Vietnam's refugees find second chance in Silicon Valley

For Road Trip 2015, CNET went to San Jose, California, to talk with Vietnamese Americans who traveled a long way to get to where they are today.

Brett Murphy Summer Intern / CNET News
Brett Murphy is an editorial intern for CNET News. He attends the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His work has appeared on KQED, AJ+, New American Media, the San Jose Mercury News, and several regional magazines in Pittsburgh, Penn., where he went to college and put french fries in sandwiches.
Brett Murphy
8 min read

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Tri Tran's parents shook him awake at 3 a.m. on a warm April morning. They silently led the 11-year-old, his older brother and his grandmother out of their home in the rural outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and toward the sea. The trio eventually boarded a 30-foot fishing boat with more than 100 others, packing in below deck with only a cup for water and no food. Five days later, they arrived at a refugee camp in Indonesia. Six months later, they headed to California to live with relatives.

Tran's parents didn't give any explanation that early morning, but he knew what was happening. After all, they had tried leaving Ho Chi Minh City four times before and failed each time. It was 1986 and Tran's parents were sending him to a better life in the US -- even if it meant they had to stay behind.

Tran didn't see them again for 11 years. "I barely recognized them," the now 39-year-old said of his long-delayed reunion with his parents. "My mom was crying, but I wasn't, because I just didn't recognize her."

Now CEO and co-founder of Munchery, the company behind the popular food-delivery app of the same name, Tran doesn't seem that much different than most Silicon Valley techies. He dresses in jeans, like most engineers, and is passionate about his company, like most CEOs.

It's Tran's upbringing that sets him apart.

He's one of the Vietnamese "boat people," 1.5 million refugees who fled the country after the fall of Saigon in 1975. For two decades, Vietnamese men, women and children escaped the economic and political choke hold of the new communist regime after the withdrawal of US forces in the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it's called in Vietnam).

In Tran's case, his teacher parents wanted him and his brother to have access to better education. "They recognized [their] children would not get the best opportunities," Tran said. "I felt like I owed it to them to do well."

Tri Tran, co-founder of Munchery, was a refugee from Vietnam in 1986. Brett Murphy/CNET

Tran's brother became a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Tran used his background to his advantage when seeking $28 million in funding early this year. Compared with all he'd gone through in his early life, building a startup couldn't be that tough.

Thousands of the Vietnamese boat people, like Tran, ended up in Silicon Valley, staking their lives and livelihoods on tech. During the electronics boom in the late '70s and early '80s around minicomputers and personal computers, companies including Atari, Intel and IBM needed a manufacturing labor force. The older refugees found quick work, and the companies found hard-working, loyal employees. But the young (and not-yet-born second generation) Vietnamese Americans would grow into a stock of enterprising and ambitious techies eager to reach higher. Assembly workers and technicians raised today's engineers and CEOs.

"The older generation established a community and foundation for everyone that followed," said Hien Do, who also left Vietnam as a teenager and is now a sociologist at San Jose State University.

It's difficult to quantify how successful the Vietnamese community has been in tech -- an industry that's notoriously dominated by white men. Diversity reports from Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and others don't offer granular data on Asian subdemographics. But Asians in general, according to the reports of 11 companies compiled by The Wall Street Journal, are the runaway leading minority represented in the industry, accounting for an average of 32 percent of tech jobs and 17 percent of leadership roles.

The Vietnamese living in Silicon Valley say they've hitched a ride on the tech train -- thanks to four decades of hard work and fortuitous timing.

On the way to San Jose

Most of the boat people stopped at way stations across the Pacific -- for months and even years -- before an American sponsor would fund their final leg stateside. Once here, they'd end up at another refugee center, like Fort Pendleton's sprawling "Tent City" in Southern California, before spreading out to pockets across the country.

Thirty-five years later, there were almost 600,000 Vietnamese living in California, according to the most recent census data, from 2010 (PDF), nearly triple those living in runner-up, Texas. There were about 1.5 million throughout the country, up from 260,000 in 1980.

Southern California and Silicon Valley became hotbeds for the recent immigrants, those who would pave the way for future generations. At the time of the census, the Los Angeles metropolitan area (which includes Long Beach and Santa Ana) had about 271,000 Vietnamese Americans, the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area was home to 126,000, and the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont area had another 56,000. The city of San Jose had 100,000 Vietnamese, more than any other city in the US.

The immigrants' arrival in California coincided with high demand for tech workers. There were opportunities in assembly lines and on factory floors, where the language barrier wasn't a problem.

They "all went into [manufacturing] because it promised a way to the middle class fast, and [it was] great in terms of security during the electronics boom," said Frank Nguyen, a vice president of intellectual property at the Sunnyvale-based surgical robotics company Intuitive Surgical.

He said their pay was good and the work stable. Plus, many had technical and manufacturing experience and solid educations, which could easily transfer to American assembly work. Success stories made their way back to Vietnam, and the population multiplied over the years. The Bay Area became a destination for migrants.

Today, more Vietnamese are employed in manufacturing (19 percent) than in any other field besides personal services, which includes laundromats and nail and hair salons, according to a 2011 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF).

But every year, experts say, more and more Vietnamese are entering engineering, middle management and even the CEO suite. "Right now it's one big lemonade stand for them," said Nancy Avila, president of the Silicon Valley Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce. "Anything is possible."

Just like Vietnam is trying to transition from being a manufacturing outlet for foreign companies into a product innovator of its own, so too are Vietnamese Americans now growing into more-prominent roles across the technology industry.

Two men play Chinese chess in the shade behind Vietnam Town in San Jose's Little Saigon district. Brett Murphy/CNET

Risky business

The sun bakes the asphalt along Story Road, a 1-mile stretch in Central San Jose between Coyote Creek and Highway 101, where "Little Saigon" banners fan out from the light posts. A few families bounce around the quiet business corridor (it's a Wednesday at 2 p.m.). Behind the Vinh Quang (Glory) herbs and ginseng shop, groups of men smoke and play Chinese chess at shaded tables.

Businesses are tucked back away from traffic in low adobe buildings: dozens of bahn mi (sandwich) and noodle restaurants, jewelers, novelty gift boutiques, hair and nail salons, markets, bakeries, bubble tea shops, massage parlors and more than a few medical offices cluster around one another. Side by side, the Vietnam Town and Grand Century malls provide most of the strip's storefront space.

Little Saigon is an example of the community's tight-knit, enterprising culture, an outgrowth of time served on the factory floors of early tech. "Those who didn't have jobs at Hewlett-Packard opened up the shops and nail salons in San Jose," Do said. "They built a community that's evolved over time."

The Silicon Valley Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, a 10-minute drive from Little Saigon, is a one-office affair in San Jose. The day I visit, four Vietnamese men -- an electrician, two contractors and the president of a real estate nonprofit -- sit facing each other across a table in the windowless room. A tiny fan oscillates between them, doing little to cool the air.

The four of them, all boat people, went into business for themselves after working for short stints at different companies. Now many of their clients are tech businesses in San Jose.

"Here in America you can start with a clean slate," said Alan Nguyen, president of the Bridgepoint Housing Foundation, which fixes up run-down homes to sell to low-income families. He also owns an electronics store in San Jose. That's why "we can go into business for ourselves."

Alan Nguyen (dark shirt) and his best friend, Tuyen, in Vietnam in 1984, just before fleeing to the United States. Alan Nguyen

Being an entrepreneur, in any industry, is taking a chance on yourself -- a fact not lost on the Vietnamese Americans working in Silicon Valley.

Nick Nguyen, vice president of product strategy at Mozilla and the son of two refugees, said finding a place in tech is all about "your perspective on risk." In between his current and former stint at Mozilla, known for the Firefox Web browser, Nguyen founded and sold a successful software development shop to Walmart Labs, where he joined as director of mobile products in 2013 as part of the acquisition.

Leaving your job to start a startup -- aka opening a lemonade stand in Silicon Valley -- might seem like a risky move. But after you get on a boat toward an uncertain destination with an even less certain future, professional leaps don't seem quite as dire.

"My parents were always great about letting me make my own decisions," Nguyen said. "They understood I owned my own destiny and supported me even when they thought it was crazy."

And many Vietnamese families have even embraced the Silicon Valley notion that failure's a badge of honor, not something that brings shame, as believed in traditional Asian cultures. Several Vietnamese techies and business owners said Silicon Valley is the land of second chances.

"There is opportunity here, a lot of the Vietnamese here are thriving," said Phi Nguyen, the CEO and founder of med-tech startup MIBA Medical. He left his home country when he was 10 years old, just as the northern communist army began to enter South Vietnam. "When we were leaving, I remember the bombs going off at the airport, running onto the airplane," he added.

Phi Nguyen and his mother in the early '70s in Vietnam. In 1975 he fled to America with her and his sister. Phi Nguyen

Now Nguyen -- no relation to Frank Nguyen (Nguyen is the most common surname in Vietnam) -- is proud to tout MIBA as a "made-in-the-USA business."

Some other Vietnamese founders of US companies include Binh Tran of Klout, an app and website that ranks influence on social media; Phu Hoang of streaming-media platform DataTorrent; Wendy Nguyen of HealthyOut, a healthy-restaurant locator; Chuck Lai of FoodGawker, a website for food bloggers to share recipes; Brian Nguyen of e-commerce software company Celery; Thinh Tran of semiconductor company Sigma Designs; and Sonny Vu of the popular fitness-tracker startup Misfit.

Munchery's Tran didn't let his parents down when it came to getting a good education. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after years of fiddling with computers in his aunt and uncle's house in San Jose. A data entry clerk and lab technician, they were part of the first wave of tech workers that propelled people like their nephew to seek jobs in the industry.

Years later, Tran, a busy working parent, was facing the issue of figuring out healthy, tasty food to put on the dinner table for his wife and kids each night. "'What's for dinner?' is a real problem," he said. In 2011, Tran quit his day job as a software engineer to launch Munchery.

"I had made a little bit of money," he said of his time working in Silicon Valley. "And that allowed me to do something crazy."

It wasn't the craziest thing he's ever done.

Shara Tibken contributed to this report.