Skip to main content

KOTO’s Jimmy Pham: Social enterprise pioneer

Jimmy Pham with KOTO Class 17 trainees in Hanoi
Jimmy Pham with KOTO Class 17 trainees in Hanoi.

Supplied: KOTO

Jimmy Pham was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia. He returned to Vietnam to establish Know One Teach One (KOTO), which began as a sandwich shop in 1999. KOTO now trains disadvantaged youth at their restaurants in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Using a social enterprise business model, the revenue from their restaurants funds the teaching of hospitality, English and life skills to trainees. KOTO has had over 600 trainees graduate to date.

As a child, what did you dream of doing?

“As the child of an immigrant and part of a large working family in Australia, I was conditioned to do something that made a difference and had a lasting impact. I can remember knocking on doors and selling chocolates, going on [World Vision’s] 40 hour famine and other charity activities.”

You were born in Vietnam and then in 1980 you migrated to Australia with your mother and siblings. What were your earliest memories about migrating to Sydney?

“My first memory was being at the airport, meeting with my brother and seeing a Christmas tree for the first time at Woolworths [supermarket].

It was difficult to adjust at first. We lived with someone who took us in and they already had a family. Later we were cramped in a small apartment. My mum worked all day and night as a seamstress to make ends meet. She enrolled us in a Catholic school with our broken English.

One thing that stood out was how much Australians cared and accepted us. That care and acceptance helped us adapt to a new country.”

KOTO Class 15 trainees with Jimmy Pham in Hanoi
KOTO Class 15 trainees with Jimmy Pham in Hanoi.

Supplied: KOTO

You work with kids and youth in Vietnam. How would you describe yourself as a kid — growing up in Sydney?

“Up until high school, I was a ‘straight A’ student. And then I rebelled. I think all kids should grow up and have that as part of their childhood.

I was lucky to have a mother who loved me, a roof over my head and food on the table. That’s a lot of things that the kids we help at KOTO don’t have.”

How did you decide to return to Vietnam — to establish KOTO? Why did you choose to specialise in the hospitality industry?

“I started working in tourism, specialising in Indochina. In 1996, they sent me on assignment to Vietnam for the first time. This is when I first met street kids.

I was in Vietnam for four months, had $200 in my pocket and realised I wanted to be that change I wanted to see in the world.

I spent the next four years paying for street kids to go to schools across Vietnam and looking after about 60 kids across Indochina.

The kids in Hanoi were the ones that told us that this wasn't going to help them. That’s when the KOTO model was born. KOTO aims to empower disadvantaged and at‐risk youth by giving them the tools to not only help themselves, but also help others. [KOTO is about] positive permanent change through the transformative power of social enterprise.”

KOTO Class 24 trainees in KOTO Hanoi Restaurant
KOTO Class 24 trainees in KOTO Hanoi Restaurant.

KOTO: Avi Ratnayake

What has been surprising about working with disadvantaged kids and youth in Vietnam?

“The most surprising thing is people’s loyalty. In 2000, I ran out of money, and had 20 street kids with me. We got through the day together by eating banh mi (Vietnamese baguette). They never left me, and to this day they share in that joy. When they get married, they still want you to be a part of it. The reciprocal benefit is so much more than you can hope for.”

What do you miss about Australia? What do you like to do when you go back to Sydney?

“[I miss ] Hanging out at the clean beaches — we are spoiled with such wonderful beaches in Australia. Also, the structure and organisation. I miss my friends. We talk about different and relevant things — not just money. I also miss the quietness.

When I’m in Sydney, I like to go hang out with my friends, have barbeques and go to quiet places. I also stock up on Aussie things — for example, Vegemite [yeast based spread] and Twisties [savoury snack food].”

What are your top two tips for someone wanting to work in social enterprise?

“Perseverance. If ten people tell you that it's a really bad idea, then you are on the right track."

Be unreasonable in your approach and foolish in your attempt to make this world a better place.

KOTO Ho Chi Minh City graduates with Jimmy Pham, May 2015
KOTO Ho Chi Minh City graduates with Jimmy Pham, May 2015.

KOTO: Scoot Green

Imagine that you had the chance to host a barbeque — anywhere in Australia. If you could invite three Australian guests (dead or alive) — who would they be? What would be on the menu? Where would you like it to be held?

“The former CEO of Qantas, James Strong. He’s a great leader and a great man. I know him personally.

The singer, Tina Arena. I’d ask her to write a song about KOTO for the kids to follow for generations to come.

The famous chef, Curtis Stone. I think that he has a great food ideas and [would be a] mentor to the kids.

It would be held at my sister’s restaurant, White Taro in Surry Hills, Sydney. I would serve Vietnamese food with a Western twist.”

What would be your advice to your 15 year old self?

“Look after yourself better! Be active at sports and the outdoors. You will pay the price later. And be completely alive to the full experience of life.”