this scale.

AH: Similar to Chloe, my parents taught me like, oh, you know, your American Dream is to climb up the corporate ladder. So I never thought that being an entrepreneur would be like a route that I would even consider. And like Chloe said, when we started, it was a passion project because we love Chinese American history. That's why we wanted to volunteer at the museum, and when the museum closed, we missed giving those tours. We realized that there is a need in the public—there’s not a lot of people that know about Chinese American history. So it's very important. 

What are some of the other challenges you’ve had to work through as entrepreneurs?

CC: It’s hard to get your name out there. We had this idea in March, but we didn't even get our first tour until October. And honestly, the first person that booked our tour really took a leap of faith because we had no reviews and no credibility. Just getting that first customer is really hard. Right now, it’s about maintaining our reputation and maintaining a certain standard.

AH: A lot of corporate teams reached out wanting to do a DE&I tour with us so we were very full for the month of May. But I think it's exciting, right? There's a lot of demand, but unfortunately there's only two tour guides with just me and Chloe. So we've been trying to figure out bandwidth. We split sometimes, but if it's more than like 30 people we try to do it together.

How do you split things in general with running Mott Street Girls? 

CC: That was definitely something that we’ve had to navigate as we run the business because in the beginning there wasn't that much work to do. Whoever had time would do it, but right now as our business is growing and we’ve recruited more team members, we're trying to delegate roles and responsibility so we can better manage our time and make sure things get done. I do more of the social media; Anna does more of the partnerships, emails, events, and things like that.

Tell us what it means to you to be part of the Chinatown community. 

AH: We’ve connected a lot with the community organizations in Chinatown. And it's interesting when we give tours sometimes because even if you live in a neighborhood, you might not know about Chinese American history, because that history isn't taught in school. Or even just history about Manhattan’s Chinatown. So it's fascinating when we give tours to hear they’ve never learned about this before. Chinese American history is part of American history that eventually should be in the curriculum in schools.

CC: Even week by week, our tours can change, depending on the social issues that are going on in Chinatown. We try to educate people on what's going on. For example, with the Anti-Asian hate crimes that are going on in the community, or the mega-jail that's being built. We just try to inform the community.

Did you have a connection to the Chinatown community prior to volunteering and starting Mott Street Girls?

CC: My parents came to New York from Hong Kong in the early nineties. When I was born, they brought me out here every week for my piano lessons, to buy groceries, or to eat in the restaurants here. It wasn't until after I went to college in New York City that I got to explore Chinatown on my own. I discovered all these amazing small businesses that I grew attached to. During the pandemic, when I saw all these small businesses shut down, that was another impetus to lead these tours and tell the stories—because we're living in history. It's important to preserve that for the next generation.

AH: I’m from Boston and I was actually a former Boston Chinatown tour guide, so I had some experience giving tours. I also did Chinese dance growing up, so Chinese culture is something I've always associated with and Chinatown was dear to my heart, so when I moved to New York, it just made sense to volunteer at the museum.

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There's a lot of people who are fighting for this community.

What would you want people to know about Chinatown?

CC: Obviously Chinatown is a tourist destination, but it's also a working class community and a lot of people here live below the poverty line. I think it’s important to take into account that beside being a tourist destination, it is also a Chinese ethnic enclave with a lot of new immigrants here.

AH: There’s a lot of rich history in this area. Even before the Chinese immigrants came over, there were a lot of immigrants that came over, like the Germans, the Irish, the Italians. They all came through the Lower East Side first.

CC: Chinatown has so much to offer beyond food. Definitely come here for the food, but stay for the history, stay for the fun activities. Stay for the people here. There are so many things going on in Chinatown right now.

AH: It's a beautiful place. And you can see, there's a lot of people who are fighting for this community. It's a really resilient community. When you come over here, obviously eat and help the small businesses, but understand the history behind it and the importance of everything that's going on right now. 

Walk us through a day in your life and how you balance everything with your day jobs.

CC: We both have separate full-time jobs, so usually we work on Mott Street Girls after work— responding to emails, DMs, partnerships. It’s a lot of working after hours and then on the weekends usually we'll come to Chinatown to meet with the small business owners. That's another integral part of our social media is that we actually interview small business owners and amplify their stories on our platform.

AH: I think working from home definitely has helped to save a lot of time on commuting. That really helped push the business forward.

Talk to us about the relationships you have with the small businesses here. 

CC: Another very fulfilling part of our business is getting to know the small business owners and the nonprofit organizations in Chinatown and building those relationships. As part of our tour, we do try to highlight small businesses. We love giving out recommendations and highlighting our friends in the community.

Also just speaking with other small business owners, like Tisya from Lanterne Lab and Lucy from You & Me Books, who were also juggling full-time jobs while running their small business. Just knowing that there are other people out there that are doing it and making it work is just so inspiring and just pushes us every day to work harder.

What have been some of the things that surprised you or that you have learned about the neighborhood?

CC: Every time I see historical photos of Chinatown, I actually recognize the business in the photos. So just seeing a Mom-and-Pop that has been here for over a hundred years is just really cool to see. 

AH: I think what surprises me are the contemporary issues that we are continuing to face today with Stop Asian Hate, the pandemic, and the mega-jail. It feels like a lot sometimes. But it emphasizes the importance of our work to let people know the history that's kind of repeating itself and marginalized groups are being taken advantage of, which continues to surprise me today, even when it's 2022. 

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Don't be afraid to take the first step.

What’s your advice for other new business owners?

CC: Don't be afraid to take the first step. When we took the first step to make our email and make our Instagram account, we never thought that would lead us to all these amazing opportunities. We just thought that Instagram would be a place where we would promote our tour, but it has led us to so much more. Amazing friends and amazing connections. So don't be afraid to just do it.

AH: I think time management because you are juggling a lot. Knowing your priorities and knowing what drives you. Because at the end of the day, if it doesn't suit you, then what does it mean for you? I think that's really important to figure out early on. Because it’s easy to burn out when you're juggling a lot of different things, so you have to understand what drives you. What's your passion?

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