By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Barack Obama says that only in this country would his improbable rise to the presidency be possible. Brigitte Le feels the same way about her own journey as a Vietnamese-immigrant-turned-IBM-employee-turned-entrepreneur. To celebrate such unlikely stories and help give hers a happy ending, she is selling a rather unusual inaugural memento: a flying-pig statue.
Brigitte and her family fled Vietnam just days before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Her father, a government official, had managed to sell their house, and they left with just the clothes on their backs and the gold from the home sale sewn into pouches around their waists -- "We were so heavy!" she says. The family was sponsored by a Northern Virginia church, and Brigitte started school in Herndon knowing only Vietnamese and, luckily, French. The French teacher took her under her wing and taught her English.
Brigitte, now 46, studied chemical engineering at the University of Maryland, minoring in art. She worked for IBM for 13 years as a systems engineer and federal sales rep. But, she says, "I never wanted to work for somebody; I always wanted to create something on my own." She also wanted to reconnect with both her homeland and her interest in art, so, in 2002, she used her savings to open a gallery of contemporary Vietnamese artwork.
After several years, the Reston gallery was treading water and Brigitte, who also lives in Reston with her engineer husband and two children, had been using retirement money and IBM stock to keep it afloat. Searching for something that would help her break out, she came up with the idea of a pig statue in 2007 -- the year of the pig in the Asian lunar calendar. As she explored the notion, she learned of the Western concept of the flying pig as a symbol of an achievement once thought impossible. She realized such a statue could be easily customized: It could mark celebratory occasions for anyone who had been told they'd get married/have a kid/graduate from college/win something "when pigs fly," meaning never.
Brigitte designed the pig and found a Vietnamese manufacturer to make the statues out of a cement/plastic composite; she paints them and applies the clear lacquer finish. The original golden pigs were welcomed by Asian women who were expecting children in 2007 -- "The pig signifies happiness, prosperity and [is] a symbol of you will never go hungry," Brigitte says -- and remain the most popular. The customized pigs include military pigs and "I (heart) NY" pigs and pigs covered in bling.
When Obama won the presidential election, Brigitte says, she realized there was a huge pool of potential customers who might want to commemorate an occasion many had doubted they would ever see. (Though she had usually voted Republican, Brigitte says she liked Obama's positive tone, and "I decided that I need to make a change.") She started marketing the pigs with medallions that read "Barack Obama: 44th President January 20, 2009" and "Yes We Can." Prices range from $65 for a small pig (eight inches long, seven inches high) to $155 for a large (15 inches by 12 inches). As of late December, she had 53 orders.
In 2007, Brigitte sold $30,000 worth of pigs, and last year she sold $55,000, with a profit of close to 10 percent. "Our life is getting a little bit better because things are happening with this particular product," she says. The pigs are now in seven local stores and are available at Mandarin Oriental hotels; Brigitte says she also is in discussions with Virginia Tech and Nordstrom to create specially designed pigs for them.
The Obama pigs are available on the Web -- at when-pigsfly.com -- and Brigitte is planning to be a vendor at the "Texas fair" being held Jan. 18 and 19 at National Harbor's Gaylord National Resort in conjunction with the Texas Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball. She says she has high hopes for her golden creation: "If it takes off, then my dream is realized as well."