Kari Merkl, interior design faculty, exhibits two pieces from her Merkled furniture collection at the Museum of Contemporary Craft through January 2015.
Katherine Lam will graduate from the School of Business this month with her Master in Business Administration degree—at the same time as her fifth restaurant location opens in Tigard, adjacent to the Target store near Washington Square mall. She is the first to admit that she has a full, fast-paced life, but it fills her with an energy and enthusiasm that is inspiring and infectious.
Secrets of success: Timing, Networking, Teamwork
From the age of 7, Katherine knew she had an entrepreneurial spirit. She loved negotiating and bargaining. She described how, while living in her childhood home in Vietnam, she would come home and excitedly tell her mother the deals she wrangled in purchasing green onions for that night's dinner.
Her family immigrated to the United States in 1993, and Katherine attended David Douglas High School. At the time, she did not think she could go to college. Neither of her parents had pursued higher education. Yet, Katherine could not extricate herself from the desire—and the drive—to attend college. She graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in 2001 with a major in international business, a program that granted her the opportunity to spend two semesters abroad: one in London and one in Beijing.
About three years after graduating, Katherine married Daniel Nguyen, who had started the restaurant Bambuza with his mother in downtown Seattle.
It was here, in the restaurant business, where Katherine's strong entrepreneurial spirit forged a new identity and flourished.
"Those first two years of the business were incredibly hard," Katherine said. They had a lean budget and wore dozens of hats as the business struggled to get onto its feet. "Sometimes there were only two cooks in the kitchen, and I would be dancing on the cook line, helping with the recipes and working together to get things done."
Looking back, Katherine noted that those two years were preparation for the future. She and her husband have opened four Bambuza locations (Seattle, Portland South Waterfront, Tualatin and Hillsboro), with a fifth opening this June in Tigard and a sixth location scheduled to open in Lake Oswego in spring of 2015.
How did Katherine and Daniel — also nearing completion of a Marylhurst MBA degree — achieve such success?
"Timing. Networking. My regular customers," Katherine said. She shared stories of how she would take the time to talk with the restaurant's regulars in the early years, listening to suggestions and ideas and learning from their own professional and personal experiences. Certain customers connected Katherine with opportunities she wouldn't have otherwise known about. She and her husband made it a priority to undergo a yearly reflection process, through which they would consider strengths and opportunities for growth.
"He is my business partner. We make a great team."
Much of Bambuza's success can also be attributed to the intentionality and responsibility that Katherine and her family have towards the business.
"We operate as a family," she said. "We're in this together, and we work as a team." Even though she's an owner, she still will bus tables and clean restroom facilities if needed.
"It's a labor of love. The restaurant business is very hard work, but when I see a full house of customers..." she paused, as a smile grew on her face, "it satisfies my thirst to do well, to succeed. I get a sense of satisfaction."
Returning to school: Worth the investment
Despite a thriving business, Katherine still had the desire for further education. She wanted her MBA. She and her husband attended an information session, and Daniel left saying he also wanted to go to Marylhurst for graduate school.
"So he went first," Katherine said with a laugh. "I wanted to earn my own MBA. I wanted to learn from different perspectives and learn from others' experiences—not go through the entire process—and same cohort—together."
She started a year after Daniel, and the next two years were enormously difficult. "The only time to study was after 10 p.m., after our babies had gone to bed," Katherine shared. "I would catch a power nap in my car before class. I lived off coffee. We have made a lot of sacrifices, especially with our kids."
Yet she doesn't regret the decision to earn her MBA. "It has been worth the investment—time, energy, money, all of it."
Not only have her reading and writing skills improved, but Katherine has witnessed direct correlations between theories in textbooks and her own personal experiences as a business owner. Coursework caused flashbacks to her early restaurant days, and assignments helped inform current aspects of the business.
"In one of my marketing classes, my team chose my business for a project. We were tasked with creating a mission and vision for the business." As of then, Bambuza didn't have an official mission or written vision, so the course helped Katherine to determine what exactly she wanted to convey in her website and marketing presence.
She also described her appreciation for all the perspectives she has been exposed to during her program. Perhaps one of the most significant outcomes of her time at Marylhurst is her newfound awareness of sustainability. Through her coursework, Katherine has learned green business practices, the financial ramifications and how to realistically incorporate sustainability theory into her restaurant's daily operations.
Bambuza has switched over to recyclable packaging and compostable materials. She and Daniel have introduced new cooking ingredients for a variety of different diets—from gluten-free to MSG-free. They are continually looking into energy-saving materials and systems for the restaurant.
"It's important to stay flexible and open-minded," she said. "The business needs to be adaptable. We could so easily get comfortable in our success, but we need to remain aware of the changing world and how to best respond to it.
"My education has taught me how to embrace and enact change—how to motivate others toward positive change."