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Entrepreneur Brings Green Business to Vietnam

New America Media, News Feature, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Nov 17, 2008

Editors Note: An Pham is more than an immigrant with an American dream. She brought green technology back to her homeland and in the process created educational exchanges between the two countries. For her work, she recently won an award from AnewAmerica. NAM Environmental editor, Ngoc Nguyen, reports.

OAKLAND, Calif. - When An Pham immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 2004 at the age of 40, she left behind her career as a college teacher. New immigrants from Vietnam like her often found entry-level jobs in the nail industry. But Pham sought a different path.

She wanted a new career, but thought Im too old to go to school.

While reading a Vietnamese language newspaper, she said she saw an ad from AnewAmerica about a business incubation certification training, and decided to sign up.

At first, I [thought] I get a job, said Pham, who said she eventually wanted to start her own business. The program, she said, taught her, how to do a business plan.

Phams first venture was opening a store in San Leandro, Calif. that imported and sold pottery from Vietnam. The pottery in Vietnam is beautiful and cheap, she noted. I thought, why don't I bring my pottery here to sell?

As she grew her business, Pham took ESL classes at Berkeley City College, eventually earning an associate's degree in international business. She's currently enrolled in a bachelor's degree program in international business at San Francisco State University.

Pham has moved onto her second business, and founded Global Investment Financial & Trade Group, through which she promotes business and educational exchanges. Pham was honored last Thursday by AnewAmerica with the Entrepreneur of the Year award for her work to connect businesses in Vietnam with power from solar and wind.

Our entrepreneurs are not only connected to the local economy, but the global [one] too, said Mimi Nguyen, AnewAmerica senior program manager. An, shes creating jobs on three continents

mimi Nguyen said Pham was honored for her passion and perseverance as an entrepreneur, and her efforts to sprout renewable energy initiatives in Vietnam embody the Foundations theme this year Growing Green Business.

An Pham (left) with Mimi Nguyen of AnewAmerica. Photo: Ngoc Nguyen

AnewAmerica trains new immigrants to become entrepreneurs and small business owners. Students/entrepreneurs learn how to develop and write a solid business plan and can apply for matching funds through a matching grants program to get started. The training also features a social responsibility component, including ethical labor practices and green business.

Some entrepreneurs never heard of green business. We make it mandatory to tie it into their business plan, Nguyen said. The organization is developing its own green business certification program that promotes the use of non-toxic or organic products from local sources, energy efficiency, and waste reduction.

Nguyen said that in the beginning, Pham was more of a businesswoman than an environmentalist, but exposure to green business principles sparked her interest in sustainable business.

We pushed her in that direction, she got more information and awareness, Nguyen said. Being so entrepreneurial and innovative herself, she ran with the idea.

As Pham scouted out new products from Vietnam to import, she discovered that the price of products such as furniture increased due to lost worker productivity from frequent power outages. She wondered what she could do to improve the situation there for businesses.

Her mentor at Berkeley City College, Dr. James Garrett, who retired as dean of vocational training from Peralta Community College two years ago, was also an expert on solar and alternative energy. Through him, she connected with a San Francisco architect with expertise in infrastructure construction. She applied to AnewAmerica for funds to conduct research in Vietnam on potential hotspots for solar and wind projects. AnewAmerica matched her savings of $3000, and she used the $6000 to travel to Vietnam with solar industry consultants in February.

After securing private donations and philanthropic grants, Pham approached a handful of companies throughout the country about installing solar panels on building rooftops to save energy. She currently has one pilot project underway at Tuan An Electrical Company in Long An Province, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, where 52 solar panels were installed on the company's administrative offices, producing 11 kilowatts of electricity.

Right now, she said electricity from solar is still fairly expensive at about $7/watt. She said the company paid half the up-front costs of $70,000 to buy and install the panels, and will pay back the rest later.

We had to show them the benefits, she said. Every month they pay $2-3000 for electricity. In three to four years, they will break even.

Pham said several other companies in Hanoi, Hai Phong, and Dong Nai Province have contracted with her to set up similar solar installations. Pham said she has scouted out wind energy opportunities in coastal Cau Mau and Cam Ranh Bay, places with abundant wind resources. Wind energy is relatively cheap at two cents per watt, she said, but Vietnam still lacks the environmental regulations to protect wildlife from wind turbines.

As she brings solar to businesses in Vietnam, Pham is motivated by more than greening the commercial sector. She uses part of her profits to fund educational exchanges, bringing professors, students and professionals from Vietnam to visit their counterparts at American universities such as California State University, East Bay. Cultural and knowledge exchanges, she said, form the cornerstone of international business, and entrepreneurs benefit when they can access a circle of supporters and resources.

For example, she said, her solar consultant provided his services for free. In exchange, she helped his firm with construction contracts in Vietnam.

Her heart lies in her work to support the Long Buu Charity Medical Clinic in Vietnam, where she donates part of her profits. Garrett, Phams teacher and mentor, said he had the opportunity to visit the clinic with Pham during a trip to Vietnam.

She cant get out of the car, because the children are storming her, because they know that when she comes, first of all, they are going to get lovethey will havetoys, he said.

Garrett said Phams renewable energy projects deserve recognition, but her vision is wider than that.

Shes an ecologist, a person who loves cares about nature and that for her includes human beings, he said. Its really about natural life and that natural life includes the ecology and humanity that fusion I dont see that balance in anybody.

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