To many, Hanoi’s first recognized social enterprise is simply called KOTO.
It stands for “Know One, Teach One” and was established in 1999 by Jimmy Pham, a Vietnamese-Australian man who was then working as a tour guide.
KOTO runs a two-year vocational program for underprivileged and at-risk youth in Vietnam — from ages 16 to 22 — to help them pursue careers in hospitality so they can go on to work in restaurants, hotels, bars, cafes and in catering.
As part of the program, KOTO runs restaurants — one in Hanoi and another in Ho Chi Minh City — as well as a training school in the capital. Trainees attend school – where they learn to cook, make drinks, work front of house as well as attend English classes. The trainees can then apply those skills working at the restaurants.
The social enterprise, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has served more than one million guests, including dignitaries such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.
A KOTO student sports a branded black T-shirt while working.
‘I am grown’
We met 20-year-old Uyen at KOTO’s flagship restaurant in Hanoi.
Originally from southern Vietnam, she dropped out of university after her mother got ill and began looking for a job to help pay the bills. Her friend had approached her about joining KOTO, but it seemed too good to be true.
But seeing her friend so happy working there after six months, she joined the program.
Now in her second year, Uyen says her life has turned around.
“I think this is my dreams. I think KOTO not only teach you the job, not only teach you how to work, KOTO also teach you how to be the good human.”
Uyen says not only has KOTO helped her develop skills, it has also helped her learn how to live as part of society.
“KOTO help me through the lesson, the environment. I think KOTO have many people and I have to talk with them and I have to work with them. I have to think how can I work with them and how can I study and how can I develop.”
She also has a dream — hoping one day to make it as a bartender.
As for her family, they are proud. She tells CNN, “I think they are very happy when they see me now, they told me ‘Wow, you are grown.'”
The inaugural KOTO graduating class in 1999.
Thao Nguyen is the general manager of KOTO – but her story with the social enterprise began decades ago. Nguyen is a graduate of KOTO’s charter class.
Nguyen left school at the age of 13 to help her family earn a living. For two years, she sold iced tea around Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the summers and postcards on the streets when the weather got cold.
“While I was selling postcards to tourists, I got to know an Australian lady, “says Nguyen. “She asked me that what do I want in the future and where do I see myself in the future. To be honest, on that day, I had no idea.”
The Australian woman, a diplomat, introduced Nguyen to a new program called KOTO and, Nguyen says, it changed her life.
A quiet moment as KOTO team members prepare to open the restaurant for the day.
“I will say that the best time of my life is a time that I was a KOTO trainee because it was also the first time I got a sense of belonging and also many memorable experiences I would take for life.”
After graduating from KOTO, Nguyen went on to pursue a successful career in hospitality, returning to the social enterprise in 2017.
“It’s my second family and I’m so, so happy to be back with my family now,” she says.
Like Nguyen, many of KOTO’s graduates are living success stories — the social enterprise says that every single one of their graduates has gone on to find employment after finishing the KOTO program. Many now work at top hotels and restaurants around Vietnam and globally, while others have started their own businesses.
Employees work the line in the Hanoi KOTO kitchen.
Know one, teach forever
Nguyen says it is challenging to run a business as well as fulfill its social mission.
Currently, they pay for the welfare, healthcare, accommodation as well as training for KOTO’s current 150 trainees. In addition, KOTO also employs around 100 staff members and volunteers.
But despite these obstacles, Nguyen believes KOTO’s social mission is clear — to instill the spirit of giving back and paying it forward in their trainees and the people around them.
“The philosophy of KOTO is if you know one, you should teach one. Today we teach our trainees how to fish and we inspire them to, in the future, when they are successful, teach others to fish,” Nguyen tells CNN.
“Giving back doesn’t mean that you give someone a meal or money. Giving back means that you teach someone a skill so that they can sustain their life for a lifetime.”