The Dream to Make Dreams Come True
Wednesday, March 22nd 2023
By Sylvia Yang
Once upon a time, not too long ago, Kevin Ha told his Asian parents that he, their first-born son, planned to quit his well-paying corporate job… as a recent college grad…
…and survived unscathed.
Yes – you read that right. And here is how it all unfolded:
Dreamily, it all began in Saratoga Springs, New York, a fairy-tale-like city with a small-town feel, in the summer of 2022. The essence of Saratoga in the summertime is much like taking a Friday afternoon nap with no obligations, worries, or woes. On one of these days, people were out and about, and so were the ducks, and so was Kevin. He ventured out from his friend’s apartment to unplug and unwind, and just so happened to leave his phone behind. Somewhere along the way, alone with his own thoughts, an idea suddenly hit him out of nowhere. Perhaps it was his phone-less state, the Saratoga ambiance, or being back near Skidmore College that led to this revelation but, regardless, a seed was planted firmly in Kevin’s mind that day. He decided to start a non-profit organization to help Pan Asian American College students. Specific? Yes. Random? Not in the least.
Kevin reflects on the suddenness of this exact moment as “really really weird” but, despite the abruptness, founding the Asian American Dream makes perfect sense and his accumulation of thoughts must have ripened on that summer afternoon.
Kevin attributes the first reason for starting this non-profit to his upbringing. His parents immigrated from Vietnam in 1994 and opened a nail salon, which exposed him to entrepreneurship early on. He grew up with customers who knew him as a baby, and he watched his parents work from 8am-8pm every day. Within this environment, Kevin also took on a mentorship role that came with being the eldest brother. With one younger brother being 20 and one being 8, he assumed the responsibility of not only being a mentor but a mentor of a mentor as the older two work together to take care of their baby brother.
The second reason manifested itself while Kevin was on his own journey of transitioning out of college. While he was applying to jobs and internships, he didn’t see a professional development, career advancement organization that focused on and served Pan Asian American College students. Furthermore, he saw a statistic about Asians in the U.S. that reflected how the top 10% of the income distribution makes 10.7 times more than the bottom 10% of the income distribution. Seeing this discrepancy fueled Kevin in finding a way to help uplift this bottom 10%. Although Asian Americans are often seen as a monolith of being smart, rich, and with great networks, this is not the case for all. Kevin wanted to make a support system for this target audience readily available, especially for those who are underserved. So, seeing a hole in the bridge from college to employment, combined with his familial background in entrepreneurship and mentorship, gave him the idea to start the Asian American Dream (AAD).
As most of us have discovered by now, having an idea is not enough to bring it into fruition. Kevin described himself as someone who likes to execute things, and it is this ability to “do” that needs to back up any well-thought-out idea. AAD started as a part-time organization, and the first step Kevin needed to take was to leave his job at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to work on AAD full time. He planned to stay with the Federal Reserve for at least two years before reassessing whether he could potentially work on the non-profit full time. However, this goal was realized a little more than halfway through his initial timeline. Kevin felt encumbered by committing most of his day to a 9-5 job, where his true passion lay in working with AAD and the students. Seeing the impact AAD was having on the community in serving nearly 400 students in the first year made him wonder how much more they could do as a full-time organization. Looking around him and seeing the encouragement of his Board Members, AAD staff, and family convinced him that he was in a good position to turn AAD into a full-time organization. Thus, he took the leap and let go of job security, societal expectations, and any ounce of doubt altogether.
“I don’t think anything in life is worth doing and pursuing unless it scares you a little bit, especially as it relates to your career.” – Kevin Ha
Contemplating the nucleus of events, Kevin highlights Jim, a former professor at Skidmore and current Board Secretary and Treasurer of AAD, as a crucial part of his support system. Jim’s experience in running non-profits and being well-versed in non-profit management, creation, and paperwork, gave AAD its solid foundation. Kevin honestly notes “without Jim, there is no AAD.” They have come far in developing AAD from their first introduction, through Skidmore College business professor Colleen Burke, and Jim has since become an important mentor and guide who Kevin deeply admires and respects. Additionally, there is also Francis Cheung on the Board at the very beginning, and now Mathea Olson, the Program Director, alongside other part time staff that made AAD what it is today.
Looking back with hindsight, Kevin mentions how there was a time while AAD was a part time organization in 2022 where the possibility of rolling out a program was looking slim due to deadlines stretching tight and development happening quickly. While it was an option to pause and think about a later time for implementing the program, something advised by staff members, Kevin had a feeling that he “should just trust in the process” and had a resolve to move forward step by step rather than stay stagnant. Though slightly rushed and with more work put in than anticipated for rolling out the program, the efforts really paid off. Kevin explains that the “just do it" mentality became “embedded in the fabric of AAD,” where things did not need to be perfect, and expectations did not have to be high as long as progress was being made.
In this manner, AAD grew to meet the “lofty aspirations” that Kevin had and continues to set for AAD. He reflects that the growth was much faster than anyone could have expected for the organization initially, and he says he believes it’s “a testament to surrounding myself with amazing people” and having a team that supports him on this journey. He fully believes in the idea that a person becomes the product of the top 5 people they spend the most time around and, for his case in AAD, he says, “the people I’m surrounded by truly uplift me and I hope I’m doing the same for them.” The success of AAD is a reflection of the team effort and community that fosters this growth.
Kevin stood by his vision throughout the development of AAD and his determination is seen in his statement that “a lot of the decisions I’ve made in my life are my decisions alone.” Through taking charge of his choices and the responsibility behind them, Kevin moves forward with full belief in himself and how he can accomplish what he sets out to achieve. Circling back to Kevin’s parents, they, though tentative, a little weary, and not entirely understanding what he was trying to do at the time, supported Kevin’s unwavering belief in himself and his efforts to pursue his dream. Now, AAD does the same for students, by building self-confidence, nurturing skillsets, and creating a support system. These foundations guide rising graduates to make the most of their potential in achieving their unique version of the Asian American dream.
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