Pauline Nguyen’s story is one that makes you hold your breath.
Just by looking at her and her achievements – successful entrepreneur and businesswoman, prize-winning author, international speaker and co-owner of the most awarded Vietnamese restaurant in the world – you might assume she had a privileged upbringing.
As we enjoy a mouth-watering four-course tasting menu at Pauline’s acclaimed Red Lantern restaurant in Sydney, she immediately proves this assumption wrong.
When Saigon fell to communist rule in 1975, Pauline’s father realised that he had to get his family out of Vietnam. In October 1977, the family of four set off in a tiny, handmade fishing vessel. Pauline was three years old and her brother Lewis was two.
“After nine terrifying days at sea, we landed on the coast of Thailand. For the next year, we lived in a tent inside the Dinh Dieng refugee camp, where my mother gave birth to my younger brother, Luke,” Pauline recalls.
Finally, in 1978, the Fraser government accepted the family into Australia and they were housed at Westbridge Migrant Hostel in Sydney.
“After all we went through, my father suffered from PTSD and my brothers and I were on the receiving end of the violence, anger and abuse – both verbal and physical – that resulted from that trauma,” she explains.
The start of the journey
For Pauline, her entrepreneurial journey began at age seven. “My brothers and I were forced to work in our father’s restaurant before and after school and if we didn’t get good grades, we’d get a beating,” she admits.
“It got to the point where I could no longer accept this was my life – I was depressed and suicidal and so, at 17, I ran away from home. I put myself through university and used my previous experience to work my way up the ladder in some on Sydney’s best restaurants.”
After being sucked into the seductive world of the wealthy elite, Pauline quickly realised that while these successful businesspeople appeared to ‘have it all’, at their core they were deeply unhappy.
It is these experiences that fill the pages of her first book, Secrets of the Red Lantern. The critically acclaimed memoir and cookbook explores Pauline’s challenging upbringing and her desire to create a better future for herself, earning her the title of Newcomer of the Year at the 2008 Australian Book Industry Awards.
“People often ask me if I’m embarrassed to share these stories about my past. My response is, ‘Not at all: that is my story and that is my truth,’” Pauline admits.
“He didn’t go about it the right way, but my father instilled in me a fierce work ethic that has helped me get where I am today. It’s why I was so determined to make something of myself and it’s why Red Lantern has been so successful.”
Founded 17 years ago by Pauline, her brother (and famous TV chef) Luke Nguyen and husband, Mark Jensen, Red Lantern serves up fresh, aromatic Vietnamese dishes in its warm, intimate Darlinghurst setting.
“We have visitors that come from all over the world to try our food. The fact we’ve maintained our popularity all these years is a huge feat given the competitive, fickle and challenging restaurant industry here in Sydney,” Pauline explains.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. In the mid-2000s, when Red Lantern was still in its youth, the Nguyen siblings found themselves working 100-hour weeks to stay afloat. When Pauline developed alopecia due to stress, she realised things had to change.
“It was difficult to relinquish control, but I knew running the restaurant wasn’t something I wanted to commit to full time. Now, I spend Friday and Saturday nights here at the restaurant connecting with my customers, sneakily polishing cutlery and serving food,” she laughs.
“And during the rest of the week – when I’m not spending time with our two children – I’m running around pursuing my passions for inspirational speaking, mentoring and coaching throughout Australia and internationally.”
The Way of the Spiritual Entrepreneur
After adjusting her priorities, Pauline also made the time to write her second book, The Way of the Spiritual Entrepreneur, where she shares her seven secrets to becoming fearless, stress-free and unshakable in business and in life.
The book uses a unique combination of science and spirituality to explore how entrepreneurs can achieve peace, joy, fulfilment and lasting happiness without sacrificing their business, their relationships or their health.
“I’ve always said personal development cannot happen unless personal disruption happens first,” says Pauline. “I completely agree with Elon Musk in that you can only be an entrepreneur if you can’t not be an entrepreneur. It’s an incredibly challenging job and it’s certainly not for everyone.”
Pauline insists the book is nothing like an instruction manual; it doesn’t tell people what to do. Instead, it presents the seven steps that worked for her, and gives readers the opportunity to try them out – but only when they are ready.
“The book meets people where they are in their life and it’s a reference they can come back to time and time again,” she explains.
“We are all in search of happiness and success, but these measures mean different things to different people. My hope is that this book will help transform your life so you can become happy, successful, fearless and unstoppable.”
Click here to get your signed copy of The Way of the Spiritual Entrepreneur.
The CEO Magazine recently sat down with another inspirational businesswoman, Ella Baché CEO Pippa Hallas, who shared insights into her new book and why she’s made it her job to help women feel confident in their own skin.