Vietnam's first social enterprise KOTO celebrates 20th anniversary

15:55 | 07/06/2019
KOTO, Vietnam’s first recognised social enterprise, today celebrated its 20th anniversary ahead of a star-studded ceremony featuring almost 1,000 graduates.
vietnams first social enterprise koto celebrates 20th anniversary
The anniversary recorded the attendance of Craig Chittick, Australian Ambassador to Vietnam

“KOTO stands for Know One Teach One,” explained KOTO founder Jimmy Pham, who used to be a tour-guide leading Australians to his motherland when a chance encounter with a group of street kids in Hanoi led to an organisation that has made a mark on the nation like few others.

“The kids looked at me and said ‘all we need are skills so that we can have stable jobs’,” he explained. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I was going to do something.”

Drawing upon this inspiration, Pham started a sandwich shop near Hanoi’s iconic Temple of Literature with "KOTO Class 1" – nine street kids and two volunteers and grew a social enterprise which has now served over 1 million guests at KOTO restaurants since 1999. The organisation now employs 120 full-time staff – including 60 KOTO alumni – and provides an Australian-accredited training course to nearly 140 disadvantaged and at-risk youth per year.

“The Anniversary celebration is a chance to look back, to look around, and to look forward,” Pham said. “Back on our history, around at the social enterprise we are currently operating, and forward into the future of Vietnamese hospitality.”

Ever the visionary, Pham took the chance to look to the future, outlining an ambitious wish-list for the organisation’s future, including the security of tenure for the KOTO campus and residential facility – and an enhanced programme to support its alumni with their own ambitions in the hospitality industry.

The June 15 ceremony at the National Economics University will see 86 graduates join 900 alumni in Vietnam’s hospitality industry, armed with an internationally-recognised certification in either front of house service or commercial cookery, along with real-world experience in a KOTO training restaurant as well as leading restaurants and hotels.

“We can continue to claim a 100 per cent alumni employment rate over one, five, and ten years,” reveals Pham, citing a 2015 survey into the organisation’s former students.

Over 40 KOTO graduates now run their own business and many are providing internship opportunities and employing KOTO graduates themselves. Also, many alumni are working in other countries including Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and Singapore.

While the organisation has graduated nearly 1,000 students, Pham’s real legacy lies in the multiplier effect of those students. With every graduate of KOTO moving into their professional life and climbing the hospitality ladder, their experience is shared and passed on to future generations. Many are financially providing for their families and communities too.

“It is a privilege to have positively impacted so many lives over the last 20 years. I’m both humbled and proud that almost 1,000 disadvantaged and at-risk Vietnamese youth from all over Vietnam have had their lives, their families’ lives, and often their entire communities transformed by their time with us,” said Pham.

Personifying this success is Le Van Trieu, a graduate of KOTO’s sixth class. Orphaned in the impoverished Red River Delta province of Vinh Phuc, Trieu wanted little more than to find a stable job in the capital to support his siblings. Ten years on, he now calls Australia home, managing a hotel in the riverside town of Echuca.

“To this day I think of the KOTO ethos to equip less-fortunate youths with the skills and knowledge they need to first stand on their own two feet and then lend a hand to others so that they may stand up, too. 15 years after I set foot in KOTO, I am so proud to be able to sponsor KOTO trainees and to look after my family in Vietnam. It is an honour to be back here now celebrating the success of the organisation that got me to where I am today.”

To celebrate its success and mark the 20-year milestone, alumni, volunteers, and supporters, along with 86 graduate students, will return to Hanoi to participate in a week of celebrations.

A number of KOTO’s long-term supporters are hosting events for KOTO in 2019. These include professional development workshops for KOTO alumni by RMIT University Vietnam, an Active Citizen workshop for alumni and staff by the British Council, a friendship football match at UNIS Hanoi, a reception at the Australian Ambassador’s Residence, and a ‘welcome home’ dinner for KOTO alumni at the Pullman Hanoi Hotel.

By Hoang Van

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