From Saigon to America: Pamela Lam's Story of Success

Don’t be afraid to be different. If life is a test, why does everyone copy the answer from others when everyone has different answers?

Pamela Lam was born in Vietnam. She lived through the fall of Saigon in 1975 and left Vietnam as teenager and re-settled in New York through the American Enmity Program. Before coming to New York, she lived in Malaysia in a refuge camp. She was placed in a foster home and managed to graduate from high school within 2.5 years. She went on to university majoring in Chemistry. Upon graduation, she joined Unilever as the Organic Synthetic Chemist. While she was working full time, she went back at night for graduate school and received her master in 3 years. After a successful 4.5 years experience in Research, she decided to broaden her experience in Development. Soon she was put in management role, and was offered an assignment to Shanghai, China. While she was working in China, she was afforded the opportunities to travel the region extensively. She stayed with Unilever for 17 years before joining Henkel.

Pam is currently the Vice President of Research and Development for Laundry Care, North America. In this capacity, Pamela has the overall responsibility of delivering innovations, supporting over a billion$ business. Ms. Lam has been with Henkel for fourteen years. Prior this role, she was Head of R&D for Laundry and Home Care for NA. Prior that she was the head of Purchasing for two and half years with $750 MM buying power. She is currently serving on the board of directors of CSPA (Consumer Safety Product Association) as first vice chair, a trade association for consumer product industry. Pam was named 2012 Positively Powerful Woman Award for Corporate Leadership and Mentor of the Year 2013. She is also author and co-author of a number of patents for her work on surfactants and sustainability.

One of her passions is developing others and sharing her career experience. She is also credited as co-founder of the Asian American Professional Association in 2004. She

serves on ACEL (Asian Corporate Entrepreneur Leaders) as the corporate advisor. In her spare time, she mentors professionals who have desire to success in corporate world so they can avoid some of the pit falls in the process.

Ms. Lam holds a BS degree in Chemistry from University of Albany and an MS degree in Chemistry from Steven Institute of Technology. She is also certified Professional Supply Chain.

Ms. Lam and her family reside in Scottsdale, Arizona. Outside of work, she is a collector of experiences through her travel to different cultures.

SK: In April 1975, nearly 110,000 Southeast Asian refugees had been displaced by the Vietnam War. You're fortunate to have escaped Saigon as a little girl. What do you feel when you remember your girlhood in Vietnam?

PL: I was very fortunate. I did not know the risk I was exposing myself to … the weather (it was late August, traditionally monsoon season for Southeast Asia), illness, lack of foods, plus I am a girl. However, what I remember as a child in Vietnam was sweet and full of possibility. Although I was not born with a silver spoon, my parents treated me very well even though I was a girl. The general perception of being a girl in Asian culture has not been well thought of. But it was not in my case. I was enrolled in school, private Chinese school. I wore proper clothes, and they are new, whereas my sisters have to wear pass-me-down from mine. I had friends, and many lasting friendships. I was encouraged by my parents to have life experiences. I am fortunate from that perspective.

I did have to help out in the family. My father had a street vendor business, and all the kids had to help out. But it was not something I say it was out of ordinary. I have a good relationship with my parents. They taught me the value of the money and how to treat people right and with respect.

Life was hard after the “liberation,” code for fall of Saigon. My father was not allowed to have his business … I witnessed a lot of abuse by the government to their citizens. There was much uncertainty and lack of security. We were living in constant fear. Fear of no foods, fear of no education, fear of forced exit (we are ethnic Chinese).

My typical day was to be on-line for ration, starting at 5/6 a.m. for breakfast, then back to the line for toiletry, followed by on-line for stuff for lunch and dinner. School was just passing time with a lot of propaganda. We were made to wear the red hanger chief to signal our loyalty to the Communist party.

Government basically stripped away all the privileges and respect of the people! Until this date, my husband still has resentment of that regime.

SK: What was your first impression of America when you arrived?

PL: It was a blur … I arrived in the middle of the night after a multiple-stops flight from Malaysia. As refugees, we did not have the choice of flight in terms of many stops. We started in Malaysia, made a stop in Thailand, then Hong Kong, then Japan, then Seattle, then final destination in JFK. By then I was tired. I remembered pickup by a team of nuns and counselors (I was sponsored by the church). The first question asked of me was whether I am a boy or girl. It turned out my paperwork had me down as “male.” Because of that, they were not ready for me. I ended up sleeping in the infirmary the next three nights at the convent.

I did not have any preconceived notion of what America is or should be like. I was introduced to a bunch of boys who were in similar situation as me. We were taken to school. First, it was a special class with all the fellow refugee boys in the junior high. Then I got fostered by a family, and they enrolled me in the high school near their home. Thinking back, I did not have high expectations, and that helped me to rebuild my life.

SK: What is your definition of success? What was the most valuable lesson in rising from a refugee to a corporate executive at Henkel?

PL: The best definition I heard once was an interview of Chris Rock on the radio, and the interviewer asked what was his his definition of wealth and success. I thought he said it best when he answered that his definition of success is not so much related to how much money he has but more on what options are presented to him. I feel the same way!

I think the most valuable lessons I got from the refugee experience is to focus on the things I have control of and have determination. These lessons have helped me to navigate in the corporate world, and I have continued to work at it.

SK: You have mentored numbers of young Asian-American people. Who was your first mentor? What is a true mentorship in your view?

PL: I do have many mentors and for different needs. Nancy was my first mentor, but we started out as friends. She became my mentor over time because she was someone I looked up to, someone who I admire and who has my interest in mind. Someone who can give me feedback and not shatter my ego. Someone I can go to to have a sounding board. She was the first person who spoke frankly about office politics to me. Not an expert on the mentorship topic, but I think a true mentor is someone who encourages and coaches the person to reach their full potential. Helps them navigate life so they don’t have to repeat the same pitfalls. I always think back if I would have known what I know now, how much easier and potentially further I could go in my career. I want to impart some of these experiences to the next generation, short circuit in a way, in order for them to reach their goals and objectives in whatever they do, but especially in the corporate world. I live by the saying that goes … after you get up there don’t forget to send the elevator down.

SK: What qualities do you value in others?

PL: I value individuals who do not forget their roots after they have made it, individuals who have courage to speak the truth and are not afraid to take a stand. My father is a great role model for me. Even though he never stepped foot in school, I learn much from him of how to interact and treat people. As kid, I watched him giving away what little we had to help pay for a friend’s burial. That was right after the Vietnamese government decided to switch currency and only reallocate back $200 per family, but his friend’s family was very poor and did not have the money to exchange. It was a valuable lesson for a 13-year-old that when the person is down, no need to kick the person further! The best part is until this day, I often hear impromptu comments about how my dad has helped people and that make me feel proud.

SK: What is your motto?

PL: Work hard, play hard. By no means perfect, but I can say I am living a fulfilled life. I can honestly say that I love my life every day and from the moment I get up in the morning. I can’t wait to go to work, to be a productive citizen and to enjoy what life has to offer. I rarely complain, and that is one area I can use coaching. I don’t want people to think that the lack of complaints mean I am complacent.

SK: Any final words for the Global Lead readers?

PL: Don’t be afraid to be different. If life is a test, why does everyone copy the answer from others when everyone has different answers?