Earlier this year, Scarlet Le-Cao became the first president of the recently formed Greater Oklahoma City Asian Chamber of Commerce. She serves as executive vice president and co-owner of Omega Investments with her husband, Nathan Cao. Omega Investments is a local residential and commercial real estate investment and development. She also owns La Bella Event Center.
Le-Cao has a master’s degree in international business with a focus in International Marketing and a bachelor’s degree in advertising and public relations from Oklahoma State University.
She and her husband have three young children — Marcus, 8, Elizabeth, 5, and Henry, 1. Her family has two dogs — Booney and Bailey — and she has an office cat, Pepsi.
In the following Q&A, Le-Cao discusses coming to America to be a businesswoman, the need for the new Asian Chamber of Commerce in OKC, and where she finds the energy to take care of herself and her family while running businesses and being active in the community.
The following conversation has been edited lightly for grammar, clarity, length and style.
Where did you grow up? Tell us how you ended up leading businesses. And where do you find the energy and time to take on this role of president of the Greater Oklahoma City Asian Chamber of Commerce?
I was born and raised in Saigon, Vietnam, and came to Oklahoma in 2006 to attend Oklahoma State University as an international student.
When I was a high school student, I learned about the word “entrepreneur” during my English class, and it was a lightbulb moment for me to write down in my essay that I wanted to come to America and be a businesswoman. My English teacher did ask me if I knew what a businesswoman meant, and she said it meant you would be busy all the time. And it has become true in my case.
When I think about work, life and family, I have come to realize the following principles:
As in priorities, I am always identified as a mom and a wife first. Here is how I rank my priorities: Self, family, business and community work.
- Self: This means mental and physical health for me. I do prioritize time for myself first because I believe when I am healthy, I can take care of everyone around me. Barre3 has been a life support and lifestyle for me. The exercise has been helping me through postpartum depression after my second child. It helps me to balance between mind and body.
- Family: We have a very strong relationship in our marriage and family. We are very lucky to have my mom live with us and my husband’s parents live five minutes away. It is a healthy family ecosystem for us to take care of our parents who are in their 80s, but they also help with our grandkids, which make them happier in life. I have a responsibility to take care of our family including my kids and elderly parents.
- Business: I would say I have lots of layers as a businesswoman: First, being a woman, and second is being a minority. It was a lot easier when we first started without kids. We worked and worked and didn’t think it was a burden. It was and is a joy and honor to be able to work and produce. Plus, we have been working hard to build a very strong team. We have been carrying the same philosophy into building our team. We care about every single team member. We never want to refer to our team as employees/employers. We never want to tell our team to “work for” us. They work WITH us. With this principle, dedication and trust are our strong foundation in our business organizations.
- Wellness: Our personal belief of work/life balance is pretty different. It is like yin and yang in life. Work and life are just two elements cycling around each other. We want to be grounded with a strong physical, mental, spiritual, and ethical foundation. Our people around us are also part of wellness. We always seek out the right group and community to learn from each other and to feed off of each other’s positive energies and vibes. In addition, we read lots of self-help books. EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) is more important than IQ.
- Community work: At this point in life, along with growing our businesses, we feel fortunate that we can be in the position to give back to the Asian community. We believe in giving back because of our parents and children and to lift up our community. Everyone in our community is like an extended family member to us, like our uncles or aunties. We can relate easily to everyone because their stories are so relatable. Plus, we have a vision to make Oklahoma City and our state to be an even better and friendlier place for families and businesses. Without execution, vision is just a dream. That is why the work of the Greater Oklahoma City Asian Chamber of Commerce is critical for our community. I am very honored to be chosen as the first president of the new chamber. My role is to always be a fervent supporter for everyone else to succeed. I personally hope that, with my supporting role and experience, I can help the organization and our dedicated group of board of directors succeed. What drives me daily is our mission to support the economic growth of the Asian community in the greater Oklahoma City area.
- Dedication: Before accepting the role, my husband and I discussed a lot of my time, dedication and responsibilities. He has always been supportive and challenged me at the same time to be more efficient and effective in handling responsibilities and to never forget the priorities in our lives.
The Greater Oklahoma City Asian Chamber of Commerce is the latest among several OKC-focused chambers of commerce. Is there a need for an Asian chamber of commerce?
YES, definitely. The Asian community is one of the fastest-growing populations in the Oklahoma City metro, in Oklahoma and in the nation. In the greater Oklahoma City area, we have over 50,000 Asian Americans with over 5,300 firms that generate $203 million in payroll and $1.25 billion in sales taxes.
We are mighty and influential. We work hard and try to excel in any business. However, we haven’t had a unified voice to represent our community. That is why having an Asian chamber is critical, not just for our Asian community, but also for our city and our state. The chamber is building a bridge to help businesses and individuals navigate better and create opportunities so it will be easier to work with our community as we collaborate to strengthen our city and state.
What are the chamber’s goals?
Our mission is simple: to support the economic development of the Asian community in the greater Oklahoma City area.
Our four vision statements are:
- To connect, strengthen and advocate for Asian businesses and professionals in the greater Oklahoma City metro by supporting pro-business policies;
- To recruit Asian-owned businesses and Asian talents to areas we serve;
- To facilitate fair and equitable access to opportunities for Asian businesses and professionals;
- To pursue educational and cultural initiatives for the greater Oklahoma City Asian communities.
How can the Asian chamber of commerce support businesses in the community?
To constantly learn and listen to the needs of our business community.
Just like Oklahoma City is diverse, so is the Asian community — from family histories, cultures, languages and generations. Within Asian communities, we have Oklahomans with diverse ethnicities, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Indian and Pakistani. We do share some common values and cultures such as family values and culinary enthusiasm. However, we are very unique and different.
On top of that, when our parents came to America, they worked hard in minimum-wage jobs in order for them to survive. To break through that cycle fastest, they believed pushing us through occupations such as doctors, lawyers and engineers is the guarantee to escape that cycle. With that expectation, it created lots of pressures and tensions for the second generation. They begin losing their confidence and identities as an Asian American. Even for my husband and me, there were times we felt like we needed to part away from our Asian community in order to “make it.”
We, the Greater OKC Asian Chamber of Commerce, are the 1.5 generation of Asian Americans that bridge that gap of generations to unify the voices and represent the needs of each generation better. We want to be the strong foundation for our Asian communities to lean on to be successful in career, life and family. And the most important thing is not to lose our identities in the next generations. By constantly listening and learning from our community, we can serve better!
We, as the board, believe in education. Education will bring wealth in the most ethical way to support and build our society stronger with better manners, foundations, values and ethics. Family, faith and respect for each other — especially the older generation and the nourishment of the future generations — are what we are striving for as we serve.
OKC’s Asian District has many restaurants and events. Which one is your personal favorite, and why? What is something that people can get here that they cannot get anywhere else?
That is a very tough question. There are many amazing choices for Asian food. My favorites depend on my mood and cravings. I may be biased, but Asian food and snacks are more interesting. I go to Gangnam or Krave Teriyaki for Galbi (Korean short ribs); Gong Cha for boba tea; Pho Lien Hoa and Pho OKC for pho, Vietnamese coffee, grilled pork chops on broken rice, coconut jelly or avocado smoothies. Riviere Modern Banh Mi has the best meatballs that smell just like home for me. I love the funk in the papaya salad from Ma Der Laos or Four J’s because the funk in those papaya salads reminds me of my dad and how much he loved pickled fish and pickled mud crabs. Sardine banh mi from Lee’s Sandwiches or grilled pork banh mi from Quoc Bao are great, and we are so lucky to have Super Cao Nguyen, Chinatown and World Fresh International Market for our groceries. My family and I can whip together any food we crave from our home country. I, personally, cook almost every weekend to maintain our tradition of family gatherings for our kids and with the hope that they will remember it when they grow up and recreate that tradition when they have their own families.
My favorite event is the Asian Night Market Festival by our sister organization, the Asian District Cultural Association (ADCA). We could not be prouder to showcase our cultures with a strong attendance of 40,000 people each year. And I, personally, couldn’t be more proud of my husband, Nathan Cao, who serves on the board of ADCA.
My favorite time of the year is Lunar New Year. We can see kids doing the lion dance at different events, businesses, churches or temples, etc. to preserve and promote our culture. We can’t wait until our kids can be on a lion dance team.
What is something people can get here that they cannot get anywhere else?
Our friendliness! My mom used to teach me to never let our guests leave our home hungry and thirsty and never to go to anyone’s home empty-handed. My husband and I are doing our best to follow my mom’s teaching. Being in Oklahoma, we feel so welcome here. We can only thrive because of the environment around us and because the people in our city and our state are friendly and welcoming. Our city and our state share the same values: family and faith.
How important is the Gold Dome to the Asian District? While it’s outside the district, it is a prominent landmark saved from demolition by preservationists’ protests.
The Gold Dome is a landmark between Asian District and Uptown 23rd and has been a premier property connecting Classen Boulevard and Northwest 23rd Street. Our board of directors has visions for the area, but they’re simply visions for our community, and we have no defined plans.
As a new chamber, we are proactively taking many steps to build up our foundation for sustainability. One of our first goals is to hire an executive director for support since all of the work we have been doing is through volunteering. We aim to collaborate alongside other minority groups and organizations with the same vision to help our city and state thrive.
Are you involved with any other civic organizations?
I am the learning chair of our local chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which is a global organization of 17,000 entrepreneurs around the world. I was also appointed by Mayor David Holt to serve as a board member of the Civic Center Foundation.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
I don’t think there are any surprises about me. I am transparent and vocal about my beliefs, which is to be a voice for the Asian business community or woman entrepreneurs or a tired mom of three young kids. My husband teases me that I can breathe out fire outside our home, but I am being run around by our kids. I always try to speak from the heart, and there should not be any layers of me to peel since being my honest self is the easiest way to live, and it is easier for everyone I care about to understand me. I have made and will make mistakes, but those are the best lessons to learn from to be better in life with the guidance of the people I care for the most.