Hao Lam weaved in and out of the crowd packing Pike Place Market on a sunny summer afternoon with ease, wending his way through the tourists, attractions, and distractions.
Well-appointed in a tailored, charcoal-gray suit and an open-collared oxford shirt, the 45-year-old is the embodiment of the.....
Well-appointed in a tailored, charcoal-gray suit and an open-collared oxford shirt, the 45-year-old is the embodiment of the American executive on the move as he marched toward his next challenge.
His confident stride was balanced by a serenity and openness that seemed to suggest the Chairman and CEO of Best in Class Education Center was enjoying a particularly special day. Get to know Lam, and you’ll learn that every day is a particularly special day.
“Of course,” he said with a broad, easy smile, “What could be better than today?”
Lam's franchise, Best in Class Education Center, is one of the best-kept secrets in education’s tutoring and exam-prep segments. He began franchising his brand in 2011, and it grew from a handful of facilities in the Seattle market to 26 centers nation-wide, with franchisees in California, Oregon, Washington, Ohio, Maryland, Texas and most recently Nevada. Lam now has designs on another 20 or more centers across the United States before the end of 2014.
His journey to the top seat of this emerging brand was equal parts long and winding. Of Chinese decent and born in Vietnam at the height of its civil war, Lam grew up in South Vietnam amongst a family that worked closely with the U.S. government in efforts against the North Vietnamese. After the fall of Saigon, both Lam and his family were ostracized and closely monitored. His father was briefly jailed as a political prisoner. Communism and the approaching service to an army that was fighting on its northern border with his own people was not a life that Lam could imagine being his own. He had no choice but to leave Vietnam.
After several attempts to flee the country for a new start in the West, which included surviving gunfire that spared his ribcage, but not the jacket he was wearing, Lam successfully escaped Vietnam in 1988. The twenty-year-old survived a seven-day journey in subhuman conditions, sustaining himself in oppressive heat on three capfuls of water a day, all while aboard an overloaded boat that miraculously delivered 143 of the 146 refugees it ported to the Philippines.
“It was indescribably difficult,” he said. “We were packed in like sardines. Our boat climbed up and down and spun around on 10-story waves in the middle of the ocean. It was terrifying. The loss of life was something I’ll never forget. I faced the possibility of my death every day. I woke up each morning knowing that it could be my last. Those were the most difficult days of my life, but I learned to be thankful for each and every day.”
On day seven, the boat came to shore in the Philippines. The relief was ineffable, and Lam smiled as he recalled sending the telegram back to his parents to let them know that he had survived the arduous journey. But his quest for freedom was still nearly 12 months away. He stayed in the Palawan refugee camp for an entire year before he received a sponsorship for Canada.
Sponsored by his uncle in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, a town of barely 12,000 people, and miles from the bustle that Lam dreamed would be his new home, he began his new life with a carry-on bag that held next to nothing. After the crowd thinned out at the regional airport where he had landed, Lam called his uncle for a ride. Within minutes, his cousin arrived on a bicycle and rode him home on the handlebars.
“I didn’t even have a second pair of underwear,” Lam said. “I was starting from scratch. I couldn’t speak but a few words of English. And I thought to myself, ‘I am glad to be here, but I am not so sure where here is.’ ”
Now nearly 21, Lam was just beginning his life. He took a language proficiency test at the Prince Rupert Secondary School (PRSS) and failed, as he struggled to hurdle the language barrier that separated him from success. After a year of English-as-a-second-language tutoring at the Northwest Community College, he retook the exam, passed it with flying colors, attended high school, and graduated from the PRSS one year later with a strikingly high GPA. He then earned a place at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics.
While attending high school, Lam tutored his peers in Calculus after-school by riding his bike from house to house. His high school math teacher quickly caught on to the popularity of his services and offered him the key to the school so that he could enter the classroom in the evenings in order to help out students in preparing for the math portion of the provincial exam. His evening test-prep classes were packed with twelfth graders who eagerly listened to his advice and tips on passing the exam.
It was there that Lam began his teaching career. Lam saw the potential for putting his problem-solving skills and entrepreneurial spirit to work. After graduating from UBC at 27, he packed what few belongings he had into his faithful Nissan King Cab pickup truck and set out for Seattle to operate a Brainchild Education tutoring center as a licensee.
Lam did not embark on this adventure alone. His wife, Lisa, who was among those on his boat escape from Vietnam and with whom he had begun a relationship during their time in the refugee camp, was with him now. Without her, Lam could not imagine where he would be today. In many ways, Lisa Lam is the driving force behind Lam’s success, always challenging and supporting each other at every turn. She is just as passionate and hardworking as her husband. Together, they opened their first center, and then another, and another.
Lam and his wife taught math and hired highly qualified and successful teachers to teach English. They expanded their work from the tutoring of students who sought to catch up with their classmates to include those who wanted to zoom far ahead. They quickly included college test preparation into their curriculum as well. Their work connected with the communities that they served and their numbers grew almost exclusively by word of mouth.
Between 1995 and 2013, Lam opened eleven corporate-owned centers in and around the Greater Seattle area. He also facilitated the opening of 14 franchise centers nationwide. He had become the sole proprietor of the brand in 2011 in the United States, and renamed it Best in Class Education Center.
“It would be great to look back and think that it was easy, and it all just came together,” Lam said. “But it was a lot of hard work. We had to sell ourselves to the community and prove to them that their children would make progress. When they did make progress, some beyond their own expectations and the expectations of their parents, we were on our way. People were telling our story.”
Lam never forgot his own story, not even a morsel. Even as he was building a proprietary, state-of-the-art curriculum geared toward bridging the gaps of traditional schooling, he never lost sight of those who wanted more for themselves but had less than enough.
“Look,” he said, “learning is the most critical gift that you can give to your children. When people have come to me over the years asking for help for their students, begging me for their children’s sake – I have always found a way to help them. That kid with nothing? That kid was me. That kid still is me.”
Many look at Lam and say that he has achieved the American dream, whatever that might be today. He’s built a number of great businesses in addition to his efforts to drive Best in Class forward. At various times in the past 10 years, he’s owned restaurants, mortgage companies, real estate brokerages, and even acted as an angel investor in others’ dreams.
But he’s set aside each of those endeavors for the chance to focus on Best in Class. Without the need for an alarm clock, he wakes each morning at 5 o'clock, beginning his day with a morning read of the news before clocking a 14-hour day focused on making his little-known brand a household name.
“It never feels like I’m working,” he said. “I’m always happy. I am proud of my beautiful and supportive wife, and two wonderful boys, Louis and Albert. I am around my family and my wonderful Best in Class team all of the time. They inspire me, they encourage me, they challenge me, and they support me. We are making the lives of people a little bit better every day. There’s nothing better than that.”