Passing on the entrepreneurial spirit

Lessons from my father on running a business

When I told my father, Kim Pham, I was going to leave my executive job at a remarkable nonprofit to start my own company 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, last Tuesday, 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.

My father got to see me launch my business, CuriosityBased. I leaned on him for advice while starting up this venture, but in reality, he had modelled entrepreneurship for as long as I can remember. 

In 1986, he co-founded with my mother  Northwest Vietnamese News, the first privately owned Vietnamese-language newspaper in the Pacific Northwest, to connect the growing local Vietnamese community and promote Vietnamese-owned businesses. He 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. 

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 with corporate marketing to ethnic communities. Those were the boom years. 

My father loved employing new refugees from Vietnam as a way to help them acclimate to the US before they moved onto better paying jobs or starting 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 or 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 to acknowledge people and express 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. 

From late 2008 through 2011, I managed the newspaper alongside my family. We scraped by, watching every dollar, during those recession years and the general decline of the newspaper industry. Running a small community newspaper means understanding that many of your clients are struggling too. It’s prioritizing which outstanding bill to pay first and which could wait a little longer. 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 his 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.

After I left the newspaper in 2011, I went on to work at well-resourced organizations. 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 preparing the newspaper more than the day the newspaper came out because by then, he was already thinking of the next issue. 

Through his example, my father taught me entrepreneurs can be rewarded financially, though not necessarily 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, if not more, than the product of the work itself. 

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 my father isn’t here to run the newspaper anymore, his spirit lives on in me and  in all the Vietnamese business owners he uplifted.

Read Julie’s tribute to Kim Pham in Northwest Vietnamese News:

Kim Pham and Julie Pham at the Northwest Vietnamese News office in 2010, when Julie worked there full time as the managing editor. Photo by Don Pham.