Saturday, April 02, 2011

Mitchell Pham fled Vietnam at the age of 12.

WHO: Mitchell Pham
WHAT: Co-founder and director of Augen Technology Group, operating between New Zealand and Vietnam
WHERE: Banh Mi Bale Vietnamese Restaurant, Lorne St
WHY: He's a stunning example of a refugee making

"In our culture we share lunch first, then we talk business,'' says Mitchell Pham, clearing the table of documents and my notebook.

When the photographer arrives, he offers her a fresh plate to eat from. When she says she doesn't eat seafood, he promptly orders a chicken version of a prawn dish be prepared. In the selection he has chosen for us, Mr Pham demonstrates how to eat banh dap - flat prawn crackers piled with rice noodles, beef and peanuts.

The secret is to drizzle the sauce in the centre and fold it like a sandwich, he explains, grinning and taking a bite.

"This is like breakfast for me,'' says the self-made businessman, who came to New Zealand in 1985 as a refugee from Vietnam, the same country he flew back from the night before our lunch. It was his 18th trip in as many months for work with his company, Augen, which he started from scratch with some friends while finishing his business degree in Auckland.

"Our first profit was $12.50 each for the year.''

He now runs companies specialising in business development and software technologies in New Zealand and Vietnam. It would seem Mr Pham works around the clock.

From initial ventures developing software for non-governmental community health, disability and social service organisations, to plans for clean, green technologies under his latest company, AugenASIA, Mr Pham says going into business with a sense of social responsibility is paramount.

"You want to do what you can to give back, to empower people.''

His list of accomplishments is lengthy and varied. From subject matter adviser and
participant in Australasia-Asia government schemes, to a ceroc dancing champion and personal trainer, to co-founder of the New Zealand Vietnamese Diaspora Business Network and fellow of the Asia 21 network, somehow, he finds time for a long lunch.

Since settling in Auckland at the age of 13, life has changed dramatically for Mr Pham. Or, rather, Mr Pham has changed his life dramatically.

Caught up in the Vietnam War, he and his family were detained while trying to flee and imprisoned in sodden bamboo cells - his daily meal was a portion of half-cooked rice.

His parents scraped together only enough money to give the man now sitting opposite me in his pristine suit, a chance at a better life. But his escape story is harrowing.

From being shot at as he fled down the Mekong River on a tiny fishing boat with 66 others, to drifting at sea without food, water or fuel. A Swedish cruise ship circled their tiny craft - tourists taking pictures - then left, despite their cries for help.

Finally rescued by the crew of an oil tanker, he was placed in a United Nations refugee camp in Indonesia. There, he learned English and eventually was employed to teach it to others. Now on the board of Refugee Services Aotearoa NZ and the Auckland Refugee Family Trust, Mr Pham says refugees are assets.

"Refugees are so driven, so motivated. They want to build good lives. The camps are very tough environments. People's lives are in limbo, they've left a full life behind and the biggest fear is they will die in the camp.''

Of Mr Pham's final league to safety, on an Air New Zealand flight, he still remembers the meal. "It was an omelette with cheese, bread rolls and New Zealand butter. The butter was so rich.''

His first job here, aged 13, provided a fitting immersion into Kiwi culture. "I worked in a fish and chip shop. I'd never had fish and chips before. I enjoyed working, I enjoyed being independent, having the money to fund my studies.''

Throughout high school and while completing his degree, he continued to work, almost always in hospitality. Though lunch is over, somehow we are talking about food - lamb.

"Most Asians find lamb very strong, very strong smell. I don't notice it anymore.''

"You like food, don't you?'' I ask. "Can't you tell?''

Not that it seems he would have time for other interests. Earlier this month, he was honoured as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, which will allow him to network with others who have excelled as leaders in their fields and demonstrated a commitment to society. Incredibly, Mr Pham says he doesn't feel deserving.

"I see these things as gifts, to get involved to do more. I still feel like I'm not quite as good or amazing as these people and this network. It's just little me.''

But he foresees big changes in the future.

"Speaking now, as a Kiwi, we're facing big challenges with Asia. The American and English exports have been diminishing through the recession. Asian countries, they've been trading for years up there, they're very good at it.''

ENCOUNTER: Mover and shaker

Rebecca Blithe | 2nd April 2011

Mitchell Pham fled Vietnam at the age of 12. Photo / Michelle Hyslop