By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Would you write a book that chronicled your failures, exposed your most vulnerable moments, or acknowledged your mistakes? In a world that prizes flawless Instagram pictures, Hao Lam chose to do just that.
In his book ‘From Bad to Worse to Best in Class,’ Lam takes us back in time to his childhood in Saigon, Vietnam, where he paints a portrait of himself as a rebellious truant who skipped school to play football in the street and get into fights. He details failed escapes to flee the country, even taking us to a jail where just like him, we long for a glass of ice-cold water. Lam brings us to the refugee camp in Palawan and then to Canada, where he pulled off two full-time jobs, completed high school within two years, and won the heart of his wife, Lisa. He hides no detail as he sets out on an obstacle-ridden path of entrepreneurship, opens and shuts down a chain of restaurants, and sees his house and possessions go up in flames, before finally building a successful business and franchise.
Lam is a lot of things — a husband, father, mentor, the owner of Best in Class Education Center — but at his core, he is an optimist and survivor.
“Looking back at the life I have had, whether it was my time in jail or in a refugee camp, it was an experience. It was difficult but every time I hit a wall, I learnt it wasn’t that big a deal,” Lam said. To prove it, he tells us about the time he escaped machine gun fire during a failed attempt to flee Vietnam. It was only when he was going to bed that he noticed a bullet hole in the armhole of his jacket.
“People freak out, but I feel lucky that I’m alive,” Lam said. Today, when confronted with a problem, he and his wife say, “Are we going to die? No, then we’re going to be okay.”
Lam said, “Experience has shaped the way I am. Many people read my book and say they wouldn’t share their story. My book is open. It gives people perspective, makes them realize how fortunate they are and that the problems they have aren’t that big,” he said. This attitude and a tendency to not take life too seriously makes Lam a good mentor and speaker, inspiring immigrant groups and education and business institutions.
Lam’s gift is that he is incredibly approachable, he keeps referring to his younger self as an illiterate deviant — skipping school even though his mother was a teacher, robbing fruit from passing trucks or stealing chickens for some much-needed meat. However, he also acknowledges glimpses of his resourcefulness —buying salted peanuts and repackaging and selling them to people having a drink on the streets of Saigon.
When asked about the experience that changed his life, Lam refers to his time in prison where he escaped a severe sentence by pretending to be a minor.
“My time in prison was a critical moment in my life. I changed completely. I came back home and started doing the dishes. My family said, ‘Who is this alien?’ Before jail, I didn’t care about the dishes, or my family,” he said.
Lam puts his personality switch down to his isolation.
“I had no idea of my future. I was hopeless. A day feels like a year in jail. When you get in, you’re at the end of a crowded cell near a smelly toilet, slowly you get to move up the prison hierarchy. You sweat in the heat, but there is no shower. I was in pain, emotionally and mentally. I never had trouble having a glass of iced water. I would imagine licking the outside of the glass of iced water. It made me appreciate things I had taken for granted — fresh air, greenery, a passing girl.
His second most difficult experience was in the refugee camp in Palawan, Philippines. He jokes about it being like a beachside vacation, especially given the prices people pay for lakeside properties in Seattle. “Here the feeling was different. Even if I got out of jail, I didn’t know my future,” Lam said. In the refugee camp, he learned English to impress a beautiful woman he had escaped with — the woman who would later be his wife, Lisa.
“At the refugee camp, I could feel my pursuit of freedom and happiness. I could touch it and see it coming,” he said.
Becoming an entrepreneur
After reaching Canadian shores, navigating an education, marriage, and two full-time jobs, Lam moved to the United States. He taught at Renton Technical College and even landed a job at Microsoft. If that’s where you think this refugee story ends, it doesn’t.
“I taught at Renton Technical College for 4.5 years. I took a pay cut to go to Microsoft. I could teach with my eyes closed, in the latter part of my job. At Microsoft, I got bored. I need to do different things every day. I like to build systems, but when it’s done, I’m done,” Lam said.
Being an entrepreneur wasn’t easy. Lam was in survival mode and immersed himself in coaching classes, the mortgage business and even a restaurant chain.
“Embarrassingly, when I was teaching, my phone rang. It would be someone talking about a house. While at a house, someone would call to reschedule a class. I was in survival mode. I wanted financial stability, I was hungry, I was almost killed,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I was born in the year of the monkey. Have you ever seen a monkey sit still?” he jokes.
In comparison, his wife Lisa is strong and focused. She has been a driving force in Lam’s life, encouraging him to study and work hard.
“You can always give advice, but sometimes you have to let people fail to learn for themselves,” she said. Speaking about weathering the rough times, she said, “In the end, it comes down to love. If you love someone, you stand by their side and support them.” Now Lam stays more focused within his franchise business.
“There are so many variables. I love the challenge and variety. I get bored if things are flat,” he said. Lam’s tipping point came when he joined an organization called Entrepreneur Organization (EO). “Before, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t read a lot of books. But here, I found my ‘why?’ Simon Sinek said, ‘People don’t care what you do, people care why you do what you do,’” Lam said. Not until he started to learn and read books did he realize less is more.
“Narrow your focus to enlarge your vision. Instead of digging a big hole, dig deeper,” he added.
Today, Lam and his wife run Best in Class Education Center together, it’s like family. Many of the employees are people Lam has taught as kids.
“The only way for me to grow the company is to grow my people. My company mission is threefold — build stellar franchises, build better teachers, and build successful students. We have between 46-50 franchisees right now, in over 65 locations. Most owners are immigrants like me. I want to share my experience and help them be rockstars and own stellar franchise,” he said. “If I can help you build a successful tutoring school, you are going to help create a lot of jobs and build successful students. The second mission as a CEO is my commitment and promise to the franchisee. Once you join our franchisee team, we are no longer business partners, we are family,” he said.
As for the future of Best in Class Education Center, he said, “Our goal is to grow to about 100 locations in a year and a half. When we get there, we are thinking about going global. I just hired a COO soon and want to have a CEO in place within the next three years, so I can be on the board and be the brand of the company.”
“I am the president and on the board of the Indo Chinese Refugee Association (ICRA) , as well as on the boards of several organizations — EO, and UW Consulting and Business Development Center,” Lam said.
Lisa is on the board of the Vietnamese Scholarship Fund, a volunteer organization that funds the education of young children in Vietnam who can’t afford it. “The work they do really touched my heart. I am passionate about education and educating one child can influence the entire family,” Lisa said.
Entrepreneurship is not for everybody, it’s for those who are really passionate about what they do.
“My advice to young people is to chase your dream, whatever it is. Have a mentor,” Lam said. “Learn from the people who have done it, who have failed before you. My book is not about my successes, it is about my failures.”
Lam will be honored at the 2019 Entrepreneurs of the Year luncheon on Oct. 25 at China Harbor Restaurant in Seattle, from 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to https://apientrepreneurs.bpt.me.
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.