Can American manufacturing make a comeback?
If Noelle Nguyen has anything to say about it then the answer is yes.
In 2012, Nguyen founded American Love Affair, an online company specializing in high end clothing and jewelry manufactured in the U.S. American Love Affair’s mission is to become “the online destination for all things American made.”
Based in Los Angeles, American Love Affair directly employs up to 20 people (depending on the season) and hundreds more indirectly through outsourcing to companies based in the United States that are involved in manufacturing, distribution, and logistics. The genesis of American Love Affair came about while Nguyen was pursuing her MBA at Pepperdine University.
So why did Nguyen name her business American Love Affair? Why is she so passionate about this country? Recently, I had the opportunity to correspond with Nguyen to discuss her passions and pursuits.
Nguyen was born in Vietnam towards the end of the Vietnam War. Her father had been a high ranking officer in the South Vietnamese army and at one point had been taken prisoner by the communist North Vietnamese. He would eventually escape imprisonment and fled Vietnam with his family in tow by boat. Their boat was briefly seized by pirates during their week long sojourn in the South China Sea to Thailand. During the seizure, Nguyen’s mother even swallowed her wedding ring rather than surrender it to pirates. After three years in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines, the Nguyen family immigrated to the United States through a church sponsorship. Encounters with U.S. military personnel, the American Red Cross and everyday Americans sowed the seeds of Nguyen’s lifelong love and gratitude for this country.
Nguyen rapidly learned English and within three years of her arrival would be editing the school newspaper. However, learning English did not come so easily to her parents, especially her father. “My father, to this day, is still taking English classes and the fact that he speaks it with a very heavy accent still shames him, I think.” But this hasn’t deterred her Dad’s determination. “He does not have this mentality that Americans should, instead, accommodate him by learning to speak Vietnamese.”
Given her father’s views and the values he instilled in her, I ask Nguyen if she is concerned that others who have come to America over the past 25 years don’t share her love and passion for this country. She believes that most legal immigrants “share the same love and appreciation for this country that I do, they’re just less vocal.” As for illegal immigrants, while Nguyen thinks they appreciate this country for its economic opportunities she also believes they “have no regard for the rule of law.”
However, Nguyen reserves her greatest concern for those who were born in the United States. “The youth and pop cultures are particularly alarming because they appear to propagate that America is evil, America is bad,” said Nguyen, “Unless one has lived beyond the safety and boundaries of this country one really has no idea that to be an American is the greatest fortune.” Nguyen believes “the greatest peril facing this country is cultural decline.” The creation of American Love Affair is Nguyen’s response to this peril. “American Love Affair stands for my love affair with America, and I hope it will become a symbol for what’s great about America.”
It is clear that Nguyen has inherited her family’s determination that brought them to America and she is determined to succeed in America. In fact, she seeks “outsized success.” “In the absence of natural talent (i.e. athlete, singer, etc.) or a willingness to make a sex tape, etc. the only shot I had at a slingshot to outsized success was entrepreneurship.”
Indeed, Nguyen views entrepreneurship as an essential part of her character. “It’s in my blood. I solve problems. I strive to do things more efficiently, effectively, creatively,” asserts Nguyen, “I see opportunities. I will only accept win-win solutions.” She adds, “A former business school professor of mine said that he could send me to the desert and I would come back with resources. He’s correct; I get joy out of building a castle from sand.”
This makes me curious as to whether Nguyen had a favorite professor at Pepperdine, but she would have none of it. “Like a parent who doesn’t have a ‘favorite’ child, I’m not going to fall into that trap.” Nevertheless, she does credit six different professors as being “instrumental in informing my knowledge base.” Nguyen cited Wayne Strom, Terry Young, John Scully, Bill Smith, Kurt Modamedi and Demos Vardiabasis for giving her “a huge information edge.” She is in regular contact with all of them and often seeks their counsel. In keeping with the spirit of American Love Affair, she proclaims, “It’s a bit corny but I’m madly in love with them… in the most respectful way, of course.”
Yet Nguyen’s love, passion, and ambition for outsized success are tempered by a steely pragmatism. She states, “Unchecked ambition is a dangerous thing.” Nguyen harbors no illusions that American Love Affair will supplant Amazon or Wal-Mart. Instead, Nguyen views American Love Affair as a “complement to their business, not a competitor.” She adds, “I’d like to carve out a niche selling American products globally, with results that redound to the betterment of the American people.” With this in mind, Nguyen also says, “I hope my greatest contribution to society will not be as an entrepreneur, but a defender of this great nation and its well-meaning people.”
So what is the most significant challenge facing a business which sells goods manufactured in America? Nguyen says the challenge isn’t selling good manufactured in America, but how to succeed as an e-commerce business. The challenge for her is sourcing. “Finding the right merchandising mix can be a challenge due to availability of supply, particularly if we want to segment by demographics.” Nguyen indicated she has been able to face this challenge because of her knowledge of the marketplace.
But is buying American good business? Is it good public policy? I cite to her a syndicated column written by John Stossel in November 2011 in which he made the case that “Buy American” is a “dumb idea” because “it would cost jobs and make us all poorer.” Nguyen begins her response by stating it would be her “dream to debate John Stossel.” She makes the case that Stossel focuses most of his attention on overseas instead of domestic employment. “No economic opinion on manufacturing can be taken seriously when it does not address the impact of policy on domestic employment because there are always tradeoffs, in this case, high unemployment in the U.S.”
Second, Nguyen points out that comparative advantage isn’t static. Over the years, China has had an edge on low-end manufacturing because of cheap labor while the U.S. has an edge in high-end manufacturing because of greater access to technology. But China has closed the gap on high-end manufacturing with not only improved access to technology but greater access to capital, labor, and other resources. In the long run, Nguyen argues it is mistake for America to abandon low-end manufacturing. Earlier in her business career, Nguyen used to import containers from China. She changed course following the economic collapse in 2008. This event demonstrated to her “how decades of outsourcing had negatively impacted this country’s employment prospects.”
Third, given the different skill sets inherent in the American labor force, she further argues that Stossel is wrong to “pooh-pooh vocational work.” She also believes that Stossel fails to consider other factors such as currency manipulation, high consumption and low productivity as well as “a lazying culture.” This would be an interesting debate indeed.
I was curious as to what Nguyen believed the role of the federal government should be where it concerned American manufacturing. “Generally, in a free-market economy, I think government should not dictate but incentivize the right behaviors to accommodate both short and long term needs.” She views government involvement as an essential part of American enterprise. “This notion that government should completely get out of the way is ridiculous, and is born of ignorance and/or opportunism, not pragmatism or having, at heart, the best interest of the American people.”
In the spirit of having the best interests of the American people at heart, what advice does Nguyen have to offer to her fellow Americans who wish to start up businesses which either manufacture or sell good manufactured in this country? She responds by quoting the old Nike slogan, “Just do it.” Yet this declaration comes with caution. Nguyen strongly suggests that budding entrepreneurs “factor in failure as an expectation” and “to be flexible in tactics.” She also says it is critical to know yourself:
Mental blocks and emotional volatility are more detrimental to entrepreneurial success than regulatory, financial, or informational barriers. Entrepreneurship requires a heavy dose of mental and emotional clarity, precision, steadiness, and resilience. If these attributes are in play, just do it! And expect that entrepreneurship can be a very lonely road.
But if Americans start to buy American again, Noelle Nguyen might find this road won’t be so lonely.