From refugee camp to New York City: An entrepreneur’s tale

For fashion entrepreneur Monica Phromsavanh, the pathway to success started in the camp for Laotian refugees in Argentina where she was born and spent her first years.

She was a hard charger even as a child, never letting poverty or family difficulties discourage her. She came to the United States at 17, worked for upscale clothing retailers and rose rapidly up the management ladder, helped by mentors impressed by her keen sense of style and business acumen.

She launched a successful bricks-and-mortar clothes shop of her own in New York and then came up with the idea for ModaBox, an e-commerce enterprise offering personal styling advice and shipping stylish garments to customers to try on before purchasing.

Business is booming, with revenues topping $3 million in its third year. The 34-year-old Phromsavanh recently took part in the White House’s United State of Women summit, an event promoting economic empowerment and gender equality.

Now, in addition to expanding ModaBox, she aspires to become a full-time philanthropist and angel investor in other women’s startups.

Be ready to scramble

Phromsavanh has come a long way from the deprivations she endured as a child. She knew early on that if she wanted a better life she would have to scramble for it.

“Business is the same thing. You’re going to struggle a lot, but sometimes when you have no choice, you work a lot harder,” she says. “When everybody else was taking a nap, I was working.”

When running a business, problems always crop up. But it’s important to look at the big picture, she advises.

Mentors can be a big help in moving forward, she said. “I’m not saying refugees should forget their past, but look for opportunities to surround yourself with successful people so you can mirror them and do what’s going to drive you farther.”

That’s good advice for all budding entrepreneurs, especially during Global Entrepreneurship Week, taking place November 14–20 with a record 35,000 events and competitions in more than 160 countries.