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Path to Prosek: Grit and Other Lessons, The Chinese Restaurant Version

Ray Chang  Follow

Ray Chang

It’s the 1970’s in Austin, Texas. The air is tinted with a warm, sepia hue, and everything is perfectly groovy. There’s a bustling new Chinese restaurant on the scene called China Palace, opened by Ming Chang and his wife, Jennifer. For over two decades, it would shine bright as a place for friends, family, and notable figures. There are records of Catherine O’Hara and Ann Richards, former Governor of Texas, dining there and thoroughly enjoying their experience.

That’s where Ming and Jennifer’s two sons, Fred and Robert, would work their first jobs which helped them buy their first vehicles – a Camaro for Fred and a Harley Davidson for Robert. It was there at China Palace where Fred met Iris, his future wife – my mother and then-waitress – and eventually took over the family business.

It’s no secret that running a restaurant is physically, emotionally, and financially demanding. I grew up inside the gilded lacquered walls of China Palace, witnessing firsthand the sacrifices that my family and their team made every day to keep the business and, more importantly, its spirit alive. It was about more than just the food. It was about impact, purpose, and experience, how people felt when they gathered at the larger-than-life, but always familiar, space. It was about the way people remember China Palace now, a multitude of decades later, along with the lore surrounding its history, evident in the way food critics and locals will nostalgically recount the service they experienced, the food they ate, and the cast of characters they were sure to encounter.

“At the front desk presided the no-nonsense proprietress, the inimitable Mrs. [Jennifer] Chang. She ran the place with an iron fist but always treated us like gold (we spent money and tipped well).” – Mick Vann, The Austin Chronicle

A few things happened in the year 2000. The seminal phrase, “Keep Austin Weird”, was spoken into existence. China Palace was sold to the next generation of owners, and the Changs moved on to new ventures. My father opened a new restaurant in Boston, then another one in a small college town. A franchise here, and another franchise there. Then, an empty space in the Austin airport, passed off to my mother. My mother, still in Austin, suddenly found herself in a position of sole ownership for the first time in her life, a blank slate of possibility. This was foreign territory for her, with every day consisting of a hundred challenges and a thousand more unknowns. It took trial and error, but she found her footing. It became a million-dollar business and an Austin airport staple for nearly 20 years.

I saw how difficult building a business up from the ground was – it required my mother and my family to possess an unrelenting grit that seemed to be non-negotiable in this profession. For a long time growing up, I admittedly could not understand why my family, especially my mother, would choose to stay in a line of work that required such a tireless “get your hands dirty” mentality. 

The answer slowly revealed itself to me as I grew up and began exploring my own career path. Like many young, curious professionals, I thought I wanted to go big early in my career. Big brands, big organizations, big teams. The bigger, the better. I thought it was better to be part of as large of a company as possible for no definitive reason other than because it was big. But, somehow, it never felt quite right. Something always seemed to be missing.

It wasn’t until I went small, unexpectedly, that I finally uncovered a craving so fundamental to my professional identity, a quality that had been ingrained in me growing up in a family of lifelong restaurateurs and entrepreneurs. Every day in this new role, I was surrounded by possibility and opportunity. Every day, I was confronted by an environment that ceaselessly demanded entrepreneurial spirit, out-of-the-box problem solving, and steadfast grit. Taking true ownership – physically, emotionally, and financially – of both the highs and the lows of the business was the single biggest responsibility I had experienced in my professional career. 

The years I spent there pushed me to accomplish things I look back on with immense pride and satisfaction. It was about more than just the work itself. It was about the opportunity to make an impact on a once-small (read: two-person) agency that grew into an eight-figure business with 50 employees across the U.S. and Europe. It was about the people I formed lasting connections with along the way, many of whom I remain close to and find myself being a confidant to as they grow in their own professional journey. Most of all, it was about creating something greater than the sum of its parts with a team committed to the same vision. It was empowering, knowing we had the strength and ability to build a dream together, to make something great out of something small.

When I began to consider the next chapter of my career, I knew I wanted an environment that could sufficiently feed this hunger in me. The act of building, of creating, of leaving my fingerprints on something – those were qualities I couldn’t compromise on. 

Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far. Prosek reached out to me to start a conversation, and the rest unfolded organically. I had known about Prosek for years, mainly as an industry-leading financial communications firm, and while I respected the brand, I was unsure where my skill sets would fit in, given that I’d be coming from a branding and creative background.

Prophecy,” the recruiter had answered like a prayer. Relative to Prosek’s 30+ year PR business, Prophecy was a new team within Prosek offering branding, advertising, and go-to-market capabilities, all still with a focus on clients in the financial services and broader B2B space. The Prophecy team was small but mighty, the recruiter had said, and they were looking for more talent to help move the mission forward. This wouldn’t be a typical cookie-cutter role – it would require a strong sense of ownership and entrepreneurial spirit, and it would mean “getting your hands dirty” alongside your other team members in order to build something great. Was I interested? The answer came easily to me. Yes, I was.

It’s been about two years since I made the leap to Prophecy. The recruiter was right; my experience here hasn’t been cookie-cutter. Every day has its exciting share of new wins, new questions, and new learnings. I’ve discovered the power of Prosek’s integrated agency model, and it is quite a thing witness – hundreds of branding, communications, digital media, and professional networking & convening experts coming together in one place, all of them true experts in their subject matters and in what they do. As part of the Prophecy team, I’m squarely centered within our integrated model and see firsthand the impact we have on our clients and their businesses, our own internal teams and how they work, and the broader industry, its standards, and best practices. It’s incredible to see the wide-reaching influence Prosek and Prophecy have cultivated over the years, empowering our clients and their brands to achieve the “Next” important phase of their journey.

In this moment, my mind goes back to my grandparents, my parents, and a loud Chinese restaurant with gold walls. Generations of motivation, drive, and grit form a deeply embedded desire within me to make an impact and leave a mark, however small or large. In fact, size and scale aren’t even primary factors of consideration, in my mind. To me, something that leaves an impact and can achieve a more meaningful outcome than the sum of its parts, that is a thing worth pursuing.

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