“Who we are today is because of the wonderful spirit of the volunteers that come and add to KOTO” says Jimmy Pham, the Australian-Vietnamese founder of the Vietnamese social enterprise ‘Know One Teach One’ (KOTO).
Since the early 2000s KOTO has hosted 14 short-term volunteers on assignments developed by Australian Business Volunteers (ABV) and 16 long-term volunteers on assignments through the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program and its predecessor volunteer programs. “I’m so grateful looking back at the people who have come and cared for KOTO and our mission, and given some great advice,” he says.
Jimmy Pham launched KOTO in 1999 as a humble sandwich shop near the Temple of Literature in Hanoi as a way of providing skills and employment to a small group of disadvantaged young people. Today, KOTO is a world renowned and award winning social enterprise with restaurants in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, which provides a 24-month intensive training program in life skills, English language and hospitality for highly marginalised and at-risk young people. As well as having served the President of the United States, KOTO has appeared widely in the international media, including CNN, BBC, Forbes, PBS and The Australian.
There are usually two student intakes each year in each city and to date around 500 young people have entered the program. “17 years ago when I knocked on the door of hotels or restaurants and said ‘my first class has graduated and could you hire them?’ they basically laughed in my face and said ‘don’t be ridiculous – they steal, they lie, they cheat’” says Jimmy. “Now before graduation most of them are snapped up by five star hotels and restaurants.”
KOTO is now viewed as a leading social enterprise in the region and a model to emulate, but according to Jimmy this was not always the case. These days social enterprises are widely seen as a powerful means of bringing about inclusive development. Back in the early 2000s however KOTO was somewhat of an outlier. “At the time social enterprise was a dirty word”, says Jimmy “everyone was following the typical NGO way”. “You were either an NGO or a business”, and KOTO was neither.
He says that Vance Gledhill, a volunteer who helped develop a business plan, played an important role in setting KOTO’s direction in this sometimes difficult environment. Jimmy says that Vance told the KOTO team to forget about concerns that KOTO did not fit the typical NGO model. He advised KOTO to really focus on developing its brand, and combining it with a strong mission, vision and values. “That has worked really well for us and has basically continued to this day” says Jimmy.
Vance’s assignment was typical of the assignments developed by ABV in that it was directed at building the core capacities of the organisation. Other assignments focused on topics such as marketing strategies, program development and human resources management. To use Jimmy’s words the assignments were “short and sweet”, and “very deep dive.” Longer-term assignments tended to focus on technical or vocational training in kitchen, office, and front of house skills.
Jimmy’s strong view is that KOTO has been successful due to the commitment of many people including volunteers. KOTO’s colourful logo attempts to reflect the diverse groups who have contributed to making the model work.
“If you look at the new logo, we’ve moved away from the charity concept to more positive distinct colours,” says Jimmy “The distinct colours are the different aspects of the community that come together to make KOTO a strong social enterprise. And part of that colour is our volunteers.”
“It’s a partnership.”
The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program is an Australian Government initiative. All assignments referenced in this article were developed either by Australian Business Volunteers, Scope Global or Australian Volunteers International. Scope Global and Australian Volunteers International are delivery partners of the AVID program.