Kim-Ngan Harwood was born in Vietnam and arrived in Australia aged nine as a refugee with her widowed mother. Since then, she has built her own successful business and supports other women entrepreneurs through Opportunity.
Hope, to me, is wanting an outcome that makes life better in some way. When I was two, my dad passed away. The way my mother led her life and wanted a life for me was hope.
“My grandparents had a similar attitude. They were pushed down from the north to the south of the country when communism came to Vietnam, seeking a better life for their children. When my dad passed away, hope drove my mother to get on a boat and flee when she was a young widow.
“The first time we tried to flee, she got a nail in her foot and had to turn back, the second time communists caught us, but the third time we succeeded.”
Kim-Ngan’s mother Màu (far left) and her sisters Dì Tốt and Bác Khúc sitting in front of Bác Khúc’s food store in Vietnam.
Kim-Ngan was seven when she and her mother, Màu, escaped to Malaysia by boat, where they lived in a refugee camp for two years.
“My mother did what she knew best, she created a business in order to survive. She’s really good at making a speciality Vietnamese pastry dish called banh cuon. It’s hard to do; a lady passed on her knowledge, her pot and bamboo stick to my mother. This became our livelihood. She was even able to send money back to Vietnam to support her parents. When we finally left the camp, she passed on the skills and equipment to another refugee. This is the way this brave woman has led me all her life,” says Kim-Ngan.
Despite this relative success, it was a very hard time in the camp, especially for a girl. “There was no sanitation, and we had to go and pee behind a tree on a hill. Sexual assault was rampant, and I was a victim of that too,” she says.
When neither the UK nor the USA would accept them, Màu and Kim-Ngan managed to arrange sponsorship to Brisbane through a third-generation cousin. Màu met her second husband at a hostel there and soon the three left to start a new life in Melbourne.
Never give up
“What I learned from these brave women is when faced with hardship, never give up. They are the most resilient human beings I’ve ever known, and I’ve been led by these amazing female role models my whole life.”
Kim-Ngan incorporates this strength, fortitude and resilience into her passion for endurance running. When it comes to running 160km in rugged mountains and the bush, she believes her mental strength - drawn from her past experiences - is just as important as physical endurance.
Ever practical, like her relatives, Kim-Ngan makes a plan and survives. In Year 12, she heard about podiatry from a teacher. When she looked in the phone book, she recognised an opportunity, as there were just a few pages of podiatrists.
“I wanted a healthcare career in which I could help people, open my own business and be independent so I could have my own family.” Within two years of graduating, she opened The Foot Care Clinic in Keysborough, Melbourne. Twenty years later, it now employs a team of six therapists and admin staff.
Kim-Ngan’s family consists of a wonderful husband and three children, aged 16, 14 and 11. Her mum is just 15 mins away, and they are still close. Not in a cuddly kind of way, but in the way of ‘understanding each other to a depth that no one else can understand’, she says. “She still loves to make food, that’s how she shows her love,” says Kim-Ngan.
Kim-Ngan walking the talk: She has run 16 marathons and numerous ultras. She also takes swimming lessons to overcome her fear of open water.
Paying the opportunity forward
Supporting women in business was a natural next step for Kim-Ngan. She also volunteers as a business mentor for women of migrant and refugee backgrounds through organisations such as the Brotherhood of St Lawrence Stepping Stones to Small Business program and South East Community Links.
“Small businesses are integral to the economy of the world; they make the communities around them what they are, bringing an experience, atmosphere, and support to people around them.
I believe that when women learn that they can be independent, it is a powerful force. Women are the stem of a family, to me it’s natural for a woman to stand up and do what she needs to do for her children. It may look like just a food stall. But it’s not, it is independence, opportunity, a better future. It is hope.”
The Foot Care Clinic donates one per cent of its income to Opportunity and encourages clients to donate too: www.thefootcareclinic.com.au