I met Chela Tu working with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce but have come to know her as a dynamic member of our community, a connector of people and ideas, and a passionate force for good. Chela lives by her values and shares her love for her community by creating meaningful connection, supporting local businesses and helping people find unique ways to get involved. May this interview with Chela inspire you to take action in your own community in 2018.
Who are you? Where do you live? What do you do for fun?
I grew up in Beijing China from the ages 9 to 14, followed by a year of world travel before my mom moved me and my siblings to North Carolina where I started high school as a sophomore. Two years later I moved back to China for three years to teach ESL and almost didn’t come back to the states but when I did decide to move back, I never left. I have now lived in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro community for 10 years! After 5.5 years working with the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce, I just stepped into a new role as Account Executive at WCHL - The only daily local news source that serves the best place on the planet!
I live in the sticks in White Cross with my supportive partner Seth and sweet kitty Tawnie. I love cooking and sharing food. I’m a sucker for clothing swaps and affordable fashion with my twin Maylin!
My hobby is Brazilian jiu-jitsu and self-defense and I train at Triangle Jiu-Jitsu Academy. I work with several young girls and I love seeing how their confidence grows learning those skills. Just last week I taught a 14 year old girl how to throw me over their head and filmed a slow mo video and watched her face light up watching it. One of my missions in life is to share jiu-jitsu with the world and especially our local community.
What inspired you to become involved in the local community?
It was fun and it was a way to be connected that didn’t require me to be rich or have influence. I could just go and volunteer my time. I loved it - I would spend all my weekends volunteering for events like Full Frame and Piedmont Farm Tour. I also had a ton of fun volunteering at the People’s Channel and with Vimala Rajendran, my hero.
My work with parks and recreation started as volunteer work and led to my first job developing the Locally Grown event and others. When I was working with parks and recreation, it was not a full time job so I did freelance social media consulting and taught Chinese as a second language to little kids at the Chinese School of Chapel Hill. Eventually I branched off and started my own teaching program at the community center. In my free time I hosted dumpling parties at my house. Community and food – my favorite things.
One day I got a call from a friend who said he had a super secret idea and that we needed to meet in person so he could tell me the plan. When we met, he proposed that we start a dumpling food truck together with two other UNC alum. All of us were world travelers and all grew up speaking Mandarin and shared a passion for Chinese food and culture. We decided to move forward with the idea and had a late night brainstorming session with a long roll of white paper and crayons to come up with the name, Chirba Chirba which would become one of Durham’s first food trucks. We all pooled our little savings to open the truck and all took different roles in the business.
I was the chef, there was one business guy, one hospitality guru, and one engineer. In addition to chef, I was the special events person, marketer, scheduler, driver, brand developer in addition to emergency midnight repairs on the truck when things broke. It was a non-stop hustle. I didn’t quit my job right away when we first started and so it was hardcore, 80 hour work weeks.
That first year we barely paid ourselves a minimum wage. At the end of that first year we owned the truck outright and were profitable. We worked hard but had fun too! We were featured on the LiveWell Network on My Family Recipe Rocks with Joey Fatone.
While Chirba Chirba was happening, I became friends with Chris Derby. Chris was involved in so many aspects of the community, a big, kind personality that was loved by everyone. He served on the Chamber board and on the board of Extraordinary Ventures, and was owner of the local UPS store. He wanted to start a food truck and asked for my advice. I helped connect him to the right resources to start Baguetteaboutit, his food truck, while he mentored me professionally and got me involved with the Chamber. Chris invited me to the Chamber’s annual Community Bocce Tournament, an event he loved (and won!) which led me to apply to be a program assistant at the chamber thanks to his encouragement.
Years later we lost Chris unexpectedly. The Chamber renamed the bocce event in his honor after his unexpected passing years later.
After I sold my share in Chirba Chirba, my role at the chamber evolved from program assistant to VP of member engagement over my 5.5 years at the Chamber. I loved working at the chamber. I met so many people, and was introduced to many different parts of industries, community organizations, and professionals. Planning major events was also super fun! I grew to understand the community in a whole new way and how economic development affects the community as a whole. I became engaged and informed in local politics in a way I had never had envisioned.
I loved being a part of connecting all the diverse aspects of the community because we are all part of one collective. I learned how to be a good community person working at the chamber. The lesson I walked away with is that in every encounter there is a purpose. Be open and aware and invite whatever that is. At the time I was just doing my job and my job became a way of life. Read my New Career Adventures article on LinkedIn.
What about your job/community work inspires you and what are some of the obstacles you have overcome to pursue the next step?
I love my new job because I get go out and meet people, learn about what they do, and how I can help them. The second part of my job is getting to design the creative stuff - coming up with sample commercials and seeing peoples face light up when they hear the ad and they know I really listened. I enjoy working with the team to come up with silly and creative ideas for ads for the best fit for marketing for local businesses. It is unique, creative, local and real. That is special and it is also always challenging me.
What is your mission in life?
My end goal and mission is not specific and I embrace that because that is me. What I get to claim and own is that I believe that every moment will lead to something good if I follow my life philosophies of kindness and generosity.
Comment with what living in community means to you. Thanks for reading!