Recently, EMpower’s President & CEO Cynthia Steele spoke with Jimmy Pham, the founder of Know One, Teach One (KOTO), Vietnam’s first social enterprise. Jimmy has been recognised as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, appointed a Member of the Order of Australia, and won the Waislitz Global Citizens' Choice Award. They spoke about taking risks, how food and hospitality bring people together, and more.
I am interested to know, given COVID and all of the uncertainty and the related challenges it posed, what did you learn as a leader?
Thank you, it's such a pleasure to be here to speak with you. Just a very quick comment on the learning journey: my philosophy is to study always, study forever, and always learn forever. It keeps you humble, it keeps you grounded, it keeps you always driving more because you're learning new things.
COVID taught me probably one of the most important things: to be resilient. Because for so many years I worked on a model that worked really well, I became a bit complacent.
As a social enterprise, we have a business model. But I didn't so much practice it, because I have had such success that I didn't really have to do marketing. I didn't have to look at the brand and how I communicate and all of the compliances that come with an organisation. My curriculum was 20 years old, and I thought everything was going well. The students were getting jobs, etc. But like a learning journey, you have to always keep going and striving, and being a disruptor is always going to be disruptive. It's finding the energy to continue to be innovative, but at the same time maintain roots as well.
What are you most proud of when you think about the partnership with EMpower and what KOTO has been able to achieve?
When you look at where you are now and the journey, you always kind of look back and appreciate the people that took the leap of faith. It's always very safe to fund organisations that are well-established and have credentials. But EMpower took a leap of faith with us. It was outside the box and that comes with a certain risk.
I hope that it paid off for EMpower. Probably I’ve been the most proud when I was able to take two of KOTO graduates to EMpower Hong Kong, and they were able to roll spring rolls in front of a large audience at a dinner. Because through that food is the only language they know to say thank you: Thank you for that leap of faith. Thank you for that innovative and empowering approach to your mission that helped us get to where we are today.
I love that. I think food and hospitality are a universal language. You can connect with those around you even if you don't speak the same language, it fosters that bridge.
Who would have thought that through food, this tiny project would become such an innovator, disruptor. We worked with policymakers to change policies, and then started to engage in really important conversations in the education vocational sector for Australia-Vietnam relations, and on women’s equity and the Hill Tribe minorities, the underserved.
Yes, think of all the visitors to KOTO’s restaurant. Over time, they have all left with a different view of young people. Talk about being an ambassador—that has huge ripple effects that are not quantifiable, but they're so important.
Exactly. For us, we didn't build a restaurant, we built a home. When someone comes into your home, you immediately show the hospitality, the smiles, the keenness, and the willingness to be of service. You say, hey, here's the best food I have in the kitchen! Here are the best drinks I have, and I'm going to give you everything in my heart. That comes through.
One of the features of EMpower’s grantmaking and philanthropic approach is that we fund for up to ten years. It's part of our value system, it's part of our model, and it's something that we're thinking about a lot. What did it mean for KOTO to have that long arc of funding for the partnership?
I'll give you a perfect example. When embassy ambassadors (who fund us) have a posting, and then you build this relationship, and after three or four years, you have to build a relationship again and again—this is very much the same donor-driven agenda and approach. What makes EMpower unique is it's always about the relationship, it's always about the partnership. It's never about a donor-recipient relationship, and that's what I love about it. I remember the very beginning you and a few of the people who were working in Hong Kong gave some advice on how to use the development lingo. It's that spirit of partnership that helped us grow and learn as well.
It's fantastic to have that long-term relationship. Even today, coming back to Hong Kong the other week and connecting again, it’s as if you never left. Because the relationship is not just about monetary support, there’s emotional support that you get from EMpower as well. Because of where we are today, what we've learnt, and being the pioneer in this space, we want to be able to become the alumni instead of the “sunsetter.” If you can just tap into that kind of resource from all of us, it's amazing what we can achieve together for the sake of impact.
I very much take that to heart, including your choice of what to call groups that are no longer with us. We’ve been getting input from people like yourselves and other partners that are no longer getting financial support, and we're going to build out what we think is a clearer set of mutual opportunities. Because it's such a rich relationship, and we want to continue to stay connected.
One of the things that I really admire about you is your approach to learning, how you evolve, and your curiosity. I'm interested to hear, what are you keen to explore next?
My first priority, after 25 years, is to finally build our dream school. The school is not only going to be able to help more underserved youth in dire situations, it will also bring a very important conversation about skills training, which is never considered as important as university in this part of the world. Unfortunately, there are a lot of underserved youth who are not able to access that kind of higher education, so we're very excited about that, and building more robust compliance and governance.
Looking at scaling this, I've always imagined KOTO to be like the big red bus in London. It's a social enterprise that is commuting this many people per year and building so many shelters and centres for the underserved community. I would like to see KOTO doing that at some point and having an ecosystem of creating impact. While in the process, it's changing people's mindsets and educating them. It's not just organisations like EMpower. It's everyone’s responsibility to look after our planet and our people. Charity no longer becomes charity and social enterprise no longer becomes social. It’s more like ESG; it’s everyone's responsibility. It becomes such second nature that you don't even have to talk about it anymore.
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