Street kids to five star chefs: an interview with Jimmy Pham

“I didn’t want to give handouts, I wanted to give hand ups!” says Jimmy Pham, founder of Know One, Teach One in Vietnam. He will be speaking at the Social Enterprise World Forum in September and tells us why he believes social enterprise can be even more effective than charities.

Jimmy Pham was born in Vietnam, but left with his family when he was only two years old, eventually settling in Australia. After getting a job in the tourism industry, he returned to Vietnam when he was 23 on a work assignment. Whilst there, he met the “street kids” – homeless youths living on the streets of Hanoi. After initially supporting them with his wages, the kids eventually told Jimmy that they needed more than just money: they needed skills and a job.

Jimmy decided to set up KOTO to help them, which stands for “Know one, teach one”. The project began as a humble sandwich shop with only nine children, but has since grown into an internationally recognised social enterprise, with two training restaurants and a cooking school. We spoke to Jimmy Pham, the founder of KOTO, about his mission, his belief in social enterprise, and why he’s looking forward to the SEWF 2017 conference in New Zealand.

What are you going to be talking about at SEWF?

I haven’t spoken with all of the panel yet, but generally it will be something about vocational training and the transformative power of social enterprise in the education sector.

Why do you love what you are doing now?

I kind of fell into it, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would end up managing a social enterprise, the very first in Vietnam in this space. I think it’s something that I love so much that it almost found me. I came back to Vietnam and I saw a need which I acted on, and 20 years later I’m still doing what I do and still loving it.

My work presents more challenge than just the good bits though: everyday you’re in the chaos, and living in Asia and working in Vietnam is a challenge. I’m doing something relatively new, and the community is only beginning to know about this particular topic. If I had to say one thing that I enjoy most about it is waking up, going to work and getting great big smiles from all the kids, which I interpret to be almost a “thank you for my future”. I just feel very humble to be able to be of service.

Why have you chosen to pursue your goals via social enterprise?

To answer that question, you have to go back to the origins of why I started KOTO in the first place. I spent the first three and a half years after I came back to Vietnam helping a whole bunch of kids. I was young and arrogant, and didn’t want to go through any NGO’s but instead help them directly. I learnt the hard way about the proverb “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”.

After three and a half years, I realised that giving someone a fish to eat every day was not the way to help someone. The street kids I had been helping told me that they needed something more: they needed a job. I didn’t know very much or have much experience in that area, in development, in psychology, in helping with street kids or in the Vietnamese language.

The one thing I did know at the time when I set this up was that I wanted to create a family for these kids. I knew that everybody needs to eat, so I chose hospitality skills as the most transferrable skills you could give someone.

Added to those skills was help with everything from drug abuse to information on healthy relationships and family planning. I didn’t want to create a charity: I didn’t want to give handouts, I wanted to give hand ups. I needed some income which didn’t have to rely on people giving me something, so I was doing everything I could to survive. When you’re planting lives, you can’t exactly say “oh, can you guys hold on for a couple of months while I get some funding”, you just have to continue.

when you see a need, you have to tie a business principle to a social mission, and not the other way around

What’s your advice for young people who want to become social entrepreneurs?

There’s so much. But the first thing is, when you see a need, you have to tie a business principle to a social mission, and not the other way around. You don’t run an NGO and think that because you have a good idea everyone around you is supposed to help you, and you’ll have a great plan and a great infrastructure and you’ll be able to able to build your organisation up. That’s number one.

Number two is, that it will be a bit of a lonely journey. You’re doing something amazing and different, and so you have to be self-motivated, but the end result is worth it.

What are you hoping to gain from attending the SEWF?

New Zealand has been very kind to us, we attended the taste of Auckland festival two years ago, and last year the Auckland University of Technology hosted six of our kids in work experiences. New Zealand is a beautiful country. Attending SEWF makes you feel like you’re part of a community that’s making changes. You’re building something that’s solid, a network. You’ll be able to make friends and share resources, and won’t have to feel lonely anymore.

Pioneers Post is media partner to the Social Enterprise World Forum 2017, which will be held in New Zealand on 27-29 September. For more details, see