A photo-op with vice president Dan Quayle changed Phuong Duong’s life.
New 7-Eleven franchisee Phuong Duong ‘s journey to become an independent business owner may be longer than most, beginning almost 30 years ago in war-torn Vietnam and a treacherous boat ride to Malaysia in 1985 with her parents and two siblings.
By way of Malaysia, the Philippines and northern California, Phuong ultimately landed in North Austin where her new 7-Eleven store at I-35 and Howard recently opened for business. Her sister Cyan operates the 7-Eleven store in downtown Austin at North Lamar Boulevard and West10th Street.
Like thousands of other “boat people,” the Duong family landed in a Malaysian refugee camp after a scary, weeklong boat ride, a ride in which they almost died, according to Phuong. While at the refugee camp, then U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle paid a visit, and out of the thousands of children clamoring for his attention, he picked up five-year-old Phuong.
Wearing a Girl Scout uniform and proudly waving a small U.S. flag, she smiled and hurriedly told him she wanted to go to America “for freedom, education and opportunity.” After the interpreter translated her request, the vice president asked for her family’s name, wrote it on a slip of paper and put it in his suit pocket.
She said friends told her it was just a publicity stunt, and the photo, indeed, did appear in U.S. newspapers. But two months later, the Duong family got a call from the U.S. Embassy informing them of their approval to immigrate.
“He kept his promise,” Phuong said. And she kept hers. The Duongs got their freedom, and Phuong made a pledge to herself that she would study hard and become a responsible citizen. When the family left Malaysia, they made a required, interim stop in the Philippines, where Phuong received a special delivery package. Vice President Quayle had sent a photo and the newspaper article about their chance meeting; a memento she cherishes to this day.
After finally arriving in the U.S. in 1990, Phuong began sixth grade in Oakland, Calif., going to school for the first time in her life, but unable to read and write in either Vietnamese or English. Despite these shortcomings, Phuong graduated from high school on time, cramming 12 years of education into six. Besides afternoon and evening tutoring sessions, she worked at her parents’ restaurant. By her senior year in high school, she was managing the place, a job she continued throughout college. There, the seeds of entrepreneurship were born in Phuong as she realized she too, wanted to own her own business someday.
Phuong went on to earn a social welfare degree from the University of California at Berkeley with the hopes of helping others. After graduation, she got a job at the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association, working with youth, adults and seniors from different cultures. Part of her responsibilities included meeting with the local business association.
Freedom, education … Phuong was ready for opportunity. Her desire to start her own business grew.
Phuong’s older sister Cyan beat her to it though, moving to Austin from California to become a 7-Eleven franchisee. Her enthusiastic reports from Texas led Phuong to follow her sister to seek a similar opportunity. After being approved to acquire a 7-Eleven franchise— one of the Quix stores 7-Eleven recently acquired from Strasburger—she moved there seven months ago to begin her training.
Like in elementary school, Phuong took to 7-Eleven’s retail training program enthusiastically, coming early and staying late for classroom and in-store sessions. After her training classes, many days she would head over to her sister’s store to practice what she had learned. “I wanted to make sure I knew everything I needed to know when my store opened,” she said
Phuong’s husband, Ha Nguyen, followed her to Texas, hoping to find landscaping business. She said his first order of business is the “beautification of our store.”
“I want a patio with plants, tables, chairs and umbrellas,” she said. “We have a lot of retail in the area, and a lot of competition. I want to create a nice place to get people’s attention and so local retail workers will feel welcome to take their breaks at the store.”
And a friendly rivalry appears to have sprung up between the sister franchisees. “My sister’s store does really great and has lots of business,” Phuong said. “I want my store to do just as well, if not better!”
Cyan’s and Phuong’s parents now live in Austin. Only their older brother remains in California— although he, too, is exploring 7-Eleven franchising opportunities.
Between 1975 and 1990, an estimated one million-plus people tried to escape communism by boat after the fall of Saigon, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War. Between 25% and 40% did not live to see freedom. Phuong knows they were some of the lucky ones, and she never hesitates to talk of the opportunities and freedoms her family found in America.
“I promised myself that when I came to America, I would study hard, become a responsible citizen and keep my promise to the country that gave me freedom and opportunity for the future.”
Phuong and her husband have a 2-year-old son.
Based in Dallas, Texas, 7-Eleven operates, franchises or licenses more than 10,000 7-Eleven stores in North America. Globally, there are nearly 50,000 7-Eleven stores in 16 countries.