Jimmy Pham, who calls himself a “man of value,” shared his life story on what it means to live as a social entrepreneur in Vietnam.
By BoRi Kim on July 8, 2013

Jimmy Pham was born in Vietnam in 1972 and migrated to Australia as a young child with his mother and siblings where he grew up in Sydney. He was interested in tourism, travel and entered school to learn hospitality. In 1996 he went back to Vietnam for the first time, on a temporary assignment as a tour operator.

One night, Jimmy Pham went for a walk in Saigon and met some street kids. He noticed how dirty they were. They had blisters on their legs. He asked them, ‘where do you shower?’ And they said, ‘we shower next to an open sewer’. The next day, he organized for that small group to have a proper wash, and by the time he left Vietnam two weeks later word of his generosity had spread and he was paying for 60 young people to wash and eat.

The KOTO adventure started more than 10 years ago, when the founder, Jimmy Pham, opened a small sandwich shop in Hanoi as a means to help youth living off the streets by providing them with jobs.

Certified by the renowned Box Hill Institute in Australia, KOTO Foundation provides the youth with a two-year training program in hospitality at its training centers in Hanoi. The training equips the youth with excellent professional capacities, offering opportunities for them to work in the best hotels and restaurants. They are also taught a range of social skills, which makes them well-adjusted individuals, living their today with a mindset willing to discover their purpose in the future.

What was your mission at the outset? What is the core value or philosophy of this company?
They are entitled to protection, care and training and how we do that is through training, life skills, and different forms of development. We believe in the rights of them to be heard and to live a life with dignity, the skills and confidence.

Now that KOTO has become well-known in Vietnam, how do you manage recruitment? Is there a certain criterion?
The recruitment process has always been and will always be rigorous. Because the systems can be often manipulated in Vietnam therefore we go through four-stage process to identify. First, they say who they are by sending applications in, open-day of team building and written and mathematics tests based on grade 4, then home-visits. Third stage is an interview. Last one is the one-month orientation. We hold two recruitments per year and each class in each city are 30 students.

What kind of resources (not just financial) did you have when you first started? What sort of network did you have?
When I came to Vietnam I couldn’t speak the language and I knew nothing about the culture because I left at the age of two. I did not know any legal system. I wasn’t registered properly, I couldn’t go down the NGO path, I had no network, and I only had few friends so I had to do everything on my own. It was extremely hard.

What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful social entrepreneur? (Soft and Hard)
You have to be very innovative, think outside the box, to be creative and be foolish. You have to be able to persevere a lot, go through many challenges, and have confidence in your ability. Because when you have new ideas people don’t welcome it very often, they usually put it down. You have to be able to persuade other people to buy into the idea so you can create more support from the community but also from the people that will buy your idea and help it to grow it. Another word, power persuasion.

What kind of culture exists in your organization? How did you establish this tone and why did you institute this particular type of culture?
The culture has always been about the kids, you have to understand, support and protect them. Recently, I make the culture better by making a new culture. Basically, the new culture is that you need to love the organization and everything it stands for because only when you love the organization then you love the kids. Culture is like having a family and being proud of own ethics. Instead of wanting to be someone who they are not, KOTO helps them to feel proud to be Vietnamese.

How do you build a successful customer base? How do you go about marketing your business?
By word of mouth. If you have a product and it’s very clear on your objective and your mission then everything falls in a line. We have a great restaurant, and the kids are the example that people come and dine there and introduce you. From the introduction, people write about you on their blogs, facebook, twitter, and newspaper. Over that you build that. You work with the tour companies and explain the competitiveness and social causes as well. To be honest, we haven’t been very good at marketing, I feel we could be better. However, we always train the marketing team to be open and emphasize communication is more than selling the product. If everything we do is transparent and our mission is clear, then public will know that’s what we do. That’s when we call it a good marketing.

To what do you most attribute your success?
Who I am, my beliefs, and my values come from my dad and mom. My dad is a very intelligent person and my mom gave me a sense of perseverance. She comes from having nothing but she was strong, courageous and she persevered. I think that characteristics come from my family. I’m very blessed that along the way, there were many people who helped me so I hold that success to them, volunteers, and staffs. Finally, I’m successful because of my kids. They are my inspiration. I call my graduates my hero because to ask them to change everything about themselves for two years from how to talk, how to communicate and their whole life patterns, it’s not an easy task to do. However, when they do it with such enthusiasm and with complete faith in me, I feel very blessed that they trust enough to change for me. So I contribute that success to them.

How does Vietnam accept social enterprises nowadays?
Since KOTO, we have over 200 social enterprises operating now. They slowly begin to recognize that it’s very important. We can see the trend. Vietnamese are wonderful, resourceful, and determined people and if you give them an opportunity they can do something really great. I know that they care for their community, it just needs a platform. Slowly, it’s beginning to do that.

Are there fundamental differences between social and for-profit founders?
Absolutely! There is a big difference. We base a lot of our strategies on social differences and justices. We care more about what benefit the community rather than what benefits me. That’s the big difference in the way we think. Our drive for making money is ability to say that we can make a difference, where entrepreneurs are only about making money. It is the bottom line. They call it double bottom line: profit and people. For us, it’s about triple bottom line: profit, people, and planet.

Has your goals and values change since the beginning? If so, how did it change overtime?
It got more defined. We focus more on the depth of the program rather than only expanding the business. It definitely has changed a lot in terms of making it better but the core values of KOTO have never changed.

How do you define success?
There is an old saying that if you’re a man of values, it’s much better than a man of success. Success goes very quickly but values stay with you forever, if you have strict values. For me, that’s important. I don’t see me as successful yet because there are so many things that I wish to do more and I want to have far more reaching effect. When my community supports me that’s when I’ll know I am successful.

Where you see yourself and your business in 10 years to 20 years?
Profession wise, I’d like to see more KOTO around the world, place like in Myanmar. I know it’s very controversial but I’d also like to see it in North Korea. I’d like to see a very big school for KOTO, having our own building, hotels that KOTO runs. I’d like to see more kids that we support open up their own restaurants and build leadership. I would love to see General Manager positions being taken up by KOTO graduates.
Personally, I’d like to be more settled, have children, have a life, travel more and see the world. I’d like to learn about my father’s heritage, learn the language. So my plan is to live here in Korea for couple years and to learn about Korean customs and culture, and get to know my family, I have many cousins in Korea. I would like to get close with them.

Last thing I want to say is that I’m very, very happy! You know, not many people can say that. You give up your health, time, and sacrifice so much but you don’t even have a car and house for yourself. Every day you go to work and you’re surrounded by love all the time. Not many people can say that but I can say it and I’m very happy that my life had worked out that way. Would I change anything? No, because I’ve made the right decision. I don’t have a car or house, wife and two children like many people but what I can say is that I’ve made a difference. That one decision I’ve made have changed over 700 kids’ lives. Their families have money to buy the medicines. Their siblings go to school, the family no longer has to go on the streets, and those kids have been protected from trafficked. When I think about all that I feel very humble.

Any advice to Korean Social Entrepreneurs?
The core thing is to treat it as a business. Primary is to run it as a business with good marketing, clear accountings, transparency, and sales. Something I’ve realized over the years is that when I said come help the KOTO and help the kids. They have heart but no use to you. For instance, I don’t want people to come to KOTO and teach English because I have a lot of Vietnamese who can teach English. They are no use. So you have to treat the organization as a business. Take restaurants as another example, people don’t come there because you help street children, it doesn’t matter to them. They come for good food, good service, and good location. People don’t come for the charity but because it’s a nice a restaurant. That’s why it’s very important that you treat it as a business. You do social work but you have to give them what they want. You always have to treat it as a two-way partnership.

Pham explains KOTO, “The greatest accomplishment for the person who has helped you, is to see you stand on your own two feet and then in turn help someone else that reminds you of yourself, because if you Know One, then you should Teach One.”

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