🎙️ DADicateddotcom #46 Hao Lam: Street Kid, Refugee, Leading Education Entrepreneur & Dad
Hao Lam is a refugee from Vietnam, now living in Seattle. He has been married to his wife Lisa, for 27 years and they have 2 sons (23 & 20).
His dad was held as a prisoner of war in 1975. Hao spent 12 years trying to escape Vietnam, not being educated. After a year in a refugee camp, he made his way to Canada managed to graduate from high school and college and went on to build one of the largest education franchises in the US.
In the session we discuss Hao’s inspiring journey of becoming an entrepreneur & Dad. Hao shares openly about fatherhood during hardship, his mistakes, his regrets and his learnings as a father.
“The best advice I can give myself as a dad is to spend one-on-one quality time with each son,” Hao Lam on DADicated.com
Hao Lam’s story as a dad is powerful and super inspirational.
Hao Lam is a refugee and dad of two sons (23 AND 20) from Vietnam, now living in Seattle. He has been married to his wife Lisa, for 27 years.
As a youngster Hao spent 12 years trying to escape Vietnam, was a street kid and refused formal education from the country that held his dad as a prisoner of war. He eventually made his way to Canada, managed to graduate from High School and College and went on to create Best in Class Education Center, which is now one of the largest education franchises in the US.
In the session we discuss Hao’s journey, his upbringing and escapes from Vietnam to becoming an entrepreneur. Hao shares openly about fatherhood during hardship, his mistakes, his regrets and his learnings as a father.
The most powerful takeaways for me as a dad were:
To book Philipp as a keynote speaker on “Empowering Dads & Facilitating Family Success” reach out via LinkedIn.
“Our children see us and copy us. Being a dad, we are our children’s model. They look up to us. I want my children to persevere, be resilient, and not be afraid of failure.” Hao Lam on DADicated.com
Philipp Hartmann (host):
The best advice I can give myself as a dad is to spend one-on-one quality time with each son.
How close are you to the mic
Welcome to DAdicated
Grew up in Vietnam. Parents are Chinese. Had to flee Vietnam. Powerful story also about his dad. Lives in the US today after being in Canada for a while. Has 2 sons. And is married.
I was born in Vietnam and my dad was from China. When I was 7 years old, on April 30th 1975, the day my father disappeared. I was devastated. When I was 7 years old, we had never heard from him. We thought he was dead. But he showed up a year later, he was captured as a prisoner of war (POW). Captured by the communists. I was 8 years old when he came back. He was half his size. He said to me that this place is not for me, that I must leave the country. I was 8. For the next 12 years I did not go to school. My mom was a schoolteacher so she had a math tutor and Chinese tutor come to my home. Between 8 and 20 I didn’t do anything but try and escape from Vietnam. Sneaking out on a boat. People shot at me. During those 12 years, I almost died multiple times. I almost get caught. After 12 year, I made it to the Philippines on a 49ft wood boat, 146 people on boat. 7 days and night without water. A couple people dies during the trip. I was in a Philippine refugee camp for a year and I learned the alphabet. English is my first written language although it is my 3rd spoken language.
How was it when your dad came back as a prisoner of war?
He was quiet, changed a little bit, was more quiet, was tortured, didn’t talk much about it. He got shot in the leg, so there was a hole. There had been no doctor because he was a prisoner. They were given food and traded food with cigarettes to heal the wound.
Life was not the same. When the communists took over, when we tried to go to school we did not get the education you normally get. It was communist propaganda. I was asked to spy on my family. They brainwashed kids. My dad just didn’t want to do anything. He just tried to work and make ends meet. They were all put to work during the night-time and back to the cave during the day so no one could see them. American soldiers got chained together so they couldn’t run.
She was schoolteacher for elementary school. She had to support the family. I lived with my grandma. She had a grocery store in front of the house. People could buy rice by the cup. Soya sauce buy the spoon. I learned how to do business from my grandma and my dad would cut wood. He would buy a big piece of wood and ride a tricycle and sell it to people. Not sexy. Hardcore labour work.
Family is now in Canada, my parents are in Canada and my sister is in Seattle. I call my parents a lot but can’t see them since February. They can’t use a smartphone. My dad can’t hear well so I talk to his mom. I have to scream on the phone to my dad because he has hearing problems.
Cultural difference? States Vietnam Canada? If you could generalise as much as you can as a dad. What are the main differences?
In Asia it is similar and not much difference between Chinese and Vietnamese but the US is different. In Asian culture, he never hugged his mom, she never hugged him, they don’t say I love you. It is a culture. If you get a B, they get mad at you - why didn’t you get an A? But in the US, they have the culture of “you tried your best”. I need to learn and to adapt. I moved here when I was 20. I know they love me, but I don’t hear it, I am between the western and Asian world and tell my 2 sons I love them but not as much as the Canadian or American way. I hug my son but now a whole lot. In Vietnam you don’t see people hugging. When I was little there was still physical punishment. Family is important but there is a lot more hierarchy in the family. My son and I are like friends, whereas my mum said you do this period. Between a pull and a push. I don’t want to push anymore. Before, I learned I made a lot of mistakes, it is not like we have 120 kids and learn. With my older son I made a lot of mistakes. I was a better dad with my 2nd son. Learned from my mistakes. Once a week I like to have a family dinner. The more you push the more they don’t want to come. When my oldest son was younger, we would drag him out. My son doesn’t like being pushed so we tried different methods. When he got older, we went without him and then he asked can I come. Once he asked now we say we going out for dinner, would you like to join us? He pretends he is thinking and then he says yes. But when I force him he doesn’t come.
23 and 20-year-old sons.
Fleeing Vietnam – got to Philippines and stayed in the camp for 1 year. How was family in camp?
I was in camp by myself. I met a lady in camp – she taught English and French in school and I studied hard to win her heart. I tried hard and we just celebrated our 27th anniversary. Lisa. She was from a different world. She is super elegant and beautiful and well educated, I was a street kid, a lot of hard work. I studied English as a 2nd language and stayed there for a year. Then my uncle and grandma sponsored me to a little town in Canada. My dream was to become a student. I wanted to feel what it was like to be a student. At that time, I didn’t know I was able to earn a high school diploma. I just wanted to be a student. I was 21 when I got there. I took a test and got good news, education is free in Canada, but I couldn’t get it because my English was not good enough. I went to community college for a year. Adult, learn by himself. A year later I went back and took same test and passed. I officially graduated from high school at the age of 23.
At 27 I finished college. Then I moved down to Seattle and was reunited with Lisa. We were separated – she went to New York and I went to Canada. When I graduated, I had 2 choices, either I moved, or she did. She had a job, so I moved down to Seattle. I had a degree in mathematics and taught math. That is how I started my business. We couldn’t afford kids in the first few years. When I went to Seattle I had nothing. Love math. Started my own business and then a few years later we had our first kid. Timeline from meeting Lisa in camp to first child was 7 years.
Re business, I signed a lease and put up a sign and tried to teach math. I had no clue what I was doing. All my friends and family said I was crazy. No one is tutoring. Had a little office. 2 tables. Solo. Word spread. I was very passionate. First 2 years I didn’t make money. My wife supported the family. Fast-forward 15 years later – I franchised the business in 2010. I have close to 70 locations in 12 states. One of the largest education franchises in the US. Now I run an education franchise. Best in Class Education Center.
Experience being a dad during those difficult times.
Because of my background I was chasing the wrong things. Money. Success. I missed a lot of opportunity to spend time with my kids. I was always doing 2 or 3 things at a time as I was financially insecure. I made a big mistake. Spending quality time is so important – it doesn’t matter how much money you have or nice clothes, I missed quality time with them. Working 7 days a week. They grew up without a dad even though I was living under the same roof as them. I changed a lot 8 years ago. I joined EO and it hit me hard – I didn’t know I was wrong back then. Business was hard. I was always on the go. Making money wasn’t easy. I was 90% focused on making money. My wife said please slow down, the family needs you. And I always asked for 2 more years. I regret this. I don’t have a very good relationship with my older boy. I was very harsh on him. To me nothing comes easy so when I see him slack I got upset. Back then I didn’t know I was wrong. Tell your kids you love them. It is important to spend time with them. I joined EO and hung out with a lot of people. I just wanted to grow my business. There is so much more to life than making money. The family, health, business. Community, charity. Now it is too late for my older boy. It is getting better and I have time but a teenager thinks differently. His younger son I changed when he was still young, so I have a good relationship with him. We spend a lot of one on one quality time. Wife gets jealous sometimes, but she has her turn haha. I love talking a lot with him on one on one time. The only thing you cannot do on this one on one time is lecture. Once you do that you are done. Louis and Albert. Hopefully someday the older boy will heal and knows I love him dearly. I’m his father but I want to be his friend.
Listen to your children to understand them. Have they had a good day, bad day? Old me would be why?? Negative. Now I try to understand. That is how my mom treated me. Now more understanding. You tried your best. Not the end of the world. Did you learn. Who is your friend? The most important thing is you want to be on his side. If you are on his side, he will talk to you, regardless of what the conflict is. Once you get the information, you listen, you empathise, you repeat it back, may I recommend, what do you think, be respectful, be his peer, give suggestions. He feels comfortable. I will genuinely help him if I have the time. It is always a 2-way street!! Respect each other.
I took my own dad to China. Do we treat our children better than we treat our parents? When my son was 16 years old, he loved playing badminton. Wanted to go to china. Took his child. Planned a 6-week trip to China for him to learn badminton. Did it again a 2nd year. His son appreciated it. And I thought, why do I not do this for my dad?
I took my dad back to his hometown. He was 70-something. My mum was in better health back then so could take care of herself. I wish I had taken my mom too. Just me and my dad flew to China. I spent 10 days with him and we saw my family. My dad had not been back for 50 years. His father died and his mom was blind. Stayed in little village. Money cannot buy time with someone. Have a one-on-one trip with your loved one. Your father, your mum, your child. Spend quality time, talk a lot. Sharing stories.
How did your dad adapt? Fought in Vietnam with Americans. Now adapting to new culture.
A lot of them time, with adaptability, you don’t have a choice. When he got to Canada we both worked in the same bakery. He has coped with it. Nothing worse than the year he spent as a prisoner of war. He never complains.
I was in jail in Vietnam as a political prisoner. Captured and jailed. Criminally not wrong but politically wrong. Been through a lot of hardship. COVID is difficult but I have had worse days. I am grateful that I am a husband and son. Has friends and business. Grateful for his life. Wants to help people who are less fortunate.
Still in business. Being a dad a lot of the time I want to set an example to people around me and my son specifically. Work very hard. 6am – 6pm 5 days a week. Want to set an example to my son that I work hard, I am willing to take risks, am willing to be helpful. Our children see us and copy us. Being a dad, we are our children’s model. They look up to us. I want them to persevere, be resilient, not be afraid of failure. I had a bookmark, “Are we going to die, if not what is the issue?”
Many years ago, my house got burnt down. Every time we hit a wall, I ask “are we going to die”, and if no, then what’s the problem?
Freak out over little things – don’t. 10 years back is it a big problem? Is it going to matter in a month? Stay calm and be grateful, help people where you can. Do good deeds.
Best advice I can give is to spend one on one quality time with your children, treat your father as you treat your son.
Hao Lam, CEO and Chairman of Best in Class Education Center, has devoted his entire career to advocate for supplemental education. Ironically, he was illiterate when he was a kid. As a child living under the Communist regime in Vietnam, Hao was faced with adversity and hardships that affected his ability to attain a conventional education. It took him 13 years, including two months in jail, and being shot at to make it by a boat to a Philippine Refugee Camp. Inspired by the wisdom and courage of his would-be future wife Lisa, he learned his first English words in the refugee camp at the age of 20. He made his way to Canada where he realized his dream of graduating from high school at the age of 23. In 1995, Hao's true passion for teaching and entrepreneurship propelled him to open his first tutoring school in Seattle. In 2011, he franchised the business and today, he oversees 65+ franchised centers across the United States.
Lam is a serial entrepreneur whose passion for the environment led him to co-found a recycling company in Vietnam. He also co-founded a Seattle-based mortgage company, co-owned a commercial real estate acquisition and management firm and invested in multiple restaurants. Hao is also a real estate investor. In addition to his responsibilities at Best In Class Education Center, Lam is a motivational speaker, who encourages people to achieve their full potential. In his book From Bad to Worse to Best in Class: A Refugee’s Success Story, Hao shares his success story from humble beginnings as a Vietnamese refugee to leader of a national education franchise in the US.
Lam also served on the board of several non-profit organizations:
- President of the Indochina Chinese Refugee Association
- Forum Co-Chair of Entrepreneur's Organization of Seattle
- Advisory Board member of UW Consulting and Business Development Center