How difficult was it to start KOTO? What specific challenges did you face from the beginning?
I first came to Vietnam in 1996 as a tour operator. I stumbled across a group of youth selling coconuts on the streets, 15 hours a day they’d be out there, living hand to mouth. I just wanted to make a difference. So I took them and 60 other kids to dinner for the next two weeks. I didn’t set out to start a project as big as KOTO. It just grew based on a clear vision.
KOTO started by empowering nine youths via a training-oriented sandwich stall. To say the first two years were a challenge would be an understatement. The youths had problems. You name it: pregnancy, violence. Even my house was ransacked. Eventually, I became mentally, physically and emotionally drained.
Let’s just say things were very different when I first arrived. I’m glad things have progressed so much since then. Plus, charity was unheard of in Vietnam at the time.
Over the past 16 years, how have the original aims of KOTO changed?
Certain things have changed but our original mission remains the same. We believe at-risk and disadvantaged youth everywhere should have access to a holistic programme that provides career training and life skills in a nurturing environment.
How has your role changed during this time?
Dana McNairn was appointed Chief Executive Officer of KOTO in March of this year. She provides the day-to-day executive leadership of our two divisions, KOTO Enterprises and KOTO Foundation. This was a necessary strategic change to enable KOTO to further expand and develop its impact potential. As a part of the strategic changes, I’ve taken on a new role as KOTO’s Global Ambassador. I continue to serve as Executive Chairman of the KOTO Board of Trustees.
What have been the biggest difficulties you have faced during this time period? How have you overcome them?
There have been the usual challenges of building a larger organisation; managing more people and offering more products and services. But we’re growing along with the hospitality and tourism industry in Vietnam.
Nearly 600 graduates later, I’m seeing trainees with their own families and breaking the cycle of poverty, which gives me great joy. But it has also given me incredible sorrow and sadness because I’ve seen so much pain that can be caused to a kid.
What success stories have you had?
We have nearly 600 success stories!
Why is KOTO important for Vietnam?
Youth here represent nearly 20 percent of Vietnam’s population, yet they’re disproportionately represented among the unemployed. So, while the unemployment rate has been relatively stable over the last decade, somewhere around 3%, it is believed that nearly half of the country’s unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 24.
Our vision is to create a clear direction for trainees, transforming them from unemployed people lacking skills, to professionals in the hospitality industry who go on to work all over Vietnam and internationally.
What role do you feel you’ve had in the development of this country?
We are a sustainable solution to ending the cycle of poverty by providing youth with personal and professional development. We empower them to transform their lives.
With so much competition, even within your own industry, how have you managed to stay ahead of the game in recent years?
In advancing human dignity, there is no competition. One more kid off the streets or out of an exploitative environment is what we are all trying to achieve. Now if you mean competition with restaurants, well sure, but our restaurants tell a better story. Food purchases at our restaurants support kids and their families, and ultimately, their communities.
Are you excited about the proposed legislative changes happening with social enterprises in Vietnam?
Yes! Article 10 of the new Law on Enterprises recognises social enterprises as being distinct in purpose, and in their use of distributed profits, compared to a regular business. This resonates today. Time and experience has proven that traditional charity models satisfy needs in the short term, but often don’t address long-term problems like inter-generational poverty.
For further information, visit koto.com.au or head to KOTO’s restaurants at Top Floor, Kumho Link, Corner Hai Ba Trung and Le Duan, HCMC or 59 Van Mieu, Dong Da, Hanoi