I Am Living Proof Of The American Dream: “If you believe you can achieve something, that is half the battle” With Charlie Vo
Follow your dreams. If you believe you can achieve something, that is half the battle. It’s important to have a vision for your life and to work hard to accomplish that dream.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlie Vo. Charlie is a Vietnamese American who immigrated to the US after the fall of Saigon. Together with Olivett Robinson, Vo launched nine nail salons in the Los Angeles area, a nail supply store as well as a manufacturing plant to mass produce nail color and tips. Her incredible story is the subject of the new release Mani/Pedi: A True-Life Rags to Riches Story written by Krista Beth Driver.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in South Vietnam and four sisters and two brothers. My parents were middle class and worked very hard to support us. We always had enough food and life was good. We were free then; free to get an education and earn a living.
I enjoyed spending time with my friends, going to school and I always dreamed of going to University. My friend’s parents worked for the US Civil office and used to bring us special, thick, colorful magazines like Seventeen. We would look through the magazines and be in awe of the American fashions. I liked to watch an American cowboy show called Bonanza and other American television shows.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
When Saigon fell my country was no longer safe. The Communists stopped all freedoms. They closed the market place and there was no freedom to do business. There was no freedom of speech, religion, education… they took all of our choices from us. The Government watched every move and listened to every word. They encouraged us to spy on one another and there was a risk of being put in prison, re-education camp or even death if you spoke out against the Communists. There was not enough food for my family and we struggled just to survive.
I knew that if we stayed in Vietnam, my children would have no hope of a future, we would never be free and life would be very difficult. My husband had been sent to a camp many miles away and I could not support my two young children. I watched the light go out of my children’s eyes and I knew we had to try to make a new life in America. I was willing to risk everything to save my family.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
On the first attempt of escape, we were captured by the Communist soldiers and put into prison. I was in a concrete cell that was intended to hold 10 people with my 3-year-old son, 2-year-old daughter, 16-year-old sister and about 60 other women and children. We could not move and only had room to sit very closely. There was one small window and no ventilation and no sanitation. My children became very ill and I was helpless to do anything for them.
While I was in prison for those few months, I continued to plan my next attempt of escape. When we were finally released, we were too ill to try again and needed to gain our strength. The day finally came for us to try again and I left Vietnam with a lot of pain in my spirit for my country. My parents and family remained behind, while I escaped with my two infant children, two younger sisters and my husband. We saved enough gold to buy passage on a bing (a small fishing vessel meant to hold 20 people). On our boat were 110 souls and we spent 19 days lost in the South China Sea, with no food or water. We nearly died.
We were rescued by a fishing vessel and they towed us for 3 days to the Hong Kong Harbor. Then they gave us enough food and gasoline to travel 3 more days to the United Nations Refugee Relief barge. The UN took us to Sham Sui Poo Camp. I was 22 years old then and two years later, I finally boarded a Pan Am flight to Los Angeles, USA.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
We were sponsored by my husband’s uncle and his church. I will always be thankful for them. They helped us get our first apartment and the church members helped with food and items for our tiny home. We were very blessed for their help.
I knew I had to be healthy to support my family and I needed to find a job quickly. Soon, I learned about the nail industry and I was able to go to school and become a licensed manicurist. Though I studied English in primary school and in the refugee camp, I did not speak the language very well. I struggled to communicate with my customers in my job at the nail salon.
That is when I met Olivett. She was my customer and she taught me more English. We became friends and Olivett taught me more about living in America. We eventually opened salons together and became business partners. Olivett was a hair dresser and together we opened the first salon to provide both hair and nail services in Los Angeles.
At a time when racial tensions were high in Los Angeles, Olivett and I looked beyond color and became not only business partners and friends… we became family. Some people said Black and Asians couldn’t get along, but we did. Not only did we get along, we built nail/hair salons that thrived in Los Angeles.
Olivett helped me in so many ways. I cherish my friendship with her and appreciate everything she did to help me learn about America.
So how are things going today?
I am semi-retired now. I’m often invited to speak at beauty schools to speak to the students about important matters of building relationships with customers and to discuss different regulations in the industry.
After my husband died, I wasn’t sure I would ever find happiness again. I was lucky to find my new partner and he is a Veteran of the Aviation Vietnamese Army. We enjoy ballroom dancing and once a month we host a dance party and ask for donations. The money we raise is sent back to Vietnam to help support disabled veterans who were allied with the US Army.
I am happy today that Krista Driver wrote my story in her book Mani/Pedi. This is important to me, because I want people to know how it was for many Vietnamese immigrants to escape from our country and how hard we worked in America. We love this country and we are thankful for the freedom we have here.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I was blessed by God in America. In this country I had a chance to build a business and be successful. The nail industry was just starting in America, but nail colors were limited and there were not sculpture nails or nail art then.
I owned nine nail salons in Los Angeles and then I opened the first nail supply store called Foxy Nail Supply. Then I bought a big industrial building to begin my dream of manufacturing. I opened Miss Professional Nail Product, USA. With my brother and his wife, we operated multiple injection mold machines to do mass production of plastic nail tips for the whole USA market. We also collaborated with a color chemist and produced three lines of nail polish for three different markets: professional, over the counter, and export. We injected over 500 colors into the nail industry, bringing vibrant colors to the market.
We were proud to be the first manufacturer for the nail supplies world… long before China, Japan or Europe.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
- The process needs to be orderly. When I was in the camp in Hong Kong, they worked hard to filter people and it was not easy to enter the USA. It took us over 2 years to wait for our approval.
- United States in a model of freedom for the world. This country needs to protect people who suffer humanitarian crisis in other countries.
- Some people have “anchor babies” in the U.S. and then file for permanent residency. They take advantage of the law and that undercuts the immigration process.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Get an education. It is important to study and get a degree or license in a field or industry. I went to a beauty school and was able to start work almost immediately to support my family. Even after I graduated, I continued to learn and study the culture and trends in my industry. Knowing what the customers wanted and how the fashion/trends changed, I was able to be successful in my business because I always had the latest in the market.
- Follow your dreams. I you believe you can achieve something, that is half the battle. It’s important to have a vision for your life and to work hard to accomplish that dream.
- Follow the law. Make sure you are doing things properly and according to the regulations and laws. When I opened my manufacturing building, I made sure to work with the fire department and city inspectors to make sure my building was up to code and safe for my workers.
- Learn from others. I spent time listening to other business owners, chemists, engineers and etc… I asked a lot of questions and learned from them. This helped me be successful.
- Give back. When I made a lot of money, I supported my community and helped others to fulfill their dreams. I had help when I first started and I wanted to help others as well. Getting involved strengthens our communities and provides opportunity for others.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would love to meet Oprah to share my story with her. She is someone who worked hard to build her success and I admire her greatly.
I am a Vietnamese immigrant who risked everything to escape from my country. When I came to Los Angeles, racial tension was high. Somehow God put Olivett (a Black woman) in my path and together we built a successful business. And now all these years later, Krista Driver (a White woman) took the interest to write my story in Mani/Pedi.
Oprah may like the story of a Vietnamese and Black woman who worked hard to achieve their success and the White woman that told their story. We are all 3 different colors and yet we are the same ~ strong, bold women who did not allow race to determine our friendships or limit our dreams.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!