Ki’s Dream: To define herself, by her own rules

This story is part of Kiva’s International Women’s Day Campaign. Through March 8th, we’ll be sharing inspiring stories of women borrowers. You can back a woman entrepreneur today by visiting

For years, Ki has been defined by the struggles that surrounded her.

Dropout. As a child, she had to skip school for many years as she worked at her family’s grocery store in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Refugee. When civil war broke out, she and her family found refuge on a relative’s farm in a rural area.

It wasn’t over. In the middle of a night in 1979, Ki was forced to flee from that temporary location to neighboring Vietnam as the brutal Khmer Rouge regime continued.

Foreigner. The young woman called the refugee camp in Vietnam’s Song Be province “home” for 12 years. Ki and her husband Minh met, married, and had their first son in a land that wasn’t her own. They made ends meet by selling food within the camp.

Then it was 1992.

Photos by Brandon Smith

Immigrant. Through her sister-in-law’s sponsorship, she and her young family found themselves in a city far removed from the danger of where they began.

“We feel safe. This is the place we are looking to stay — the final place.”

San Francisco’s Tenderloin became Ki’s home, and she worked tirelessly for years in various restaurants, leaning on the food skills she learned through her grocery background. She and her husband raised three young boys in the crowded ethnic neighborhood, living in a one-bedroom apartment.

Eventually, she knew it was time to create her own definition.

Business owner.

“We started looking for a better way to help our family,” Ki said.

After years of not having full control of her life, Ki is now at the helm. Her restaurant opened January 29, 2015, just across the street from her family’s apartment. The sandwiches are traditional and affordable, as Ki wants her food to be felt and known by the neighborhood.

“Here is good. Here, we have our own business.”

Her dream is only beginning. There is more growth needed, and she’s already had to take out a loan to pay for the equipment necessary to open the shop. She and her husband hope to cover their expenses through a Kiva U.S loan, leaning on others who believe in them, near and far.

Following all those decades of strife, Ki is now who she wants to be, of her own volition.

To those who still have a dream, it comes down to something simple. She says,

“Just try.”

Empower a woman entrepreneur like Ki today at