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Elvin Lai: Building a Legacy of Entrepreneurism and Activism

SDF Board Member Elvin Lai was at the University of San Diego studying biology with a minor in chemistry, interning at Scripps Institute of Immunology with plans to pursue the field and further his science studies through graduate school.

But when his father passed two days before his 21st birthday, the age one is considered an adult in Taiwan, Elvin faced the difficult decision to follow his passions or fill his father’s shoes and take over Pacific Beach’s Ocean Park Inn; a hotel that had been in the family for generations.

Under immense pressure as a young adult having to make such a life-altering decision, Elvin took a month and consulted with his father’s friends, business associates and his best friend’s parents as he weighed his options.

The Taiwanese culture that his parents embodied and the lessons they taught him are what moved him to put his dreams aside and prioritize the family’s legacy. His parents instilled in him the idea of longevity for the family for multiple generations, and that wisdom has fueled his entrepreneurism and activism.

Failing for Success

The first three years of running the hotel were “horrible,” Elvin emphasized, but his science background proved beneficial in learning how to run the Ocean Park Inn. “The only way I could understand the hotel, because I didn’t have a business background, was to break it into anatomy functions,” he shared.

This perspective helped him understand how each department maintained the whole “body” of the business.

“I needed to fail to succeed,” he added. “If somebody can learn from failure, they are bound to succeed.”

Elvin Lai speaking at SDLA conference

After learning much of the hotel’s inner workings on his own, he realized he needed a dedicated team of trusted associates to help him keep the business afloat.

The same family, friends of family, and colleagues that guided him as he decided to take over the family business became the Ocean Park Inn’s first board members and his brain trust.

Elvin defines entrepreneurship as survival. “Entrepreneurship is very much about survival. Right? Survival of your idea, your passion, and the reason you belong.”

He quickly learned the art of survival meant collaborating with individuals who shared the same vision for good.

Wisdom through Weiqi

Elvin recalled playing “Weiqi,” also called “Go,” a chess-like game, with his father around age 12. His father asked if he wanted to be the chess player or the chess piece. “I wanna be the chess player!” young Elvin said without hesitation.

His father replied, “If you want to be the chess player, you’re responsible for the chess pieces for your opponent and yours, and more importantly, the chessboard.”

It took a long time for Elvin to digest that piece of wisdom, but it took on massive substance once he did.

Carrying on “legacy” was more than taking care of his family.

Elvin Lai and his wife and daughter

As the business continued to grow, Elvin got to work getting involved in the community. His list of community engagement and local board involvement is long and growing. Still, he is most proud of establishing the Pacific Beach (PB) Clean & Safe Program, born out of a town hall he hosted to better understand the homeless community in Pacific Beach.

He learned that the large majority of the unhoused were dealing with mental health issues and in need of a “hand up.” With a desire to uplift the local PB community, a pilot program was born and grew significantly from the start providing job training and upward mobility, easing the transition from homelessness to a career.

Elvin cited the adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as it dawned on him what his father meant during their game.

“The board, to me, is the foundation of the community. If the community is not healthy, there is no business to be had in that community,” he stated.

Building Legacy

Elvin was giving a presentation about his life of entrepreneurism at a local Rotary Club meeting when he first met SDF President & CEO Mark Stuart.

Joining SDF’s Board is an integral part of the legacy and community building Elvin constantly pursues. He thinks about his children and hopes for a future where they can thrive and feel like they belong.

It’s hard for him to pinpoint one specific pillar of the Foundation’s Strategic Plan that he resonates with the most as they each support one another. But he is particularly excited about building generational wealth across our region and advancing racial and social justice.

“I want to focus on building entrepreneurs, self-reliance and sustainability. I want to help build generational wealth within communities of color,” he emphasized.

Elvin is thrilled by the work of the Black Community Investment Fund and looks forward to similar initiatives that will address like needs within Latinx and AAPI communities.

The Journey Continues

It’s easy to look at Elvin’s success and think that he’s got it all figured out, but he is very transparent about how much more he must learn and the challenges with self-worth he still faces as he continues to grow in his career.

His wife challenges him to consider when he will be good enough for himself.

Still, on the search for that answer, one thing is certain – Elvin’s father would be quite proud of the activist, entrepreneur and legacy builder that his son has become.

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