Marvin Abrinica is CEO at Wunderfund and CFO at Esoteric Brewing Company, the first Asian- and Black-owned brewery in Ohio. He currently lives in Cincinnati, and was born in Cleveland to first-generation immigrants from the Philippines.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Marvin and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on March 1, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): Can you share when and where you were born, and where you grew up?
Marvin Abrinica (MA): I was born here in Cleveland, Ohio to Filipino immigrants. My parents came here in the ’60s. I was one of three boys and grew up in a very traditional Filipino household. We also integrated a lot of American culture into it. I came down here to Cincinnati at a young age and went to school here locally at the University of Cincinnati. I got an undergraduate degree in English and then I got my master’s in business. I started working for a big company here in Cincinnati, Procter and Gamble. I was there for about 18 years before I became an entrepreneur.
RC: You mentioned just now that you had some American influence. Can you share a little bit about that?
MA: The American influence in my life is really just growing up in the Midwest, where there really isn’t a lot of other Asians, let alone Filipinos. A lot of the ones that we would consider family were friends or other people of Filipino heritage. Those became our aunts and uncles here because we didn’t have our other extended family here. So, a lot of friends we also grew up with were just people around the neighborhood. It was really cool, just to be part of that whole experience. But it can be very challenging when you’re an immigrant — a son of immigrants — trying to grow up here in the Midwest.
RC: Were there any cultural values that you had to negotiate between the East and the West growing up?
MA: I think cultural values [oscillate] between East and West and so forth. My parents, for instance, would very much push our Asian heritage — be part of cultural groups, eat cultural food, and so forth and then also, the values of respect and honoring your elders and so forth. And then you also contrast that with the way that the Western cultures are here, which is very self-advocacy driven, and you grow up knowing that you have to advocate for yourself, and self-lead. Those types of things can sometimes be at a clash with one another. So, the biggest challenge is really trying to bridge those two. I learned at a young age that I really had to do that not only for my family — because I was a native English speaker — but then also had to do that for myself.
RC: Did you speak Tagalog?
MA: So I did not speak Tagalog growing up. I know a lot of words. I know how to swear in Tagalog — the type of things that a lot of Asian kids would do. And really, that was because my parents had really pushed for me to speak English, to integrate into our community, and to really not stick out that much. So, the biggest challenge, of course, is now, as an adult, now I get shamed for not knowing the language. And a lot of that is from just my upbringing. But now, it’s just much more commonplace for [the] second generation to know their native language, or their country of origin and the language there. So, it’s really kind of interesting, because I think society as a whole has gotten a lot more accepting of our cultural differences and embracing that and really fostering that in our younger people.
RC: As we were talking just now, were you rebellious or did you listen to your parents? Did they want you to play piano instead of sports? What was that like?
MA: Yeah, so I was a rebellious kid. I would say I was definitely a bit rebellious. I took a path, I got into business, really, because my parents wanted me to become an engineer, originally, or go into medicine. So, for that, I said, “Well, that’s not really what I want to do.” I was always good at math, but I don’t really want to do that — that seems kind of boring. The compromise for me was that I would at least look into other things like law or business and so forth. I even went to school, studying English with the intent of going into law school, and that parlayed into my first job at Procter & Gamble when I interned in communication there in PR. I just loved the corporate environment I was in and the people I was working with at the time as an intern, that I switched gears and I got into business. That is just where I found my fit in life. And I think you don’t become an entrepreneur playing it safe, or you don’t become a business leader or you don’t do any of those things without taking a little bit of risk, and without being a little bit of a rebel. You do have to keep it in check for sure and play nice in the play box or the playpen. But ultimately, I think you need to have a little bit of risk-taking in order to be successful.
RC: Is that how you think about your children too?
MA: Absolutely. I’ve got two kids. My oldest daughter is in college right now, studying emerging technology and business design. It’s where two things have a confluence of design, art and innovation as well as business. My youngest daughter is a ballerina. In fact, I think she’s somewhere back here roaming around because it’s her break. Both of them, I told them, you don’t need a prescribed process or a path. Now, you should still go through and tick off these boxes, make sure you can figure out and get the skill sets there. But you know, there’s no prescribed way of success. My youngest daughter, for instance, she’s aspiring to be a ballerina. Who am I as a dad to say, “Gosh, you know what, you’re not going to make a lot of money doing that.”…So if I were to take a very traditional mindset on that, or what my parents might have had, or as an Asian American, “Well it might not make money right away, or it might not be the right career,” then all I would be doing is crushing her dreams. I don’t want to do that.
What I recognize now is that most people in America have seven to eight different careers before they retire. I’m not talking about one job with different roles, I’m talking about completely different areas they’re jumping into. And a lot of that is because people become more, let’s say, generalists or expert generalists in life. So they recognize that they can go deep into certain disciplines, but they can jump from certain disciplines every few years. I think part of the things that really get me motivated, that all of us need to be thinking about is, how do we reinvent ourselves every few years? Because it can get pretty stale if you’re just sitting in one career track and that’s the only thing you do. Those specialists are out there — don’t get me wrong, we got a lot of great PhD’s and scientists out there who are doing that — but that’s just not for me. I think a lot of people out in this world now are starting to realize that they can try on different hats so that they can still feel fulfilled and what their life’s purpose is.
RC: In our conversation prior, you had talked about the sense of being “in-between” and mentioned the word “coconut.” What does that mean?
MA: Sure. When you grow up in two worlds — if you will — you stand on the edge between, let’s say, Asian culture and then Western culture. In many ways, my friends used to joke that I was a coconut because I was brown on the outside, but pretty white on the inside. It’s because I played sports and I did a lot of things with my friends. At the same time, I would come home and we’d have dinner, and sometimes you’d have a full fish on display, and a fish head and all these other things. It’s like these two worlds will collide, where people — your friends would come over, they’ll open up your refrigerator, they’ll see these things, and at the same time, they’re just your buddies and you’re playing video games together. So, you have this awareness that’s built up where you recognize that at least I was different, but at the same time, I was very similar to these folks. I think that exposure goes both ways. So for me, being exposed to those folks, but then being exposed to this culture was really awesome, because it gave them a bit of cross-cultural communication so that they could grow up a little bit more tolerant as they got older.
RC: Did you have a pretty diverse neighborhood then when you were growing up?
MA: I grew up in a neighborhood that was relatively monochromatic in a very upper-middle-class neighborhood here in Cincinnati. Most of the kids in my graduating class — I’ll tell you, there were five Asian kids in my graduating class of over 400, and two of them are twins. So there’s really only three other families besides ours to really count. You look at those types of numbers, and you think about the experiences and how that influences you. A lot of that is really what I was just used to. It wasn’t anything that I would say was bad. It was just that’s what I was.
Growing up, as I became an adult because I had that kind of background, a lot of the fluency in terms of translating culture and bridging those things was relatively easy for me. Even when I started my professional career, a lot of affinity groups, especially the Asian affinity groups, would always look to me to lead this group or lead that [group] because some of them might have been first-generation immigrants here, and they were expats or whatnot. And because I spoke English well, or because I understood the lingo and the culture, it was implicit that I was going to be leading that aspect of it. So, I think those types of things — that was something that I embraced growing up, even though it was sometimes kind of a strange world to be in between two worlds.
RC: I wonder if you can give me some understanding about the minority scene in Cincinnati, either historically, or how you’ve worked with Black owners, Black artists, Black entrepreneurs?
MA: Sure. The scene here in Cincinnati in terms of diversity — it’s growing tremendously here. It’s always been a diverse place; especially this neighborhood we’re in, which is Walnut Hills, has historically been a diverse part of the city. But I would say, if you think about it in terms of Black and white — for a long time, it was very much of German-Irish heritage. Then there was a Black community here and that started to diversify through the years as more Asian immigrants came in here. Through that timeframe, we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs here in the city of Cincinnati. It’s no secret that there were some issues early in the 2000s, where there was these riots and all this civil unrest that was happening here. Those were some of the things that really defined what is the mettle that Cincinnati’s made of.
And it wasn’t until soon after that had happened that a lot of city people just responded in a great way. You’re seeing a big Renaissance from 20 years later, where downtown, OTR [Over-The-Rine] has changed and transformed dramatically because there’s been a lot more collaboration that’s occurred there. The city planners have been more engaged with diversity and inclusion and now we’re starting to see that evolve into the city. Now, we have the first Asian American mayor in the country with Mayor Aftab Pureval, who is a friend. You’ve got city leaders who care about what’s happening here and you’re seeing all those things start to come to a head now, where we’re starting to see a lot more diversity happen. And for me, that’s also been part of my narrative: connecting to people from different backgrounds. A lot of the friends that I had — as I said, growing up, because there weren’t many of us who were minorities, we all hung out together. And that was part of the upbringing that brought me to this place.
So, coming into what I’m doing now at Esoteric, I met my business partner here, Brian [Jackson], who’s the first Black brewer here in Cincinnati. He’s one of only five black brewers in Ohio and we’re the first Asian- and Black-owned brewery in Ohio. So, when you think about that level of diversity, it’s an industry where there’s so few amount and numbers of people of color and are women, that in the traditional sense of beer, people always think of some bearded bro. I joke about it because as an Asian, I can’t really grow much of a beard. But the idea being that we really want to represent a level of diversity in an industry that has lacked that. It’s not to say that the beer bros aren’t our friends. I mean, we get our fair share — they’re buddies of ours. But now, what we’re trying to do is make sure that everybody knows, “Hey, Asian people drink beer too, Black people drink beer, Hispanics drink beer and women drink beer.” If you don’t know already, that segment of women under 25 are the fastest growing segment of beer drinkers in the country right now. When we look at those types of things, it’s part of who we are in our DNA to include them because we want them to be seen, we want them to know that “Hey, we got you.”
RC: I’m interested in how the cultures between Black culture and Asian / Filipino culture have synergistically come together, and created either opportunities or challenges to work through?
MA: We look at it as we have one mission in mind and that’s to craft great beer that can have social change. When we do that, we then add a little bit of spice to that, or the things that are very unique to who we are. That’s why when you walk through the taproom here, or what we call the “brew lounge,” you’ll see aspects of that. Whether it’s a lotus flower, which is a very Asian symbol, or very Eastern symbol, but you will also see art on the walls that’s very much inspired by, one, the time period of the 1930s, but also [two], Black culture.
Ultimately, the programming that we do, which is really the actions of what we really want to showcase, are things that are going to provide a level of diversity and inclusion. So we host a ton of different things. For instance, right now, we just finished up Black History Month. We launched a Black-owned collaborative club beer with two Black-owned breweries. We launched that as part of Black History Month along with Saturdays of Black entrepreneurs who were here because we wanted to showcase what it means for success to happen in that culture, as well as, highlight the culture itself.
RC: Can you talk a little bit more about Walnut Hill [where your brewery is]?
MA: Walnut Hills is a neighborhood, a pocket cottage community, if you will, of Cincinnati downtown. We’re about a mile and a half from the downtown city center. This used to be the second downtown of Cincinnati. There used to be a streetcar here in Cincinnati; it would come right up the hill and it would come right up on this corner, which they call Peebles’ Corner. We’re in a historical building. It’s over 90 years old. It was built in the 1930s right around Prohibition, as well as the Great Depression time. It used to be owned by a guy named Joseph Peebles, which is the namesake of Peebles’ Corner. And Joseph ran a liquor store and a pharmacy kind of like a Woolworth’s, that of yesteryear, and he would make his concoctions here. It was a general store, and people would come up here to shop and people would ride the streetcar here in order to shop along McMillan during that time. There was a theater on one end of this block, as well, which was called the Paramount Theater, which you’ll see nods of that here, especially in old photos and so forth. What was really cool about Joseph is that he would bribe the streetcar owners with cigars. He would tell them if they shouted out “Last stop, Peebles’ Corner,” he would give them the cigars. So, that’s how these streetcar drivers just said “Last stop, Peebles’ Corner” and the name kind of stuck. And so even to this day, even though you’ll see no remnants of Peebles’ anywhere, it’s still called Peebles’ Corner.
And all that diversity — all that activity that was happening up here, it led to like one of the biggest neighborhoods of Cincinnati. Then through the middle of the last century, during the Civil Rights era, during a lot of suburban flight, like a lot of urban neighborhoods, these neighborhoods got neglected in many ways. So people started leaving this area. In the last iteration of this spot here where we’re sitting was a pawn shop. When you think about what a pawn shop is to a community, all they are doing is they’re melting people’s gold, and they’re just squeezing every last dollar and remnant of value out of a community. Because those people might be so poor, that’s all they have left. So, for us to be able to take over a building like this, and be able to renovate it and rehab it and adaptively rehabilitate it into something that’s more life-giving, that’s how we look at everything that we want to do and everything that we touch is something that we can give life to and it can be life-giving.
RC: Going back a little bit on your Asian heritage, how did those things that you grew up with, including your parents wanting you to join certain Filipino events, how does that form your career and what you’re doing today?
MA: Like I said before, my parents were very traditional. They had us be part of the Filipino community, the small Filipino community that is here in Cincinnati, dragged us along to these cultural groups, wanted us to get involved in the dance troops and all these other things. But that was also part of the things that — as much as I hated doing some of those things — it was also some of the things that made me different and made me realize later in life how important it is to embrace those differences because that’s really the spice of life.
The other value that my parents also gave me was that level of hard work. My dad was an engineer. He worked his a** off. He worked as a mechanical engineer for a firm here. My mom was an entrepreneur in real estate — she had a CPA background. But then when she came here to the United States, because of downward mobility, she just started working at a Red Roof Inn cleaning beds and so forth, and replacing linens. Because, part of that was that she wanted to show us that you don’t want to let people — you don’t want to let your kids starve. So, she worked her way back up. She started earning her keep. She became an entrepreneur. She ran lots of different businesses. She was very astute with finance, and that formed a lot of how I think about the world.
I remember at a very young age, I was maybe 11, or 12, my mom would bring me the local library — and this was before the internet. And she would pull these financial statements from companies, and she would take whatever filings they had, and the companies that she wanted to invest in at the time, and she would teach me how to read income statements and balance sheets. Other kids were out there playing in the backyard; my mom was trying to teach me how to read financial statements. It was a funny kind of anecdote, but it really informed how I think about the world and how I think about finance — how finance can change the world.
And that, in many ways, is how I formed my career. Not only while I was at Procter & Gamble, but then when I left Procter & Gamble when I started this fintech company called Wunderfund. That whole side of things is really about leveling the playing field for entrepreneurs so that they could raise capital. And it not just being from the wealthiest steps of society — that everybody could be part of that, and that they had access to capital. A lot of times, people of color are overlooked, and access to capital is a huge problem, especially if you’re in the Black community, the Hispanic community. So, for me, being able to be a bridge — that is a very meaningful thing. In fact, that’s how we got started here at Esoteric, as well, because of that opportunity for us to crowdfund. We ended up raising almost a million dollars just to fund this brewery that we have behind us — a majority of those from people of color. Think about that, and how that transformation could occur. The only way this could occur was by bringing those people together.
RC: To finish, do you have any aspirations for future generations regarding where this conversation about race and tolerance, working together, coexisting together is heading?
MA: So, when I think about raising kids and our future generations here, especially as an Asian American, I always think about what is the contribution that we have for the world. What’s our purpose here? It doesn’t matter whether you’re Black, or white, or Asian or Hispanic — it doesn’t matter. From that standpoint, what does matter is that you’re always keeping your eye on the prize, and you have a goal, a vision in mind that you can contribute to and you can build. I’m a firm believer that if you can put your heart and your mind to those things, then you can make anything happen. And that level of — maybe you call it foolishness — but I call it a level of fearlessness, is what drives me. Asians can be very much criticized for taking the safe road or maybe being too conservative when it comes to how they think about things. I think when you live a life of fear, it prevents you from even taking a risk. Part of that might be just our parents saying, “Don’t go outside, or wear a hat when it’s cold, or don’t go play baseball or football because you might get hurt and you should play piano or violin,” and these types of little choices. I think as a parent, and as somebody who is also a leader in our communities and the businesses that I run, I’m always pushing people to take risks and to be visionary about that. Because if you’re going to see a problem that’s out there, it’s your job to look at that problem, and not just walk away from it, but to solve it. So, that can be whether it’s a business problem, or it’s an issue when it comes to a community that you’re trying to solve, even when it comes to relationships between people. That’s how we operate here as a business. We put race aside sometimes and we just look at each other, and we say, “Hey, what kind of human are we? Who do we want to be when we grow up?” And that’s really what really drives us.