An Excerpt from my TEDxCitrusPark Women Talk

As we face this time of uncertainty, unparalleled challenges for some, and as we collectively wrestle with feelings anywhere from unease to hopelessness; we need to turn to our curiosities to find new possibilities.

This is my family’s story. A story that demonstrates that despite the most dire circumstances, when we follow our curiosities and empower others, we can create opportunities beyond our imagination!

— — —

Have you ever been curious as to why Vietnamese Americans dominate the manicure industry? What if I told you, that the history of the Vietnamese nail industry in the United States all started with the chance meeting of a Hollywood movie star, and 20 Vietnamese refugee women?

Red nail polish.

Red nail polish once sparked a curiosity that would change the manicure industry. Now an 8.3 billion dollar industry, dominated by Vietnamese Americans who make up 51% of the profession across the nation and 80% in California.

— — —

April 29th 1975 marks the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnamese civil war. My dad was a colonel in the South Vietnamese air force. On this day, with news of imminent defeat, he was dismissed from duty, and told to go home and get his family out any way he could.

He rushed home to my mom and told her, “It’s time. We have to get out, now.” With that, my parents grabbed their 3 children, my grandfather, my aunt, and one suitcase; leaving everything else behind. We were among the fortunate ones who found a way out as tanks rolled into Saigon and bombs flew overhead.

Making us part of the first wave of Vietnamese refugees to enter the United States, a country that welcomed us with open arms. Our family soon found ourselves at Hope Village, a refugee integration center near Sacramento, organized by Food for the Hungry.

It was here that 20 Vietnamese refugee women, met a Hollywood movie star, creating a relationship that would make, of all things — manicures, a part of the Vietnamese American story. Among those 20 women, was my mom.

And that Hollywood movie star, actress Tippi Hedren, most famously known for her starring role in Alfred Hitchock’s movie, The Birds.

Tippi volunteered at Hope Village, and as she puts it, “just fell in love with these women”, whose lives had been traumatically and permanently changed. And she was determined to empower them to develop a skill so they could support their families.

So, Tippi started a program that made typing and sewing classes available, because these were skills that could be learned fairly quickly and there was a low barrier of entry into the workplace.

But there was something else that caught the curiosity of these 20 women. That was Tippi’s long red manicured nails. It was this curiosity that prompted Tippi to ask, ‘What if’?

What if these women could get trained & licensed as manicurists?

That question came with some obstacles. For example, what beauty school would enroll 20 Vietnamese refugees who couldn’t pay tuition? And most of these women didn’t speak English. How would they read, understand, and pass their English written test? And how could this all be done in the limited time they had at Hope Village?

Clearly, there were challenges. But Tippi didn’t focus on the impossibilities of these challenges. Instead, she focused on the curiosity of these women, and all the possibilities that lived in the question ‘What if?’, and despite the obvious challenges — Tippi chose to take one small step forward and asked her personal manicurist, Dusty Coots Butera if she would teach these women how to do a basic manicure. Dusty said yes.

Weekend after weekend, my mom and her friends learned from Dusty and soaked up everything they were taught. And they loved it, and they were good at it!

But, they were still not licensed manicurists.

So Tippi took the next small step forward, and went down to the local beauty school, and asked them, if there was any way they could take these 20 women on as students.

Citrus Heights Beauty College found a way, and they also said yes.

Following curiosity, asking ‘What if?,’ and having the courage to take one small step forward, made it possible for mom and her friends to complete 400 hours of schooling, with all of them passing their manicure practicum and written test, in English — in 10 weeks.

Soon after, Hope Village closed and we were sponsored by a church in Santa Monica. So we left to start our new lives. My mom with her brand new manicurist license in one hand, and a letter of recommendation from Tippi Hedren in the other. With Tippi’s help — she found her first job as a manicurist at Beau Jacques Beauty Salon.

She took two buses to work every day. At first, I watched her struggle to grow her clientele. Then, I watched her become a confident and capable entrepreneur who significantly contributed to her family’s income. We moved from a 2 bedroom one bath apartment to a 4 bedroom condo, and within 6 years, my parents were home owners.

It was the waves of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants who came in the years after us, who learned the profession from my mom and her friends, and their friends, from them. Prompting thousands of Vietnamese refugees & immigrants over the last 4 decades to ask ‘What if?’.

What if we opened up our own salon?

What if we started our own beauty school?

What if we manufactured the supplies and tools we need?

The sum of these What if’s’ amounts to over 100,000 Vietnamese women and men providing for their families and securing a future for their children. It also amounts to the Vietnamese community’s significant contribution to growing & establishing the nail salon industry as it stands today.

— — —

This is a story of possibility. The possibility that is created when one woman commits to empowering other women. And the possibility that is created when we follow our curiosity, ask ‘What if?’, and move forward with the courage to take the first small step.

There’s a saying that ‘curiosity is the most powerful thing you own.’ For these 20 women, this proved to be true.

I wonder what possibilities you might create for yourself, or for others through these uncertain times by following your curiosity, asking ‘What if?’, and following that ‘What if?’ with one small courageous step forward.

Watch my TEDx Talk for the full story. Like. Comment. And if you find it’s an idea worth spreading, share.