Mei Xu (P ’19, ’21) discusses memory, candles, innovation, and the bamboo ceiling at a recent Conversations with Friends.
One of the symptoms and lasting effects of COVID-19 is the loss of the sense of smell—an especially meaningful factor in memory, which is triggered by scent. It is a detail that was not lost on Mei Xu (P ’19, ’21), the founder and CEO of the Chesapeake Candle Company. “Scent is intimately connected to memory,” she said at a recent Conversation with Friends event with Lesli Foster Mathewson (P ’24). Which is why Xu—the author of the new memoir, Burn: How Grit, Innovation, and a Dash of Luck Ignited a Multi-Million Dollar Success Story—was not surprised to see candle sales spike over the last year despite COVID’s effect on sensory experiences. People in lockdown, she said, “want to experience those memories of places and people and scents they can’t access from home.”
Thanks to strong language skills, Xu trained to be a diplomat in China from the age of 12. But it was when living in New York City—next to Bloomingdale’s—as an adult that she found her true calling. “The fashion was so crisp and minimalist,” she recalled. “But the home section was so dated and grandmotherly.” Xu saw a place for candles in that space—specifically environmental fragrances, which in the 1990s was a new concept.
The Chesapeake Candle Company thus came about not because she grew up in the Chesapeake Bay region of course, but because she was inspired by it. “In China, I never saw a tree that wasn’t planted, everything was so manicured and intentional,” she said. “There were gardens with walls that you pay to get into. China just has so many people and so little arable land.” But on the bay, she discovered, “nature in the wild, sailing, water—it’s just ideal.” She captured that ambience with scents like Cottage Bay, which includes noted of wood and fresh linen. She explored moods, learning for example that citrus is the smell of happiness, and created a line of aromatherapeutic fragrances.
But Xu’s success was hard won. An immigrant, a woman, and Asian, Xu had to persevere over stereotypes and ignorance—what she calls the “bamboo ceiling.” And it isn’t just Xu’s theory: One Harvard Business School study found that, among minorities, Asians were least likely to be promoted. It’s a kind of paradox—despite excellence in education and successful careers, many Asians find themselves locked out of the c-suite. It’s part of why Xu makes the business case for Asians in the corporate America: In a globalized world with a roaring Asian market, U.S. companies can’t afford to lose out on this huge pool of talent.
Of course, the bamboo ceiling is also one reason so many Asian Americans become entrepreneurs, Xu noted. Frustrated with the limits of potential promotions, many will launch their own businesses. Another reason so many Asians new to the United States turn to entrepreneurialism is their immigrant backgrounds. “Immigrants are less frightened of giving up everything to try something new,” she said. “It is their life experience to do that. That’s the difference between those that have great ideas and do nothing and those that have great ideas and allow themselves to do it.”