In the late 1980s, Kyle Van and LoAnn To met as teenagers on a fishing boat, departing Vietnam for a refugee camp in Malaysia in search of a better life. Today, the couple are living their dream with a business of their own-9 Star Nail Salon on Monroe Avenue in Pittsford.
"We worked hard and it's paid off," Van says. "I feel good, I feel proud of myself. I came here, no family, and I work hard, go to school. Now I think we accomplished our goal."
For To, who manages the salon's operations, having a business of her own was a big part of her dream. The couple chose to make Van its owner, however, because he was born in the Chinese year of the pig, deemed lucky in Vietnamese culture, and it coincided with the opening of their retail venture early this year.
Though their voyage had a similar purpose, To and Van had different experiences. When To climbed into that fishing boat, she was 13 and did not know where she was going. A 15-year-old at the time, Van had seen postcards and pictures and says he longed to move to this country. His parents were worried about his plans, but Van was determined even though he had no idea if he would make it to the United States; he could have been sent to another nation.
But Catholic Family Center sponsored Van and brought him to Rochester in 1989. Dave and Melva Brady acted as foster parents, agreeing to shepherd the Vietnamese youth into the American way of life.
"We actually had another foster child (from Vietnam) before Kyle, and we have one son of our own, and we were getting older and we would have liked more children and so we just decided to do it," Melva Brady says. "Kyle was a great kid-he worked hard, he did well in school."
Van went to West Irondequoit High School and worked several jobs, including a newspaper route, before landing one with Wegmans Food Markets Inc. at its wokery in Irondequoit. The grocery chain offered him a scholarship to further his education.
While working, Van earned an associate degree from Monroe Community College, learning skills as an auto mechanic. He currently is a full-time mechanic at Wegmans' Brooks Avenue location.
"I love my job," Van says. "I love Wegmans. They're a good company to work for, (offer) good benefits; they (gave) me education. Without them, I probably wouldn't go to school."
To's journey to Rochester took a little longer. Her family coaxed her into taking the trip with a visit to the city as bait. She agreed to go with her uncle, who would later adopt her and whom she refers to as her father. To's late mother made her stepbrother promise he would rescue To from Vietnam.
"My brother and sister were crying and I said, 'I'll be back, don't cry, it's only for one week,'" To recalls. "I didn't know what the U.S. (was); I just knew I was going to the big city. I said to my (dad), 'I thought we're going to go by car,' and (he) said, 'The car is no fun, (the) boat is more fun and more lights.' So I kept asking all the time, 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'"
The ruse didn't last long. Once To stepped into the lower deck of the boat she saw many faces.
"I thought it was just me, my dad and the driver," To says with a laugh. "I thought my dad had kidnapped them."
On speaking with her father, To learned she could not go back. She questioned why her family didn't tell her the truth. Though To would return to Vietnam later, she would see her siblings and other members of her family only at 21, when her father was sure she was comfortable with the idea of living in this country.
The boat ride brought To and Van together, establishing a friendship. But they were separated after Van left the camp, and he would be out of To's life for roughly a decade before they found each other again.
From Malaysia, To and her father first came to California, after which they moved to Florida; eventually they settled in Minnesota. Like Van, To found speaking English and communicating her greatest challenge.
The bond with her father, who vowed to remain single until To tied the knot, grew stronger and deeper as they navigated unknown waters together. In Minnesota, they even tried their hand at owning and running a restaurant, but managing it on their own wasn't easy; they lost money and had to close the business.
"He left everything for me," To says. "He's like my blood dad; nobody can take care of me that much."
When To's father took ill, he decided it was time to make sure she was taken care of in the event he passed away. After running into Van's family on a trip to Vietnam, her father urged To to rebuild her friendship with him. It was 1998.
"At that time my dad didn't say he wanted me to get married to (Van)," To says. "(But) he didn't let me talk to anyone except him."
Van and To visited each other in Minnesota and Rochester. In 2000, she and her father moved to Rochester and began working at Wegmans. Two years later, the couple married in their hometown of Can Tho, in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. After the birth of their second child, To quit her job in the bakery at Wegmans to raise her family. To and Van are parents to Kelvin, Lisa and Kimberly.
To's interest in cosmetic services, coupled with a desire to learn, led her to become a licensed nail technician. She worked at Dream Nail Salon in Chili, where she learned the ropes and eventually became manager. To yearned to own a business, however, and often talked with Van about opening a nail salon. When they learned that the former Star Nail Salon on Monroe Avenue was up for sale, To and Van decided to take the plunge. They renamed the business, adding 9 in front of the name for luck; 9 is an auspicious number in their culture.
Van and To, who lease the space, revamped the salon, adding new equipment, including some 14 new pedicure chairs with options for massage. Since its opening in February, 9 Star Nail Salon has grown from six nail technicians to 10. It offers professional nail care services, including manicures, pedicures and spa foot massages.
The salon caters to wedding, birthday and anniversary parties. Most recently, prom season had the salon buzzing. Weekends bring in the most traffic, roughly 60 customers a day from Pittsford and even areas like Greece. The salon also sells jewelry made by To.
Talking to customers appeals to To.
"We talk to each other; through conversation they teach me more, I learn more," she says.
To runs the salon, which is open all week. Van gives her a break on Thursdays, his day off from Wegmans, so she can spend time with her family at their home in Greece. As with most immigrants, Van and To are intent on holding on to their culture, teaching their children its values, cooking Vietnamese food and speaking to them in their native language. To's father and his wife live with them and help out with the children, but Van says he and To are careful to be present as much as they can. For that reason, they want to keep their focus on one nail salon for now.
"We don't want to open more," he says. "You're always on the road and you don't take care of your kids, and when they grow up you don't see them much."
Brady, whom Van still calls mom, believes Van and To can make a success of their venture.
"I think they're going to make a go of it, and I don't see why not," she says. "I don't know about other cultures, but I do know that the Vietnamese are very hard workers and they want to succeed."
Adds Brady: "It's kind of sad to see (that) American kids don't take advantage and the foreign kids jump right in and they seem to learn how to get along, be entrepreneurs and everything way before our kids seem to understand that that is possible."
The Bradys have moved to Naples. Van sees them as often as he can, sends them flowers and visits at Christmas. Though he values the freedom and opportunities the United States has to offer, he is equally aware of the generosity of the American people.
"I never forget (my foster parents)," Van says. "Without them I would never be here. ... I am so grateful."
Smriti Jacob is associate editor at the Rochester Business Journal. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (585) 546-8303.