Remembering Kim Pham, Refugee, Newsman, Entrepreneur and Father

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Kim and Julie Pham (Image: Don Pham)

When I told my father, Kim Pham, I was going to leave my executive job at a remarkable nonprofit to start my own business in the middle of a pandemic, I was worried that he would disapprove or, at the very least, warn me against it. Instead, he said, “I’m so happy for you. By having your own business, you are in control and you will have freedom.”

Spoken like the true entrepreneur that he was.

My father passed away in his sleep at home on March 30. I was blessed to get to live with him the last four months of his life, after he was diagnosed with an inoperable and terminal aneurysm. I moved back into my childhood home, and we all lived together for the first time in over 20 years. Growing up, my parents worked all the time at the newspaper. Now that we were all working from home, we ate meals together every day, cooked lovingly by my mom and brother Don. My father told us often, “I have never been happier in my life.”

 He got to see me launch my business, CuriosityBased. I leaned on him for advice while starting up this venture, but in reality, he had been a model of entrepreneurship for as long as I can remember.

My parents and I came to Seattle as “boat people” from Vietnam in 1979. I was a 2-month-old baby. Like many Republic of Vietnam military men, my father had been sent to a communist “re-education camp” after the war ended. He spent three years in the prison camp as punishment for serving as a press officer in the South Vietnamese Navy and was so afraid of being sent back that he was the first of his siblings to try to flee Vietnam.

My parents made a new life in Washington state and my father took on odd jobs delivering pizzas and newspapers while studying at community colleges. My two younger brothers, Andy and Don, were born in Tacoma. He was able to transfer to the University of Washington, study engineering, and eventually become a draftsman for Tacoma Boat.

Years later, my father told me that during the recession of the 1980s, he felt scrutinized and resented by his peers as a refugee. As a result, he had to work much harder than others and didn’t feel comfortable at work. At the same time, the Vietnamese community was growing in Seattle. In 1985 the region’s (and reportedly the nation’s) first Vietnamese newspaper, Đất Mới, which was sponsored by the state government, shut down. My father considered starting a newspaper, as he had dreamed of when he was back in Vietnam. His best friend, Quốc Bảo Phạm, was on the founding team at Ngừoi Viêt Daily, the largest Vietnamese newspaper outside Vietnam, based in Orange County, California. They wanted to test markets outside Southern California, so in 1986 they helped my parents start  Người Việt Tây Bắc (Northwest Vietnamese News, though the name literally means “Vietnamese people of the Northwest”). As the first privately owned Vietnamese-language newspaper in the Pacific Northwest, it played a vital role bringing the growing local Vietnamese community together and promoting Vietnamese-owned businesses. 

My father still had to work as an engineer by day to support his wife and three young children. As soon as he could afford to, he left his job to run the newspaper full-time. For as long as I can remember, the newspaper was like a fourth child, another sibling to my brothers and me. He took so much joy in elevating other people’s stories, especially those of younger Vietnamese Americans pursuing art, writing, journalism, and community-building work. I think he saw a younger version of himself in them. 

In the early years, the newspaper office doubled as a print shop. We were one of the few places Vietnamese could go to for their wedding invitations and business cards, since we could typeset in Vietnamese. Eventually, income from advertising increased and my parents made enough to send three kids through college. The newspaper peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s, riding a wave of corporate marketing to ethnic communities. We even started a weekday edition in addition to the weekend edition to meet the demands of advertisers. Those were the boom years.

My father loved sharing stories of our refugee community because he believed we Vietnamese have much to be proud of, that we have accomplished so much in the short time we’ve been in America. Before the pandemic, he would run around to different community events, sometimes three in one evening, and take photos. He especially loved showcasing grand openings of new Vietnamese-owned businesses and reunions of Vietnamese veterans and classmates. He wanted to highlight positive news, and was careful to maintain a balanced tone.

He also loved employing new refugees from Vietnam as a way to help them acclimate to the US before they moved onto better-paying jobs or started their own businesses. He would proudly  tell me, “So-and-so used to work at the newspaper.”

My father taught me to help others first, and if and when they are in the position to help you, they will. He also understood he couldn’t do things alone. He would enlist many others in pulling together big events for the Vietnamese community, much more lavish than we would ever be able to pay for. I watched how he asked for help from others in a way that made them feel proud to give. He also made a special point of acknowledging people and expressing his gratitude. These practices helped him in business and life. He said sometimes people can’t give money, but they can give something else. That was certainly the case for the newspaper. We had a media platform and were rich in influence and impact, though poor in material resources.

After my father passed, people started sharing their memories with me.One long-time reader, Thế Anh Nguyễn, offered this: “His platform provided opportunities for many Viet-entrepreneurs that otherwise cannot afford or absorb the cost to advertise and outreach. His platform supported my first startup business and my family’s business even when no one knew who I or we were. Because of such support, we are now ten years in the running of Pacific NW Bail Bonding. When I decided to run for Seattle [Port] Commissioner, his newspaper was the only one to endorse me directly, win or not.”

“As a young child one of my fondest memories was sitting with my dad while he read your dad’s paper,” another reader shared in a Linked-In comment. “I remember trying to practice my Vietnamese by reading the paper out loud and it made my parents so happy.”

Even non-Vietnamese contributed their memories. Hannah Lidman shared that one of her best friends from high school was Vietnamese and this friend “shared so many of the stories of her family and their journey here with me… I knew that her family read the Northwest Vietnamese News a lot. It was always around their house and they would take me shopping in the Vietnamese markets once or twice a month around Olympia and sometimes one of my jobs to pick it up there. This was probably because I couldn’t read any other labels and it was the one thing that I knew where it was.”

From late 2008 through 2011, I managed the newspaper alongside my family. We scraped by, watching every dollar during those recession years, amid the general decline of the newspaper industry. Running a small community newspaper means understanding that many of your clients are struggling too, prioritizing which outstanding bill to pay first. Or looking for ways to take on more of the work since  we couldn’t pay someone else to do it. The pandemic forced even more cost-cutting, including my father’s own already meager pay. Fortunately, profits invested during the newspaper’s boom years helped him absorb these losses more easily. His compensation became knowing that the newspaper mattered to its readers and advertisers. He especially loved promoting the achievements of young Vietnamese Americans.

After I left the newspaper in 2011, I went on to work at well-resourced organizations, but my scrappiness never left me. Witnessing all that resilience gave me the courage to start my own business in January.

When I founded CuriosityBased, my father enjoyed guiding me, though I know he was secretly a little nervous. As we were developing the company logo, he text-messaged me photos of the shades he thought would signal brightness and optimism. Even though the term “professional development” and the services of my company are foreign concepts to most immigrant and refugee small business owners like my father, he still talked about my work enthusiastically to those in his network.

Each time I got another client or contract, I told my father right away, to ease his unspoken concern.

I will treasure the time he coached me. 

My father once told me, “you and I are alike in that we love to work.” Even in his final months, there would be many times my father and I worked at our computers well past midnight at the makeshift dining table-turned-workstation. With people going out less during the pandemic, they also picked up the newspaper less frequently. He adapted by posting on Facebook and the website a lot more often. I served as his tech support.

I would go to bed first and tell him, “Dad, don’t stay up too late.” He would say, “Yes, child, I’ll go to sleep soon.” Then I’d come downstairs in the morning to find  him up early working again. I am certain he preferred the days spent preparing the newspaper to the day the newspaper came out, because by then he was already thinking of the next issue.

Through his example, my father taught me that entrepreneurs can be rewarded financially, but not necessarily and not all the time. So they have to be motivated by more than just money to start a business. Entrepreneurs need to ride the waves of profitability and understand with ups come downs and they need to prepare to absorb the bumps, sometimes by asking others for help. They have to love doing the work as much as, if not more than the product of  itself.

My father loved being his own boss. He never seemed to resent the long hours. He said, “In America, you are never safe. You can always lose your job. The only way to guarantee you won’t is by having your own company.”

Even when I didn’t work at the newspaper anymore, we constantly talked about it at home—what is needed for the upcoming issue? What is its long term future? How do we survive? 

My father showed me owning a business means getting to decide how you’ll make an impact on the world and taking responsibility for the choices you make. Even though he isn’t here to run the newspaper anymore, his spirit lives on in me and in all the Vietnamese business owners and members of the community at large whom he uplifted.

Julie Pham, PhD, is CEO of CuriosityBased, an organizational development practice focused on fostering collaboration, connection, and communication. This remembrance is based on an earlier essay published in Julie Pham’s Substack, “CuriosityBased.”

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Julie Pham, PhD, is CEO, CuriosityBased, an organizational development practice focused on fostering collaboration, connection, and communication.

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