Country of origin: China
Year came to U.S.: 1991
Education: American Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University;
Masters in Journalism, University of Maryland
Business: Pacific Trade International (1994)
Headquarters: Rockville, MD
2017 revenue: $55 million (approximate)
U.S. employment: 130
Mei Xu created Chesapeake Bay Candle, one of the most popular brands in the country, and even worked with First Lady Michelle Obama to design a candle for the White House in 2009.
The company that started by importing products from China has also invested in U.S. manufacturing.
Mei Xu grew up in China and from the age of 12 was trained to be an English-speaking diplomat. She even worked as a project manager for The World Bank while in college. Her fate changed in 1989 when, after the Tiananmen Square uprising, she was sent to work in a warehouse. “Anyone who graduated that year had no choices. The government assigned them to work in factories, warehouses, in the countryside, so they could get a second education,” Xu remembered in a SmartCEO interview.
She resigned a month later. “At that time in China, that was almost suicidal,” she stated. Xu decided to go to the United States and in 1991, she and her husband, David Wang, arrived in Maryland.
In 1994, based on her hunch that the home décor market had not kept up with the fashion industry, both Xu and her husband quit their jobs to start a new business called Pacific Trade International. They began by importing items from their contacts in China and walked away from their first trade show with $90,000 worth of orders, mostly for candles.
Xu wanted to make candles more stylish than those available at that time. She experimented with making them at home using Campbell Soup cans. Her lucky mistake was forgetting to add an ingredient. As a result, the candles had a lovely snowflake texture that was popular with buyers. The brand she created, Chesapeake Bay Candle, now has more than 150 textures and is sold in the U.S. by retailers including Target, Kohl’s, Bed Bath & Beyond and Hallmark.
At the start, Xu produced her candles in a factory in China founded by her sister and brother-in-law and used ingredients imported from Europe and the U.S. The company evolved into a fully integrated global distributor of home fragrance, fragrance technology and home décor products sold under the Chesapeake Bay Candle and Alassis brands. The company had five global locations, including operational headquarters and a manufacturing facility in Maryland. In 2017, Newell Brands acquired Chesapeake Bay Candle for $75 million and Xu stepped down as CEO in 2018. She launched meixu.com, a platform to empower women in business. In 2021, Xu published a book, Burn: How Grit, Innovation, and a Dash of Luck Ignited a Multi-Million Dollar Success Story, to share her story of immigration, entrepreneurship, struggle and success with a wider audience.
“We came to this country very young with nothing but the American Dream in mind,” said Wang at the grand opening of the new Maryland plant. “Now we want to do everything we can to pay back this country,” added Xu. “This is the new beginning of Chesapeake Bay Candle’s next chapter to become a true American brand.”
To discover more extraordinary female immigrants, read the blog post Eight Famous Women Immigrants in the United States. To discover more extraordinary Asian American immigrants, read the blog post Nine Famous Asian and Pacific Islander Immigrants. To hear more of her incredible story, listen to her episode of the JobMakers podcast.
Updated July 2022