For nearly a year back in the late 1980s, I lived in a refugee camp in the outskirts of Palawan, Philippines. Running from the perpetual threat of death and persecution in my home country of Vietnam, having experienced the Vietnam War and its effects, and then a harrowing escape by boat left an indelible mark on my life. The moment I stepped off that boat, I knew I’d have to start my life completely over from scratch. I had nothing, but I knew I wanted to build something great.
The things I learned in my year in the refugee camp have served me well as a business owner by helping me overcome the obstacles that invariably pop up when starting and running a business. I could have never imagined, sitting on the dirt floor of a hut in the camp, that I would one day be the CEO of an educational company with 60-plus branches all over the U.S.
Today, I would like to share just four of the lessons that helped me build resilience both inside the camp and in my new life as a business owner. I hope these lessons will also help you along your entrepreneurial journey.
1. Always be learning.
When I entered the refugee camp, not only was English completely alien to me, but I couldn’t even read or write in my native language. English classes were held in camp to help the refugees, who would all eventually be moved to English-speaking countries. I attended every day.
My motivation for attending these classes was two-fold. For one, I understood it was crucial to be proficient in English to make my way in my new country. And second, I fell in love with one of the English teachers, who continues to tolerate me in many languages after nearly 30 years of marriage.
Some might say age 20 is too old to learn a language, but I knew how critical it was to gain this skill, so I refused to give up. Mastering English has led to countless opportunities since then.
Don’t let fear or outside influence keep you from taking a leap — whether it’s entrepreneurship or trying something new with your business. Companies that are constantly innovating are the ones that make headlines and lead their industries. As a leader, that forward movement all starts with you. Don’t let the attitude of “this is how it’s always been done” keep you or your business from tackling new problems or entering new marketplaces. An industry-disrupting product or service could be just around the corner. It’s up to you to find it.
2. The only thing certain in life is change; don’t be afraid of it.
Leaving everything behind, becoming a prisoner of war and then going to the refugee camp, my life was changing every day. I learned early on that embracing change is the only way to get through. In the camp, I had no control over many basic aspects of my life, such as where to get water and food, where I lived or who I lived with. That experience helped me learn to embrace whatever was in front of me, move forward and find a way to accept, thrive or even improve upon what was presented.
If a crisis arises for your business, do your best to find ways to make your new circumstances work for you. Keep an open mind, and look for ways to pivot. Many businesses adapted to the pandemic and are thriving today. If they can do it, so can you. When the unexpected occurs, focus on what’s still working well in your company, and invest your energy into capitalizing on that. There is always something you can use to keep moving forward.
3. Become a servant leader.
In a refugee hut, it’s important to have a leader in the house. I chose to step up to be the leader, because I knew I had the inner skills to excel in that position. I began by taking on more work than anyone else. I got up at 5:30 a.m. and did the most dreaded chore — getting water from the community tap — because everyone else hated that job.
When my housemates saw how hard I was working to help take care of them and our shared home, I earned their respect. They knew that I was willing to make sacrifices for their welfare, so they naturally gravitated toward my leadership.
In business, you have a job title that forces people to listen to you. When people see you working harder than anyone else, they not only listen, but they willingly follow you. Don’t expect your employees to do anything you wouldn’t do. Get in the trenches with them. Provide help, and be approachable with a cheerful disposition. Once they see that you’re willing to sacrifice for them and the good of the company, you’ll earn their respect. And it’s that respect, not a title on an office door, that makes them see you as a leader.
4. Form the right alliances.
Getting water at the community tap, as I mentioned, was everybody’s least favorite task in the refugee camp. There were only three taps for thousands of people, so as you can imagine, getting water meant long waits, fights over people cutting in line, and then carrying heavy gallons of water all the way back to your hut.
I figured out that if I took two big guys from my house with me to get water, people would no longer mess with me at the tap. It made my job easier to have support from my team, who had muscles and size that I didn’t.
It’s the same thing in business. Your alliances can open doors for you, protect you in trying times and help you grow your business faster. Make friends with people inside and outside your industry who share your same passions and values, and they will help lift you up as a leader and a human being. Avoid doing business with people who are unethical, because in the end, you’ll only end up being dragged into unethical situations by them. It’s not worth the risk. Surround yourself with positive, knowledgeable and honest business connections, and you’ll find that carrying your own “water from the tap” is easier than ever before.
Similar to making it through life in a refugee camp, it takes great strength and determination to run a business. Hopefully, you’ll only ever need this knowledge in the arena of business. With these strategies, you can weather the inevitable changes and challenges in your business and come out stronger and more resilient on the other side.