Atom Nguyen: building sustainable solutions from Vietnam to New York City
By John Kregler, StartOut
May 1st marks the beginning of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, about 9.9% of all businesses in the United States, or about 1 out of 10 businesses, are Asian-owned. The numbers for Asian entrepreneurs are even slimmer.
As part of our goal to increase intersectionality within entrepreneurship, we’ve reached out to several AAPI and LGBTQ+ founders in the StartOut world and asked them to share their stories — beginning with Atom Nguyen.
Atom (he/him) is a long-time StartOut member and the co-founder and COO of TômTex Co., a sustainable textile development company in New York City. Atom’s life story, growing up in Southeast Asia and studying in the Bay Area, helped shape him into the founder he is today.
Atom, can you tell us how you got interested in sustainability?
I was born in Vietnam and spent my childhood there and Singapore. Growing up, I saw a lot of production pollution around me, and food packaging was particularly wasteful, with plastic littering the streets.
Even as a young child, I saw the effects. I remember thinking, ‘why aren’t we using rice paper bags instead of plastic ones for groceries?’ But at the time, I didn’t know there was anything I could do about it.
After getting an exchange student scholarship, I moved to the Bay Area for high school. I learned about US culture and the startup scene at Santa Clara University where I got degrees in Economics and French Literature. I got my first tech job with Apple shortly after and did some work for a neuroscience technology startup.
And that’s when you decided to launch TômTex?
Yes! I met my best friend Uyen Tran, my co-founder and our CEO, and realized we both had a passion for sustainability. She had similar experiences growing up in Vietnam and witnessing pollution, especially in textiles production.
We started to throw around sustainable business ideas for fun, but it wasn’t until she was in graduate school that we found something tangible to grab on to. Her thesis project centered around sustainable textile development and received positive feedback from the school and VCs. We came together to figure out how we could launch an honest company.
SOSV — one of the most prominent biotech investors in the field — came to us and said they’d back us, so we leaped.
How did you find the resources needed to launch a biotech startup?
We started by talking to many different investors and influencers in the sustainability industry. Moving to New York City was an obvious next step because of its influence on the fashion industry. New York State also offered the opportunity to benefit from incentive programs targeting founders in the city.
We were featured in sustainability and fashion awards, and many major holding companies like the LVMH and Kering reached out to us, saying they wanted to help us grow the team.
It was incredible to get support early on from these big brands and organizations like StartOut. Friends of mine from San Francisco suggested I join the community, and I’ve been able to benefit so much from the connections. Now I’m serving on the programming board because I’m passionate about helping give back.
What issues have you faced in entrepreneurship?
I’m not sure many founders look or sound like me. I’m Asian, gay, an immigrant, and English is not my first language. The investment community is still pretty conservative and full of older white men. It’s hard to pitch to someone when and persuade them in a way that makes you seem believable.
When we were pitching TômTex over Zoom at the height of the pandemic, I noticed how some investors looked at me or reacted to the things I was saying. They asked particular questions that made me feel like they were skeptical of my co-founders and me.
How did you manage to move past challenges?
I learned early on about the importance of creating a support system. Being an entrepreneur is learning how to take rejection, but that can’t keep you from reaching out to people. You still have to open yourself up to others and take risks. Let people know who you are and what you need. If you get turned down, that’s their loss.
Finding a community of founders, like the one at StartOut, is also super important. Your loved ones might not be able to fully understand what you’re going through, but an entrepreneur in a similar industry or position will.
Do you think your experience as an Asian founder helped shape you for the better?
I certainly think so. Growing up in the Bay Area gave me the confidence I needed as a gay Asian man to believe in myself and my abilities.
We use the term ‘bamboo ceiling’ to describe how difficult it is for AAPI business professionals to break through to the corporate world — especially the C suite. And it’s a real thing that my co-founder and I still encounter every day.
Most people are used to seeing Asians in engineering or data scientist positions, not as entrepreneurs. But it’s important not to let that get in our way. We have to succeed. We have to make it so that Asian founders, executives, and leaders aren’t a novelty and we’re just the norm.