When Peggy Cherng moved to the United States from Hong Kong in 1967 to attend Baker University, she didn’t do it with the intention of becoming a billionaire — but that’s exactly what happened.
An electrical engineer who once coded battlefield simulators for the US Navy, Cherng and her husband Andrew opened the first Panda Express in a Los Angeles-area mall in 1982, serving Chinese food favorites cafeteria-style. Cherng used her engineering PhD to help streamline the restaurant’s logistics by using technology to track inventory and reorder ingredients long before the practice was widespread.
The brand has since grown to over 2,000 locations and built a $3 billion fortune for the Cherngs in the process. Cherng and her husband are now the co-CEOs of fast-casual Chinese food empire Panda Restaurant Group (PRG), the parent company of Panda Express.
But technology isn’t Peggy Cherng’s only major addition to Panda Express. Next to the cash register at each location, there is a small box labeled “Panda Cares,” where diners and staffers alike are encouraged to donate to the company’s charitable arm. In an exclusive conversation with Business Insider, Cherng credited a lot of Panda Restaurant Group’s success to that box and the company’s overall emphasis on giving back.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Taylor Nicole Rogers: When did you decide to make philanthropy such a large part of Panda Restaurant Group (PRG)? What led you to make that decision?
Peggy Cherng: Andrew and I came to the US for a chance at a better education and a better life. Our company mission of inspiring better lives stemmed from our journey of humble beginnings to where we are now with PRG, and none of this is possible without the support of others.
We built PRG upon our family’s core values and the belief in putting people first because of the gratitude we feel for the opportunities we’ve had here. It only seemed natural for us to give back once we were able, and that’s when we started Panda Cares in 1999. As a first-generation Chinese immigrant, I’ve been able to achieve the American dream and feel an obligation to pay it forward to the generations after me.
As a first-generation Chinese immigrant, I’ve been able to achieve the American dream and feel an obligation to pay it forward to the generations after me.
Rogers: What tools do you use for your philanthropy and why?
Cherng: Panda Cares is funded through a donation box program in-store and online that gives guests and associates the chance to participate in the giving. Our associates fundraise in store, every day, asking guests if they’d like to round up or give any loose change or bills. So, every period, our associates’ and guests’ generosity is poured back into Panda Cares funding and the organizations we support.
Andrew and I, along with our business partners, also contribute to Panda Cares for different initiatives and fundraisers. At first, we started small, aiming for $1 million, but as of June 2020, Panda Cares has raised over $212 million towards health and education needs of youth in underserved communities and disaster relief.
On Panda Cares’ focus on health and education
Rogers: Panda Cares has given millions to the Boys and Girls Club, your Centers of Hope, coronavirus relief efforts, and most recently, an expanded partnership with the United Negro College Fund. How do you decide what causes to support and what organizations to work with?
Cherng: When it comes to choosing how to give back, we focus on health and education — these are two of the most important aspects in life. A healthy body, mind, and spirit is essential, and proper education helps create opportunities and growth. We want children and families in underserved communities to live to their highest potential.
Panda Cares is created to support our communities’ needs, so we do shift its focus to relief when natural disasters or crises occur. When the pandemic started, we created COVID-19 Community Care Fund to combat food scarcity and PPE shortage. We donated $2.25 million to Feeding America and Boys & Girls Club to ensure that no child and family go hungry during this difficult time. And we sourced over 5 million pieces of PPE to donate to local hospitals, so our healthcare heroes have the essentials to save lives.
As we continue to evolve our educational programs, we have established the Panda Cares Scholars Program, in partnership with United Negro College Fund, Inc. (UNCF), to provide the necessary funding, academic support, and leadership development to help high school and college students from low-income families. Most recently, we committed an additional $12.6 million in scholarships to UNCF and the Jackie Robinson Foundation with the intent of creating more opportunities for BIPOC.
We also continue to evolve our education programs. Andrew and I are so appreciative of the education system we have here in the United States, so in an effort to give back, Panda Cares helps fund programs that focus on character building and academic accomplishments to help students from underserved schools to grow intellectually and become future leaders.
Rogers: How does your philanthropic work impact your business and your employees?
Cherng: I’m a believer in leading by example, and all Panda family members are called upon to be “we” first vs. “me” first in their thinking.
I think the power is in giving. Panda Cares is not only a way to serve the community but a way to inspire our associates in the value of giving. We inspire our associates to give from their hearts rather than out of any obligation they feel, and we empower them to volunteer their time to serve the community as much as they can.
And the cycle of kindness and generosity continues through their network. I will say, that when our people are proud of their work, it really shows the positive impact giving leaves. And this makes me proud.
‘Think about love as an action’
Rogers: Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially women?
Cherng: An important philosophy I have is to think about love as an action. Love is about working harder, being more accepting and growing personally, so that you can be the best version of yourself and in turn become a role model to help others.
This thinking has defined my servant leadership style and something that I believe is the key to Panda’s success to-date. There is power to this type of vulnerability — it allows for individual connection even as the company scales.
Rogers: How do you want people to remember you, Panda Express, and Panda Cares?
Cherng: What started out as one restaurant to provide, employ, and feed one family has grown into a family of 40,000 associates.
Everything we have is all contributed by our people — not by Andrew and me, but it’s by a team of people who are dedicated to Panda’s mission. We want to show our appreciation to our people and make guests feel that we’re here not only to do business but to be a part of the community and contribute.