Vietnamese Refugees' Struggles Inspire Their Daughter's Mission

Image: Sahra Nguyen

Sahra Vang Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrant entrepreneurs, now devotes herself to telling the stories of the next generation of Asian-American entrepreneurs. Courtesy

In 1980, Sahra Vang Nguyen's parents escaped Vietnam by boat. When they eventually got sponsored to come to the United States, her father started a floor sanding business and her mother, a laundromat.

As a young girl in Boston, Massachusetts, Nguyen says she was embarrassed her parents didn’t have “respectable” professions, and that her mom washed her classmates’ clothes. It wasn't until years later, she says, that she realized her parents had accomplished a phenomenal entrepreneurial feat in a new country without knowing the language or having an American education.

“Watching my parents struggle to build their own businesses while assimilating to a new country taught me that there are no limitations when it comes to creating a better future,” said Nguyen.

“My parents taught me how to pioneer my own path."

Sahra Vang Nguyen and her family in 1987.
Sahra Vang Nguyen (center) with her mother, Ni Vo (left), sister, Jennifer (right) at Castle Island in Boston, Massachusetts in 1987. Courtesy Sahra Vang Nguyen

Though her mom wanted her to be a pharmacist, her father -- her biggest cheerleader -- always encouraged her to “finish what [she] came to do.” So Nguyen, 27, took the lessons from her parents' struggles to heart.

Now an artist, creative producer, and entrepreneur, Nguyen uses poetry, paint and film to see through her personal mission of representing to the rest of the world the stories of her own community.

“I am a storyteller," said Nguyen." I make the invisible seen, heard, and felt."

Sahra Vang Nguyen
Sahra Vang Nguyen says she built her career on the same ambition, determination, and entrepreneurial spirit her parents -- Vietnamese immigrants -- showed. Courtesy

Nguyen has toured nationally as a spoken word performer, mentored youth in film, and a year after finishing her undergraduate studies at UCLA, went back to her alma mater to work as a director for the UCLA Writing Success Program. In 2012, she went to Vietnam to paint with local street artists, a group whose work she continues to support today.

But it's her latest project that brings her personal success story full circle. Now based in New York City, she is the creator of Maker’s Lane, a web video series documenting the stories of young entrepreneurs cultivating dreams in the city known for its “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” hustle -- the same dream that inspired her own parents to launch their businesses decades ago.

Sahra Vang Nguyen
Sahra Vang Nguyen says her desire to tell the stories of Asian-American entrepreneurs stemmed from her parents' own struggles, starting their own businesses as immigrants from Vietnam. Courtesy An Rong Xu

“My goal as an artist is to create content that inspires people and challenges the status quo, while representing diversity -- in faces and in stories."

While a 2009 UCLA study on the “State of Asian-American Businesses” found that many second-generation, Asian Americans were hesitant to pursue entrepreneurship because of their parents’ hardships, Maker’s Lane shows a contrasting narrative. Inspired by her ambitious, driven, and motivated peers, Nguyen captures the spirit of the "DIY Generation," whose innovative use of resources has allowed a new breed of entrepreneurs to succeed. The first five episodes feature Asian-American entrepreneurs in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Sahra Vang Nguyen and her father in 1989.
Sahra Vang Nguyen and her father, Anh Nguyen, in their first home in Boston, Massachusetts in 1989. Courtesy Sahra Vang Nguyen

Despite Nguyen’s effort to raise the profile of these business pioneers, studies show they remain the exceptions to the rule. Minority entrepreneurs, according to recent reports, are not well represented in the business landscape. Only 8.5% of people pitching to investors in early 2013 were minorities, and they were also less likely to receive investment (only 15% were funded). On the other side of the table, minorities represent only 4.5% of angel investors.

Nguyen says the statistics are not surprising.

“Because many investors are not from a minority background, they don’t fund projects that they don’t relate to," she said. "Investing in minorities is a social responsibility that not everyone prioritizes. But I see my work as a media producer as parallel to that of an investor."

"By investing in underrepresented stories, everybody wins. I amplify the voices that aren’t heard and the world grows more rich through diverse stories.”