Van Le: changing worlds from the Fall of Saigon to Harvard, social service and the law
“I must have been six or seven years old. I remember gun battles, unmanned helicopters, soldiers deserting. As I looked around, I saw candy stores that no one was watching and thought...could we go get that candy?”
Van recalls his last memories of Vietnam before he left with his father, grandmother and eight brothers and sisters in April 1975 during the Fall of Saigon.
My special guest on the feisworld podcast is Van Le. We first met in 2006 and kept in touch ever since. Van is now the father of two adorable children and runs his law practice at Van Paul Le, PC Law Firm in Dorchester, MA.
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Van has a genuine and compassionate soul. He is an entertainer who can make anyone laugh. He is a friend who is easy and comforting to be around.
Many people, myself included, find these qualities foreign and perhaps a little bit strange when it comes to describing a lawyer. For years, I’ve been eager to sit down with Van and find out about his secret origin. What exactly made him who he is today?
In this episode, Van speaks to us about his journey from the Fall of Saigon, to Commonwealth School, Harvard University (and running the biggest student organization at Harvard called Phillips Brooks House as the President during Junior and Senior year), running (and winning) a campaign for the Mayor of Cambridge, one year of public service in the Philippines, the Sports Philanthropy Project and most recently launching his own law practice.
I was shocked by how little I knew about Van and his incredible life journey after knowing him all these years.
My challenge to you today: with a recorder turned on or off, try asking your family or friend a series of questions and I bet you will be surprised how much more you will learn about them . Perhaps you will want to write about them. My guests always tell me how much they enjoyed sharing their experience and packaging them into a one-hour conversation.
Do you enjoy this podcast? If so, please leave your comment below and share the podcast with your family and friends. Your support will keep me on track and bring many other unsung heroes to this podcast.
Soundbites from my interview with Van Le:
Leaving Vietnam in April 1975
We were “Boat People” and only a third of us made it to the United States. We were refugees and not immigrants. Refugees are not prepared. My older sisters had the wisdom to take many family pictures with them. We went out into the ocean, not knowing where we would land.
When we were rescued by the American ship. I remember looking up at a bunch of white American males with crewcut hair, and they all looked the same to me. As a 6 year old, I remember playing with the bullets and throwing them into the ocean.
My father was one of fourteen children and he grew up poor. By the time we fled Vietnam, he had a sugar factory, ownership stakes in banks and petroleum. As a child, I remember playing in the tropical rain. I knew there was a war going on but thought it was far from me.
First Stop in America Harrisburg PA (1975-78)
Our family first arrived in Harrisburg PA (1975-58). We went to Catholic School and local community donated clothes and furniture to us. We received a lot of charity, knowing our father went from multi-millionaire to having nothing at all.
When you receive a lot, part of you wants to help people in some ways.
My family always had the ethics for education and real emphasis on learning - ‘it's something they can't take away from you’, they always said.
I applied to Commonwealth School (I still don't know why I got in). These were exceptional and very privileged kids from established old money families. Though I had straight As, I was no longer the hotshot. Commonwealth School introduced me to critical thinking which is so important for a child. In Asia, education often is focused on memorization. It was the first time for me to be exposed to this type of education. I want to credit Commonwealth for the time and effort they invested in me. It's a place where you are encouraged to express yourself. Although I was Asian, I had my fair share of roles at Commonwealth from creative writing, singing to dancing. For me, it was a outlet to the new world I was seeing. I was thrown from inner city to the upper crust society. My summers were not in Europe, but finding anything I could do to make a living. None of it came from my family.
Subconsciously, I feel that I owe someone something. At Harvard, so many opportunities were opened up to you. I did a lot of public service in college and I enjoyed it. We put together programs that did not take us to the Ivory Tower but back to the housing projects, to the real problems of society. Those four years were supposed to gear you up to Wall Street and lead to a very lucrative rest of your life. I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't do any public service, I would continue to look the other way. ‘Here's your ticket to a better life!’ For whatever reason, I made college those critical years that shaped my view that enabled me to connect with people.
Phillips Brooks House (largest student organization at Harvard)
Phillips Brooks House is the largest student organization (now over 1,600 student volunteers) doing all kinds of public service programs from running summer camps, to teaching in prisons, homeless shelters, organizing unions, advocating for the environment. I became the President of the Organization during Junior and Senior year at Harvard.
It was leadership training. At an early age, you were asked to manage staff, put together budget, curriculum for kids (and you are 19!). It was more rewarding to me than helping other people because I was the one being helped. My other classmates too were exposed to these opportunities that challenge you to all aspects.
We had 13 camp counselors, 13 junior counselors from high school, 1 Deputy Director, 1 Director and 8 of these programs were running in parallel.
One Year of Public Service, Rockefeller Fellowship
With a Rockefeller Fellowship, I worked at a refugee camp in Philippines for a year. At Harvard, I had roommates who knew exactly what they wanted to do - business school, law school and they had a clear path. I didn't get the memo and I didn't do any of that. After one year of public service, I decided to go back to law school.
Campaign Manager for Ken Reeves (Mayor of Cambridge)
At age 22, I ran a local campaign and worked for the local mayor of Cambridge, Ken Reeves. I was his second campaign manager. He was doing very well and halfway through the campaign, he came to me and told he was gay. We didn't care and ran the campaign based on the strength of his experience, relationship in the community and track record. He won, and he is now the godfather of my daughter.
It was an incredible experience because they made law school not only fun and challenging, but also practical and useful. I worked in great firms when I was still in school, many of whom remain my colleagues to this day.
Sports Philanthropy Project (SPP)
Sometimes you get a job that challenges all aspects of your experience. At SPP, we were consulting for professional sports team at the league level. SPP received a grant from Rob Johnson to promote public health. The theory was that professional sports are excellent at effective messaging. In America and many parts of the world, sports are attention grabbers and people fanatical about their teams. I don’t really follow sports and I met a lot of these folks from NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. but didn’t know they were famous.
Our goal was to put emphasis on impacts rather than hats and shirts. We had a role in setting up and getting people thinking about philanthropic effort. The fund did not renew so the current team and effort are now in conjunction with University of Washington in DC.
There's training available in sports philanthropy. It's not rocket science but a platform to apply your positive impact on the community. There is one project that took place In Cincinnati, where there was a history of racism. The challenge was: how do you promote diversity? One simple idea we came up with was to invite kids to play sports together from different areas. In turn, our goal was to increase health and fitness of these kids together. We treated kids as clients.
I decided to open up a law practice in the Dorchester Community, primarily focusing in real estate and general business. My previous experience was part law, part consultant and corporate philanthropy particularly in the sports sector and non profit organizations. About half of my clients are Vietnamese, the other half are African American, Latino American and Asian Americans.
What is the service, vision you hope to provide to your clients?
I remember one partner from a previous law firm said to me: “When clients come to you, they are not just looking for legal advice. They are looking for holistic advice that's part legal.” I tried to bring a world view to my legal practice. I have my client's best interest in mind.
A good lawyer isn't someone who gives legal advice, but complete advice well grounded in experience.
What’s your view on entrepreneurship, or someone who’s looking to become a lawyer or hoping to start his/her law practice?
Everyone is different and everyone has different realities. All I can say from my own experience is that it’s helpful to be open to new things and try to live a life you want (not what your parents want, or how others may approve or disapprove). Give yourself a break and a chance. If you don't, you will regret it.
You really can't predict your life or anyone else's for that matter. My life is a testament because it's so serendipitous and unpredictable.
Be ready for the diversity of life as well as situations and opportunities. Don't track yourself too early.
The importance of love in everything we do.