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Julien Pham On Leveraging His TCK Identity To Elevate Others’ Value

Julien Pham, MD, MPH

Do you remember the first time you walked into your high school cafeteria and had to decide where to sit? Few moments are more infamous for inducing teenage social anxiety. 

For newly arrived French-Vietnamese student Julien Pham, this moment was deeply unsettling.

Decades later, he still remembers.

Photo by Antor Paul on Unsplash

I chatted with Julien Pham, MD, MPH, Founder and Managing Partner of Third Culture Capital to hear how he learned to leverage his TCK identity.

A child of post-war Vietnamese refugees, young Pham and his family emigrated from Vietnam to France, where his mother held citizenship. He spent his formative years living in Paris as “the Asian kid.”

Pham recounts, “In French society, there is a strong sense of assimilation within the culture. If you speak the language well and play soccer with the others, you’re pretty much a French kid. Yet I looked different. As many Third Culture Kids know, you are a certain way with your friends at school and the minute you walk through the door of your home, it’s a different culture. I would come home from school and ask my mom, ‘Why am I not white? Why do we have to eat these foods? Why do we have to do things differently?’ I remember my mom telling me I should be proud of my cultural heritage and the fact that I spoke two languages.”

You are a certain way with your friends at school and the minute you walk through the door of your home, it’s a different culture.

When, at age 14, Pham’s parents sent him to Seattle, Wash., U.S.A. to attend high school in English, he experienced a big cultural shock.

“Being Asian-American feels very different from being French-Asian,” Pham continues. “On the first day of high school, I entered the cafeteria and was told, ‘Julian, you’re going to sit at this table,’ which was the Asian table. Next to that, I saw the Latino table, then the African-American table, then the jocks and cheerleaders. It impacted the way I thought about my identity and who I wanted to be. It became extremely difficult and painful to navigate. 

“What made me persevere were the stories my dad told me of his youth and joining the military,” he adds. “I realized if my dad had to go through what he went through, I can tough it out, persevere, and have grit and resilience.”

Julien Pham and his father volunteering in Central Vietnam, seeing patients side-by-side. (Photo courtesy of Julien Pham)

‘THIS IS ME’

Consequently, Pham remained in the United States. From an identity standpoint, he continued to struggle throughout his post-secondary education. Yet, things changed when he got into medical school. 

Pham recalls, “It was around this time that I picked up the ‘Third Culture Kid Bible’ [“Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds” by Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock]. I thought, ‘This is me! This was my upbringing, and these are the people I like to be around.’ That helped soothed a lot of my anxiety for the rest of my adulthood. I told myself that my identity was going to be as a physician. It doesn’t matter what background I have – I’m going to be the best physician I can be.”

Third Culture Kids book
Book, Third Culture Kids, Growing Up Among Worlds by Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock.

That is precisely what he did: Pham became an accomplished and respected physician, just like his father. Yet, his interest in innovation, combined with the self-confidence of being a TCK, led him to explore his identity beyond medicine. 

“I never expected to go into entrepreneurship,” Pham continues, “but life has a funny way of opening and closing doors. It’s been a 30-year journey from seeing the challenges of being [a] TCK to understanding the value. For example, I can easily read the room, navigate different languages and connect with someone that speaks two languages that are different from mine. This helps me understand that I am a global citizen.”

PHAM IS ON A MISSION

Today, with a firm grasp of his own unique assets as a TCK, Pham is on a mission to leverage what TCKs bring to the world. 

In 2020, he became the founder and managing partner of Third Culture Capital (3CC), an immigrant-founded, physician-led, seed-stage venture capital firm. 3CC is focused on emerging health tech and biotech companies led by “Third Culture Individuals” who are often overlooked and underfunded.

I never expected to go into entrepreneurship, but life has a funny way of opening and closing doors.

According to Pham, Being a TCK brings very special skills and privileges. 

“It’s not just about language and culture, but the ability to jump between disciplines,” he says. “For me, I jump from being an academic clinician to being an entrepreneur to now being an investor. This is an incredible advantage. It’s been a long journey to figure this out, but when you understand what you bring to the world it’s a satisfying position.”

Pham and Shan James Saindrenan at a venture capital gathering. (Photo courtesy of Julien Pham)

Many have observed that TCKs are experts at empathy. By leveraging this superpower, Pham and his team are investing in solutions that will improve the lives of those with hidden diversity.

“We can make medicine more human by being more human – by having more time to listen,” he says. “Yet, this is hard in a western environment. I think technology can help us to be more human. That’s what we’re seeking at 3CC – solutions that are going to bring diversity to care delivery and make people feel seen and heard.”

(Photo courtesy of Julien Pham)

For example, Pham says the last company his firm invested in is VoiceItt, a company out of Israel. 

VoiceItt is building voice recognition technology for non-standard speech. Individuals who have had strokes, who were born with cerebral palsy, or who have developed Parkinson’s have a different voice inflection. Consequently, they can’t use standard voice recognition tools like Alexa. VoiceItt helps such people access these tools. 

“When we think about ‘diversity’ we often forget about groups like veterans or people with non-standard speech,” Phan says. “At the end of the day, people are simply asking for a chance to be heard. We want to find technology solutions that can simplify the healthcare process and improve care for everyone.”

A BEAUTIFUL WORLD

So, has Pham’s success erased the painful moments of his past? Not entirely. Yet, by sharing his story, he hopes other TCKs will learn, much sooner, how to leverage the unique and hidden strengths they take for granted.

Pham mentoring Victor Agbafe, 3CC Venture Fellow, on Bridging Equity. (Photo courtesy of Julien Pham)

“I still walk into a room feeling somewhat defensive {about my identity] at first,” says Pham. “When people ask ‘where are you from’ [which can provoke a lot of anxiety in a TCK], I simply respond with ‘Seattle’ – it’s a simple story, and easy to digest. Until they say something that [makes me believe] they want to hear more of the story. That’s when you realize how multidimensional everyone is.

“I would love to one day walk into a room where everyone” expresses their multidimensional selves, he continues. “It’s incredible how diverse the world is, yet we choose not to see the diversity beyond [our assumptions]. If we lived in a society where it was more natural and organic to share our unique lived experiences, it would be a beautiful world.”

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