By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Today, pioneers don’t hate to don coonskin hats to blaze trails. In fact, they come in all sorts of garb.
The Northwest Asian Weekly and its nonprofit foundation organize a yearly event, called Asian American Pioneers, which honors local Asian American and Pacific Islander Pioneers who have made a difference in the community and the world. This year’s theme was Pioneers in Social Entrepreneurship. Thirteen individuals were celebrated at an awards gala at China Harbor Restaurant in Seattle on Oct. 15.
Why give back?
According to its mission statement, the event is dedicated solely to honoring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in order to give credit to people who have been historically overlooked in this kind of context. Also, the event aims to preserve the community’s history and serve as an inspiration for future generations.
“I remember being one of the few Asian American Internet service providers,” said Yale Wong, during his acceptance speech. “I remember walking out of a convention of thousands and thousands of people, and I remember saying, ‘Where are all the Asian brothers? Where are all the Asian people in this space?’ ”
In 1994, Wong founded Compass Communications, becoming the first Asian American in Washington state to own an Internet service provider. He sold the company in 2004. “You know, when I retired at 37, my wife (Laura) and I asked ourselves, ‘What are going to do?’ ” said Wong.
They ended up creating General Biodiesel, which is now the leading biodiesel company in the state.
Dan and Sid Ko, in contrast, inherited a legacy of giving back. Though both had promising careers outside of the restaurant business, they ended up taking over their family enterprise. And, for 30 years, the Kos’ restaurant, South China Restaurant in Bellevue, has held benefit dinners, first for Seattle Keiro nursing home and later on for Kin On. It was a tradition begun by their father.
“I think that now, with society at such a fast pace, information is going out so fast, what is important is that the relationship in the community with people [is preserved],” said Sid. “From that standpoint, it wasn’t really hard for us [to decide whether to continue our father’s legacy]. We’re committed. We’re part of the community. We grew up here. We really wanted to make a difference.”
The latest generation
A common challenge that many entrepreneurs face is how to balance philanthropy with earning money. Some feel that the two are mutually exclusive.
But not Albert Shen.
“The secret for me is that I view it more as a necessity and a responsibility. My parents are here like any other immigrant parents in the United States. Their generation planned and were responsible for the second generation — so everything I volunteer for, it’s because it’s something we have to do. We have a responsibility.”
Shen is owner of Shen Consulting, Inc., a small, Washington state-certified Minority Business Enterprise that specializes in the delivery of large infrastructure projects.
Among a long list of his community service roles, he is a former executive advisory board member for the National Association of Asian American Professionals and a past council president of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority.
Duc Tran is owner and president of Viet Wah Group, which oversees the popular grocery store chain.
“I’m a refugee of war,” said Tran. “My first job when I came over was with the CISC (Chinese Information Service Center). I worked as a translator. My second job was to be an interpreter at the airport to help newcomers, to help them [settle] in the area and find jobs.”
Tran’s story is the quintessential rags-to-riches story — but he doesn’t view his humble beginning as an obstacle to his success. Rather, it was an advantage because it provided him an opportunity to create a thriving business in order to address a need of immigrant communities.
“When I started my business, I think it was good timing because the number of refugees that came in were looking for food from their homeland. I remember being at Safeway, seeing how they threw away chicken feet and chicken hearts.” Tran couldn’t understand such waste, as those were basic ingredients in many Asian dishes.
“There was only one store at the time, in Seattle, that sold Southeast Asian food. So [my business] was a result of good timing. … Because of that, our business is basically supported by the community. And that is why we have to give back.”
Like Tran, Son Michael Pham was also a Vietnamese refugee of war.
“My family left everything behind us and came as refugees. And that was when I first experienced America’s generosity.” Pham cited churches and other groups that helped the family get on its feet with supplies and support.
Today, Pham owns two businesses in franchise development, the main one being Performance Franchising Inc. His passion, however, is his nonprofit, Kids Without Borders (KWB). “Kids Without Borders started off small,” said Pham. “[But then] I went back to Vietnam and witnessed, firsthand, the suffering of children.”
KWB currently supports and works with children in more than 30 countries in addition to those in the United States, helping them stay clothed and be educated.
“My family started over, we worked hard, and fortunately, we were able to get back on our feet,” said Pham. “We learned it was not only a service, but our responsibility [to give back].”
Bert and Josephine “Josie” Golla are a husband and wife team and partners in business. Bert is currently the president emeritus adviser to the Filipino Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Northwest. He was the president for 12 years. Josie has been a nurse for 37 years, and she currently manages three mainstream adult care facilities in North Seattle.
Being part of a husband and wife team presents certain challenges when it comes to work.
“There are businesses run by non-spouses and if something doesn’t work out, it’s not as hard to fire someone,” said Bert. “It’s hard to fire your spouse,” he said, smiling.
“But an advantage in working with your spouse is that we know each other well. We have the same goals,” he added.
Community building is often not an easy task. Though people share an ethnicity, they may not share the same views. Bonding fractious communities is a challenge that many leaders grapple with each day.
Sheila Burrus has a tough time taking credit for organizing those in the Filipino community — she’s quick to pawn off credit to others — but she does point out that outreach makes a lot of difference.
“We (the local Filipino community) started out [fractured], but then we came to be a little bit more organized, and a lot more people came together at the table in wanting to do more for our community. Now, we’re trying to reach out, not only to other people in the Filipino community, but the Asian population as well.”
In addition to having her own State Farm Insurance Agency, Burrus is president of the Northwest Filipino Chamber of Commerce, as well as an accredited agent of the Philippine Consulate General in San Francisco.
For other honorees, the opportunity to give back sometimes presents itself unexpectedly. For Kenichi Uchikura, a Japanese American with strong ties to Japan, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami off the Pacific coast of Japan affected him deeply.
Through his company, Pacific Software Publishing Inc., Uchikura has matched $75,000 in donations to Japan to date, and he’s currently still collecting donations.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Uchikura. “But we’ll do what we can.”
John Kwak is a quiet man who can be a bit shy, despite being the former president of the Seattle Washington State Korean Association. Kwak has worked for the betterment of the Korean American community since his arrival in the United States in 1973. Kwak’s early life was dominated by suffering, a possible reason why he is driven to help others. “It has been my privilege to work with such a great community,” he said.
Currently, Kwak is a business owner of several motels on Aurora, which he admits aren’t the prettiest buildings, but they are valuable because they are historical.
The current president of the Seattle Washington State Korean Association, Kenny Lee, has also dedicated many years to the Korean community. Among his proudest achievements is the 1995 Asiana Airline launch of Seattle-Seoul non-stop service.
Lee thought that after that accomplishment, his work was done. He toyed with the idea of retiring. But he looked around the room at the other honorees at the Pioneers gala, then said, “But now, I guess I can’t.”
Kelly Ogilvie has worked with local communities and events and has an illustrious history of working with high profile people, including taking an early role in Gary Locke’s re-election campaign for governor of Washington in 1999 and 2000. Today, he is CEO of Blue Marble Energy, a company that aims to displace petroleum products with carbon-neutral, renewable substitutes from organic biomass feed stocks.
The road from politics to entrepreneurship wasn’t as out-of-left-field as some would think.
“The part of politics that I cared about was the change that came about the process,” said Kelly. “So transitioning to Blue Marble gave me the same sort of satisfaction. I got a chance to create jobs, which was meaningful. I got a chance to affect the environment. And I got a chance to make money while doing so. So it’s right in line with the same kind of ethos in politics.”
“The thing I’d say to these young Americans is, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ ” said Wong. “Look, I’m not smarter than anyone here. I just had the guts to say, ‘I’m going to do it — I think I can, I think I can.’ And today, I am.” (end)
For more information, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.