A Real-Life Superhero In Vietnam. The Incredible Journey Of Jimmy Pham And KOTO

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While most superheroes live in comic books and movies, Jimmy Pham, the unstoppable force behind KOTO (Know One Teach One), resides in Hanoi, Vietnam. A rare individual that embodies heroism in the real world.

More than two decades ago, an act of kindness towards street children sparked the birth of Vietnam’s first Social Enterprise. Despite facing skepticism, Pham’s vision of rescuing these children and providing them with training and employment in the restaurant industry became a reality. Today, Pham has expanded KOTO’s mission to empower women from poverty, ethnic minorities, and victims of trafficking. Additionally, KOTO has joined the global fight against climate change. Jimmy’s inspiring journey to establish KOTO through the power of education – or, as he puts it, “teaching them how to fish” – is a captivating story worth knowing.

More Than A 3rd Culture Kid

Jimmy Pham’s life story reads like an adventure novel. Born to a Vietnamese mother and Korean father in 1972 during the turbulent era of the “American War” in Vietnam. Pham, the youngest of six siblings, was uprooted from their country ravaged by war. He fled to Singapore and Saudi Arabia as his determined mother worked tirelessly to finally get them to Australia by the time he was eight. Pham’s migration story is truly remarkable, highlighting his mother’s strength, who, despite facing illiteracy and poverty, brought her children safely to the shores of Australia.

Despite that kind of hardship, she made sure that there was always food on the table, education, and a roof over our heads. It’s that constant value she instilled in me; she gave basically all she had.

Jimmy Pham.

Pham struggled to reconcile his Vietnamese, Korean, and Australian cultural background for some time. However, like many third-or fourth culture kids, this unique experience can broaden your mind. He reveals – “to be honest, I really don’t need to belong to one of them. I should feel unique and special and then create my own opportunities.

Jimmy uncle - A Real-Life Superhero In Vietnam. The Incredible Journey Of Jimmy Pham And KOTO
A young Jimmy Pham with his uncle.

1990’s Nostalgia In Vietnam – A Trip That Changed Lives

Fast forward through his rebellious phase of dropping out of school and finding his feet to 1996. A young 24-year-old Jimmy Pham returns to Vietnam after graduating from college, where he studied tourism and landed his first job. Little did he know that his first trip to Vietnam would ignite a fire within him. Jimmy fondly recalls his trip to Dalat, despite navigating cold bucket showers, power outages, scams, and poverty. “To put it in perspective, eighty percent lived under a dollar a day. There was no twist in the door. It just literally swung open to tourism, and everyone was very new.”

Pham’s trip ended in a nostalgic time, as Saigon transformed into a new era: Ho Chi Minh City. Honda Cubs were hip, Bicycles spotted the pavements, and Cyclos were the only traffic to watch out for. The cityscape had barely changed since ’75. The charming yet weathered yellow colonial buildings bear the marks of time. This was the backdrop for a lively, optimistic few. Still, it symbolized the harsh truth of poverty, gangsterism, and healing.

I went for a walk that changed my life,” Jimmy explains. He stumbled upon four homeless children selling coconuts near the Presidential Palace and spent a long time talking to them – revealing the harsh realities of their lives and uncertain hopes for the future. Jimmy recalls, “Of course, I got ripped off” as he took them to the Ben Thanh market to purchase necessities. He met these four kids every night for two weeks to take them for Pho, but Jimmy chuckles – “The word got around town that a new sucker was in town, so the number exponentially grew every night to about 60 kids.

The Birth Of KOTO: Empowering Youth

jimmy pham

To understand why we came to this space, you have to understand there is an evolution. You know? Saying it’s not something I planned – that I’m going to go and do a big organization.

Pham reveals.

Deeply affected by his first trip to Vietnam, Pham decided to return and make a change, giving money, food, and English lessons across South East Asia while working as a tour leader for three years. In 1999, a few homeless children he had been helping in Hanoi told Pham the truth, “they were taking me for a ride.” Giving money alone is not empowering in the long run. Fueled by compassion, he took a leap of faith and opened a small sandwich shop in Hanoi to help those nine children gain practical skills and meet their needs. “It was that simple.”

Jimmy laughs – “I look back at it and cringe! Oh, that was so amateur!” The early days of using cake mixes, struggling with finances, and balancing cakes on the back of scooters, became a more formal setup at Van Miu, where they met chef Tracey Lister and created a menu. Soon after, they approached an Australian institute for training, and in 2001, the first cohort graduated with international certification.

The Journey Of Growth: KOTO Van Mieu Restaurant & Dream School

From a small sandwich shop to KOTO Van Mieu Restaurant in Hanoi, offering fresh and fragrant Vietnamese cuisine. Despite downsizing due to COVID-19, KOTO is thankfully expanding again. The journey continues – thanks to six embassies’ funding, Jimmy opened their dream vocational training school in 2022. The new facility offers more space, support, and holistic professional training, separately from KOTO Van Mieu. The restaurant, which now spans 6 stories, employs over 90% of its staff from KOTO’s alumni network and embodies the “know one, teach one” philosophy.

New Heights – MBA’s, Empowering Disadvantaged Women & Fighting Global Warming

Pham earned his university degree at 48 and Executive MBA at 50, showing dedication to education.

I hope to inspire the students that we try to help, you’re never too old to learn, and that’s what we’re trying to do. You’ve got to lead by example.

Jimmy reveals

KOTO has worked with the Australian government for over 7 years on the “Her Turn” Program, which supports ethnic minorities, rural and trafficked women, single mothers, and women in hospitality to enhance training and leadership skills and elevate women’s voices.

Beyond, KOTO has launched campaigns to combat food waste, a major problem in Vietnam and worldwide, affecting greenhouse emissions and food security for millions of people. According to the World Food Programme, over 30% of the world’s food supply is lost or wasted yearly, affecting global warming. Pham shares a harrowing fact: there is enough food to feed the entire planet, yet many suffer from undernourishment. KOTO collaborates with Vietharvest to rescue surplus food from partners like Vietnam Airlines, Intercontinental, and Pizza 4Ps. The surplus food is then transformed into balanced meals and sold to underserved people for 20,000 VND (about 0.85c), while each meal purchased provides a free meal to a child in need.

To The Future And Beyond

KOTO has finally built its dream school, which will continue to grow and empower more youth by prioritizing vocational training in Vietnam. May this spark the birth of countless more social enterprises as the “know one teach one” philosophy grows.

When I did this 20-something years ago, and I said that I work with street kids, And they think I’m just crazy… Then, ten years ago, I said I’m going to help alumni build up a community that supports each other mentally and give back – we currently have 70% active alumni, that’s over fifteen hundred students. Then, I set out to build my management team to at least 50% Alumni, and I did that! My next step is to find someone to replace me, and I’m working on that.

Jimmy Pham

Conclusion

Real-life superheroes wear compassion, not capes. Real legends build Social Enterprises putting people and the environment before profits. Pham’s extraordinary journey with KOTO shows that even small steps can have a ripple effect, leading to positive changes in your life and the world.

Let their story inspire us to dream big, think beyond ourselves, and take action.

It’s not always about giving us money. If you can’t give us money, help us with your time or knowledge. Or come dine here and support the cause.

Jimmy Pham.
jimmy pham

“Thank you, Jimmy Pham, KOTO, and the incredibly brave and resilient alumni that have walked through your doors. Your heroic journey reminds us we can create change”. – Lauren Tracy

koto van mieu
KOTO Van Mieu
Nestled in the heart of Hanoi, KOTO Van Mieu restaurant stands as a testament to the transformative power of social enterprise. Learn more!
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Lauren Tracy
Head of Content & Communications - Vietnam Is Awesome
Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, Lauren has been living in Vietnam for the past 8 years. Her passion for the travel industry and wealth of experience has led her to become the Head of PR & Communications at Vietnam Is Awesome.

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