Fearless Females, Part 2: Creating Connection

 Theresa Nguyen, State Farm

Theresa Nguyen, State Farm

It's 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, and the team at Theresa Nguyen's State Farm office in Bellevue, Washington is already hard at work. The hushed tones of phone conversations and tapping of fingers on keyboards offer auditory evidence of serious insurance agents getting an early start on the business of the week.  And yet, the minute I walk in all activity pauses and I am greeted with warm friendly smiles and a sense of camaraderie not usually  associated with an insurance agency.

But then, most agencies aren't run by Theresa Nguyen.  Most insurance agents also don't spend their weekends delivering coats to local homeless shelters--coats collected from their many clients who, like Theresa, have realized that, while it's certainly important to work hard, life should be about more than work, and that if you love what you do, and the people with whom you work, everything else will fall into place.

This seemingly revolutionary idea of loving what you do, and the people you serve, is one of the principles upon which Nguyen, a first-generation immigrant from Vietnam, has founded her business.  It's what drives her to be her best, and part of the spirit she infuses into her relationships with her employees, her clients, and all the people with whom she interacts.  It's a spirit you can't help but feel when you walk into her office.  You come in for the expertise; you leave with a new friend.

It's a trait that Theresa Nguyen comes by honestly.  Just three years old when she left Vietnam as one of the famed post-war "boat people," she continues to be amazed by the forces that combined to bring her to the place she's in today.  Even though she was too young to remember most of the journey, what she is completely aware of are the ways in which her parents risked so much to ensure her safety, and that of her brothers and sisters.

"It really hits home for me now," she ruminates.  "Because I look at my own family, and I wonder-- if I had to pick up everything and move right now, and start over, what would that be like for me?  How would I do it?"

“I always keep the spirit of my mom alive, because what if she had said- ‘I can’t do this’?  In my life, it’s not- ‘I can’t, it’s just- I have to get it done.’”
— Theresa Ngyuen

Her story is incredible.  One that has been repeated over and over throughout the years.  Different countries and slight variations of course, but always a similar theme:  Parents who want the best life possible for their children, and who will sacrifice everything to make that happen.  Theresa's story goes something like this: After the Vietnam War had ended, the family of twelve stayed for a few years.  They weren't wealthy, but her mother owned a small business, which was taken away after the fall of the government.  Soon it became clear that the only way the family would survive was if they fled the grip of communism and tried to make a better life elsewhere.  Eventually her father, a colonel in the Vietnamese army, took one sister and one brother and emigrated to Canada, which was one of only a handful of countries accepting refugees at the time.

That left Theresa's mom with the monumental task of getting ten children and her youngest sister out of the country via fishing boat.  Because the Vietnamese dollar was nearly worthless, the fishermen only accepted payment in gold bars, and unfortunately, not all of them were honest.  This  meant that time and again, Theresa's mother would hand over some of her precious gold, tell her children to meet her in a specific place at a certain time, and the boat wouldn't be there.  And then the scenario would repeat. But her courage and determination were stronger than any potential deterrents.  And that courage was eventually rewarded with a boat captain who showed up when he was supposed to.  And so the journey began.

Imagine, if you will, a small fishing vessel with a capacity for twenty people, which is now jammed with 200 people.  And now imagine that tiny, overfilled boat, designed perfectly for near-shore fishing, heading out into the open waters--a journey for which it is totally unprepared.  

Theresa remembers that her mother "was scared, but she just didn't think about it, because in her mind this was the only way for her to get her kids out of there and to give them some sort of future.  So she couldn't look back.  We floated for days...we ran out of water, my brothers drank sea water, and got sick and dehydrated."  By all accounts, a nightmare.  And yet, it could have been so much worse.  Although no one knows for sure how many people attempted to leave Vietnam at the end of the 1970's, estimates have been as high as 1.5 million.  And of those, between 50,000 and 200,000 of them didn't make it, often drowning or being kidnapped or murdered by pirates (Trueman, 2016)

Fortunately, Theresa's family was among the lucky ones.  After several days at sea, a ship came to their aid and took them to the Philippines, where they waited in refugee camps for six months until they were able to get sponsored by her uncle, a Catholic priest in Portland, Oregon.  The refugees were assisted by relief organizations, but there was never enough to go around.  So once again, Theresa's resourceful mom sprang into action, and developed a little side business brokering jewelry at the camps to put away some extra money for her family.

Eventually, the family made it to Oregon, where they were reunited with Theresa's father and siblings, and where they lived a cozy existence in a little two-bedroom house with a loft for the boys.  These "humble beginnings," as Theresa describes it, were the breeding ground for lifelong lessons about how to dream big, and how to work hard and use your intelligence and resourcefulness to make those dreams come true.  

They were lessons that would prove valuable to her throughout her undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon, in her subsequent career in mortgage banking at a financial services company, in her graduate work at the University of Washington (where she met her husband, a fellow Vietnamese refugee), and, perhaps, most poignantly, on her most recent journey as business owner and “den mother” to her employees.

"I think that's what drives me and what keeps me going," she comments about her ability to always move forward, despite whatever personal or professional challenges she faces.  "I always keep the spirit of my mom alive, because what if she had said- 'I can't do this'?  In my life, it's not- 'I can't, it's just- I have to get it done.'"

And get it done she does.  As a female business owner and someone who is "built to work," Theresa admits that finding balance in her life is a constant challenge.  While she is blessed with a team who understands and supports a woman's need to care for her health and family, as the team leader, she admits that even when she's not in the office, it is difficult for her to get out of work mode.

Theresa's position as a woman in charge is becoming more and more common in our culture.  In 2015, data from the National Association of Women business Owners found that more that 9 million U.S. companies were owned by women (Fernandes, 2016). What this means, of course, is that women's roles within the workplace and family structure are continuing to evolve, often more rapidly than the culture as a whole.  Even though women are widely represented in the business world, they still continue to maintain their household roles as the primary caretaker at home as well.  So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that female employees are far more likely than their male counterparts (60% to 48%, respectively) to say that work-life balance is "very important" (Gallup, 2017).

"I feel like there has become more acceptance around women having more of a work/life balance," Theresa explains.  "And I think the flip side to that is that because I DON'T work 9-5, there is no boundary, and I have to put the boundaries on for myself, so that I don't end up working all the time.  I have to be able to shut it off...to be emotionally present for my family."

Nguyen further states that, since female entrepreneurs do tend to face additional  unique challenges, it is important for them to figure out what is most important for them early in their career.  This includes identifying ”the top three things that mean the most to them personally.”  According to her this means no negotiating or bargaining with yourself and no taking short cuts.  For Theresa this manifested in making a commitment to herself that no matter what was going on at the office, she would try her best not to miss out on important events in her children's lives because of work.  While difficult to keep at times, she prides herself on staying true to that promise.

If there is one thing that Theresa Nguyen deeply understands, it is the power of commitment to the people she holds dear.  She may have been young when her parents made the life-altering decision to seek asylum in America, but every moment for her since then has been informed by that journey.  Every decision she has made has been grounded in the knowledge of the monumental sacrifices made by her family, coupled with a desire to make the most of the opportunities that she has had and will continue to have because of those sacrifices.

"My parents gave us the gift that keeps on giving," she states.  "They gave us an education and a future.  It's so important for me to remember that nothing is a given in this life."  

This dedication to her life shows up in everything she does.  From the incredible leadership she exhibits at work, to her commitment to her marriage and family, to her volunteer work both abroad (she is currently in the planning stages of a trip back to Vietnam later this year with her husband and friends to work with Habitat with Humanity), as well as on a community level.  One of the aspects she values most in her entrepreneurial role as an insurance franchise owner is the opportunity to impart the knowledge, wisdom, and expertise that she has gained along her career path, not only to her employees, but also to the next generation of female business owners that she encounters in her volunteer work with the local high school career counselling department.

"Let's be honest," she says, "Insurance is not that sexy.  It's not glamorous.  But it can be life-enhancing in so many different ways.  In our role as insurance agents we get to see the full gamut.  We have babies coming into the world, we have 16-year-olds getting ready to drive, we have new homeowners, we have folks retiring...how do we help them at every stage of their lives?  And in this capacity we're able to do that.  It is very gratifying.  And the most gratifying part is the opportunity to develop personal relationships."

Which, for Theresa Nguyen, seems to be the whole point.

At 2Human Strategies we seek to strengthen and enhance both our personal and our professional relationships.  We are inspired by strong women like Theresa Nguyen and her mother, who display not only the courage necessary to live their best lives, but the leadership capacity to inspire others to do the same.  For more information about Theresa Nguyen please click here.  For more information about 2Human Strategies and our services click here.  

References

Fernandes, P. (2016). 6 challenges women entrepreneurs face (and how to overcome them). Business News Daily [Periodical} Retrieved from http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/5268-women-entrepreneur-challenges.html

Gallup Poll. (2017). State of the American Workplace. Gallup Organization [whitepaper] Retrieved from: http://www.gallup.com/reports/199961/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx  

Trueman, C. (2016).  Vietnamese Boat People. The History Learning Site. {website}. Retrieved from
http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/vietnam-war/vietnamese-boat-people

 

 

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