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Coming To America

A Vietnamese immigrant's work ethic is the key ingredient in a good, old-fashioned American success story.

Some would say entrepreneur Thanh Quoc Lam paid his dues a lifetime ago, long before he set foot on American soil. Lam spent his childhood in war-torn South Vietnam. At age 16, he encountered the oppressive policies of the Communist regime ruling his country when he was sentenced to two weeks in prison after he tried to prevent a government official's mistreatment of a girl who lived next door.

"[Being in prison] was terrible. After that, I know I cannot stay there," recalls Lam, 39, in halting English, his second language. "Sooner or later, we'd have to leave the country." Perhaps the dramatic circumstances of Lam's early years left him better prepared than most entrepreneurs to deal with the demands and setbacks of starting a business. Today, Lam's thriving wholesale French bakery and chain of sandwich shops dot Honolulu and ring up gross annual sales of more than $4 million.

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This article was originally published in the December 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Coming To America.

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