Jiyoon Han was inspired by her parents to take on entrepreneurship from an early age.
Before immigrating to the U.S. in 2000, her parents opened a Wendy’s restaurant in South Korea. Later in 2008, they launched the New York-based coffee company Bean & Bean Coffee Roasters, where Han helped her parents run the business behind the counter.
The family has now expanded the business into four brick-and-mortar stores in New York City and New Jersey. But the business has faced a fair share of obstacles. The family opened the coffee shop right before the 2008 financial crisis and had to find ways to keep the new business afloat. More than a decade later, the company had to shutter three of its four locations during the height of the pandemic.
During COVID, Han helped her parents pivot the business by launching Bean & Bean’s e-commerce site. This allowed them to offer organic fair-trade coffee and products from women-led coffee farms. She also introduced virtual coffee classes for old and new customers, as well as organizations like Royal Bank of Canada, Harvard Business School, and UBS.
Hello Alice caught up with Han to discuss what it’s like operating a family business, how the 2008 financial crisis and COVID strengthened the business, and why she got into entrepreneurship.
What role do you have in the family business?
It was started by my immigrant parents when I was in high school. Since then, I’ve always been involved, whether it was behind the bar as a barista or now as the digital experience lead. Now, I’m searching for coffee with my mother as Q Arabica Graders, which are like sommeliers of coffee.
Your family opened the business right before the 2008 financial crisis. How did you overcome that challenge, and how did it prepare you for this pandemic?
We didn’t know about the financial crisis. My parents had no idea. As a family, we did not expect the wall to go down that way. But, despite the backdrop of the crisis, and the size of Starbucks — there’s one just two, three blocks down from us — our focus on customer experience and our honest pursuit for quality really helped us get through and weather through the crisis.
You had to close some of your stores during the pandemic. How did you turn that experience into growth for the business?
A retail brick-and-mortar shop that’s forced to close means that it’s not a business, right? But we took that as an opportunity and really thought about how to survive and thrive beyond COVID and come out on the other side stronger.
What I did immediately after coming back home to New York from Boston, where I was a student at the Harvard Business School, was launch our online e-commerce shop. We roast all of our own beans, and we could still utilize the capacity of the roaster that was sitting idle and sell beans to customers who wanted our coffee in the comfort of their own homes.
We thought of ways to keep the business moving and going and thought of ways to keep moving the coffee. I launched a virtual coffee tasting class and a cold brewing workshop for people to be able to make delicious coffee. This was a way for me to connect with existing customers through the virtual Zoom classes, as well as reach new audiences all around New York, across the U.S., and even overseas in places like Singapore, London, and Toronto.
You and your mom are running Bean & Bean’s e-commerce shop together. How has it been like sourcing products for the online shop alongside your mom?
It’s really fun and dynamic. Being a child of immigrants and growing up bilingual, I’ve always felt like I can speak either language well. My parents’ first language is Korean. I grew up speaking almost exclusively in Korean. So coffee, for me, is like another language — a language for both of us to speak to each other. And in that way, it’s very special.
You also have a background in UX design. How did your product design experience help you create Bean & Bean’s website?
I was a UX designer for Naver, which is the largest search engine in South Korea. I designed user experience, connecting offline to online. How do you display storefronts on the digital surface? How do you make that experience seamless between the phone and people’s actual physical experiences? That helped me think about how to design this offline to online seamless experience.
You’re currently an MBA student at Harvard Business School and participated in the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-Lab). Was there anything that you learned in the i-Lab program that you applied as an entrepreneur?
One of the most helpful things has been the mentors that I’ve paired with. I was paired with a few different mentors who really care about me, as an entrepreneur, as a student, and as a person. What I think a lot of people of color don’t have access to are mentors that really care about them. It’s very difficult to find. And as fortunate as I have been in having mentors that really cared for me, I still have yet to meet a mentor figure who looks like me and was raised in the same upbringing and background as the one I grew up in. Mentorship is really important to me as a life theme. My hope is to be that mentor figure to women, Asian Americans, and people of color.
Bean & Bean has been in operation for 13 years now. Looking back at the family business, what’s something you’re most proud of as a daughter?
When the financial crisis happened, we tried our best, but it didn’t feel like it was something that we had control over. We were clueless. But this time with the pandemic, I think we were more equipped to be proactive. It was really a family effort, like we all held our hands together and worked through this together as a family, so I’m really proud of that.