Lessons Learned From Immigrants: How to Achieve Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace by Tim Tran
America is known as a melting pot – a country built on the hopes and dreams of refugees and immigrants who sought to escape the dangers and violence of tyranny and authoritarianism. The greatest lessons learned often come from refugees – immigrants to America who have overcome the greatest challenges and survived to create remarkable success. My remarkable story shows that what makes it all possible is the core values of acceptance, diversity and inclusion:
Escape From Violence and Tyranny
Tim Tran was 4 years old when his parents fled communist North Vietnam on a U.S. landing craft going to South Vietnam. He received a four-year scholarship from USAID, and received a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration (Accounting and Finance) from the University of California, Berkeley in 1974, but was required to return to South Vietnam after graduation.
He landed a dream job with Shell Oil in Saigon, only life became difficult and very dangerous when South Vietnam fell to the communists on April 30, 1975.
His time in America with his employment with Shell as an Internal Auditor made the nationalized company officials (taken over by the communists) suspect he was a CIA agent. He was interrogated by security and subsequently fired. He realized he had to escape or face arrest or imprisonment. He and his young wife, Cathy, fled for their lives.
Over the next four years, after many failed attempts to reach freedom were met with deceit, betrayal and even the murder of his father, they made it to a coastal province in Malaysia. They carried fake IDs and travel documents, paid bribes in gold and finally boarded a rickety, overcrowded boat (with a 50-person capacity) with 350 other desperate people.
They were savagely attacked by seven groups of pirates in the open seas. The pirates even robbed him of his Levi jeans and prescription glasses. With the boat’s engines damaged during the attacks, the captain crashed and destroyed the boat on the rocky shore and they all jumped out and ran for higher ground, only to be placed into a make-shift barb-wire prison on the beach, followed by months in a Malaysian refugee camp.
The U.S. at the time had a policy of bringing in refugees with family connections in America, and his sister in Oregon sponsored his application to immigrate through the United States Catholics Conference.
At the requests of his friends, U.S. Senators Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield and U.S. Congressman Les AuCoin wrote letters to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to advocate for his application. He was later interviewed by the U.S. delegation and approved for asylum and resettlement in the U.S.
When he arrived in Forest Grove in 1979, he carried all his worldly possessions in a plastic bag with the words UNHCR printed on it.
His college friend Roberta “Bobbi” Nickels met him in Forest Grove, Oregon.
He joked, “I travel light,” and she burst into tears.
Achieving Success in America
She helped him get a part-time job tutoring math to Upward Bound students at the Multnomah Library in downtown Portland, and he restarted his career as a low-level accounting position with Johnstone Supply, a Portland Oregon-based distributor of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment.
Over the years, he worked his way up, was promoted to Controller, and eventually five years later, he was appointed Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Finance. His wife Cathy worked for U.S. Bank, then Standard Insurance, and became an accounting manager.
In 2017, the Trans established a Library Endowment Fund at Pacific University. In honor of their gift, the building on the Pacific University Forest Grove campus was dedicated as the Tim and Cathy Tran Library.
The Turning Points: Small Yet Important Acts of Kindness
Tran acknowledges that it was the American values of acceptance, diversity and inclusion that turned out to be the turning points for his personal and professional development.
- USAID helped him get a four-year scholarship that resulted in him receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration (Accounting and Finance) from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974.
- He received support from dozens of people that resulted in the approval of his immigration to the United States.
- Receiving an entry-level job offer in spite of being a boat-person and a penniless refugee.
- Recognition for him working hard extra hours at the office most weekends. His boss even handed him a check for $100 gas money.
- Being given the opportunity to take extra time after refusing to make a guess, to develop and then deliver a concise and detailed briefing package that allowed a proper and important decision to take place.
- Having his company help him get his MBA degree by covering the tuition costs enabling him to get the advanced degree and an education that empowered him with the latest developments and knowledge in the field.
- Receiving the total and unwavering support of the president of the company when placed in charge of a highly competitive contract negotiation, so there could be no appeal over his head by the vendors.
6 Key Lessons Learned
Tran believes that equity, diversity and inclusion are incredibly important in every organization and that these values must be brought to the forefront in the workplace and in society.
- The CEO must be front and center. In other words, the CEO must show up at every meeting and training and give prep talk. Don’t outsource this job exclusively to HR.
- The company must include diversity and inclusion among the dedicated goals of the organization, expressly called out in its mission statement, and reflected in every decision and action.
- Everyone must champion these values. Executives, managers and all employees must talk the talk and walk the walk. When top executives make business decisions, they should ask themselves if they have brought the company closer to the “diversity and inclusion” goals through their actions. Feedback and discussion must be encouraged and used to ensure relentless improvement is achieved.
- Cultural diversity needs to be acknowledged, championed and showcased constantly. Encourage everyone to get to know all the other employees. Feature new employees and those with diverse cultural backgrounds in the organizations’ newsletters and social media with their pictures, experience, special talents, skills, hobbies. Place special emphasis on cultural background and various lifestyle.
- Celebrate all cultural days, holidays or big sporting events (Lunar New Year, St Patrick’s Day, Independent Days, Cinco de Mayo, Bastille Day, Black History Month, FIFA World Cup, etc.) to encourage and inspire inclusion, foster learning, acknowledgment and appreciation of cultural differences.
- Mix up all organization teams to include members of different ethnicity, background and gender, whether these are sports teams, presentation teams, problem-solving teams. Allow teams to trade members to get the “most diversified team prize.”
Tim Tran tells his remarkable story in the book American Dreamer – How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America.
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