In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli talks with Tom Fong. Tom Fong founded Compcierge USA and is currently with MYTA technologies. Tom shared his perspectives on leadership and disruptive technologies. Additionally, Tom Fong shared the reason for his commitment to youth programs and leadership in the Chinese-American community.
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Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am really excited this week to be welcoming Tom Fong. Tom has had extensive experience in the public sector and private sector eventually founding his own organization, Concierge USA, and currently he is with MYTA technologies.
Tom is also very active in the Chinese American community. Having served as president of the Washington Chinese Youth club, being the Chinese New Year's parade marshal, being a board member of Washington Chinatown Development Corporation and being the ambassador for the Washington DC Metro area of the Chinese American heritage foundation.
I really enjoyed the conversation with Tom, and truly enjoy his sense of humor too. And I'm sure you will too, in addition to learning leadership lessons from Tom's experience.
I also love hearing from you, Mahan@mahantavakoli.com Keep those emails coming and feel free to leave voice messages for me. There is a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. That's where you can leave messages. I love getting those voice messages too.
And finally, don't forget to follow the podcast. That way you will be first to be notified of new episodes as they're released on Tuesdays change maker conversations from the greater Washington DC DMV region, such as Tom and then on Thursdays with thought leaders from around the globe, primarily leadership authors, whose books and insights, I believe will have an impact on us as we become more effective and more purpose-driven leaders.
Now, here is my conversation with Tom Fong
Tom Fong my friend, welcome to partnering leadership. I am thrilled to have you on with me
Thanks. I'm thrilled to be on. Thank you for the opportunity.
I'm really excited. Now I know you are true blue Washingtonian. So tell me a little bit about your upbringing here in our beautiful city Tom.
So I was born and raised in Adams, Morgan. And back when I was born, it was 1960 and it was pre gentrification. We were raised in my grandfather's very modest beings carry out. It's a Chinese American restaurant that sold seafood chicken, pepper steak, and our customers were probably 95% African-American, the area was changing.
It was starting to blend to Hispanic neighbors. And it went from black to brown to now. It's a mix of millennials, white professionals, but it's fully gentrified.
And I was looking back very lucky to have grown up in that area and to have friends of every color and every ethnicity and religious background. We learned Spanish from the streets, we learned to cross the street when we saw some maybe not so good intended dudes approaching, so we, we had sort of that city slicker upbringing and I'm glad that I was able to one, survive it, but two, live from it, learn from it and bring those experience forward in my life.
Yeah. And all throughout. Obviously you also got involved in helping your grandfather, you even had to run the cash register in his carry out restaurant.
Yeah, that was the day that I learned the cash register and basically. Simple accounting for a restaurant was the day that opened my eyes because, my grandfather 70 plus years old, same age as my grand mom. And it was a family run restaurant. And my sister who's two years older, she'd been running the cash register and my grandfather tapped me on the shoulders and he was like, "Hey boy, you're going to learn the cash register today."
And it's your sister's going to teach. And so my sister sat me down and she says, okay, we usually have an opening bag of $20. And then we pay out all the vendors, you know, the tomato guy, the meat guy, the, the paper product guy, and we put the receipt here. And at the end of the day, we add up all the cash and all the receipts, and we subtract opening balance of $20 and that's our revenue for the day.
She might not even have used the word revenue, that's our tip for the day track 20. And so we did that. We did it a couple of times, cause I thought, no, there's gotta be a mistake here. We counted $28 and 74 cents subtract the $20 opening bank and it was eight dollars and change. And I'm like, are you kidding? She goes, Oh, that's a pretty good day. I'm like what? That's a pretty good day?
You know, it was probably 1967, 68. I was seven or eight years old, but I mean, you know, it was my grandfather and my grandma, my mom they're full-time and us kids coming over from school toiling at that restaurant.
And my dad was a civil servant and he come home after a day, working at labor department or HUD, wherever he was at the time. And he chipped in until closing time. And then, and I'm like, wow, we are working our asses off for very little money. At that point I pulled my little brothers together and I said, guys, even though "Po-Pol" that's, my grand mom will always put that cash register open and say, here's a nickel, go buy a comic book.
We'll never, ever again do that. Because I knew how hard we worked for that $8 and 77 cents. And at that point I wasn't even fathoming the rent on the mortgage, on the building, the additional costs. I mean, that was just very simple revenue minus start of the bank. And, you know, so it was really scratching out a living and my grandfather was getting at in age and he was still working hard. And at the time I'm just going with the flow and learning from him and, listening to him and being obedient grandkid. But now I look back and those memories of learning the cash register and doing the tasks at that restaurant, fuel me today.
Because I know that my grandfather inspired me to be a better person. To revere elders, to understand his sacrifice for us because it wasn't for him. He came to this country, not knowing the language. He came to this country without money in the bank. But what he did have was a yearning to succeed, to take care of himself and then to prosper with the family and I am glad that my grandfather came to America. I am glad that he gave us this opportunity. And a lot of those stories do emanate from his very, very humble Chinese American carry out. Yeah. So that's the cash register impact on me as a seven year old.
Yeah. And you actually built on that, obviously that had a significant impact on you on understanding the value of money, value of hard work and made you an entrepreneur from early on, you also had age 11, we're getting $5 a week to clear trash from a parking lot Tom.
I felt lucky. So my grandfather's restaurant was right next to this famous theater, the Ambassador Theater, they were famous for a big snow storm and it imploded from the roof.
But it was rebuilt, but then they took it down in the early, probably, maybe late sixties, early seventies. And it was a parking lot at 18th and Columbia road in Adams Morgan. And I know restaurants would have patrons parked there, but then the Omega restaurant across the alley from my grandfather's restaurant actually secured the rights to park their customers there.
And I was in the alley and the head of the restaurant comes out and says, Hey, you want to make some money boy? I'm like, yes, I do. Before even knowing what it was and he goes, I'll pay you $5 every Saturday morning, you come in, pick up all the trash in the parking lot. So my customers can park there safely, no bottles, you know, and I'm like, Yes, I'll do that every week, sir.
And so I got my brothers and I, and every Saturday mornings, eight o'clock we get out there, you know, work a couple hours and have that parking lot just pristine. And then you know, he'd come out and look at it. Okay. Here's your $5. And I mean, You know, after seeing that our whole family is working for a net of $8 and 74 cents a day, I felt like, wow, we're really helping out the family by making this five bucks on Saturday.
And you know, my grandfather wouldn't take the money of course, but I took one burrows, Hey, this is where we get our comic book money. This is where we save up to buy those, you know, $7 pro Keds or converse, all stars that we want. And so we don't have to ask mom and dad for that.
And so that's what really started me on entrepreneurship and value of money and opportunity and hard work.
And even in 10th grade you started a landscaping business that I understand became big and grew in my career County.
So we moved, we were late and moving out from the city because there was a flight from a city after the tumult and chaos of the 1968. Riots and assassination, Martin Luther King and just on and on. And so in 1972, we moved out to Silver Spring to be safer, to be in better school. parents wanted us to be in a safer environment, better schools. And we moved out there and we were in a suburban area, single family homes, lot of grass. And then I see my neighbor across the street. This kid he's cutting his lawn, but then a couple of days later, I see him cutting another lawn, like a block away and another lawn, like two blocks away. So I just got the gumption to go up to him and say, Hey, we just moved in across the street. My name's Tony.
And I introduced myself to him. And I'm like you know, dumb as I am. I'm like, are those other lawns that you kind of there's like your uncle's houses grandma's house. She goes, no, they, they, they pay me $5 every time I cut it. And I'm like "What! $5 each time you cut the lawn?". And I mean, it was just like, A moment of unbelievable opportunity and excitement.
Immediately, I went to my dad and my dad, saved up this money from picking up trash and doing other gigs. I'm going to buy a lawn mower because at that point, my dad had an electric one that's of course tied back with electric quarter, you know, where it's okay for our house, but how am I going to take that and make money at these are the lawn.
So I'm like, dad, I want to buy a gasoline lawn mower. He goes, well, you know, if you want to buy it, you know, you got to cut our lawn and I'll let you keep it in our shed. I'm like, awesome. So I went and bought her first lawn lawnmower and That next year we made flyers and distributed to a the three or four block radius where we could walk.
Cause we didn't have vehicles we got maybe 10 or 12 lawn customers and we were just happier than pigs and poop. Try to, you know, make some money and help out the household and keep moving. And from there build every year we probably doubled or tripled our number of customers. And within a couple of years, we were couple hundred customers, two trucks, six lawnmowers, and we were making enough money to put ourselves through college.
And eventually you did put yourself through college, University of Maryland. You also got a government contractor job and decided to pursue your master's at the same time, too, Tom
Yeah. So, you know, we were always dropped from the Asian parents you know, mostly my mom, you know, education first, don't worry about playing football and basketball, you know, that's, that's all secondary.
So, there was always that angel and devil on my shoulders, Hey play ball, bank money, get an a in school, whatever. And and so, I wasn't the brightest student, but I did get into the University of Maryland. And that was one of the best experiences of my life. And I was able to get a government contracting job when I graduated.
Made $8 an hour. I had to drive all the way out to Vienna, Virginia from Silver Spring, but I saw that as a great opportunity to get my foot in the door with a white collar job. And my mom was like, okay, I'm satisfied. At least you're not just cutting lawns for a living, but I was still doing that cause we were still making so much money.
So I had two jobs. I was contracted to the government. And was cutting lawns on the weekends.
So, so you did all of that, but then decided to leave. What would be a comfy, cushy government contracting job to start your own company, Tom, what guide you to do that?
So one of the companies and I was working for these eight, eight companies, a minority set aside companies. And one of the things that this company asked me to do was to be a part of and lead this group called the "Advanced Science and Technology Group" to help that eight A company uncover technologies and processes that would allow them to compete with the big boys, the Booz Allen's that Deloitte to the world because, the timeline for the eight A was shrinking. And we were looking at the end of our minority status. And so I went to Chad. I mean, I'm like, Oh my God, this is my way to get to VP. And I uncovered this technology called Hi-gen, which was one of the precursors to building object linking and directing Databases, which are the precursor to the worldwide web.
And so I built our companies first electronic database that showed all our past performance showed pictures of our leadership team. It was basically our corporate manual. Like you would see a website now this is 20 some years ago on a floppy disc and we would then be able to ship this to potential customers.
And when I rolled this out in front of the, the top. Eight or 10 corporate execs, it was met with Whoa, wow. This is incredible. We love this. And so I went back to my government assignment and contracting, and I was waiting for the call, Tom, we're going to fund you with a quarter million dollars and we want you to build this division and we want to leverage these new technologies that you're on top of.
And I never got the call. I never got the call. And so I'm like, man, they they're all talk about this advanced science technology group to leverage you know, the company and position us, but they're not doing anything. So I decided, you know what, I'm not going to let this research that I've been volunteering really, you know, giving them go to waste.
And so I sort of had discussions with my girlfriend now, my wife at the time, and we came up with a couple of models. One was the, a university in college. Put everything about the college on a floppy disk, send that to the high school students that are looking at our college. The other one was, we had done a lot of travel and when we go to the hotels, the concierge, there, they're the answer for everything in the city.
Maps where to go eat, how to best do this tour. And I'm like, that sounds like a lot more fun than college university model. So we set out to build an example of what we could be doing with these technologies for Washington DC. And this was the precursor to my launching Infotech and then concierge, my wife was getting her master's at NYU and her group was looking for a case study to prove out.
And so that was awesome. It was great timing. And they looked at the model of what I was doing and they said, yes, this has legs, revenue wise disrupting certain technologies. And they wrote the paper to support what I was doing. And it was, it was awesome. And that got me thinking, you know what?
I got to leave this government contracting gig. That's paying me a lot of money, but I gotta start this thing. And so I did overlap it a little bit. I You know I was working at night hustling, trying to get stuff together. I would walk around the streets of DC. So I was assigned downtown to the FAA and I just walk around and grabbed the city paper, Washingtonian magazine menus.
And we collect all this paper content because not a lot of stuff was out there on the web yet. The web was really in its infancy. And we were building databases in, 1980s databases DBAs three plus, and we'd enter data for every restaurant. We could find every hotel, every so dining, entertainment, tourism, transportation services.
We built that database of DC. And then you know, that gave me the content and I had to go find customers. And one of my great friends from University of Maryland was the head bellman at the JW Marriott hotel, 14th and Penn. And he goes, Tom, I think I might be able to introduce you to the head concierge here, you know, can you can you come and talk to her?
I went and talked to her and she was just blown away. She goes, I've been thinking about this type of system for 10 years. How do we get rid of our Rolodex? And back then, that disruptive technology wasn't really around yet, but I'm like, yeah, you know, we're going to replace your Rolodex.
We're going to replace you guys having a thumb through a yellow pages. And she did the most fantastic thing. She was so enamored within such a champion. She got the JW Marriott to open up a budget of, I think, $6,000, which was a pretty good chunk of change back then to buy a couple of IBM eighties. Okay. A laser printer. And I said, I will give you our system for free for two years. Just by telling us, what you like about it, what you don't like, helping us get this software and this application to the point where I can spread it to all these other hotels and they'll pay us, but I'm going to give it to you for a couple of years.
And that penetration policy got me into my very first hotel and that stayed our customer for 20 plus years, but that's how I started. And then I jumped out and stopped doing the government contract engaged and put all my efforts into you know, this venture.
And you did a great job with a growing it, obviously a lot of success along the way.
I know though the fact that the concierge didn't get a chance to go public or be sold is something that you were a little bit disappointed in.
Yeah, that that's always disappointed me. I mean, you know, I say that we paid our employees top top wages, but we never missed a payroll. We never missed a payroll.
You know, at peak we probably had 30 plus employees and you know, we supported those families and you know, When I launched the company and started bringing people on board, my goal was to give everybody a share of what we would reap at the end, you know, not the end, but you know, when we, that magic number or, or breakthrough and got acquired or went public, but it's different series of events.
I mean, you know, it's not a perfect world, 9/11 happened that stopped our growth. Right in our tracks when the snipers in Washington DC happened, even though we're in probably eight or nine, 10 cities by then DC is, you know, very important market. And when the snipers happen, I mean, I had GMs of hotels call me, we know we've signed for, you know, a two year deal.
We just had three conventions. Call us to cancel. There's no way we can afford to pay for your system. And I'm like, you know, I can't, I can't hold their feet to the fire for, the concierge contract. I wanted to stay friends with this GM or this hotel group or this ownership group or management company, because I know that we're gonna get past this diaper time.
And so we let them all off the hook. They just called and said, hey, we can't do this. You know, so we were very forgiving and, you know, we just hunkered down and got to the other side, but then there was another thing it was SARS or bird flu or this or that. And, you know, we did build up to probably we had between 250 and 300 customers across the country, big hotels, different brands, Marriott, Sheraton, before they all merge, Starwood is part of Marriott now, but we had a significant share in many of the NFL markets and technology continue to progress. And just like we disrupted the Rolodex in yellow pages, others came and started disrupting us Yelp, Google, whatever everything Google does. And so, you know, we kinda took a milking strategy the last several years of our concierge's existence.
And one of the factors you mentioned, obviously, Tom, is that there are disruptive technologies. In addition to that, luck, a lot of times plays a role in it with these outside events and circumstances, as we've also been experiencing over the past year, some of it is business decisions that people make.
Some of it. Is totally outside of their control. So obviously you grew the organization and succeeded for as long as you were able to. Now I know in addition to the business success that you've had, you've also been really active in giving back to the community and take special pride in your involvement with the Chinese youth club and Maplewood Youth Football. Can you tell me a little bit about those two organizations and why you've been so passionate about them?
Sure. So the Chinese youth club has been around since 1939 lion dancing, basketball. We host a volleyball tournaments every six, seven years.
That's a North American in scope, but the Chinese youth club helps to, inwardly within the community build and nurture the confidence of Chinese American youth.
We've had kids coming into our programs that destitute or, in the lower incomes in Chinatown streets, but they find that, there's a sense of belonging here.
I can play basketball and that's something that I can be proud of. And, Oh, and I love doing line dancing. It's part of my culture and, you know, they go on to become very contributing parts of a greater American society.
I mean, from just the basketball side alone, we probably had 20, 25, 30 basketball players ascend into college ranks from de Matha all the way up into colleges, and we had a kid that, that got on to the Nike commercial several years ago. And just on and on and, it's not just the thing that they do on the basketball court or volleyball court or under a lion head. It's what we encourage them to do in the classroom and in the community is to take that sense of pride, reach back and, and bring a couple of kids with you.
And so I became president of Chinese Youth Club several years ago. And we continue to build things like the McDonald's education workshop, where we're showing not just Chinese kids, but all kids you know, how to prepare yourselves for that journey into the right college for you, and, Oh, you know what, maybe you decide that.
It's a junior college for now, or, you know, maybe you're you got the wherewithal to get to Harvard right away. But whatever that journey is, you know, match it to you, challenge yourself, do what you can fill your resource bucket and go and go get it. And I mean I love reaching back out to these kids.
There's one kid I remember had a Chinese new year's parade. He's down there helping us set up the stage and he goes, Hey Hey Tom, I'm gonna take a 10 minute break. And cause I just got a quick idea on, an app that I got a code and looked at him. And so he goes off to some stairway or half a block away, pulls out his laptop and he's coding a little module for an app.
Six months later, he's posting on social media. Oh, I just won $10,000 scholarship at university of Maryland for my app I'm like good gracious, you know, and, and that's what fills me and continues to fuel me in supporting these kids, and I'm like, man, if we can just have this stuff catch fire.
So the Chinese youth club is really. I mean there's generations. There there's grandfathers that were in it from 1939 and now it's their grandkids and great-grandkids but it's not just remembering our cultural pass in our community, but it's sparking the future paths of all these other people.
And that's really what drove me to CYC. Maplewood football. That's another organization. It's been around for about 60 years. It's here in Bethesda, Maryland. People probably know this one kid that came out of Maplewood football. He started a little company that you may be aware of Under Armor.
That guy played winter football at Maplewood before there was under Armour, winter gear. So his mom put them in these flannel long sleeve shirts under his blue and white Jersey. And then he went out and competed and that showed up in one of his commercials a few years ago. We'd put Maplewood on the map, of course, but maple wood football.
So I played football in high school, but I never played before that. My first season, I was a lost little fat Ninja. Okay. I didn't know what to do. God, man, I'm not meant to play football. So that reminded me when you know, I had started having boys and kids, if I'm going to get them in that, I'm going to get them in early.
And so I got my older son in the first year. And I volunteered running concessions, but then when my second son got ready to play, I started volunteering coaching and I reflected back. It might one of my first sports teams, I think it's second or third grade. It was an oyster elementary and we were playing baseball.
I never played baseball before. I got my first baseball glove is breaking it in and they started hitting pop flies out to the outfield. And the coach said yeah, just run and try to catch it. They hit one. It's going over my head and I'm running as fast as I get my fat little butt out to the outfield.
And I look over and I see the ball coming in and I put my glove out and I caught it and I get this rousing applause from the coaches, because most of the kids weren't catching it. And, you know, I just got lucky. I caught my first ball and that carried me. I still remember that catch today, but then I remember, you know, what, that's what I got instilled in these kids. At Maplewood football. So every little success we would stop and say, that's what I'm talking about. That's how you come up and close on a lot.
Cause you never know what little spark, what little taproom ahead, what little, Hey, that was a good job, can then go on and, be the catalyst. To help a kid get from seven years old and meek and, lack confidence, to God is doing so many things.
And that's really , what continues to encourage me about volunteering with whether it's CYC or, Maplewood football or running the Chinese New Year's parade every year, to finding interns that we can give an opportunity to. And, and, you know, it always hearkens back to younger kids.
Not that older people can't learn, but, you know, I love seeing the journey that young guys take, and if I can be a part of helping them stay on that path, that's really so much more than any kind of compensation or value, it just means so much to me.
You have truly been a big part of that path and including for some of the, not so young guys getting a chance to participate in the Chinese new year parade and enjoy that too, Tom, as my family and I did now, I also understand that you are a closet rapper.
So I don't know if I really believe that Tom, are you really able to rap?
So, you know, I grew up in that time my brothers and I, we loved all those early dudes, from MC hammer and run DMC and one day coming back from a volleyball tournament in New York, driving home, my brother and I wrote our first rap song.
And it was about Oh, it was called, carry it out. And, you know, we were thinking about our formative days working at my grandfather's carry out Chinese restaurant. And we put our first raps together. So that's It was it was a Friday 12, and that was easy with my brother when we stop buying coat.
Looked at each other acid brother beat up. He said, your brother Chiba, can you chill for a chair for a tiny child stock? Well, I'm not quite hungry, but of course, little brother to grab the chopsticks. It was a path and size or order at a favor, right? Join the hop, sing palace.what we, you know, we were just trying to emulate what we were hearing on the radio and.
You know we actually did lay down some recordings and done a few gigs, but nothing too serious, but yeah. closet rapper.
You are absolutely magnificent at it. And I love hearing you rap Tom. That's fantastic. So when you were asked to give advice to younger leaders, or if you were to give advice to a younger Tom, what would you tell them to do as they aspire to be as impactful as you have been throughout your career Tom?
So one thing that's very important is building your network. And I think I was a little bit late to that game. I probably only started after college. But I, guide my kids that, you know, you got to start building your network immediately. The guys that you play ball with, they look and see, who's tough.
They look and see who's, who's magnanimous. Who's helping the other kid off the ground. Okay. They see how you treat people and when you guys all grow up in 20 years, you can look around and say, I'm going to start this company. I'm looking around for, who's going to be, I can trust who I can lean on. I've started companies and that's the first thing.
Can I trust this guy? Do I believe in what he can do? Does he have the grit to go to war with me? So building that network, but I also told my kids guarantee, guys, everything you do, you're on an interview, whether you know it or not, it might be your, piano teacher.
And they say, wow, this kid really does work hard. It might be a coach. It might be a teacher. It might be a friend you're always on an interview. Cause people are tucking away in their brains and their memory. Wow. That kid really made an impact on me. I'm going to remember that. And you, you know, so when we start to think back, well, who do we want to pull into this volunteer group or who we'd like to align ourselves with in this venture?
That's what we do. We're looking back and saying, Hmm, who have I interviewed? Well, that interview is for me. It's, you know, it's a lifelong thing. I counsel my kids and nurture them and guide them and, and their friends and my nephews and nieces, I'm like, always on the interview build your network, people always watch.
So , that's kind of the overarching guidance. I would tell a younger Tom Fong is start building your network immediately, and know that everybody's watching. And it'll pay off at some point, it'll pay off.
That is magnificent advice, Tom.
Now, in addition to that, are there any leadership resources you find yourself recommending for people wanting to become more effective
So I was given a book many, many years ago probably early in my professional career. Seven habits of highly effective people. I love that series. And that's a book that I encourage just about anybody to read.
I even sent a copy to my teenage nephew. It was seven habits of highly effective teenagers, but I think that whole construct and guidance within that book very good. So that's one book I would and resource, I would highly recommend.
Oh, those are all great recommendations, Tom.
And most importantly, I think your life example. Is a great example for leaders, whether it's with respect to the entrepreneurship that you have shown from early on in life and the hard work that you've put into it with respect to the community involvement that you've had and giving back to different organizations and even being a champion for the community here in the greater Washington DC region, you are continuing to be an impactful leader, which is why I truly appreciate you joining me in this conversation, Tom Fong.
Mahan. Thank you for everything you do. You're definitely one of the straws that stirs the drink, man. And I'm glad to have met you through a leadership, greater Washington, another awesome organization.
There's a lot of work to do, but I'm hopeful, I'm excited to partake in, the challenges that we have in front of us. And we know we have a lot of challenges, but we gotta step up as leaders to organize, assemble, catalyze, and ignite a movement for change and for progress. And that's where I'm at, man.
Stronger and better together, Tom, when I stand up and speak for you and you stand up and speak for your sisters and your sisters, stand up and speak for the rest of us. That's how we are going to become stronger. Thank you so much for the leadership you are showing my friend.
Amen, brother. Love you. Love everything you're doing.
And thanks for the opportunity, man.