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After Fleeing Vietnam at 20, This Entrepreneur Built A Thriving Education Franchise

Hao Lam learned the power of persistence at a young age, and used it to create Best In Class Education, a franchise with 59 locations across the country.

This story appears in the March 2019 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Hao Lam knows how to work hard to reach a goal -- for much of his young life, he didn't have any other choice. As a Chinese boy growing up in Saigon after the Vietnam War, he tried to escape more than 10 times over a span of 11 years. Finally, in 1988, at the age of 20, he succeeded, arriving at a Philippine refugee camp after seven crammed days on a fishing boat along with 140 other people.

Ben Leddusire

He eventually landed in Canada, where he earned his high school diploma and a degree in math before moving to Seattle with his wife, Lisa -- another passenger from his fishing-boat escape. Lam became a serial entrepreneur, but his love of math and education eventually won out. After running a tutoring center as a licensee of BrainChild Education Centers, Lam bought the company outright in 2010, rebranded to Best in Class Education, and started franchising. Today, the company has 59 locations in 12 states, with plans to open 100 by 2020. He knows the path won't be easy -- but he's no stranger to long journeys.

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How did you first get into tutoring?

I hated going to school in Vietnam because of all the propaganda they taught. But my mother hired a Chinese and math tutor, and I fell in love with math. Later, in Canada, I would ride my bicycle to fellow students' homes to tutor them. It was the start of my teaching career, and it became my passion. I eventually turned my passion into my vocation, but I didn't really know what I was getting myself into with running a business, let alone a franchise. Plus, I was trying to do multiple other things as well; at one point I had a mortgage company, a real estate company and four restaurants.

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What happened with those other ventures?

During the recession, I had to close all of them. Best in Class stayed in business, but the franchise didn't grow like I'd expected. It made me realize I'd had my hand in too many different places, and instead I needed to do one thing and one thing only, and stay laser-­focused on it. My focus now is building stellar franchisees, so they can work together and with me to build better teachers and create successful students.

How do you help your franchisees succeed?

Teaching is still my passion, but now it just takes the form of coaching and mentoring my franchisees. I have a monthly group video call with all our franchisees, and after that they can book slots for one-on-one talks with me. We talk about anything and everything -- not just business, but family issues, personal growth, goal setting. The biggest thing is being available to them. I'm also always reminding them of our core values, which are summed up in the acronym PEACE: positive, energetic and passionate, adaptable, collaborative, and efficient. These are the characteristics I look for in franchisees, and what I tell my franchisees to insist on when they're hiring their own staffs. Why hire someone and train them how to smile? Hire smiling people.

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You recently published an autobiography, called From Bad to Worse to Best in Class: A Refugee's Success Story. Why do you think it's important to share your story?

I did a book tour last year, speaking at Best in Class locations, elementary schools, colleges, and business groups. I love sharing my story. But when I talk to people, it's never to brag about how successful I am -- I'm sharing my stories of failure. Because every time I failed, I learned a lesson.

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