Believe in the American dream and believe in yourself: As a little girl, I never dreamed of leading a company because I don’t remember seeing women leaders, so I didn’t know that I would be able to live the dream of being able to run a business. There have been times this year when I’ve thought, “What are we going to do? What if things don’t work out?” But I believe we can make it through this.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Theresa Motter, CEO of Van’s Kitchen.
Theresa Motter was born to run an egg roll business. She immigrated with her family to the United States in the late 1960s from Vietnam. In 1975, the Nguyen family moved to the Dallas area, and in 1986 Theresa’s father launched VAN Oriental Food, a specialty egg roll vendor focused on creating quality products as well as job opportunities for its diverse community. Theresa was involved in the company from the beginning, contributing to its launch after she graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in business.
Theresa is a second-generation CEO with a 34-year tenure at Van’s Kitchen. She has contributed greatly to the growth of the company, increasing the workforce from six to 95 employees and solidifying the brand’s presence in retail and convenience store channels.
Theresa believes that there is room at the table for everyone, whether it be the dinner table or the table of opportunity. This is why she plays an active role in various national food industry groups and local business associations, including Women’s Business Council Southwest, UNT Advisory Council for the Business School, Women’s Foodservice Forum and other organizations dedicated to supporting women and minorities in business. Theresa has also been recognized as an honoree for DBJ’s Women in Business award and as a recipient of IDDBA’s Legendary Champion of Change award and Enterprising Women Magazine’s Enterprising Women of the Year award.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was only two years old when we immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. We started out in Tallahassee, Florida and then moved to Arlington, Virginia because my parents worked for the U.S. Department of Defense. I don’t really remember much of my early childhood, but I do know that we lived in a high rise apartment. One day the doorbell rang, and a kid said, “trick or treat” and we didn’t know what to do, so we ran, screamed and hid in the closet because my mom didn’t understand what was happening. It’s a funny memory to think back on.
Eventually we moved to El Paso, where most of my early memories take place. I had a nanny named Alicia, and she took care of my brother and me. When we were very little, she taught me Spanish and took us to church — she was such a wonderful person. I also remember walking to school in El Paso with the sandstorms and tumbleweeds. As a young girl, I enjoyed going to Juárez because it was different from El Paso, and the markets and sidewalk vendors were fun to experience. My mom and dad liked to buy fruits and vegetables from Juárez because they were similar to what they had in Vietnam.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
My dad always wanted to come to the U.S. because he wanted us to have a better life. He actually answered a newspaper ad for teaching Vietnamese to the soldiers coming back to war. In Vietnam, it’s usually about who you know, not what you know. My dad came from a poor lower class family and didn’t know anyone, but he was chosen for the job, which was a miracle for our family.
Years before, my dad went to a fortune teller in Vietnam when he and my mom just started dating. The fortune teller told him that one day he was going to go to a foreign country, open a business and go to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This all came true!
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I came to the U.S. with my mom when I was two years old because my dad came over six months prior. It was my mom’s first airplane ride, and she was doing it with a toddler across the world — it was probably very scary for her! We landed in San Francisco, but my dad was living in Tallahassee, so my mom had to figure out how to get us to him. The only city she could think of in Florida was Miami, so we flew into Miami, and my dad had to drive from Tallahassee to pick us up, which is about a seven-hour car ride. After traveling for seven hours by car and being separated from my father for over six months, I was very grumpy and tired when we finally got settled and reunited.
If my family had stayed in Vietnam, my life would’ve been very different. We would’ve been there during the war, and education in Vietnam isn’t regularly available, so I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn as much in school.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Obviously I wouldn’t be here without my mom and dad. My mom was brave enough to take me halfway across the world, not able to speak English, and she was still able to navigate all of the travel with only 40 dollars in her purse.
So how are things going today?
My passion is helping those in need, including other immigrants. All of our team members at Van’s Kitchen are called “Roll Models” because we believe every team member is important and contributes something unique regardless of their position or department. We have three different cultural groups represented at Van’s Kitchen; European, Latinx and Asian, and three different languages are spoken within our walls; English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Of our diverse group of Roll Models, 64 percent are female and 84 percent are from minority communities. Of the minorities, 26 percent are Asian, 5 percent are black or African American and 53 percent are Hispanic or Latino.
My unique situation has allowed me to use my personal experiences to better mentor other women and immigrants who may not have a support system like I did. I have an opportunity to impact the lives of others and show people that they can overcome challenges, because there will be challenges. I want to inspire people to never give up because things can be great.
When I meet an immigrant, I don’t think of myself as a young child, I think of my mom. She was a young 22–23-year-old woman who was married with a child. She was always trying to do her best for her family — my mom left everything and everyone she knew to come to the U.S. for our family.
I still believe in the American dream — we live in America, and we’re proud to be American. My parents gave my brother an English name, Apollo XI (even though I think Apollo is actually Greek). In other countries, the class systems and opportunities aren’t available no matter how hard you work and try. I think that’s important to remember.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think I’ve used my success to help people believe in themselves. I strive to provide hope and courage for people even before they see it themselves. We’re sometimes too hard on ourselves, and we need someone to encourage us. Our Roll Models can work here and inspire their children or their children’s children to have a better life. What keeps me going is the motivation to feed and inspire others.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
My parents’ first hand experience with the U.S. immigration system was after their contract ended with the Department of Defense when they were supposed to be deported. Luckily, the father or uncle of one of my dad’s students was a senator, and my brother was the first person born in the U.S. from my family, so he was an “anchor baby”. My mom and dad told me their experience was very different from today’s immigrants, they would just take a number, sit and wait. Senator John Tower helped my mom and dad while they were going through the process. Three things I would change about today’s U.S. immigration would be:
- First, there are so many law-abiding and hard-working immigrants. I feel like there needs to be a way for more people to be able to gain an opportunity for immigration status. I think if we could simplify the paperwork and include a lot less red tape that would make it much easier.
- Second, if you choose to live in the U.S. and be an immigrant, I think people should be able to speak English. This helps immigrants protect themselves. For example, if a non-English speaker gets into an accident with an English-speaker in the U.S., the non-English speaker might be taken advantage of and blamed because they can’t defend themselves, sometimes the people who take advantage of you are your own people. With that being said, immigrants should still celebrate and honor their cultures. As much as I love America, I’m a proud Vietnamese woman and celebrate my culture, holidays and traditions.
- Third, I know we can’t have totally open borders, but there seems to be a lack of humanity and empathy throughout the whole process. We were very fortunate in the era we came to the U.S. — I don’t think if we came here today we would be able to stay. I have first hand experience with relatives trying to stay. I have knowledge and resources to help them stay, but not everyone has access to that.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t give up: When I first started writing the financial plans for Van’s Kitchen, getting the first loan was really difficult. I didn’t know what our cash plan was, but I had to believe that we were going to get the business. Even though I went to college, I was 22 or 23, so figuring out how to get money was a big deal. It was hard, but I wasn’t afraid to ask for help.
- Believe in the American dream and believe in yourself: As a little girl, I never dreamed of leading a company because I don’t remember seeing women leaders, so I didn’t know that I would be able to live the dream of being able to run a business. There have been times this year when I’ve thought, “What are we going to do? What if things don’t work out?” But I believe we can make it through this.
- Hard work pays off: I will never ask someone to do something I’m not willing to do. I like to win, and winning for me is making sure my team wins. Other than making the egg rolls, I’ve held almost every job at this company because it’s important to understand the business and put myself in other people’s shoes. I just have so much love, respect and appreciation for my coworkers — everyone has worked long hours this year because fortunately, egg rolls have been popular.
- Never stop learning: It’s fun to learn! We implemented a Words of the Week program that teaches speakers of other languages how to say relevant phrases in other Roll Model languages. I’ve had fun learning news words in Vietnamese and relearning Spanish. I also continue to learn more about technology that will improve our production process and help our Roll Models.
- Never stop dreaming: You need to believe in your dreams — journal them, believe them into existence! I read this great book about dreams, and it asks where you see yourself during different periods of your life, which inspired me to dream about where I want to be in five years. My dream is to make an impact and help others, and of course, I have dreams for my children. I want to be a grandma in five years, and I really want granddaughters to dress up (I currently have a house full of boys!). I dream about going back to Vietnam. I’ve seen how beautiful it is, and I think it would be meaningful to go back with my parents and see it through their eyes.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- I see a lot of enthusiasm and empathy for the future. People are very passionate about helping other people and making a difference in the world. I see that in a lot of young people and children.
- Throughout this pandemic, people have pulled together. I’m part of a big family, and I think the fact that we were locked up with our families helped us connect in a different way.
- What makes me optimistic is how caring people are. I see us reaching out to our neighbors in different states and countries. There are a lot of people who say things about our military, but a lot of times our military is the one handing out food in different parts of the world. I manufacture food, so I’m always passionate about feeding people.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
My husband Carl is always reminding me of this, but I would love to meet Alicia Keys because she wrote what should be our theme song, “Underdog”. How did she know all of those things about us? I think it would be super cool to meet her.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!