Jimmy Pham: A Driving Force for Social Impact

Jimmy at KOTO restaurant_ (002).jpg

“Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, show him how to fish and he'll eat for the rest of his life.”

Australian-Vietnamese Jimmy Pham is the founder of a not-for-profit social enterprise KOTO which stands for “Know One, Teach One” in Vietnam. For over two decades, his unwavering commitment and resilience have played a pivotal role in bringing positive change to the lives of many disadvantaged youth in the country.

With a professional background in tourism and hospitality management, Jimmy returned to his home country in the 90s to complete a work assignment where he witnessed the struggle of youth living rough. The idea of KOTO was born and KOTO was established in 1999 as a sandwich shop which then grew into a locally and internationally recognized social enterprise, consisting of two training restaurants and a training school, with another training facility expected to open in 2019.

When KOTO first started in 1999, only nine street youth worked at the sandwich shop. 19 years on, the lives of more than 1,000 graduates and counting have been transformed through KOTO’s 24-month vocational training program.

Jimmy spoke with Advance and shared his experience on how sowing the seeds of knowledge helped homeless youth to stand on their own feet.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications Officer, Advance

Can you tell me about your experience leaving Australia to set up in HCMC? What were some of the challenges you experienced?

I was raised in Australia as an Australian of Vietnamese descent, with a background in tourism. In 1996, after having worked for a travel wholesaler for two years, they sent me back to Vietnam where I saw some really horrific stuff. I encountered some street kids that I struck up a conversation with. And as people can imagine Vietnam was literally just coming out of a period they call “Renovation”, which made it basically a third world country with a lot of street children everywhere. 

Having witnessed that, I had two very important decisions to make. I wanted to send money back to Vietnam, or I could be that change that I want to see in the world. I guess being an Aussie, you're always raised to believe that you have to fight for the underdog, and from that, I decided that I wanted to be that change that I want to see in the world, so I came back to Vietnam four months later with a new job. I had $200 in my pocket and read two books about Vietnam, and I began my journey.

About the challenges that I had experienced. Where do you start? When you live and are raised in Australia where everything is just very organized and regulated, and you came to a place that's complete chaos, and people were just surviving every day, it's not quite the lifestyle that you were used to in Australia. The other side, however, is that people are so friendly, and there's still that human-to-human contact. There's still that geniality, and of course, a lot of smiles.

What do you think are the barriers to making a difference as a social entrepreneur in HCMC at the moment?

When I started KOTO as a sandwich shop with nine kids, Vietnam was still a communist country, and anyone who ran charity was always a retired people's committee government official. So you were either an NGO or you ran a business. There was no such thing as a social enterprise. Two months after I opened the sandwich shop, a very important man from America, Bill Clinton, came to visit the KOTO restaurant in Hanoi.

Some 20 years onwards, after being consistent and hanging in there, KOTO became the first recognized legal social enterprise in Vietnam in 2016.

After so many years people still don't know what a social enterprise is. The challenge basically is that you have people always think that you are such a disruptor. You don't follow the norm of what a charity is like. I never really wanted to do charity work, because I wanted to do impact work, and out of that came the situation of trying to change people's perceptions and managing expectations, but also breaking the rules. It's about changing people's perception, but also changing the idea about what social impact is like. It took more than 20 years and it’s an ongoing process. 

There are now 500 social enterprises and KOTO is looked up as the social enterprise leader in Vietnam. We had such a great success and support from the government, industry and community. It's all growing, but it wasn't always that way.

What motivated you to get involved in social enterprise?

When I started, in the first three and a half years, when I came back to Vietnam, because I'd met street kids I wanted to make a difference. I never thought that in my wildest dreams or expectations that I would be able to run an organization like KOTO as it is today. I spent in advance three years literally living and breathing this problem that is like give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, show him how to fish and he'll eat for the rest of his life. 

The idea of KOTO was later born after a whole bunch of kids came to me and said that, "We're sorry that we have to tell you this really bad news that we have been taking you for a ride over in the last three years or so, but we believe in you now, so we're going to tell you the truth. We need jobs, and you can't keep on looking after us this way." KOTO was born out of the idea of giving them a fishing rod so they can go and fish for themselves, but it was also wanting to create a standing for these kids that they otherwise don't have. 

In addition, when you start something, say planting a tree, whether it's a day, a week, a season, or a year, you've got to make sure you see it through. I feel extremely lucky. I've been doing this for more than 20 years now. How many people can say that they lived up to their dream and been able to do and live their life their way, and feeling very happy in the process? Not many people can say that about their job, but I love so much that I do that it doesn't feel like it's a job anymore. I feel that it's part of my life.

Tell us a bit more about how exactly the training program works.

It's a two-year program and 100% free. We're taking kids from various disadvantaged backgrounds between the ages of 16 to 22 who have no skills. 

KOTO provides an integration program that helps these kids get the required skill, which in this case is hospitality. We've been enjoying a relationship for 15 years with Box Hill Institute in Melbourne. The kids get their international certificate upon completion. We teach them about all the terminologies that they require to give them confidence, but also about the leading edge in hospitality. And we provide life skills - physical education, relationship management, etc. At the end of the training program, we place them in their first hospitality job. 

Why do you think this training will help disadvantaged youth to have more impact with their careers later?

I think the program has multiple levels of impacts. The first one, of course, is the two-year training for the kids which will be guarantees them a job at the end. But what makes it so special is that KOTO carries on this journey with you if you want to, to give you the opportunity to become the leaders that you want, and to pursue the legacy that is in you. 70% of KOTO staff are graduates of the program. We also offer scholarships for kids to travel abroad to further their study, as well as offer job placements around the world, and leadership training and workshops to assist them to start their own businesses.

In addition to KOTO, the program itself on a policy making level is a bottom-up approach because we created this need and that are finally helping more social enterprises to work with the government to resolve social issues in Vietnam. 

On the industry level, we changed the perception that street kids are no longer liars, cheats, or someone who steals, but actually an active member of the community. 

How does KOTO go about measuring its own impact?

We measure in five ways: job placement success rate; program participation rate from the alumni network; level of support and contribution of alumni network to the program; industry feedback; and from our stakeholders and donors through reporting.

How do you raise fund to keep KOTO moving?

We have five different ways of getting our income. The first is the revenue generated from our training restaurants in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The second is through cooking classes, merchandise, etc. The third is grants from two social impact investors respectively in Melbourne, Australia and Vietnam. We have also secured grants from foundations and corporates, both in-kind and corporate sponsorship. The fourth is through fund raising, and the last stream is through our services run by our alumni, e.g. operating coffee shops for corporates and KOTO catering services.

What’s next for KOTO?

There will be four fundraisers to be held in Hong Kong, Melbourne, Korea and Glasgow from now until the end of the year. For Hong Kong, we've been working with a restaurant chain in which one of the chefs is Vietnamese and he wants to give back to his country, especially youth in hospitality, and this will the second fundraiser we're going to do with them. For more details about the fundraiser in Hong Kong, please visit here.

Apart from KOTO Saigon, where would you recommend to eat in HCMC?

There are two very popular places. The first is Cuc Gach which is very authentic, and the other one which has something different to offer, it’s called Quan An Ngon.