“If you are born poor, that’s not your mistake. But if you die poor, it is your mistake.”-Anonymous
I was born in Vietnam and grew up in a small dirt street down the road from a cemetery. The house I lived in was what most people would consider a shack. The roof was made of palm fronds, the walls were made of hard clay and mud, and the floor was dirt. But to me, that was my home.
My father rose to the rank of Major during the Vietnam War and became a prisoner of war (POW) for over nine years after it ended. In prison, his daily ration of food was just enough to live another day. One day, he counted his food, and it was only 52 corn kernels. Death by malnutrition was commonly combined with the spread of sickness and diseases.
While my father was in prison, my mother was left alone to care for her four children (which did not include me yet) with no means of support. The children were ages six, four, two, and a recent new born baby. While many suggested she get a divorce, remarry, and put her children up for adoption, her response was always, “If I can give birth to my children, then I can care for them. If they die, I will bury them with my own hands…I am not giving up.”
My mother had to figure out how to earn money to survive and feed her children. Initially, she grew fruits and vegetables and then sold them in the street markets. She sold and farmed by day and packaged by night with naps whenever possible. She had to manually seal the produce in plastic bags by holding it over a burning candle. One by one she had to do this. Her eﬀorts brought in enough money to feed the family, but the work was extremely time consuming and earned very little.
To visit my father to bring him food and other necessities, the round trip would take two to three weeks depending on my mother’s method of travel (walking, biking, and riding the bus or train, or hitch-hiking) and of course, the weather. The prison was located in the middle of nowhere, far beyond any roads and in the jungle. There was no direct way to get there. Each time my mom visited my dad, she prayed that she would be able to return home safely to take care of the children. Another challenge was that being a woman meant her chances of being robbed, raped, or kidnapped was extremely high, so she had to be very careful and smart about her decisions along this journey. Despite the hardship and challenges, my mom’s love for my dad and her unwavering commitment to her family, we all survived. She is our family’s hero.
My father lost sight in one eye and hearing in one ear during the war, but he remains spirited throughout his prison sentence. In his later years of prison, he performed what others considered medical miracles with his acupuncture. When he was eventually released and returned home, he continued to help the sick. He put up a “back shack” so there is a place for the sick to come get help. He would on average treat up to sixty patients a day. My dad oﬀered his services for free but asked that those who had the money donate an amount equal to the market price of an egg. A short while later, I was born.
Because my father had served in the United States Army and was a POW for more than three years, he and our family qualified for the opportunity to immigrate to America. The year was 1991. I was five years old. I will never forget my arrival to America and feeling carpet for the first time on the floor mat of my uncle’s car driving back from the airport. My feet felt as though they were on clouds. When we arrived at his house, I took oﬀ my shoes once again, to experience floor that isn’t just dirt. Upon entering the living room, I saw the backyard, and I immediately ran towards it. Bang! That’s was when I was formally introduced to glass. I ran directly into the sliding glass door. Everything was new to me, so every new experience was wonderful.
The one new experience that scared me though was going to school. I was so scared, I failed kindergarten (I guess it is possible!) and only passed it because my brother sat with me.
My journey as an entrepreneur first began when I was twelve years old. I sold candy door to door. The first day I worked twelve hours and only earned ten dollars. Though it was hard work and long hours, I was happy to earn some money. I sold candy for two summers, and that experience taught me a great deal. I learned how to give presentations, handle rejections, and build relationships with customers. But most importantly, I learned the value of hard work and the value of hard earned money.
Around this time, I learned that my parents had been invited by their church to visit Rome. I was very excited for them and could feel their excitement with the opportunity. Then after weeks and months, I didn’t see them go anywhere or even hear them mentioning Rome in their conversations. I had to ask them to find out what happened. As it turns out, the trip cost $3,000, and so they declined to go. I asked them if they had the money. They said, “No.” Then, after a pause, what they said next hurt me, “even if we had the money, we wouldn’t because we need to save money for you.”
As you know by now, my parents have had more than their fair share of struggles. I couldn’t believe that I was now part of the problem for their life. I feel as if I was the shackles that locked their ankles from living their life. At that moment, I wished I could do something to make money and help them. I couldn’t wait until I became 18 years old because I thought that’s when I am legally allowed to make money. Until then, I was just a minor, and my signature wasn’t valid.
A few years later, I turned 18 years old. It was my last year in high school, and that’s when I got the Horatio Alger National Scholar award, and I met my mentor Mark Victor Hansen in Washington D.C.
Within 18 months, I had begun investing and begin building various businesses. Many ended up failing, but the few successes more than made up for the failed attempts. When I earned my first few thousand dollars, I called up my parent’s church.
I met with my parents and said, “You guys are going to Rome.” No words can describe to you the feeling I felt when this happened or how my parents responded to it. What I can say is that my parents deserve the best and I love them so much for all that they have done. They are my true heroes, and I am only who I am because of their love, teaching, and role modeling. Till this day, they still talk about that trip to Rome.
During this time right after high school, I was doing everything I could think of to earn money. I accepted an internship at Credit Suisse First Boston analyzing financials of companies for the summer. I read every book available at that time about money, motivation, and success. During my commutes in the car, I was listening to countless audio tapes on personal development. I further studied and became a licensed registered representative for investments and a licensed insurance professional. I would visit families and help them with financial planning, saving money, and investing. Since I was not even 21 yet, many adults didn’t take my financial advice very seriously. I guess I was just a kid to them. It didn’t help that I looked like I was 11 years old either. Regardless, I made sure they were aware and got financially educated before I left our sessions.
It was diﬃcult to juggle going to school, visiting families to help them with financial planning, and analyzing various real estate investment deals to invest in all while making sure I am not failing college to graduate on time. This led me to learn a big lesson. Although I was making money, I struggled with time. This was when I learned the importance of making money that didn’t depend on me working.
It didn’t matter how much money I could make; it matters more how I make it. I had to figure out how I can make money without it always depending on me. This lead me to learn how to building multiple income streams, invest in passive income investments, and build businesses that can be operated by other people who I can hire or contract. By the time I graduated college, I had made $4.3 million dollars within my last 24 months of college.
I consider my college years, my golden years to build success. I was told to, “Enjoy your college years as your college years are going to be the best years of your life.” That sounded awful to me because if that were true, it would have meant that my life after college was going to be, not so good? I wanted to make sure that my life after college was going to be a great and successful life, so I worked hard during my college years.
As a student, I didn’t have the same life responsibilities as a working adult. It was a great time for me to take risks since there was very little, if anything, to lose. I remembered seeing a statistic that read nine out of ten businesses fail. I thought, “Great! All I had to do was to start ten businesses, and one is guaranteed to work!” To me, I realized it was just a matter of time. The earlier I got started, the sooner I could succeed. Failure is inevitable, so I just need to fail quickly and fail forward. Once I got that out of the way, success was what’s left for me to have.
My grandfather had a great rule for young people. That rule was that young people had no right to complain about how diﬃcult things are or about being poor. That right to complain was only reserved for the terminally ill and the defenseless elderly. If things got tough, the only choice was to become better. No complaining. Whenever I failed, this rule kept me focused on moving forward.
As I conclude the story here, I want to leave you with my father’s words about failing and money. He said, “When you lose money, you’ve lost nothing. When you lose your self-confidence, you’ve lost something. But when you quit, you’ve lost everything.”
© Copyrights by Nathan Nguyen. All Rights Reserved.