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Vietnamese–American business women blend old traditions with new ways

Gia Ly darts in through the doors of her family’s Westminster, Calif., restaurant and hawk-eyes the tables and corners—all with a few screen swipes and finger pinches on her iPhone.

Ly is navigating a virtual tour she set up to promote her family’s businesses, Zen Vegetarian Restaurant and Crepe Corner, as she sits right outside. Winds whip three flags—Californian, American and former Vietnamese—flying in front of the establishments.

“In Little Saigon, mom-and-pop owners don’t think of marketing dollars, or how to compete with larger restaurants. This will help them with [Google] ranking and indexing,” said Ly, who contracts with the search giant to sell similar tours to small businesses.

The 34-year-old businesswoman epitomizes Southern California’s modern Vietnamese–American female entrepreneur, one who oftentimes straddles two worlds. In this case, Zen, which she co-owns with her immigrant parents, shows her allegiance to her cultural roots, and her work with the online tours reveals more corporate, go-getter chops.

Women like Ly are among the so-called “1.5 generation,” an in-between group that immigrated to the U.S. when they were younger but have adopted both Vietnamese and American traditions.

This generation tends to take on more leadership roles and is more involved in the community, said Linda Vo, associate professor for Asian–American studies at University of California–Irvine.

“You’re seeing that in the Vietnamese–American Chamber of Commerce,” Vo said. “It’s a new kind of generation. [Before,] they weren’t that active in doing outreach outside of ethnic businesses.”

As the first woman to chair the Fountain Valley, Calif.-based Vietnamese–American Chamber of Commerce (her first term started this year), Ly symbolizes the growing presence and changing dynamics of female business ownership in the Southern California Vietnamese community, the largest outside of Vietnam.

While research on this topic is limited, anecdotal evidence suggests a rise in Vietnamese–American women who are going beyond the traditional business models such as restaurants and nail salons to launch startups in less-traditional fields, including marketing and finance.

In their native country, wealth is on the rise, from the minting of Vietnam’s first billionaire to the increasing presence of women in boardrooms. Behind China, it’s the fastest-growing economy in Asia.

An index of companies in Vietnam currently led by female CEOs has almost tripled in the past five years, gaining about twice as much as the nation’s benchmark VN Index, according to data compiled by Paris-based Intelligent Financial Research & Consulting and Bloomberg.

Women in general are outpacing men in college education, which can translate to higher earnings and more opportunities. There are more than 620,000 businesses owned by Asian–American women in the U.S., an 80 percent jump since 2002, based on numbers from the Center for American Progress, a public policy think tank in Washington.

Mix in the enduring influence of family legacy and the effects of the Vietnam War, and many in Little Saigon aren’t surprised to see women there making strides professionally.

“Women are a kind of rock, the pillar, the foundation,” said Dr. Tam Nguyen, who recently handed the reins of Vietnamese–American Chamber of Commerce to Ly. “Even though the war is over, some things continue.”

Following the fall of Saigon, Vietnamese refugees fled to the U.S. in waves. Lacking language skills but possessing technical ones, many families started their own businesses.

Within such ventures, mothers typically ran the finances and day-to-day operations while raising children, as their husbands served as the face and name of the businesses, said Nguyen, whose family owns and runs Advance Beauty College, which has two locations.

As the war continued, many women found themselves in provider roles as the men helped the U.S. military effort or were imprisoned in Vietnam.

Fountain Valley entrepreneur Bele Nguyen said her mother’s struggles made an indelible impression on how she does business.

Her mother became the family breadwinner when her father was captured and jailed after serving as an American war ally. To make ends meet, she would buy and sell scrap textiles and tailored clothes.

“She worked her butt off,” said Bele Nguyen, 38, who owns and runs a State Farm agency whose clientele is mainly Vietnamese. “She obviously influenced me. As family, you work hard to take care of your family.”