Q&A with JIMMY PHAM

Jimmy Pham

I am building a family of social enterprises.

Jimmy Pham is the founder of Know One, Teach One (KOTO), a leading not-for-profit social enterprise based in Vietnam. KOTO provides at-risk and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam an opportunity to undertake a 24-month holistic hospitality training program to end the cycle of poverty. Over the last 21 years, KOTO has changed 1000 street kids and disadvantaged lives in Vietnam. Jimmy was recognised as a World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader in 2011, appointed Member of the Order of Australia (AM)  for his service to the community through KOTO in 2013 and received South Korea’s POSCO TJ Park Prize in 2017. He has been featured on CNN, BBC, LA Times and The New York Times and is currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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AP: Tell us about your family background.

JP: I was born in 1972. My dad is Korean and my mother is Vietnamese. I come from a very large family, I’m the youngest of six. My family fled Vietnam in 1974, just before the fall of Saigon. My parents, my sister and I briefly settled in Singapore then moved to Saudi Arabia for a while. We then migrated to Australia when I was eight, just before Christmas 1980. My sister and I came from the same father, the other four siblings were from a different father so they were left behind in Vietnam until my mom sponsored them in Singapore.

My mom grew up without parents and was the only child. She was a street kid herself, moving from Northern Vietnam to Southern Vietnam in 1954. My mom did everything she could to survive. Before the fall, she was one of the wealthy entrepreneurs in Saigon. Then she lost everything during the war. As the war escalated, the family had to sell off pieces of clothing to buy food. We didn’t have any money to buy meat so she cooked some rice and added a pinch of salt, and a bowl of broth. Being so young, I looked up to her with a very sad face, “Is that all we have to eat?” I asked. She later told me that it was really hard for her to see her children like that, the only thing she could do was to turn her face against the wall and cry in silence. That was a very difficult period for all of us. 

AP: What were your family circumstances like when you were in Australia?

JP: We moved into the inner west of Sydney and I went through a very typical Asian childhood. I was one of the two Asians in a very Greek, Italian, and Lebanese dominated school. It was a private school, so I had a good upbringing even though as an immigrant, we would cut coupons out of Vinnies (shortened name of St Vincent De Paul Society, a charity in Australia). It was this good life because we were always sure that we had food on the table, a roof over our head and a good education.

My parents separated when we moved to Australia. My mom was a single mother and an entrepreneur. She worked in apparel, making clothing for a few cents per item. She owned a butcher’s shop at one point, then a grocery shop. She made us sell things at the Sunday market. She did everything she could to support us. Looking back, that made me very proud that she never queued up for unemployment benefits. She worked really, really hard. She had many failed businesses while we were growing up, and that built the character that I am today, so I’m grateful for that.

Back then, I didn’t appreciate why she always worked her whole life. Bringing friends around was really awkward because she didn’t have the etiquette or social skills. Culturally, it was really difficult for my mom because we didn’t fall into the norms of the Australian society of having a typical working-class family. She didn’t know much about the culture and couldn’t speak English well. Communication wasn’t her strength so I made an effort to be a good communicator. From a young age, I would observe my mother and learn from her mistakes. I had to be better than her because that was what she wanted for her children too.

I did really well up until high school. I was a teenager without any guidance or support, so I started to go astray a little bit. I started to smoke weed and skip classes. My mum had a failed business at the time, so I lived with my older brother and his family. He kicked me out of the house for skipping school so I left school in Year 11. I went to Melbourne since my sister lived there and I needed a place to stay. I got a sedan and drove to Melbourne. The car broke down as I entered Melbourne because it was so old! I worked in different jobs while I was in Melbourne, selling vacuum cleaners, working at Video Ezy then moved to hospitality, sales etc. It was really fun. After a few years in Melbourne, I moved back to Sydney for a year but it didn’t work out so well so I moved back with my brother, who was in Canberra at the time. I finished my Year 12 in Canberra and graduated high school.

AP: Were you always so compassionate at a young age?

JP: As far as the things I am doing today, I’ve always had it in me. Volunteering in the canteen, working at the church and doing the World Vision 40 hour famine. I think the social side came from my dad because he instilled the values and the (giving) culture in me. In retrospect, I’m convinced of that now because it prepared me for selling chocolates, door knocking and so on. I was led to do it because of a higher purpose. It’s something that I’ve come to accept and celebrate.

I had $200 in my pocket. I didn’t know anything about Vietnamese culture. I came back because I met a few street kids and wanted to help them. I had no idea how to help, I just followed my heart.

AP: Tell us about the early days of your career.

JP: After finishing Year 12, I worked for another couple of years doing odd jobs again. I travelled to the US, then came back and enrolled myself in a private college to study tourism. My teacher said, “As a professional graduate student, don’t go for the airlines and the wholesalers.” Upon graduating from tourism, I decided to apply for the wholesalers and the airlines. I got a job at a place called Travel Indochina. As soon as I got the job, the following day, I found out my father passed away.

I spent the next month or so trying to arrange for his body to be moved back to Korea to be buried. That was when I met my Korean brother for the very first time. It was a tough period because my dad was absent for a good 14 years of my life, from 1980-1994. The last time I saw him was at the airport in Saudi Arabia when I was 8. My father was not a very emotional person so he just said, “Make sure you look after your mum.” Those were the last words he said to me. When I got older, I tried to locate him for a whole two years. We spoke on the phone a few times. Eventually, the next and final time I saw him was at his funeral in Korea.

When I came back and worked for Travel Indochina for 2.5 years, they sent me back to Vietnam for the first time in 1996 on a family trip. I went there and that was when I met the street kids that started it all. When I came back from Vietnam, I told the boss of Travel Indochina that I wanted to be a tour leader so that I could be back in Vietnam to help the street kids, but it didn’t work out.

So I flew to Melbourne and had an interview with Jeff Manchester, who’s the co-founder of Intrepid. He asked, “Why do you want to go back to Vietnam?” and I said, “I want to help the street kids.” His reply was, “We’ll help you.” That was someone who believed in me for the very first time. I had $200 in my pocket. I didn’t know anything about Vietnamese culture. I came back because I met a few street kids and wanted to help them. I had no idea how to help, I just followed my heart.

For my role at Intrepid, we would travel all across Southeast Asia. Sometimes, we go for weeks. Everywhere I went, I would look after the street kids. I would pay for their English classes from Nha Trang, up to Sapa, and then across to Cambodia. It’s a very typical story of giving someone a fish and they eat it every day. I did that for three years.

AP: What were the pivotal moments in your life that facilitated your transition to building a social enterprise like KOTO?

JP: The pivotal point was 1999 when I was having dinner with a group of street kids in a house I rented. Long, a very charismatic street kid, confided in me that they’ve been taking me for a ride. They received kickbacks from the house I was renting and would go cheat on the tourists when I wasn’t around. However, they didn’t realize that I would stick around for three years, so they ended up trusting me. They said that things couldn’t continue like this and that they needed jobs. I realized that they were right, I wasn’t effectively helping them at all. I was basically giving them handouts and unintentionally, created this dependency. I have no one to blame but myself. That conversation laid the foundation for what eventually became KOTO. I had their unconditional trust.

By nature, Vietnamese don’t trust people that are not their family. Street kids have always been told to keep an eye out for pedophiles or people who’ve been taking them for a ride. They’re vulnerable to abuse so they’re just more skeptical than the average person. When you combine the vulnerability and the lack of education, you don’t see anything beyond today. You don’t think about tomorrow. That’s the group of people I was dealing with. So it was a struggle.

Even though there was a turning point, the next step was to find a solution. The solution for me was in hospitality, as I had three years of experience working in the tourism industry at the time. I thought it would be the most transferable skill that you can teach a person, who doesn’t have an education level beyond grade four. Besides, my other obstacle was that they didn’t have any hộ khẩu (household registration) documentation. So the landscape was — if you’re a street kid, you can learn how to fix a bicycle, go and do work at an apparel factory — but if you don’t have hộ khẩu paperwork, you won’t have any benefits or support from the system or even enter into vocational training.

From the early days, I wanted the whole approach to be different from what already existed. I didn’t want it to be a typical business where the kids were just going to go to work. I wanted them to have a family. I didn’t want to just give them money. I wanted to spend time with them and be there for them because I truly see them as my family. The concept naturally made sense and the attitude towards the street kids was very different for that time. I didn’t realize that this focus on ‘family’ would be one of the key ingredients to why KOTO had been successful. It was because we didn’t do things half-heartedly. We didn’t approach it from a charity perspective. These kids had this incredible empowerment from the very beginning. I solved all their necessary needs such as accommodation and we started a sandwich shop.

At first, it was only me and the nine street kids. We opened our first sandwich shop on June 15, 1999. My friend had registered the business for us because I wasn’t able to as a foreigner. I went back to Australia and got the bread making machine and learned how to bake bread. I bought a lot of magazines like Women’s Day and New Idea to learn how to do different dishes. I got Uncle Toby to donate their cake mixes as well. Intrepid was the first group that came for breakfast. All the tour leaders came to help and kept us going for a while. I didn’t do very much, it wasn’t a lot of income. They ordered sandwiches and takeaways but the sandwich shop didn’t make enough money, so I still have to work part-time to earn enough income to subsidise the costs of the business.

From the early days, I wanted the whole approach to be different from what already existed. I didn’t want it to be a typical business where the kids were just going to go to work. I wanted them to have a family. I didn’t want to just give them money. I wanted to spend time with them and be there for them because I truly see them as family. The concept naturally made sense and the attitude towards the street kids was very different for that time. I didn’t realize that this focus on ‘family’ would be one of the key ingredients to why KOTO had been so successful. It was because we didn’t do things half-heartedly. We didn’t approach it from a charity perspective. These kids had this incredible empowerment from the very beginning. I solved all their necessary needs such as accommodation and we started a sandwich shop.

AP: Tell us more about how the KOTO training program got started. How did you overcome the early hardships?

JP: Every time I go away, the street kids would just muck up and every time I come back, they would be very well behaved. Although we built a family,  there wasn’t anybody there to consistently give them leadership and supervision. So after a year, I decided that making sandwiches was not the way to go. I believed in them but nobody else did.

One day, I foolishly went around the corner and got these four families in one big house and convinced them to rent me the whole house. Originally I only wanted the front. I didn’t have any money so I went and borrowed AUD 70,000 from my mom, which was worth about two houses in those days. My mom got a loan from the bank since she also didn’t have the money. We got kitchen equipment and renovated the place and I recruited another 11 street kids. There were 17 street kids in the inaugural class and we followed it with a second class so we had about 30 trainees in our first year. I continued because of my ignorance. Secondly, I was just hopeless. I did everything I could to protect them regardless of the obstacles. If someone brings harm to your child, you’re going to switch on to the protection mode. I planted a seed. I just couldn’t walk away. I needed to follow through, and I’m so glad I did.

AP: What are some of the breakthrough moments? How did you get Bill Clinton to visit your restaurant?

JP: I remember back in 2000, I ran out of money and we got closed three times. This one time, I was sitting in front of the sandwich shop eating bánh mì because we didn’t have any money left. While I was figuring out what I was going to do, a woman walked through all the rubble stones and introduced herself to me. It was Tracey Lister, an Australian chef by trade. Tracey helped us to create a proper menu and she stayed on to help me for three years until she went back to Melbourne.

We officially opened KOTO in September 2000. Then two months later in November, we had a visit from President Bill Clinton. The visit ended up creating a lot of problems for us with the local officials. It raised their alarm bell. Why did the most important man in the world come to this sandwich shop out of all places? There was a very popular English magazine for expats called Time Out and I was in the front of that cover with the headline ‘I will be your mirror.‘ That issue of Time Out magazine was picked up by the US Embassy. They thought it was a really good idea for the US President to go and visit us, so the entire street was blocked off and Bill Clinton came to KOTO.

In those days — if you’re a charity — you’re either a non-government organization or a retired government official setting up a charity to get foreign aid. So here was a Viet Kieu living in Hanoi, working with children, and had the most important man on the planet come to visit him. The Vietnamese thought that I must be connected. Social enterprises were unheard of back then so the Vietnamese officials couldn’t make out what kind of character I was. They wouldn’t issue me a business license, the police visited us regularly and went through my house. They spoke to my landlord and scared him so he wanted me out. Finally, the first class graduated and after hearing the trainees’ testimonials of our work, things improved for us.

The trainees stayed for just nearly two years. The program for the first class was 18 months but in 2007, I changed it to two years and we’ve been running it that way since. I didn’t want it to be a typical training program where we turn the trainees over and ask them to leave. Tracey brought the Box Hill Institute TAFE curriculum to KOTO and got it certified. She also helped to connect us to the sports program. We had other volunteers to help us set up different curriculums for life skills, organization, and English courses focusing on the hospitality industry. Everything you see at KOTO today is a reflection of feedback and contribution from the kids who have made a lot of mistakes earlier on. We celebrated our 20th anniversary on the 15th of June at the National Academic University last year.

There was a very popular English magazine for expats called Time Out and I was in the front of that cover with the headline ‘I will be your mirror.’ That issue of Time Out magazine was picked up by the US Embassy. They thought it was a really good idea for the US President to go and visit us, so the entire street was blocked off and Bill Clinton came to KOTO.

AP: How proud are you of your trainees? What about the people who didn’t make it?

JP: KOTO gave me the most incredible joy and purpose that I don’t think that a lot of people will be able to find in their lifetime. I’m very blessed and very privileged but it also took me on this journey of incredible sorrow. When you take on a child’s pain, you carry it with you. You walk through that journey with them. We now have more than 1000 graduates over 21 years. You can never be numbed to that.

I remember every single kid that’s got their dream fulfilled. I remember them coming in so fragile and so delicate, then they came out the other end as empowered hospitality professionals. Since they’re able to complete the training program, they have more confidence to complete their next goal. They can hold onto and pursue their dream. That’s very powerful to know. Success doesn’t have to be a typical measure such as wealth or status.  Every single person who is better now than before the KOTO program can be regarded as a success story. Whether they have their own business, become a leader in the hospitality industry or have a Masters degree in Australian Universities, that’s all success to me.

Using the fishing metaphor, I’ve lived through the stage of giving someone a fish and I’ve spent the last 20 odd years or so showing them how to fish. Within the last 5-6 years, I also taught people how to revolutionize the fishing industry, by getting other people to show others how to fish. About 60-70% of the staff at our restaurant are KOTO graduates. The alumni network that I set up is a very active group. The whole Know One, Teach One philosophy in the hospitality industry is incredible. They get this membership to love, support each other and a network of powerful people.

We have been very lucky because our recruitment process is very rigorous. The retention rate is very high so we keep most of our kids. About 9 out of 10 kids will stay in the program for its entirety. It is like a boot camp. Sometimes people don’t make it because they feel entitled or just don’t want to put the work in, therefore, they had to face the consequences. KOTO is a holistic training program. We are there to empower, instil values and teach hospitality skills but also expect you to be a good person in society. If you can’t do that, it’s very unlikely that you’re gonna be able to go out and be successful anywhere. Making sure the community represents the KOTO values is very important.

There’s an old saying that people who need people are the luckiest in the world. So, what you have for the two years is you build relationships, you put in the hard work, but you also have a support network around you. If they ever fall —

  1.  They have information to make sound decisions;
  2.  They have a network of people that support them and lift them up; and
  3. If they ever fail, then they have the confidence to get back up again. 

AP: Is there anyone who had a profound impact on your life?

JP: I feel very lucky that every day I’ve been inspired by the human spirit. I don’t have to look very far, read books or go and find people to inspire me. I see them every day. It’s inspiring because they come in illiterate, then go through a two-year KOTO training program. Two years later, they become hospitality professionals at the other end. I see a young tribal girl who would have been married off at the age of 16 and would have three or four kids by now. Instead, she’s working at the MGallery, a five-star hotel. I see a boy who used to shine shoes, now he has a coffee shop and can support his young family. A girl who used to work as a maid, sleeping in the kitchen and was never able to see the mausoleum. She’s now able to take her daughter to see the mausoleum. So that’s the human spirit — the willingness to be better.

I remember every single kid that’s got their dream fulfilled. I remember them coming in so fragile and so delicate, then they came out the other end as empowered hospitality professionals. Since they’re able to complete the training program, they have more confidence to complete their next goal. They can hold onto and pursue their dream. That’s very powerful to know. Success doesn’t have to be a typical measure such as wealth or status.  Every single person who is better now than before the KOTO program can be regarded as a success story. Whether they have their own business, become a leader in the hospitality industry or have a Masters degree in Australian Universities, that’s all success to me.

AP: How has KOTO changed the landscape and perception of social enterprises in Vietnam and internationally?

JP: What started as simply to address a poverty issue has gone far beyond that now. KOTO has changed the mindset and perception of social enterprises.  On the policy level:

  1. We were the first social enterprise to be recognized in Vietnam. Consequently, according to the British Council 2019 report, there are now about 20,000 social enterprises working in Thailand and Vietnam, and around 22,000 businesses with social inclusions. So that’s a great impact that we helped create. When we did this, it was a lonely journey but now there’s a network of people supporting each other.
  2. We changed the mindset of the community, which used to focus on short-term charitable giving, to a long-term investment approach. What typically happens is when people treat it as a charity, they provide handouts because it makes them feel better. When you come to KOTO, we have a very reciprocal relationship. We encourage the community to use social goods, social products, and social services.
  3. We moved away from the NGO donor-driven agenda where we might receive $50,000 but being dictated on how the program would run. Instead, we turn it into a partnership. We can learn and try to fix problems instead of being so afraid that funding will be taken away.

Finally, on the industry level —  20 years ago, when I spoke to people about street kids working in hospitality — people would say, “Forget it. They lie, they cheat, they steal and they’re lazy!” Look at them now. KOTO graduates are amongst the most sought after in the industry, including the five-star hotels such as Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton and Sofitel. They would even joke that there is a ‘KOTO mafia’  and to not mess around with the KOTO graduates because they all help each other. It goes far beyond helping street kids. We came into an industry that is now in such high demand. 20 years ago, we were laughed at because everyone can cook. Why would you go and study to cook? Now we have female chefs. If you’re a girl and you work behind bars, you must be in prostitution. Now, girls are winning bar competitions, making cocktails, they’re mixologists! We’re trying to build the next generation of Vietnamese leaders in the industry, not just street kids in hospitality jobs. We want to have leaders, we want to have managers, we want to have entrepreneurs, and they can have the same equal voice.

AP: What are you working on now?

JP: In the next 10 years, my vision is to build the KOTO ecosystem and make it sustainable. I want to set up a fee-paying school so we can train people in hospitality, then use the tuition money to fund people who can’t afford to go. I want to train a lot of industry leaders who will become the future employers of our trainees. But the most important thing is about creating a community. It takes a village to raise a child and that’s what I’m trying to create. If I can’t find it within the current environment, I want to create one. If we all help each other, everyone benefits.

AP: What advice can you give to young Asian Pioneers?

JP: I went through a period where I was so confused because I’m not entirely Korean, I’m not entirely Australian, and I’m not entirely Vietnamese. I come here (to Vietnam) and I don’t fully get accepted. I go back to Australia and I’m not fully accepted there either. And if I go to Korea, I definitely won’t get accepted. So the key messages for people who grew up being different are: 

1. Celebrate your uniqueness and diversity. You don’t have to fall into the norm of what people think you should be. LGBT is not such a taboo in Vietnam anymore. We had a kid who came out in front of his entire class. 

2. If nine people discourage you from doing something but one person tells you to do it, then listen to that person. It’s been proven over and over again, it’s the crazy one that dares to change the world. And it’s true. I’m not saying that you will, but at least, you have made an effort to change the world. And that says something more than 99% of the population who don’t bother.

3. Live a life where success comes from being of service to others. Define how that success is because, for a lot of the Asian kids growing up, they’re always obsessed about money, cars and houses. You can have all of that and still be of service to others. As long as you include someone, do something for people, it keeps you humble and grounded.

AP: Thanks for your time and support, Jimmy.

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