We first met when he was the volunteer MC for UNDP Lao PDR’s Youth Innovation Challenge 2022, and then I had the chance to hear his story as we cycled next to each other for 45 minutes, back to the city. The benefits of cycling ;)
Coming from a poor family in Savannakhet, Emmer always had to find ways to pay the school fees by himself. His classmates hated doing the art homework. He jumped on the opportunity: he did all his classmates’ art homework and charged 5000 KIP (0.28 $US) for each drawing.
Drawing after drawing, he became really good at it, and started to aim bigger. Shoot for the moon because even if you miss, you will land among the stars, right? In 2019, he went to pitch himself at every restaurant in Savannakhet’s Night Market, asking if they needed anything to be drawn or painted. And then… a Thai restaurant offered him 5000 THB (140 $US dollars) to paint Savannakhet’s Dinosaur Roundabout on a mural. He paid his school fees, gave the rest to his family, and kept a small part to invest in himself.
He knew that to get better opportunities in life and to be able to support his family, he needed to find his way to a university in Vientiane. To study at university, he needed a scholarship. To get a scholarship, he needed to speak English.
Every day after school, he would head back to the Night Market, and speak with all foreigners to practice English. It didn’t work so well - he realized that foreigners don’t like to be annoyed in the street by strangers. So he changed his strategy: he entered a random Lao restaurant, and asked the owner: “Can I help you with anything, for free? In exchange, I just want to speak with foreigners to improve my English”. Deal.
He started by cleaning the tables, chit-chatting with the customers as he moved around the restaurant. He was quickly ‘promoted’ to being a waiter: taking orders, chit-chatting, serving the food, chit-chatting, giving the bill, chit-chatting. His trick? He would ask every customer to repeat their orders in order to grasp the correct pronunciation.
One day, Emmer struck up a conversation with a British customer.
“What’s your dream?” he asked.
“My dream is to study business at university so that I can sell products of my hometown to the world, and improve the life of my family and my community. But I first need to find a scholarship because I cannot afford university by myself”, Emmer answered.
After a silence, the customer continued: “Oh, I used to teach at the Lao-American Institute. Let me check with the dean there if they have any opportunity for you. Can I get your contact?” Serendipity.
The week after, Emmer received a message:
“Can I have your CV?”
“Of course brother… But what is a CV?”
“Oh, I can help you with that, let me give you a call”.
“Emmer, we have an offer for you. We can give you a full scholarship for the Major of Business & Management. Also, we’d like to offer you a part-time job at the institute’s library, which will allow you to receive a small salary and a room on our campus”.
At the library, he had access to the library’s computer, and self-taught himself Photoshop, because “I will need a logo for my business!”, and then self-taught himself video editing, because “I will need a nice introduction video for my business!”, and also photography, because “I will need beautiful photos of my products!”. He also painted the Institute’s logo on the library’s wall. Closing the loop.
When I met him, he was volunteering with dozens of projects, taking every opportunity he could to meet new people, develop new skills, and support the community. He was helping local organizations with graphic design, video editing, photography, translation, or just anything possible to be helpful and learn new skills - I met him as an MC, because “I need to improve my public speaking skills to pitch my business!”.
And now, he’s unstoppable, achieving some of his wildest dreams: joining programs and studying abroad, and working with an international organization. He’s been selected for the UNLEASH 2-week fully-funded program in India, for the UGRAD 5-month exchange program in the US, and for an internship at UNDP Lao PDR’s Responsible Business team.
What’s even better? He goes around every school and university to share his experience and encourage youth to grab these life-changing opportunities - he knows best how transformative they can be ;)
His story made me reflect: if Emmer started a conversation with you at the Night Market, sharing his dreams and aspirations, would you be his first believer, dismiss him, or simply ignore him?
Being someone’s first believer can go a long way - no need to promise a scholarship, but you can always contribute in your own way. Share an opportunity, an app, a YouTube channel or whatever helpful, or just listen to and connect with their wildest dreams, ask powerful questions, without judgement, but excitement.
The next time you meet an 'Emmer' in your life, remember the power of encouragement, belief and listening. Do not destroy someone’s hopes and dreams, because sometimes, hopes and dreams are the only things someone has. Instead, nurture them, believe in them, and just be kind 💚