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Jenny Poon
Jenny Poon, entrepreneur and founder of CO+HOOTS, shares her experience with student debt as a daughter of immigrants.

Speaking out on the debt dilemma

Jenny Poon has a unique perspective on student debt, as the child of immigrant parents who had to bootstrap her way to success through the American system.

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Jenny Poon has the advantage of having been born in the United States to parents who brought the immigrant’s mindset with them from Vietnam. She knows the value of hard work, having chopped her share of vegetables and waited enough tables in their restaurant in Minneapolis. And, she inherited their views that while education is essential to getting ahead, racking up debt in pursuit of education is a tricky proposition. She caught our attention last October, with an impassioned Twitter thread, in which she laid out her views. In this audio essay, Poon expands on her ideas, and tells the story of her parents’ journey, how that influences her worldview to this day, and why she thinks we take the need for student debt for granted, when it has created an unnecessary burden on a generation of potential entrepreneurs, and inhibited them from being the risk-takers we need to drive the economy.

Jenny Poon is an entrepreneur and founder of CO+HOOTS, a highly regarded coworking space which currently houses 280+ scaling entrepreneurs and small businesses. She speaks regularly on leadership as a millennial, the importance of nurturing innovation in the workspace and works to bring visibility to coworking as an economic development tool for building vibrant and equitable cities.

Poon was named Phoenix Business Journal’s 2016 Phoenix Businessperson of the Year, the first minority and the first woman to receive the honor.

Audio transcript

Jenny Poon:

I talk to hundreds of entrepreneurs every day in my position as a founder of a coworking and incubator space, so I understand firsthand what a burden debt can be for people trying to start a business to make a better place for themselves and their families in our society. But my relationship with debt goes back farther and as much more complicated than that. It starts with the story of my parents.

It’s a funny thing growing up as a second generation American. My parents are ethnically Chinese, born in Vietnam, and came to America as refugees during the Vietnam War. If you’ve ever heard the journey of boat people, that was essentially my parents’ story. Things are different when you come from a different country. Holidays, relationships, how you learn, it’s all different. The relationship with money is especially complicated. I’ve found immigrant families have a deep seated aversion to debt.

My dad came from a pretty wealthy family that owned a large tea company in Vietnam, and one day my dad came home from school and was told to pack a small bag and head to the ocean. A boat was waiting for him. His parents had sold their business to buy my dad, the youngest son, a seat on a boat headed out of the country. He left the day Saigon fell. He saw the last American helicopter leave and was the only one out of his nine siblings to escape. He landed in a refugee camp in Malaysia, and then eventually in Minnesota where an incredibly generous family took him in. So my dad was the first to arrive in America.

My mom and dad dated during the war. She found out he had left when she went to his house looking for him after school and was told that he had escaped that very day. I’m pretty sure she thought she would never see him again. She had a very different upbringing than my dad, adopted at a young age to a family that was relatively poor. She didn’t have much, but she was pretty scrappy. She made her way out of Vietnam by upcharging for seats on a boat and eventually saved enough to pay her own way out, and she ended up in a refugee camp in the Philippines. They would keep in touch by sending letters to Australia, to a relative, who would then help route the letters between the two of them, between Minnesota and the Philippines. Eventually they found a sponsor for my mother to come to Minnesota, and they were reunited years later.

So they came from very different backgrounds and had different experiences with money. But when the war hit, it leveled the playing field. They all had nothing. It’s easy to have an abundance mindset when you have everything. And so when they came to America with nothing but the clothes on their back, the scarcity mindset set in, and that is the relationship with money that I grew up with. It was one of fear of losing it all, and a daily mantra to seize opportunities as they appear. I was always told to keep money on hand because if we ever were to go to war again, the stock market will crash, and the only thing that is worth anything will be cash.

So growing up, we were a family that had cash stocked away for emergencies always, and envelopes under beds or chairs. Banks could not be trusted, and debt was equivalent to going to a casino or gambling in my family. What that also meant was a very early age, my siblings and I learned to demonize debt. Debt was someone else’s money. It was never yours. No money was free. Everything would have to be paid back. And with that, anything that was ever given to you was a blessing. “Cherish those gifts,” my mom would say.

And so there were two sides of this complicated relationship with money. There was an inherent fear as it related to debt, and then there was the overwhelming gratefulness when generosity was ever extended. As a person of color and from an immigrant family that then started a business, it meant that debt and venture capital was not an option when starting a business. “Who would invest in us?” Is what my parents would say, like, “Who would want to buy the pots and pans of their restaurant?” And so if you were ever to take anyone else’s money, my parents would require you to be able to pay it back and know every plan to be able to repay that debt.

That led to having a “go further with less” mindset. That also meant throughout high school I was always thinking about how to fund my college education, and when I started college, I was taking as many courses as I could to get the best tuition rate, which meant associating every move I made with how the action would financially tax us. My parents knew the only way out of low income was through higher education, but education wasn’t free. Education brought opportunities, but how does one participate in the path to opportunities if you can’t afford higher education?

We were lucky. I found a program that helped me get through college without too much debt. I started college at the age of 16, just as I was entering my junior year of high school. Not because I was a kid genius. In fact, I was a solid B student. It was because that program offered me the opportunity to get two free years of college, and when my peers graduated from high school, I was graduating from high school and getting my associates degree from college, all paid for by my high school.

My parents started a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant when I was born, nearly 38 years ago. It’s on the University of Minnesota campus. Camdi’s Restaurant is its name, named after my fiery, nonstop mother. It’s small, seats maybe 40 people, and the kitchen is teeny tiny. Everyone says it’s a miracle what my mom can do in that kitchen. Today, the walls are covered with her colorful oil paintings, a hobby she picked up in her late fifties, just to keep her mind away from the rigorous restaurant work. On days when the restaurant is slow, you can see her quickly sketching on her canvases in the back of the restaurant. Growing up, this was our second home. After school, we’d head to the restaurant and help cut onions and play around by jumping on the giant rice bags, pretending the floor was lava.

Ever since I was little, I knew that state university that sat a few blocks from my parents’ restaurant would be my university when I was ready. It was close to home, I could also support my parents, and it would save us a lot of money. When college rolled around, I would spend my mornings in class, head to the restaurant to waitress, cut carrots, wash dishes throughout the day, and then take a couple of courses in the slow hours, then return in the evening to help them close up shop.

This is the life of immigrants in America. Family businesses save money on employees if their children can work for their business. I don’t regret any of it. I feel like I was lucky enough to learn how to calculate profit-loss statements, customer service, and operations by growing up in a restaurant. Who can say they learned how to calculate cost of goods at the age of 12? And for my family, it was the trifecta of perfect events that made everything work. They had the support they needed, I was close to campus, and we all saved a little bit more money.

Don’t get me wrong, I still had to borrow a lot to pay for my tuition, and it was a painful process as I associated each course credit with a cost, and each hour of class made me think about how many more hours I would need to work to pay off that debt. I remember paying tuition with a stack of dollar bills from tips my dad made that month. My parents never wanted me to be an entrepreneur. They would constantly say, “We’re working this hard so that you can go to college and not work like a dog.” And so I listened. I finished college, got a job, clocked in, clocked out, got my paycheck and paid off my debt.

And then in 2009, the war that my parents feared of had finally come: The recession. I lost my job, the restaurant business slowed, and everyone was struggling. And that’s when it hit me. The gift that my parents had given me over the years was a gift of stability even in the worst of times. When your back is against the wall all the time, it gives you no room to breathe. And what they wanted for me most of all was the ability to breathe, the freedom to make my own decisions, chase big dreams, and fail if it came to that. That ability to choose was rooted in education and financial freedom. For them, the barriers to being a successful entrepreneur were compounded. Limited education, language barriers, cultural barriers, systemic racial bias, lack of access to people who could actually help them, and financial barriers while raising three kids, no savings, and a business that always needed more cashflow. Each layer of complexity adding to the last, making it more and more difficult to succeed.

It is a mountain of barriers, an unsurmountable mountain for many. That is what they didn’t want for me. They wanted opportunity for my siblings and myself. They focused on solving two of those issues for their children: Education and financial freedom. This is what led me back to the path of entrepreneurship, this time to tackle the rest of the barriers that many, like my family, experienced, which is why I started CO+HOOTS, a purpose-driven workspace and incubator, whose goal is to connect and expand resources for all, even the most marginalized of our communities, so that we can all succeed. There’s simply so much untapped talent out there that if unleashed, could change the world. Incrementally, through stable small businesses, or massively, through world-changing ideas.

Today, tuition is higher than ever. Loans are pushed as the normal path to afford education, and wages haven’t changed much. That leads to students coming out with $100,000 in debt with no way of being able to repay because wages have stalled. Their only path is to find a job and live their life consumed with student debt. The stalling of entrepreneurs leads to our inability as a country to innovate. It leads to a lack of forward economic mobility and it stalls progress. That path to entrepreneurship and education is getting slimmer for those on the outer edges of our community, and all those same barriers that existed when I was growing up still exist. So we’ve just added another layer of complexity as it relates to debt. We’ve created a system that ties education with crippling debt, and even worse, pushes those in poverty further away from paths that could lead them out of poverty. These are multiplied for people of color and communities that don’t come from generational wealth.

They say entrepreneurs are risk takers, but risk tolerance is about how many variables you have pulling you down. For underrepresented entrepreneurs, those variables are wide ranging, from lack of networks to bias and policies, and it’s heavy. Risk is not evenly shared between underrepresented entrepreneurs and their counterparts, but that doesn’t make women or entrepreneurs of color any less fit to create solutions or economic impact for generations to come. In fact, the best problems are often solved by those who know the complexity of an issue intimately well, and that is the crux of the problem for most underrepresented entrepreneurs in society. Those who potentially can bring innovation to our society are systemically being kept out of innovation conversations across industries.

So this is my story, and while I know my parents didn’t want the wild and crazy path of entrepreneurship for me, it is basically their fault that I’m here building inclusive entrepreneur ecosystems so others don’t struggle the same way they did. Had I not seen their struggle, known their challenges so well, and seen their great impact they’ve had on the lives around them, I would not have the deep knowledge on how to make the change our innovation ecosystem needs today. My parents’ scarcity mindset, as an outcome of being refugees paired with affordable education and maybe a little bit of Chinese superstition, allowed me to gain the skills and take risks that I wouldn’t have been able to take. When it comes to supporting innovation, it starts with the same things my parents worked to give me, education and financial freedom. Without those two things, we’ll never get ahead. These are the foundational elements of individuals for individuals to be successful. And in today’s world, it is harder than ever to have education without financial freedom, or have financial freedom with education, and one without the other is simply crippling our country.

“The Risk Optimistic” is about belief: the assurance that taking a chance is worthwhile, even without knowing the outcome. It’s also the belief that if we value and support risk – in policy, community, and culture – we benefit from each person’s ability to make choices to achieve success. With this initiative, Kauffman kicks off 2020 with insights, stories, and opportunities to explore what it means to take risks, and own your own success, however you choose to define it.


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