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Difference Maker

Entrepreneur Jimmy Pham went back to Vietnam to help lift others out of poverty

His training program in Vietnam pulls poor youths off the streets and sends them into good jobs at hotels and restaurants.

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Pham Van Phuong also once roamed the streets shining shoes. Yet last year, after working as a chef at Hanoi's Metropole and Hilton hotels, the KOTO alumnus bought a $60,000 home for his parents and sister.

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Now he's back at KOTO training students. "With every new graduate," he says, "you know you've changed another life."

Work in the hotel and restaurant industry "is the most employable skill I can give them," Pham says. "But I have no degree in it or anything." Born in Saigon during the Vietnam War, Pham moved to Australia at age 8 with his Vietnamese mother and five brothers.

Growing up poor in Sydney, he helped out at his struggling single mother's small butcher shop, made doughnuts, and sold sandwiches and vacuum cleaners.

In 1996, as a young adult working for a travel agency, Pham returned to Vietnam as a tour leader for Australian tourists.

"I remember my shock at the pollution, the traffic, the heat," he recalls.

In a park in central Saigon, Pham bumped into kids hawking coconuts for 20 cents a day. "They were dirty..., slept on park benches, and showered twice a week by an open sewer," he says.

Pham bought the kids toiletries and lunch – and returned to see them day after day. As word spread of the foreign benefactor (who still spoke halting Vietnamese), more kids came.

"I realized the resilience and passion for life these kids had despite all their troubles," Pham says.

But they wanted jobs, not handouts, he adds. With money from his mother and brothers, Pham opened a 10-seat sandwich shop in Hanoi in 1999 to provide employment for nine street kids. He financed the shop with wages from his salary as a tour leader.

 "We were losing money, but the kids developed a sense of ownership," he says.

Then, during President Clinton's historic visit to Hanoi in 2000, the American president showed up at the little eatery.

"He paid for his lunch [a grilled veggie sandwich and a mango smoothie] and that's all," Pham remembers. The sudden publicity was a mixed blessing, instantly raising Pham's profile but also exposing him to suspicions of being a CIA agent.

He has never looked back. Today KOTO has an annual budget of $2 million and employs a staff of 75 in Vietnam and Australia. Every six months KOTO enrolls 25 more destitute street kids to train them for a brighter future.

"It's been 11 years of blood, sweat, and tears," Pham says. "But when you see kids who shined shoes now work in the Sofitel, you know it's been worth it."

Related story: Vietnam seeks gains as China labor costs rise.

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