Tony Duong’s mission to help immigrant students achieve the American Dream
By John Kregler, StartOut
Tony Duong (he/him) knows that identity is one of his biggest strengths.
He’s never wavered from embracing his authentic self in entrepreneurship. In fact, Tony will tell you to this day that being an out, Asian founder makes him all the more formidable.
Tony is the co-founder and CEO of Career Pass Institute, the personalized virtual job search coach & agent that supports immigrant college students making their workforce transition. He’s also a graduating founder of the StartOut Growth Lab’s 9th cohort — a group that undeniably represents the future of queer entrepreneurship.
As part of our celebration of AAPI Heritage Month, Tony spoke with us about his life story, the trials and tribulations of launching a startup, and the importance of keeping your passion at the center of everything you do.
How’d you become so interested in entrepreneurship, Tony?
I was born and raised in Vietnam, and I had a very traditional Vietnamese upbringing. We came from a modest family where my parents worked hard to support the household. When I was 17, a relative living in the US encouraged me to study in America. I followed their advice and enrolled in school in Salt Lake City.
About three months after I moved, my father passed away. It wasn’t until one year later that my family told me about his passing, and that entire experience transformed the way I think, act and work to this day.
After graduating, I noticed it was hard to find a job. The complexities of being an international job-seeker and finding employers who offer a work visa are extremely difficult. Eventually, I got a job with EY as a management consultant in New York.
After a few years of working in the consulting industry, I had the opportunity to be involved with our firm’s campus recruiting at the University of Pennsylvania. I then realized my joy and passion for recruiting and coaching minority students.
And that’s when you decided to launch your own company?
That’s right. I took some time between various consultant roles to dive into my passions. I knew from personal experience how hard it was to land my first job in the states after coming over from Vietnam, and I knew it was something I could help other international students with.
We launched Career Pass Institute in early 2018 to address the real issues immigrant students face. Learning a skillset from an American university isn’t enough anymore. We have to prepare our students with the technical knowledge and know-how to land that first job or internship, regardless of where they come from.
Nearly all of our students know English as a second language. Competing with other job-seekers means preparing folks to speak in an interview and online in an email. It’s hard work, but being able to help a fellow international student land their dream job makes it worth it. We are proud that 90% of our students work at the top 500 Fortune companies such as Google, Amazon, Meta, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, etc.
How has being an entrepreneur affected you personally?
To start, it’s given me a ton more flexibility in life. When I worked for larger corporations, I was getting used to working tiresome weeks. I traveled for work a lot which meant I was out on Monday morning, back home on Thursday night, and spent minimal time in my own bed. Today, I operate a fully online, fully remote business that allows me to work hard still and make money and have time to enjoy myself.
I also find way more meaning in my work. At first, it was hard to convince those around me that my work was worth it. I have a typical Asian mother who thought entrepreneurship would be too taxing and that maybe a steady-income job would be better for me. But all these years later and all these students we’ve helped show me that I made the right decision.
What was it like navigating your launch as an out Asian entrepreneur?
Even when I was in school, I knew that I couldn’t identify with many other people. Entrepreneurship is very similar. Not many entrepreneurs look like me, sound like me, act or live like me, and it can make you feel alone.
But the great news is that there are a million organizations and support systems that want to help people like you or me. I was introduced to Out For Undergrad, which helps educate and connect LGBTQ+ students, when I was in school. I joined the Y Combinator Startup School and found a ton of support. The more I gained from these organizations, the more I knew I wanted to help give back.
In recent years, I discovered StartOut and knew that they were the organization I needed to be involved with. I remember watching the Growth Lab Graduation ceremony where Maca from Avocademy talked about all the great work they’ve done through the Growth Lab. I felt moved and inspired, and I knew I wanted to do it.
I applied for the next cohort three days later and got accepted. The Growth Lab has been a transformative experience for me and CPI. Chris helped guide me in a way where I’ve focused more time on long-term strategy rather than quick sales to make a profit. The 18-month plan has revolutionized my vision, and the entire cohort has inspired me.
What advice would you give to other AAPI founders looking to break through the startup ecosystem?
The most important thing is to recognize your power as an Asian entrepreneur. If you have a scalable idea that you’re passionate about, don’t let anything stop you from going after it. It’s easy to feel imposter syndrome a bit. After all, most people can’t see us in business roles beyond owning a storefront, and they need to see us in places like entrepreneurship.
Build meaningful connections and relationships. There will always be someone ahead of you by a few years or maybe working in a similar industry. Learn from them. The more we can take from the people who’ve walked the walk before us, the better.
Find organizations that support your existence in entrepreneurship, like StartOut. They’ll take you far. Lastly, always be motivated by your mission, not the money. The money will come if you do what you’re supposed to, but don’t let it distract you.
I’m excited to see more Asian entrepreneurs emerge in the coming years, especially LGBTQ+ ones. The more we talk about and share our stories and experiences, the easier it’ll be for the next generation. And after all, it’s all about them.