Episode 135

Mai Kim Le ·  Worlds Apart

“This is what my book, "Worlds Apart" is about, we might either look like we're messed up or we are perfect but behind that facade, there's so much more about that person.”

Mai Kim Le is a Vietnamese American who plunged into a new culture at the age of three after starting her journey traveling by boat from war-torn Vietnam to the U.S. She grew up in Seattle, WA, in the 80’s at the height of the grunge culture and moved to sunny Anaheim, CA, before Phước Lộc Thọ was erected in Westminster. Mai’s family finally settled in Lawrence, MA, which became her beloved childhood hometown. She graduated from Bowdoin College and Princeton University. She spent most of her 20’s saving the world in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She then gave all of that up for love and moved to Boston to be with her college best friend. 


Mai is the author of a new memoir, Worlds Apart: My Personal Life Journey through Transcultural Poverty, Privilege, and Passion. This up-close-and-personal exposé on everything Mai has felt under the skin plays a powerful role in her mission to amplify the Asian American voice and help people of all backgrounds come together in the face of their differences. Worlds Apart is available on Amazon and in select bookstores. A serial entrepreneur, Mai is currently the CEO and co-founder of Haystack Dx, a medical device start-up. She resides in Boston with her husband, three kids and two furry friends.

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Podcast Transcript

Mai Kim Le

[00:00:00] Bryan Pham: Hey, everyone. We’re so excited to have Mai Kim Le today in the podcast. She actually sent me her book. I don’t know if you guys can see if you guys are not on YouTube, but if you guys listen to the podcast, her book is amazing. Cause it definitely relates a lot to my own personal life as a Vietnamese American immigrant.

[00:00:17] I believe you can find her book on Amazon as well. So please look up Worlds Apart. We’ll put on the show notes. But Mai, welcome to the podcast. 

[00:00:26] Mai Kim Le: Thank you, Bryan, for having me here. 

[00:00:28] Bryan Pham: I’m so excited. I’m very excited to have you here on the podcast today because our experiences as Vietnamese immigrant here in America has been very similar except you went the other direction and with a better direction. 

[00:00:44] Mai Kim Le: Parallel universe. And yes, we went to the same cities and now we’re here in the same network. 

[00:00:51] Bryan Pham: Definitely. I don’t want to take too much away from you. Take over it now and talk a little bit more about your story, about how your parents immigrated from Vietnam over here. And what was your first experience like here in the States? 

[00:01:05] Mai Kim Le: Like so many members of Asian Hustle Network, we came from nothing. We left the country because of the war after the war ended. And my parents tried really hard to escape, they got caught a few times. But my dad was persistent.

[00:01:21] He wanted to make sure we made it out. And one of the things that really still really hits me hard is that when I asked him, there’s a 50% chance that you would die. Would you have done it? He’s absolutely for freedom, for peace.

[00:01:34] And he did it. He’s like, I knew that if I took you that you might not survive or I might not survive. And he took that risk. And he organized this whole escape for a large number of people, about 30 to 40 people. It was like a Jackie Chan movie.

[00:01:53] He would secretly tell them codes on when to meet him and where to meet him. And no one can say anything because he didn’t want the “Viet Cong” sorry I said in Vietnamese, but Viet Congs to know where people are or what chatter was there. Back then, luckily there was no social media or emails or texts to monitor that, but he would give them code words to have a location, a time, and to meet there. If you didn’t make it at that time, he had to leave. He couldn’t wait too long. 

[00:02:21] And so, on his first escape, he was waiting for me and my mom to meet him and the whole crew, we never showed up. So he left without us. He made it too close to Thailand. My mom was disappointed. She returned back to the village with me.

[00:02:34] And somehow lots of people were talking about how they thought that he left us for another woman, but he actually just couldn’t be there and waited for us because he didn’t want to put the whole crew at risk. When he got to, when you go to see, he was just thinking about us, but ultimately he was caught by the Viet Cong and was thrown in jail, and escaped jail and came to get us and plant another escape. 

[00:02:58] And that second escape was when we were able to make it to America. That escape was tough. We were at sea and we were attacked by Thai pirates. I almost lost my ear at that point because I was wearing these gold earrings.

[00:03:10] And because of that, I’m obsessed with earrings and I’m always wearing different earrings, but yeah, we made it. We got to Thailand and then Indonesia, Seattle, and from there knowing my trajectory has changed. 

[00:03:23] Bryan Pham: That is an amazing story. And based on that story, I’m wondering if we’re talking about the same person, because I just, I don’t know why, as you’re telling that story, it occurred to me that my uncle was the one planning these escapes too in Vietnam. And in the same story, he got caught. He got thrown into jail. He actually got his butt whipped in prison. Like he lost all his teeth. And when we talked to him, he had all-metal teeth, like all gold and metal. And he’s talking about this is probably the best thing that ever happened to him. He doesn’t have to go to the dentist at an older age and guess it would go to his mouth. 

[00:04:02] Mai Kim Le: I mean, he’s, like hanging with everyone else, all the rappers in silver. 

[00:04:07] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s the same person or have we just found it in this podcast that we’re related? Wait a minute. Are you my cousin? 

[00:04:14] Mai Kim Le: Oh, we should be doing a DNA test and find out that we actually are related now.

[00:04:19] I think there are so many heroes out there that are very similar. And one of the things I love about Asian Hustle Network was when people post about their stories, I’m like, oh my God. That’s like my story. And I think we all come from the same place. Whether it’s from Vietnam or China or what, it doesn’t matter, we have similar stories that are relatable.

[00:04:38] And then I gosh, I give it to your uncle. It’s tough. I have to tell you a funny story. Some random person, someone I don’t know at all, read my book. And they thought of my dad as a hero. He’s wow. He’s like Jackie Chan who jumped out of a two-story prison and ran into a village to get me, my mom, and then planted this other escape.

[00:05:00] And then she drove by recently and saw my dad. Frail man, this old elderly man cutting my lawn in the fall. And she calls someone else. Like I thought he looked, he was supposed to be a hero. He looks so different. He just looked like some ordinary person that you would just overlook. Like those Asian men who walk in the street, those are the people who actually made a difference. And who brought all of us here? Like your uncle. 

[00:05:28] Bryan Pham: Yeah. It’s about the heart really. And we can’t judge a book by its cover. There’s a lot of brainpower and strategy and planning that goes into escape. It’s not easy. It’s not Hey guys, we’ll take a vacation. People’s lives there are at stake.

[00:05:43] Mai Kim Le: It is insane. Can you imagine yourself escaping at this age, trying to plan and take 

[00:05:48] Bryan Pham: all of us with you? 

[00:05:49] I absolutely cannot, especially going to a country I’ve never been to before and not being able to speak the language or not knowing where I’m going to sleep. Wake up. If I’m going to be alive. Props to our parents’ generation for making that trip for us, at least I’m speaking for myself, I’m not capable of doing that. So huge props to them and for people out there who are. The immigrant problem, immigration, and escape right now are still very real. We see that around the world, especially with the, I don’t want to get so political. Earlier last year too, we saw a repeat of Vietnam, which is like, holy moly this is still going on like 20, 30 years later. Right? 

[00:06:27] Mai Kim Le: I’m actually, I’ve been helping a group of Afghanis in Boston. Just before getting on this call with you, I took up with a young Afghan woman around Marshall’s and TJ Maxx, just so that she can spend some time outside her apartment, her host family, and experience it.

[00:06:45] And she shared her story with me. It’s very similar. It’s very devastating because she separated from her family. Her mom is still in Kabul. It’s hard and the hard part is not the physical, it’s mental. 

[00:06:57] Bryan Pham: It is. It’s so relatable. Even my parents made pretty big donations too, just to help out the situation because we’ve been there before. And just to reshape the story back to yourself. So you made your way to Seattle. I would imagine there’s a huge cultural shock that you face in terms of who am I? I’m Asian. I feel like in your story, at least when you wrote it, you felt a little bit singled out. Walk us through that time period of your life about discovering your identity.

[00:07:25] But the one thing I really appreciate about your story is that you didn’t reject the “Asian”. You accepted it. I feel like a lot of people reject themselves at that point. If they feel like a social outcast.

[00:07:36] Mai Kim Le: That’s a very good point. Every individual has their story and some wouldn’t accept being Asian. I embraced it. I love being Vietnamese. I’m still Vietnamese in a lot of ways that my husband’s oh my God, your whole wall. Like my walls are all Vietnamese arts. This one is from Hoi An by a Vietnamese artist and I embrace it. But it comes with, you gotta be ready for all the rejection, the negativity, the slurs, everything.

[00:08:06] That didn’t bother me as much. I think it was being on the periphery of society. And even as an entrepreneur now, people pause because I’m so different. So coming to Seattle that was in the ‘80s. It’s so scary to say the ‘80s because it seems so far away. And for the millennials, I’m like a dinosaur, but back then imagine like this Vietnamese family in Seattle, when it was grunge and punk. And everyone had the style whack then, it was like Mohawks and everything. It was not only culturally shocking. But the weather in Seattle, as It’s very different from Vietnam. And the rain was hard for my parents. I thought it was amazing. I’m like, wow, There are cherry trees. There are rainbows. It was like, yeah, like Seattle’s not like torrential rain, like Boston. It has that mistiness where when the sun comes out, it gives you really those glittering colors. So for me as a kid, I was like, wow this is like I’m a unicorn in this universe, everything seems so perfect, but for my parents, it was hard. I think it was traumatic.

[00:09:15] Just to get to Seattle was already hard, but just because they were focused on surviving, it didn’t hit them yet. And the moment that they let their guard down and they think about. How they got there. That’s when things hit them, they were reliving their experience. Not just once, but twice, but three times every time they would wake up with nightmares or whatnot.

[00:09:40] I was blissful about all that. I accepted my life as a refugee, as an immigrant in a new country. It seems fine. And we lived off of King Street near there in Seattle. Funny enough, I was just in Seattle in August and the streets are in Vietnamese. I was so shocked. I was amazed. 

[00:09:58] Bryan Pham: Which part of Seattle was this? 

[00:10:00]Mai Kim Le: It’s in the Chinatown area.

[00:10:03]Bryan Pham:  Oh, Chinatown. We aren’t familiar with Seattle. Where’s the Chinatown area in Seattle?

[00:10:09] Mai Kim Le: Oh, gosh. My map, my GPS is not working perfectly, but if you’re in Seattle, you’ll know where Chinatown is and when you get to that area, the old Chinatown is not the new one. Vietnamese sandwich shops there now. The names of the streets are in Vietnamese now, as well as in English. But back in the city center, you’ll be able to get to Pike’s Place easily. So it’s not too far from Pike’s Place. 

[00:10:33] Mai Kim Le: But I also grew up in White Center, which was really rough back then in the ‘80s. I think it is a little bit better now. 

[00:10:39] Bryan Pham: Okay. 

[00:10:39] Mai Kim Le: So I think for me I felt like it was normal, but for my parents, it wasn’t so normal, but they didn’t think about the differences. They just thought that it was okay, as long as they’re safe and they have a place and they have some food of some sort, and some job to help them get through. Then they’re fine. And then the weather was just so hard that we moved to Southern California when the foot lift hall was just starting to build up. It wasn’t even there when I arrived in South Cal and they moved down there because they heard there’s a huge Vietnamese community. They needed a place to feel accepted. So that’s why they moved down there. And the second thing is because the weather was so beautiful and they heard that it’s nice that they need to escape all that rain and dizziness and cloudiness in Seattle.

[00:11:22] And they thought it would be the best place. So they moved down there and it was even tougher than Seattle. They worked picking strawberries. And my father worked at Knott’s Berry farm as a security officer. So close at a garment factory and I help them with that. Just to make a shirt, like a collared shirt was like 25 cents, I think back then.

[00:11:44] And so they had to make a ton of them and if they screw up, that means redoing it. And so I was helping them on stitching if the stitches were bad, or removing buttons and for them to redo it. So it was really hard, I think. They ultimately decide to leave California because they were barely making it in Cali.

[00:12:03] And there were a lot of home raids in our area and they’re like, okay, maybe we should go east. And back then they just heard that the east coast was where all the education was and it’s a better place to raise their children. But without any Google back then they just went east without any idea where they were going and what city they would end up in. And that’s how I ended up in the Boston area. 

[00:12:26] Bryan Pham: Wow. That’s absolutely an amazing story. It just goes back to the hustle that our parents have to go through in order to make things work and again, very similar to my story at least. But before I get there, I want to clarify that ‘Phước Lộc Thọ’ is Westminster in Orange County, California, for you guys are unfamiliar. That’s also known as Little Saigon in the Southern California area. Extremely Vietnamese, best Vietnamese food, like best Pho. Everything is out there. 

[00:12:53] Mai Kim Le: And you know, I didn’t even have to learn how to speak English because I was living there. And in fact, when I came to the east coast, I didn’t know how to read and I was in fourth grade, I didn’t know how to speak English. And so everyone was like, how can you be in America for this long? It was probably close to 10 years. And they’re like, why aren’t you speaking English? I’m like, because I didn’t need to, I had my community. 

[00:13:17] Bryan Pham: I could attest that. That is absolutely true.

[00:13:19] Mai Kim Le: So when I went to college, I had a strong Vietnamese accent. And when I went back after college, my friends were like, where is your accent, Mai? What happened to it? I’m like, I still have an accent somewhere there.

[00:13:32] Bryan Pham: That’s crazy how like your parents, I mean, obviously like when you’re struggling, you have to follow where all the opportunities are. And I think, fortunately, it did bring you to Boston. And Boston is a great place. It’s great for education. Everyone that is highly educated. But I know you mentioned when you moved to Boston, you were pretty unhappy about that move, right? 

[00:13:52] Mai Kim Le: Yeah. I mean, as a kid, California was amazing. We lived near Disneyland. I heard the fireworks and saw the fireworks daily. I never went to Disneyland because we couldn’t afford it. And then it was sunny. I wore shorts. It was magical in California as a kid and coming to Boston, everything seems so old, there are brick buildings, it was cold and frigid

[00:14:17] Bryan Pham: Where did you end up in Boston? 

[00:14:19] Mai Kim Le: So, we landed at Logan and then we went to Worcester, which is in central Mass, then the middle of Massachusetts. So we lived there for a bit. And then my mom was looking for jobs. She applied to the USPS, to deliver mail. And actually, in fact, I’ve been telling all the Afghan refugees to apply to USPS. We have a shortage of it. You’re going to stabilize your life like mine and you should do it. So I’m going to help a bunch of them apply to become postal workers. 

[00:14:46] But in any case when my mom was in Worcester, she was working in factories and someone recommended that she apply to the post office. She did, she scored high and she had two places that she could select from. One was this nice town, very white, very wealthy well, wealthy enough called Shrewsbury or the other Lawrence, which was the number one Carthage city in the US at that time. And she’s like, you know what, we’re going to Lawrence. That’s where our people are. We don’t know what it means, but we will feel comfortable there. People will accept us. And that’s where we ended up. So Lawrence is 30 minutes outside of Boston. 

[00:15:24] Bryan Pham: Oh, wow. I definitely heard of Lawrence. Nowadays it’s fine. But yeah, we definitely played a part in all these changes. 

[00:15:38] Mai Kim Le: I think Trump when he came to New England, mentioned Lawrence where that’s where all the opiates happen.

[00:15:47] We have a bad rep, unfortunately. And even to this day. So I live in Brookline, which is a block away from Boston. I’m a mile away from Fenway Park and people ask me now, how does a girl from Lawrence end up in Brookline? And I tell them I stole a lot of cars. 

[00:16:04] Bryan Pham: And they actually believe me. 

[00:16:07] I mean, I’m just kidding.

[00:16:09] Yeah, I know. So I’m glad you found a home in the Boston area. I think Boston is a fantastic city. It’s very cultured. As I mentioned earlier, also very educated. So let’s go to your college experience. I would say this part of your book is juicy because you were discovering not only your identity but your sexuality as well.

[00:16:32] Mai Kim Le: Oh gosh.

[00:16:33] I know you mentioned all the flings. And your college originally, you didn’t like going there and then you found what passion is in Paris. But I don’t want to take that too much away. So I’ll let you narrate that story. 

[00:16:47] So, I was supposed to be that good girl that Vietnamese. My parents wanted me to be that respectable, elder child who covers herself up, who only focuses on studying.

[00:17:03] And after only I do well, then I can focus on guys or girls or whatever it is that I most preferentially for them was the guys and I had cultural and societal within my community to do well to represent I’m coming from Lawrence going to college. I need to make it work. And they had expectations of me that I couldn’t live up to because I had my own expectations. I want it to be me. So there was a struggle there. So I went to Bowdoin College, which is in Brunswick, Maine. And it’s far not many people know about it unless you’re in New England elsewhere though.

[00:17:46] Netflix’s founder is from Bowdoin and a ton of other people, but it’s a great college. I didn’t want to go there, but they gave me the most money. And my parents were like, we’re working three full-time jobs. We can’t send you anywhere else, this is where you’re going. 

[00:18:01] I want to either go to Brown or Tufts or anywhere else, a big city where there’s a large Vietnamese or Asian community where I can connect to. So I ended up at a college where it was mostly white. And it was hard first of all, socially and culturally I came from a poor neighborhood outside of Boston, going to very wealthy rich schools where people were from private schools or were able to vacation in the Alps or whatnot. And I couldn’t relate to them, but I started to explore myself.

[00:18:35] I’m like, okay, I’m not this person who., “Is that the traditional Vietnamese girl?” I’m someone who is loud, but I was forced to be quiet. And I was trying to experiment with that. I started to voice myself and to explore in many ways from dating to taking English courses, which I wasn’t supposed to or didn’t expect to because I was supposed to go into medicine or science or math, and I was doing things that I loved, but it was hard. And I made a lot of mistakes along the way. For example, one mistake is I thought I wanted to be with an Asian person. So I was only trying to date Asians because I thought they could relate to me and understand me, but I realized that there was a disconnect.

[00:19:22] It wasn’t about my color or my race or my culture. It was about who can relate to me. And it ended up being a white man. Unfortunate. Not, unfortunately. But I ended up with a white man who was an immigrant who actually understood that I needed to help my parents ultimately. After I work, I need to be able to help my family, my siblings, and an Asian who wouldn’t support that. Wouldn’t be someone who I can be with for example. 

[00:19:47] It’s multi-dimensional, it’s tough but college was a place for me to make mistakes. For me to break free, to try new things that weren’t expected of me. And I allow that to happen. And it was hard because I got some backlash from my parents, from my community, but it was the best thing that happened to me.

[00:20:10] Bryan Pham: Wow. I think you bring up a really good point too. It’s about who you can relate to. And I can appreciate that. That is really good reasoning for me, at least. As long as it’s not racially motivated in any way, which I feel like things are nowadays. I think as long as you feel the person is compatible with you, it doesn’t matter what race they are or their background, that’s really important. 

[00:20:32] Mai Kim Le: Yeah, so my value is that imagine if you were blindfolded and you took away all the colors and the race and the culture, who can you relate to that’s one and similarly, as in my position in hiring people, who will be the best person to do the job regardless of where you went to school, what you did and what you do, who is going to have that grit and perseverance to do the things.

[00:20:57] So that’s the way I look at life and I look at people, I don’t care what color you are, where you come from, what can you do? And how can you relate to me? 

[00:21:06] Bryan Pham: Definitely. I absolutely agree with that statement a lot. The statement that I really liked that you brought up is, college is a time for us to make mistakes.

[00:21:15] I like that statement a lot because I was taught the opposite way. I was taught, my mom was totally, you can do whatever you want after college, as long as you get straight A’s and whatever, do your engineering degree or a doctorate degree or whatever it is. For me it was engineering. Because as long as you get straight A’s like afterward, you party as hard as you want, do the hell you want, I don’t care because this is my mandate for you to quote-unquote, be successful, or be happy. So I really liked the fact that you are mentioning that college is the time. And I know part of the listeners might be the younger range, particularly for this podcast. And I really want them to hear that too because I think that you have to allow yourself to experience new experiences and open your mind to a lot of things. Because college is the best time to be around like-minded people to learn more about their experience too, to see the world differently. And yeah, that’s probably my biggest regret too, in my own personal life, I started my own circle. I only hung around people who like to study hard because my mom was like, don’t be too distracted.

[00:22:17] Mai Kim Le: No, allow the distractions because you will never find your passion without those distractions. And you never know where it will lead you. I wouldn’t say don’t stop at college, allow yourself to continue to explore and make those mistakes. Even at my age, I’m doing it. I still don’t know who I am sometimes. And I’m taking on new things that people were like, wait, what are you doing with your life? I’m like, I’m writing a script, for example. But just because I love it and I want to do it, I have no idea where it will take me. Just allow what you want to do and do it.

[00:22:56] Bryan Pham: Absolutely. And if you guys are still in college and I apologize to my other audience from that past college already, that learning doesn’t stop after college. It’s a lifelong thing. You always learn more about yourself. The thing is like you can always redefine yourself at any part of your life. If you’re unhappy, right? You’re not stuck to the person that you are. You can always redefine yourself. 

[00:23:20] Mai Kim Le: Yes. That’s interesting that you said that because when I wrote the book during COVID last year and somehow just sat down and let my heart pour out onto paper. Allow me to discover who I was and who I am and who I want to be. And people who have read the book like, wow, how did you know that back then? I’m like, actually, I didn’t know, back then what I was going through. And I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it. It’s not until you stop and reflect and listen to yourself and listen to others.

[00:23:55] And through that, you’re only able to connect the dots. And so I think we’re always learning. And maybe tomorrow I’ll learn something different about myself that I didn’t know. 

[00:24:06] Bryan Pham: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And Steve Jobs says that it’s always easy connecting the dots, going backward, saying connect the dots, moving forward. Sometimes you just have to trust your gut and what the right decision is, right? Because no one has to be honest here. No one really knows what you’re doing in life. And no matter how successful you see the person is, or how well put together, they are. No one really knows what the heck they’re doing.

[00:24:27] Mai Kim Le: That is all about my book is about on the surface. We might either look like we’re messed up or we are perfect. And what’s behind that facade. There’s so much more about that person. Like I might even look like I’m perfect. I have it together, but my life is not perfect. It’s far from perfect. I have a lot of issues. I have a lot of baggage. I’m struggling, mentally trying to build a startup, even though on paper, it’s going well. It’s hard to get something moving and going. 

[00:25:00] Bryan Pham: Yeah, that’s a really good statement. Talk a little bit about your company too, and your startup experience because statistically venture capital money is I believe, it was last year, something like 2.3% of all venture capital money goes to women. And honestly, it’s something that I feel needs to be changed a lot in this field, but like, how has your startup experience and running a company and raising money, how has that sort of class with your initial traditional beliefs?

[00:25:31] And the reason why I want to bring this up is because I feel like, for a lot of founders of immigrant backgrounds, it’s actually very hard for us to go out there and ask for money. Because it’s not something that we’re taught to do, it’s practically rude in most Asian cultures.

[00:25:48] Mai Kim Le: It is so rude. I think for a long time I’ve been an entrepreneur for a long time, nearly a decade, and the early startups I’ve done. I couldn’t raise money because I was so afraid I couldn’t go and ask someone for money. I felt like I owed them something and I felt like I wasn’t good enough to take that. I think that was my biggest barrier to building a company. Even though I was able to get companies to revenue and do things, and to have an impact it was just, I couldn’t scale it because I didn’t have the funding that I needed, this startup, in particular, something changed.

[00:26:28] It’s a medical device kit start-up called Haystack DX. I have no science or medical background. So I already make people pause there alone. So not only do I make it harder for people to invest in me because I’m Asian and a woman, I don’t have the experience in this field. But somehow, my colleagues who recruited me to say, come and take our research and do something. They’re like, we’re going to take a risk on you. We know you’ve done other things, and we believe that you can do something amazing with this. And I’m like, I don’t know if I can do something amazing. I don’t know anything about your field. And when I jumped in and took that leap, I’m like, Oh shit. Pardon my French. I’m like, how do I do this? They gave me medical books and I’m like, my mind is like blowing up from all these terminologies. And I couldn’t remember what I just read, but so I’m like, I have no idea what I’m doing. I decided to just try and just to learn as much as I could without much guidance and a lot of guidance. So it’s like, I’m my own, but with people and resources around if I needed it. I decided to, okay, I can’t get, take this any further unless I raised some money and I decided to go for this $15,000 grant. The beauty of science is that there are grants everywhere. And, but that required me to have a perfect five-minute pitch in front of everyone and luckily it was on Zoom. Okay. So what’s five minutes? I don’t need to stand in front of everyone, but everyone was on Zoom. I’m like, okay, how do I do it? Exactly. Five minutes. I practiced and practiced. I did it. Got $15,000. I’m like, what do I do with that?

[00:28:05] I know I’m like, I can’t really build much or can’t do anything. That was my first step. And somehow I was able to build, take my co-founders’ research and build something that was impossible that most manufacturers said that’s impossible to do. I did it in two months with $15,000 that led to all this interest.

[00:28:26] And I think I just did it by showing, by doing, rather than showing myself, I just said, here it is. And some investors like, there’s no way you did that. I showed it to them. They’re like, oh, you did that. I think that alone just gave them the confidence I could do it. And from then on, I went out and pitched and pitching was hard. I didn’t want to pitch, I didn’t want to raise money. I didn’t want to ask anyone for anything. I don’t want to owe people anything. And it was hard every time I pitched and they said, no, it was like a sting, a bee sting and I felt it. And I’m like, oh gosh, I bet I can’t do this. But after many bee stings, it felt like my skin was getting tougher and the no’s started to roll down my skin like oil.

[00:29:11] And the minute I felt that it was during the summer of 2020. I was like, wow, I can do this. And I went out and I didn’t care. I’m like come at me, tell me the no’s. And that’s when I was able to raise close to a million dollars. I actually over a million dollars with grants and funding and I just pushed my team to, Hey, you better deliver because we’re going for a Series A, this year.

[00:29:37] I need to be able to show that I can do this in the shortest amount of time with very little money. Even if I have to pull all-nighters for six months or more, and that’s what we did and I’m going to start raising Series A, and only then do I think you have to experience it to be able to go and do it. And we have all these fears, and I think just go and run. Fall all the time, fall as many times as you need to get there.

[00:29:59] Bryan Pham: Definitely. She falls and falls hard because, at the end of the day, you realize that a lot of people’s opinions don’t matter, it won’t affect you. All you need is one. And all you really need is your own self-belief that you can do it and improve yourself, especially because it’s a ‘you versus you’ situation to prove that you can make the impossible happen.

[00:30:20] And that through sheer willful strategy and resourcefulness, like a lot of these can happen in a small budget. And that’s the beauty I love about founders that don’t have experience in the particular field because we’re not contained by walls. We’re not contained by too much knowledge that we kind of walk into here like ignorance is bliss kind of thing, where it’s like, what do you mean? I can’t do that. 

[00:30:48] Mai Kim Le: So something funny happened yesterday, so I’m co-writing a script based on the book and this is my first time doing it. And my co-writers like the reason why I love working with you is that you have no ego. And similar to founders who don’t have the experience, they’re willing to do anything to make it work.

[00:31:07] And so for anyone I say, don’t have that ego, let’s set it aside because you’ll make it work ultimately. Just know what your goals are. Your goal is to do the best that you can. And in order to do that, you can’t have any ego. 

[00:31:21] Bryan Pham: Yeah, absolutely agree. And I’m still dwelling on that 15K story about making things happen and using that as momentum to raise a million. And it kinda reminds me of the early days at Asian Hustle Network. We actually hosted nine events without a single dollar in our budget. We have asked people to do it pro bono. Out of naiveness that events actually cost a lot of money. Now that we know too much, it’s like we’re finally putting on our first event in Las Vegas, that’s legit. Like sponsors and deals and everything. Well, I never be like, oh, wow it actually costs a lot of money to host these events, how we do like nine across the world in pro bono. It’s insane. 

[00:32:02] Mai Kim Le: I can’t wait for this event to happen in Las Vegas. 

[00:32:06] Bryan Pham: It’s coming up to kick off the Asian Heritage month on April 28th and 29th. So, yeah, that’s me. Yeah. 

[00:32:14] I love that story. And I love the fact that you guys are going for your Series A. My personal belief is that I want to see more women of color leaders out there. I want to have these types of podcasts, these kinds of conversations to tear down that wall because there’s a lot of work to be done with our community regarding things like the startup world and whatnot. So I do commend you for that. 

[00:32:36] So I want to ask a few questions regarding how you take care of everything. And what I mean by that is, How do you take care of being a startup founder, an author, a parent. And for this answer, I do want you to be as honest as possible. Tell us, like what’s working, what doesn’t work, because we don’t learn a lot of things by having you share the highlights of everything. We learn a lot by having you share lows and highs, so we can relate to each other as human beings.

[00:33:05] Mai Kim Le: Thank you for that question. It’s timely. On the surface, I have it all, I have published a book. I run a really great startup with amazing scientists and doctors. I have a team that is phenomenal but it comes at a cost. A cost to relationships costs to my health, all of that.

[00:33:28] You can do it all, but something’s got to give basically. I don’t sleep. So I was building this startup last year. We got funding. We kicked it off in February 2021. And my family was going through some tough times. And I started writing the book in February. That required how I raise three kids, two dogs, make a husband satisfied, and my colleagues and work and write a book.

[00:33:59] It’s either one hour to two hours of sleep or a maximum of three hours. So for a long time, I only slept between one to three hours. So I looked like a zombie most of the time, but I was able to do everything. The world would be amazing if we had more than 24 hours. 

[00:34:14] So my health was on the back burner. I didn’t sleep. And I completed the book. I started in February and completed it at the end of April. I ended up with health problems. I couldn’t understand why as a runner, who has a resting heartbeat of about 52, and I climbed one flight of stairs and it was a hundred and something, it wouldn’t stop beating. So I went to the ER and they’re like, you have an anxiety attack. I couldn’t calm it down. I did everything, drank wine, binged on Netflix, turned off the computer and my phone. Nothing helped. 

[00:34:50] They prescribed some meds to help calm my anxiety and I slowed down for a month and then came back. I’m like, okay, I can’t really slow down that much. I can’t binge every single Netflix series, but that was my only way to (recover). I basically crashed in May and then came back and started strong again. 

[00:35:09] At the same time, while working so much and focusing on doing all these amazing things, I love building things. I don’t like the end results. Like I publish a book. I’m like, okay, so what’s next? It’s not the end, it’s not the publishing that drives me. It’s the process. And in doing those, I get wrapped into doing it. For example, now I’m writing a script and I’m wrapped into writing a script while raising Series A and preparing for that. I lose sight of family and friends, and sometimes I’m not there, mentally and emotionally for them. I’m there physically, but if something happens to them, I’m always there, but they want me to be more present. And I don’t know, what’s it like to be present? I’m always thinking about the future or thinking about just doing and getting to the future.

[00:35:53] So it comes out of cost and I’m trying to figure out that balance right now. And that’s why we mentioned earlier, we’re always learning by ourselves and discovering new things. Trying to discover how to find that, to be able to do the things I want to do with passion, but be able to be there for people who want me to be there.

[00:36:14] Bryan Pham: Yeah. That is definitely really deep. And thank you so much for sharing your vulnerability with us. I think a lot of us try to hide those things. You want it to be as strong as possible. We wanted to portray ourselves a certain way, but I think it’s good for us to hear that side of you and hear the side of entrepreneurship that does come with a cost sometimes that is your mental health or your health or relationships.

[00:36:39] I’m not saying that’s the best approach per se, and this is no attack to you, but I’m saying like, this is what goes on with our lives, that you only see the best things. When people look at you like, oh, you have it all together. Why are you going through these problems? But as entrepreneurs, as hustlers, as human beings, we all go through a subset of problems that we try to figure out every day of what is our true potential?

[00:37:00] What is our purpose? What is this? And that. Those are questions that it’s pretty funny. Cause if you really think about it, those are the questions that you think you have solved at a certain age. But then that never goes away. You’re always trying to understand your purpose in life and what you stand for, who you are.

[00:37:18] So it’s really important for us to take some time to discover ourselves, find our true passion, do things that don’t feel like work, which is our true passion, obviously. And just put yourself out there and experience those things and listen to the stories too, because a lot of times we keep these thoughts for ourselves, we don’t share them with anyone.

[00:37:35] And the worst part is I must be off. I must be weird. I must be not okay because no one else around me is feeling this way. Why do I feel this way? But once you get people to share their stories like, oh, unfortunately, and fortunately everyone goes through sort of the same things on a daily basis at all phases of life.

[00:37:58] Mai Kim Le: I love the Asian Hustle Network. You guys have the space for us to share the story. And for so long we’re inhibited from doing that because it’s not in our culture. It’s shamed upon whatever we feel. Whatever we go through is, should be locked up, thrown away, or swept under the rug. And I don’t want that anymore. And that’s the same way I felt about college. I don’t want to hold that in. I want to be myself. I want to voice my story. I want others to learn, not make the same mistakes. 

[00:38:28] Bryan Pham: Absolutely. So we have one final question and that question is what’s next for you?

[00:38:34] What are your goals for 2022? We saw the first part of it. So what are your goals for the rest? 

[00:38:39] Mai Kim Le: I feel like January 1st, the year’s over right? No, because I’ve already mapped out my whole year. I’m working on this amazing project that I mentioned. I’m writing a script based on the book. It’s kinda like a Jackie Chan escape story with drama and comedic relief, but not a refugee story, not an immigrant story alone, but about the feelings of isolation, mental health. Trying to be who we are trying to persevere through challenging times. So I’ve been writing that since September, and I’m trying to wrap that up I will start pitching that along with my Series A for Haystack, and hopefully, we can get something together to make a movie about Asians. So that’s what I’m hoping for in 2022. 

[00:39:28] Bryan Pham: That’s awesome. We definitely need more representation out there, especially in mainstream media. I feel like last year was a great year for Asian-Americans. But we can’t be just out there, we need to continue pushing forward and getting more representation out there.

[00:39:41] But how can our listeners find out more about you and reach out to you? 

[00:39:43] Mai Kim Le: They can go to my website at maikimle.com and you’ll find all my contact info. 

[00:39:51] Awesome looks good in the show notes. And Mai, thank you so much for sharing your story with us today. We can’t wait to see where you are at the end of the year and many years from now.

[00:40:02] So thank you so much for hopping on the podcast today. 

[00:40:05] Thank you for inviting me and I wish you a happy year for the tiger. May this year be healthy, happy, and prosperous for you. 

[00:40:14] Bryan Pham: Thank you so much, Mai.