PHF Meets KOTO Founder Jimmy Pham

For dinner today, we decided that we were going to pay KOTO, one of PHF’s beneficiaries, a visit. Team PHF had set aside some money to sponsor a 4 students for the 24-month KOTO training course.

The 15min taxi-ride in horrendous traffic proved to be worth every second of it. A delicious aroma greeted us as we walked into the KOTO restaurant, a bright and comforting spot on a dark street lit only by streetlights.

Mr Jimmy Pham, KOTO’s founder, soon came to say “Hi” to us, and inspired us with the KOTO story. Trained as a hospitality professional, Jimmy was born in Vietnam during the Viet war to Korean and Vietnamese parents. After a short stint in Vietnam and Singapore, Jimmy followed his parents to Australia where he grew to appreciate the hospitality industry.

13 years ago, on a trip back to Hanoi, Jimmy met some shoe shine boys who he very quickly developed an affection for. These boys make approximately USD 1 a day, slept on riverbanks, bathed in the river and was happy to survive on one bread roll a day.

Jimmy’s passion was not distributing handouts – he wanted to empower these youths. He found out, over a chat with these boys, that their biggest dreams was to learn some skills and find a job so that they can earn their own keep and more importantly, support their family.

With that, KOTO was born – to turn street kids to hospitality professionals. At KOTO, not only do the trainees learn the tricks of the hospitality trade, they are also fortified with life skills – from non-violent communication to the delicate relationship between opposite genders, KOTO gives them the opportunity to learn them all.

At the heart of the KOTO philosophy lies the concept of paying it forward; KOTO stands for Know One Teach One, and in the words of Jimmy, “Because if you know one, you should teach one.” Indeed, the graduates of KOTO demonstrate the quality with grace, 20% of the staff are graduates of the programme. Top hotels all over the world have employed the other graduates even before they graduated! It is not easy to be a KOTO student, the organisation goes through a 6-month long rigorous recruitment process, from verifying every single application to identifying the applicants’ needs. KOTO students are housed in a residential facility, complete with house parents and transport to and from the training centre as well as the restaurant.

“Behind the smiles,” Jimmy says, “There are 75 people working hard to make sure all the students and trainees are getting true KOTO experience.”

The eager PHF team was so impressed by Jimmy’s account of the KOTO story and asked him for some words of wisdom. The jolly individual replied that each social enterprise should be equipped with the 3Ps.

Passion – believe in the cause.

Perserverance – the toughest time will come and strong perseverance is needed.

Patience – the organisation will grow organically if it is on the right track.

“We bring a whole new perspective with the work that we do, and the perception of street kids in Hanoi,” says Jimmy. And we agree.

Since PHF is just starting out, we know that we have a lot to learn from the survivors like Jimmy. When asked about the difficulties in putting KOTO together, Jimmy smiled and said, “Everyday is a difficulty. But we started with a very steep learning curve, we had to fight many forces that tried to close us down.”

Social entrepreneurs have a special dedication to their causes, and that quality is reflected in Jimmy and his team. He says that none of the kids of Class 1 at KOTO left his side, even though some of them went through the toughest times with him. He recalls having to sit by the pavement and munching on a bread roll because that was the only meal that they could afford.

Looking at the KOTO team and the KOTO philosophy, we at PHF are glad that none of the forces that tried to close KOTO down got their way.

As a parting shot, Jimmy offered us the one tried and tested philosophy that was food for thought for the team: “Don’t be afraid of making mistakes,” he says, “Because they only make you stronger.”

Indeed. PHF sends our deepest appreciation to KOTO and Jimmy for inspiring us and showing us the light at the end of the tunnel, and more importantly making a difference in the world.

We wish the 4 trainees that we sponsored all the best, and hope that we can make it to their graduation in 2 years’ time!