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The Day I Became a Storytelling Entrepreneur

I was five years old, bored out of my mind, and just old enough to instinctively grasp a truth I would cling to like treasure for the rest of my life: that the only cure for boredom is curiosity. 

The Long Beach Marketplace, where my parents owned a trio of businesses, wasn’t Disneyland (I’d already been there twice, so I knew), but it was the most adventurous place in my universe that I had regular access to, and the sprawling outdoor shopping plaza (about the size of a small city to my three-and-a-half feet of height) always had plenty to capture my intrigue.

I was at the Marketplace instead of McKinney — my school without grades — on a warm weekday afternoon, working hard to stay out of my parents’ way. My sister was three years old and mostly quiet. She was a good kid, while I was the troublemaker. Needing excitement like I needed food, I lived in the shadow of trouble. A grassy hill where we could play with minimal supervision lay a few feet to my left, but my interest was bolted to the bank of restaurants and shops across the way as I watched the many waves of men and women across the parking lot, all carrying boxes and bags full of riches I could only imagine.

I had been observing the world from my perch at the base of a small glass-and-shingle kiosk when a woman rushed in front of me, her arms loaded with a basket full of flowers on the way to her car. A lone balloon tied to the basket’s handle whipped in the wind.

The sight closed a circuit of inspiration inside me.

I hopped down from the wooden planks and onto the textured gravel in front of my parents’ photo-mat, dashed past their moderate-sized ice cream parlor, then darted into Rainbows Flower Shop — the first and most important of our three family businesses — bellowing as I entered:

“I HAVE AN IDEA!” 

Pop glared at me — I knew better than to run inside like that, yelling my nonsense when the shop had a customer. So I made myself small, slinking over to the wall of stuffed animals where I bounced on the balls of my feet, waiting for my father to finish what he was doing so he could help me with my idea.

“You want to what?” Pop asked me a few minutes later.

“I want to open a balloon business.” I nodded emphatically, proud of my idea.

Pop fostered this sudden entrepreneurial spark by leading me into the back room, where he kept the shop’s helium tank. Together we filled a dozen balloons to start my new venture, but opened shop with only eleven after Mom used two valuable pieces of inventory to make herself sound like Alvin the Chipmunk doing a Yoda impression.

The balloons were tied to a white wrought-iron chair from our ice cream parlor.

“How much are you planning on charging per balloon?” Pop asked me.

“Twenty-five cents!”

“Great price.” He nodded his approval and it felt like the sun had started shining inside the flower shop. “What about selling them five for a dollar?”

Even better. I pictured two $1 bills in my hand as my family helped me set up shop in front of the photo booth, finishing with Megan and I posing for a picture to commemorate my first entrepreneurial venture.

Then everyone left me to my business.

The first, second, and third potential customers were all disappointments. Fast moments might as well have been fat minutes to my five-year-old self, so after a quarter-hour that had moved more like a full-day, I abandoned my inventory, moseyed back into Rainbows, and loudly declared my hunger.

“How many balloons have you sold?” asked Pop.

I failed to see the relevance. “When are we having lunch?”

“When you’re out of balloons.”

I skipped back outside, suddenly starving and determined to sell every last balloon.

But the courtyard stayed silent throughout the longest minute of my life so far. A Fearless Flyer from the Trader Joe’s in the shopping center across the street fluttered by. Eucalyptus trees shuddered in the wind.

The quiet was finally broken as a car door slammed, then a man in a business suit hastened away from his vehicle, passing me as I called out to him.

“Hey, Mister!”

He turned back around, eyeing me in equal parts annoyance and confusion. “Yes?”

“Would you like to buy a balloon?”

“Um. No thanks.” Silly kid, he added with his smile. “I’m just running into the Food and Drug.“

“They’re only twenty-five cents each. But you should probably get five for a dollar. Or all eleven for—”

“I’m just going right back to work … and I’m really not in the market for … balloons.” The man looked at me, desperate to make his escape.

I held him hostage with my sad little gaze, lips quivering in preparation for my close.

“But my dad said I couldn’t eat until I sold all of my balloons and … AND I’M SO HUNGRY!”

The man immediately fumbled for his wallet, stuffed a $5 bill into my hand, grabbed the balloons, then took two steps toward the bakery before turning back around and gently shoving the unexpected purchase into the trunk of his car.

I clutched that fiver like the triumph it was and stormed back into Rainbows, victorious.

Of course I have very little actual memory about that long ago day. The Balloon Story became a legend in my family. It’s always been one of my parents’ favorites, and we even have a picture of me and Megan as evidence that it actually happened.

But everything you just read is a storyteller reimagining those events in real time for both of us, based on my parents’ retelling.

The Balloon Story, while draped in the fog of memory, still reveals the timeless truths of my journey: that ambition transcends age, and cultivating success comes through simple acts of belief and determination.

Next week I want to tell you all about the Marketplace and what it meant to me, before introducing you to my grandparents. Amazing people who helped to make me who I am today.