In this episode of Vietnam Innovators, Hao Tran met with the founder and CEO of KOTO, a not-for-profit social enterprise that empowers at-risk and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam, Jimmy Pham.
The passage “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” changed not just Jimmy’s life but other thousands more street children he has supported.
Born during Vietnam’s toughest time, Jimmy left the country with his Vietnamese mother and Korean father at the age of two and called Australia their home.
With a background in tourism, he came back to Vietnam at 24 and stayed in Ho Chi Minh City. It was in 1996 and at that time, poverty was everywhere in the country.
During one of his usual walks, Jimmy met four kids selling coconuts from the Mekong Delta, struck a conversation two weeks later, he was already feeding about 60 kids.
But it wasn’t just about their stories of life in the streets, “one thing I noticed was the incredible resilience those kids hold… that they won’t be defeated by the circumstances in their lives.” And that gave Jimmy a sense of purpose until one tiny and malnourished girl grabbed him and said, “give me money.” That girl didn’t meet her quota that day and her mother’s holding a stick ready to beat her. Regrettably, Jimmy learned that kid never made it to adulthood.
That was his sort of tipping point, that girl and her tragic life changed everything in the way Jimmy views the world. Back then, the easier choice for him was just to leave and send money to Vietnam to support those kids.
“But I want to be the change I want to see in the world,” and that’s how Jimmy made a pact in getting these kids the help they deserve. He left back to Australia and learned Vietnamese with the two books he brought with him.
KOTO — Know One, Teach One
Not too long after that, Jimmy came back, stayed in the capital and continued feeding as many kids as he could. He spent four years making sure no kids in his area miss a meal.
He thought that was enough until these kids made him realize the passage of giving a man a fish. “They told me I wasn’t helping them at all and that I was creating dependence and they wanted jobs instead, a sustainable livelihood.”
He founded KOTO in 1999 — KOTO stands for ‘Know One, Teach One’ — with the goal to help disadvantaged and at-risk youth in Vietnam through a holistic hospitality training program.
In the last 21 years, Jimmy, through KOTO, with the support from donors and volunteers has managed to help over 1,000 trainees all while providing healthy dishes and an unforgettable Vietnamese culture experience.
It all started with ‘a simple idea’
Jimmy likes to say the term, “the idea was simple” every time he mentions something that isn’t really simple at all.
Given his background in the hospitality industry, he provided a two-year training to these kids teaching them confidence, life skills, communication using the English language and gave them a sense of belongingness to fully empower them for the future.
Despite the impact of the global pandemic, Jimmy believes that now more than ever, KOTO project needs to be around to support these kids and keep them from the streets.
To him, when the world is ready for the ‘new normal’ we will all have to go back to basics — everyone will need healthy food to eat, recreation, human interactions. And that even if F&B is suffering at the moment, it won’t be completely gone.