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Tao Huabi, the Face of Laoganma: From Hole in the Wall Cook to Billion Dollar Businesswoman

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To the numerous fans of Laoganma 老干妈, the spicy Chinese chili sauce deserves all the positive headlines it has coming its way. Yet even for its devotees (enough of whom exist for there to be a dedicated Facebook appreciation group), the brand’s appearance at New York Fashion Week earlier this month was something of a surprise. But founder Tao Huabi’s face appearing on models amid one of the fashion world’s chicest events is just the latest twist in a pretty incredible “rags to riches” story that lies behind the brand.

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Tao was born in 1947 in a small mountain village in Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces. Similar to its neighboring province of Sichuan, Guizhou is known for its cuisine coming with a spicy kick, and when Tao pulled together enough savings to open a small cold noodle restaurant in the provincial capital of Guiyang in 1989, she developed her own chili sauce to serve with the dishes. The sauce proved a hit with customers, who would regularly come in to her shop to buy jars of the stuff, ignoring her noodles. Demand was such that Tao began selling the sauce to similar noodle joints down the street.

The story goes that having received little formal education herself, Tao was regularly supportive of poor students, often giving them discounted or free meals and earning herself the name of Laoganma (“Old Godmother”) in the process. This was the name she therefore opted to use when in 1996 — at the age of 49 — she employed 40 people and set up a proper production facility, thus creating a formal company.

According to Quartz, that company employed 4,000 people as of last year and brought in 655 million USD in revenue in 2016. Tao herself stepped aside as CEO of the company in 2014 but has remained involved in the business.

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Last year, her story went viral on Sina Weibo after reports she owned a fleet of luxury cars including a BMW, Bentley and Rolls Royce. While in many cases such a collection might produce scorn online, Tao was hailed as an example of the “China dream” and the spicy sauce godmother was dubbed “the hottest woman in China” as netizens delighted over her story and independence (Tao, for example had regularly rebuffed pleas to take her company public).

With an estimated personal wealth of over 1 billion USD and named by Forbes as among China’s top 20 businesswomen, Tao has likely taken all the hype over her face landing at New York Fashion Week in her stride and as just another step in her condiment’s incredible globe-trotting story.

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