By Hao Lam, EO Seattle member and CEO of Best in Class Education
Persistence—it’s one of the most important skills an entrepreneur can have, and one I learned to adopt long before I started my first business. I was born in South Vietnam during the height of the civil war with North Vietnam. It was a terrifically tough time, and one that greatly impacted my family. My father had worked for, and fought alongside, the United States army. When Saigon fell, we were closely monitored and ostracized, resulting in my father being jailed as a political prisoner. I had to flee.
I tried to escape Vietnam 10 different times, but failed. Those failures had me running from gunfire and in jail on several occasions, but I refused to give up. I was a young boy dreaming of a life that would allow me to grow, achieve and excel on my own terms. Years later, my now wife, Lisa, and I managed to escape by making it onto a boat bound for the Philippines. It was indescribably difficult for seven days. We were packed in like sardines and survived on only three capfuls of water a day. Our boat was violently tossed by 10-story waves in the middle of the ocean. It was terrifying. The loss of life was something I’ll never forget. When we finally set foot in Palawan, I kissed the sand.
Looking back, I can honestly say that I think everything happens for a reason. Sometimes life gives you challenges to help you prepare for the future. Although you don’t know it at the time, these experiences fortify your character and sharpen your perspective, which are especially valuable when it comes time to starting a company. The obstacles entrepreneurs face are, of course, not the kind of life-or-death situations I had to overcome. My own setbacks growing my tutoring business pale in comparison. But ever since my ordeal, I have faced every hurdle in business and life head on because of one unshakable realization: I know I’ve survived worse.
My escape from Vietnam ended up freeing me to successfully pursue my passion for education and business, because I had no fear of failure. In business, it’s imperative that we maintain perspective about what failure looks like. Failure holds an entrepreneur back only for as long as he or she fears it. Failure is discouraging, but it is temporary. Each time Lisa and I encountered a business problem, I thought about the worst-case scenario—that we might lose it all. And then I thought, even if we lose it all, even if I’m down to my last pair of underwear … it’s worth it. Whatever happens, it can’t be any worse than being alone in a new country. It can’t be any worse than crouching in the bottom of a boat on a cold night in a rain of gunfire. It can’t be any worse than Vietnamese prison.
That perspective, coupled with my commitment to persevere, carried me through other challenges in my life: immigrating to Canada and living apart from Lisa; learning English; getting my bachelor’s degree in mathematics; and moving to Seattle to open our first tutoring center together. Each day was a big struggle—a struggle to connect to a new community, to prove to parents the value of our product and to make progress with each student. But within each struggle was a triumph, as well: A triumph over pain, tyranny and ignorance. Each time we experienced a new challenge, I was reminded of the danger we had faced and survived early in life. And then I found my focus.
Today, we own 11 tutoring centers and have 29 Best in Class Education Centers nationwide. We are grateful for each day, and each student. It is to this philosophy that we owe our success: We see each day as a gift. For us or any entrepreneur, each day is a chance to do something great. It is a chance to fail, sure. But it is also a chance to succeed.