What Our Intern Did This Summer: Learning About Small Business and Relearning the Definition of Success

What Our Intern Did This Summer: Learning About Small Business and Relearning the Definition of Success

This summer we were so happy to welcome intern Pearl Ngai, Cornell University class of 2022. She was integral to helping us brainstorm social media ideas, run events, take supercute photoshoots, and create products (like our new care package Friendship Boxes? thank Pearl!). Here she discusses what she did with us this summer, and what she’s learned.

Once a customer asked me, after I had told them my name, if Pearl River Mart was “my store.” I chuckled when I said it wasn’t technically mine, but after my second summer working as a sales associate and my time as an intern, I now truly feel that Pearl River is “my store.” It’s where I’ve always shopped and now, it’s where I’ve been given space to learn and create new relationships that I will always treasure.  

This past summer, on any given Thursday or Saturday, you could find me at the ever-bustling Chelsea Market branch. Whether it was checking items out for customers behind the register, restocking inventory on our busy floor, or welcoming people into our store, I always had something to do. I won’t lie — working the floor at our Chelsea Market spot was not an easy task, but in its challenge I have experienced and learned a great deal.

My favorite moments at our Chelsea store include happily counting through the confusing coins of American currency with a visitor as we both complained about the penny, watching along as customers discovered which fan made the best thwacking sound, and talking to long-time customers overjoyed to see us not just back in business, but thriving in a new location.

Most importantly, I leave this summer with a new sense of respect for those who work in customer service jobs. As a customer, I have often forgotten the humanity of the person standing across from me. Without my experience as a sales associate at PRM, I would never have understood this in the way I do now.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, you could find me in the basement office of our Tribeca flagship store, sitting across from my coworker and supervisor, Tiffany. Together, Tiffany and I would have great conversations with my supervisor Angela as well as with Lauren, another coworker, on anything from the news to movie and book recommendations.

Starting my internship, I had hoped to learn about Pearl River Mart’s operation as a small business and its impact on the Chinatown community throughout history to the present. In attending events like Philip Poon’s exhibit opening for “SHARED SPACES” and a dress rehearsal of “An Orchestral Exploration of K-Pop” at the Lincoln Center, or even visiting neighborhood staple Kam Hing in celebration of National Spongecake Day, I was able to see the immense amount of effort the PRM team is putting in to support the local Chinatown and Asian American community.

This mentality of encouraging a new generation of creators directly bled into my experiences while completing my personal projects. By the end of the summer, I had helped curate three new Friendship Boxes for sale and I felt as though PRM was offering me the space and chance to express myself creatively.

I was also given the opportunity to take on projects such as writing up informational signs for items of particular cultural significance, wherein I learned how to best honor a culture’s traditions and art. As I conducted research, wrote signs, and re-wrote signs about Tibetan singing bowls, Chinese knots, and Japanese samurai dolls, PRM’s dedication to respecting pan-Asian histories and cultures was reinforced to me in a very tangible way.

Even in the little things that I was asked to do as part of my internship, I found myself learning about just how committed PRM is to an inclusive conversation around their mission as a friendship store. For example, I was tasked to add alternative text to the PRM website to aid visually impaired customers navigate our inventory online, which I found particularly challenging but also rewarding.

Some of my favorite moments from my internship come from the biweekly team meetings led by President Joanne Kwong. There, I was given the chance to hear about the real nitty gritty aspects of running a small business. The topics discussed ranged from inventory counts to our relationships with vendors to different marketing strategies. While serious in nature, there was always laughter and little jokes made during these meetings. Moments like Mrs. Chen teasing Mr. Chen from across the room would prompt smiles all around. It was an incredible sense of family and mutual respect I felt during these meetings, where everyone involved was invested in the betterment of the Pearl River Mart legacy, while also having some fun.

This brings me to the most important thing I’ve learned from my internship time. Over the summer, I’ve been able to reframe and relearn my conception of what success is. For students like me, it’s easy to be constantly blinded by our own goals. We understand success in individualistic terms, believing that our achievements come at the expense of someone else's failure to do better. Then, we grow up to be adults who continue to think the same way. It’s easy to focus only on relishing in that sweet success and to imagine sharing that with someone else is not particularly appealing.

It’s different here at Pearl River. When Joanne or Mr. and Mrs. Chen think about success, they always envision it being something that’s shared. Whether it be with our customers, neighbors, partners, or greater Chinatown community, our achievements are never exclusively ours. That’s powerful to me, and it’s a testament to Pearl River’s dedication to the mission of being a friendship store.

Joanne will often ask, “How do we pull a partner store into this deal with us?” or, “How do we help elevate another brand?” Whether it be through selling and showcasing budding Asian American artists or giving shout-outs to the achievement of community members on our social channels, it’s imperative to us that we share in our achievements. It’s never a one and done thing but rather an ongoing process, where we make honoring community partnerships a priority. While the PRM team still values the literal success of our store, as in paying rent and expanding our reach, it has become crystal clear to me that we treasure success that money can’t buy.

I wish Pearl River Mart nothing but success. Knowing how much the family at PRM truly cares about the community, I know that a Pearl River win is a Chinatown win, a New York City win. I look forward to seeing all the ways that “my store” continues to blossom and bring joy to those who shop with us.

Interested in interning with us? Send your cover letter and resume to team@pearlriver.com.

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