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From Vietnam refugee to international entrepreneur

By Linda Thomas Terhune

From Vietnam refugee to international entrepreneur

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune
Magazine Section: Always
College or School: CoE
Article Type: Issue Feature
Feature Intro: Vu Lam left his home in Vietnam at age 11. Traveling alone, he boarded a fishing boat of refugees. Today, he leads an international software development firm that introduced IT outsourcing to the land he left behind.
Vu Lam left his home in Vietnam at age 11. Traveling without his family, he boarded a fishing boat of refugees and arrived in the United States with only a pair of shorts and a shirt. Today, he has a graduate degree in electrical engineering and leads an international software development firm that introduced IT outsourcing to the land he left behind.

For many years, Lam (MSEE ’90) avoided the media. He’s a private person, he says, and didn’t want to talk. But more recently, he’s changed his mind. “Having a story like mine may make other people push to do something on their own as well,” he says. “I encourage everyone to take a leap.”

The beginning

Vu Lam was 8 in 1975 when Saigon fell. His father, a captain and helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese army, escaped. He left behind his wife and six children, including young Vu. They lived with his grandmother, with whom he made stovetop candy that he sold after school to help support the family.

His father, meanwhile, made it to the United States and settled in Chicago, where he worked first waiting tables and then as a mechanic for the Diamond Foods packing plant. The family did not know where the father had gone. They had no way to reunite. But on Christmas Eve 1978, Lam fled Vietnam with a friend of his father’s. They boarded a fishing boat crowded with 300 other refugees and began a trip that was interrupted by one boat of pirates that robbed the passengers and a second that rammed and damaged their craft.

Upon finally landing in Malaysia, the refugees were turned away and made to land on a nearby island where they scavenged for food. People began to die, and Lam helped bury the dead. Malaysian officials then moved the group to the Pulau Bidong Island refugee camp, where Lam stayed for six months until making contact with his father, who arranged for his passage to Chicago. His mother and siblings arrived three years later.

The middle

Lam, 11, attended Chicago public schools. At first, he spent half the day in class and the other half studying English as a second language. His math and science education in Vietnam had been strong, and he was quickly promoted from fifth-grade standing to eighth grade. He acclimated in about a year and went on to excel at Steinmetz High School on Chicago’s northwest side. He graduated as a valedictorian, class treasurer and member of the newspaper staff. He was also a National Merit Scholar who might have gone to college anywhere in the country. He chose to stay fairly close to home and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Lam had his eye on a stable career. He had worked on a hospital cafeteria crew to get a glimpse of the medical world as a possible career. And he had assembled switches at a manufacturing plant. He also had his eye on engineering, a profession he says is attractive to many first-generation immigrants.

“Engineering is an easier path,” he explains. “It’s not like being a doctor or playing the violin. There is a big cultural difference between countries. The alternatives — sales, marketing, hospitality and tourism, for example — require you to have good communications and cultural understanding. Engineering, though, is a universal language.” It was also in a hiring frenzy at the time, the late 1980s.

Vu Lam

Lam studied electrical engineering, taking a heavy course load. He was moving through classes so quickly that he was on a path to graduate in three-and-a-half years. Instead, he took a break and left for a nine-month internship with General Electric’s Nela Park research and development group in Cleveland.

Though interested in graduate studies, Lam needed to earn money after receiving his bachelor’s degree. He had five siblings — who were nearing college themselves — to help support. So he took a job at Bell Laboratories, where he worked on software for administration and billing. Bell Labs sent him to Purdue for a year to get a master’s degree.

Professional life

After five years at Bell, Lam’s original vision of a 30-year career as an engineer in industry began to fade. “I couldn’t imagine doing it for long, because it got to be repetitive,” he says. He considered getting an MBA through a Bell Labs program with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business, because, as he recalls, being an engineer was not enough. But in 1994 a chance discussion with friends decided his next move.

A group of Lam’s friends was starting a cellular company, and he was enlisted to build the software to run the business. His software development effort became his first company, Paragon Solutions. Looking to his roots, he located the company in Vietnam.

“At the time, if you wanted to build software at low cost, you would go to India,” he recalls. “I wondered if we could do it in Vietnam.”

Lam returned to his homeland — some 20 years after leaving it in a crowded fishing boat. He scouted schools and companies and talked with the technical university.

In 1995, he left his job at Bell Labs, moved to Vietnam for a year, rented an office at the technical university and hired 10 students who became the core of his company.

“We went to Vietnam knowing it was the harder path, but we wanted to give something back. I had been fortunate to end up in the United States and do well,” he says.

By 1997, the company had grown; services were handled by the Vietnam division and another in Bangalore, India, while an office in Chicago took care of sales. The company was sold in 2003 to First Consulting Group and then in 2007 to CSC, which is when Lam left the company. By that time, a growing IT outsourcing industry had developed in Vietnam.

Vu Lam, center, launched KMS Technology, a global software development company, in 2008.

Lam’s current venture, KMS Technology, a global company specializing in software development outsourcing services, was launched in 2008 with a different mindset. He says he realized that Vietnam could not compete in services on the scale of India and China, because the country did not have enough technical school graduates to meet the need. Those with the most talent were snapped up by the outsourcing industry. With KMS, Lam hoped to offer another path for the talent.

KMS, which employs 400 people, provides services across the software development life cycle through partnerships with clients ranging from startups to large technology companies. Lam envisioned leveraging the talent in Vietnam to build software products, which unlike outsourcing does not require a large workforce and scale for success.  With that thought, in 2011 he launched QASymphony, which build tools for software testing. Lam looks for it to compete with the HPs and IBMs of the world. “My hope is that three years from now this is a world-class product with a brand name and will clearly say ‘Made in U.S. and Vietnam.’ Hopefully we will get people building software for the rest of the world, and give them a recipe for what it means to be building a software product,“ he says.

Lam, married to a pharmacist and father of a 12-year-old son, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He travels to Vietnam several times a year and lived there, among the engineers he employs, when first starting his companies.

“I spent time becoming one of my engineers — eat, walk, sleep, play — to understand what drives them and motivates them. I’m an engineer, not a businessman, but I realize I have a unique position of being exposed to the U.S. culture and market and have the engineering background. I also have a good understanding of what drives engineers and the folks in Vietnam,” he says of his international venture. “It gives me a unique skill that if I don’t do something useful with, will be a waste. It’s not something many people are given in terms of being in both cultures at the same time. I’ll keep doing it for as long as I can.”