71-year-old Tao Huabi pauses for a second and her eyes well up when asked what life was like before she started her business. “I was selling noodles and tofu in the streets but it became cold in winter. So, I found some bricks behind a police station in Guiyang and built my own shed from where I could sell my stuff,” she said during a rare interview with Chinese Tencent Video.
Tao’s story begins in the remote mountain village Zun’yi in China’s southern province of Guizhou – famous for its stunning scenery and Miao minority villages. But it’s also, one of China’s poorest regions. Tao’s family couldn’t afford to send her to school so she never learned to read or write.
At the age of 20, she married a local geologist and when he fell ill and later died, she became the sole provider for her two sons. She made rice tofu at night, which she sold at schools during the day. With hard work, she managed to open a small restaurant and it was here, Tao would eventually turn her luck around.
With a mixture of local Guizhou rapeseed oil, fermented soybean and chili flakes, she started serving the noodles with a homemade chili sauce which, despite being a common household sauce (Húlàjiāo) in Guizhou, struck a chord with locals. They flocked to her restaurant and the sauce eventually became so popular that she stopped selling tofu and noodles and focused only on the sauce – which got its name (meaning Old Godmother) from clients who praised Tao for her extreme kindness.
In 1997, Tao had saved enough to make the sauce her sole source of income. At the age of 49, she founded Lao Gan Ma Foodstuff Company, which employed 40 people.
The emotion shown by Tao when she talks about her tough beginning is unusual. She is rarely seen smiling and the resilient expression on her picture featured on every label of Lao Gan Ma sauce, represents her personality. Tao knows what she wants and does not like it when people tell her what to do.
She has refused to take the company public as suggested by the local government and has made the fight against counterfeit products one of her main battles in life. More than 50 counterfeit Lao Gan Ma products have appeared over the years. In 1998, Tao and her elder son Li Guishan formulated the Lao Gan Ma Rules and Regulations. According to an article published on Women of China, the rules are very simple: don’t be lazy and no media interviews.
Its fascinating because to see because Tao’s management style in contrast to the picture of her as an elderly woman with a heart of gold. But there is obviously truth to this soft side. Her 4,000 workers call her their godmother and she actually remembers most of their birthdays. In fact, over the years, she’s been the main witness at many of her employees’ weddings. She’s even been known to send workers going on a business trips a fond farewell and a boiled egg to enjoy while traveling.
Tao retired as CEO for the company in 2014, but she remains the legal representative of the company. Now, she enjoys life and loves expensive things. When she recently spotted getting out of her red-colored Bentley car, estimated to be worth 570,000 USD, some online observers noted that it the car price was the equivalent of 460,000 cans of Lao Gan Ma sauce. The red Bentley is one of Tao’s fleet of luxury cars. You might think some people would frown on Tao’s wealth, but the Chinese people adore her.
Tao is seen as an inspiration and also known by the nationwide hashtag #The Spiciest Woman of China. In this context, spicy means feisty, and the tag has received over 7 million views on China’s main social media platform, Weibo. But it doesn’t stop there. Tao has become a fashion icon and during the 2019 New York Fashion Week, the American brand Opening Ceremony launched a collection of red hoodies featuring the Lao Gan Ma logo as part of a tribute to famous Chinese brands. This was a welcome gesture, although Tao still likes to keep a low profile and usually declines any interview requests.
While fortune and fame take center stage in the story of Lao Gan Ma, her success was built on chili sauce. Tao Huabi is truly a spicy blend of love, pride, resilience and unbreakable values. She has become a role model for achieving the China dream. Anything is possible if a poor, illiterate single mother can become the CEO of a Forbes success story with annual revenues of $655 million.
Editor’s note: When faced with the challenges of fear and restricted freedoms from shutdowns due to COVID-19, it seems like a particularly good time to celebrate the industry and success of women from different cultures around the world. History continues to demonstrate we must focus on the positive ways we are united and less on the things that divide us.