Interviewsand Articles


Connectivity: A Conversation with Thu Nguyen

by Richard Whittaker, May 30, 2017



Richard Whittaker:  I don’t know a thing about you. Nipun said you’re going to take AT&T down.

Thu Nguyen:  That’s so funny. Where should we start?

RW:  Why don’t we start right here. Where are you, and what are you doing right now?

Thu:  Okay. I have a startup called Flowzo. It stands for Fiber Lines Over Wireless, Zero Obstacles. I've worked at wireless companies like Qualcomm and Telus in Canada, and Marvell. So I’ve been about wanting to connect everyone in the world—connecting people to the Internet.

RW:  Okay.

Thu:  In my first job at Marvell, I was putting Wi-Fi into the first iPhone, and all these consumer electronics at that time. In 2005, 2006, the only devices that had Wi-Fi were laptops and big computers.  Those were kind of my formative years of like, “Hey, you can put Wi-Fi into everything, and now more people can be connected.”    
RW:  So, how do you, “put” Wi-Fi into something?

Thu: It’s the actual, physical Wi-Fi chip that goes into the phone. I helped all these companies around the world do this. 

RW:  How did you help them?

Thu:  I would travel through China, Korea, Japan, France—all those places—to help consumer electronic companies. We’re talking about phones, printers, cameras. I was working at Nikon and Canon. We were putting in Wi-Fi and it was revolutionary. That Wi-Fi chip was the first low-powered chip that could go into these things that were battery powered. It was low-powered enough that you could connect to Wi-Fi and the device would still work for a while.

RW:  Who was making these chips?

Thu: Marvell Semiconductor.

RW:  And you were working for Marvell?

Thu:  Yeah.

RW:  So what was your relationship with the chip?

Thu:  I was called an Applications Engineer. The chip would go on a processor board, and then there would be software to run that chip to transmit data in and out. I would be the one in charge of making sure that chip could work on Android or on IOS.

RW:  Okay. I’m not in tech world at all, so what would you need to know in order to make it work?

Thu:  Both hardware and software. The software side is on the operating system—to firmware level. So very low-level— C programming on the operating system.

RW:  You know C and all that…

Thu: Yeah. I went through computer engineering at Waterloo. They call it the MIT of Canada. So I have a pretty technical background. But then, for example, the first iPhone—they were making like millions of them. There might be a subsection with a hardware problem, like it wasn’t manufactured right, or there was some problem with the hardware. So, “Hey, there’s one failure out of 1,000—or 10,000 or 100,000. So I’d have to look at that and be like, “What failed?” I would work with the hardware teams to figure out what failed. So I had to know RF and wireless.

RW:  What does RF mean?

Thu:  Radio frequencies. There’s Wi-Fi and there’s Bluetooth, and they share the same frequency as your microwave at home. So back in the day, if you were trying to be on your laptop and you had your microwave on, there could be interference just like if you were listening to music on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and there were some radio signals using the same spectrum to communicate, they’d be interfering.

RW:  I see. So you learned computer languages and you know some things about the hardware side of it.

Thu:  Yeah. My specialty at Waterloo was wireless communications.

RW:  What kind of coursework gave you knowledge of hardware, as opposed to knowledge of software languages and so forth?

Thu:  If you want to do programming only, you go to computer science. I was in computer engineering, and they introduce you to both sides. You’re doing chip design; you’re doing analog, digital, RF; you’re doing operating system, and then you’re also making programs on top of that.
     The reason I went to Waterloo for computer engineering, is they have a five-year program. You work for four months and then you have four months of school—for five years. My first term was in IBM, where I learned about e-commerce and mobile.        
     Then I had a term in Vietnam, where I was doing web development. Then I had two terms at Toyota, where I was helping out on the shop floor and building web applications for them. And then the last two terms, I was at Qualcomm in San Diego. That was probably my first time doing wireless for a company. At that time, it was 2G. Right now we’re at 4G. So, 2G was 1xEV-DO for Qualcomm. This was, like 2003? 2004? That was the first time I learned more of like practical knowledge—hands-on, wireless communication.
     Then when I left school, I went to TELUS for one year, which is a big telco in Canada, in Vancouver. During that year the union went on strike and we actually had to fill their roles. I was in a call center helping dispatch installers who were climbing on roofs and poles, and fixing people’s phone lines.
     So I learned a lot more about phone lines—twisted cable pairs and old-school phone stuff and provisioning. I was young and cocky and during that strike, I was like, “Well, I didn’t graduate to work in a call center. That’s when I took a trip down to California, and it’s when I got a job at Marvell.

RW:  I see.

Thu::  So it was about a year in Vancouver, and then I moved down here to Marvell.

RW:  You’d gotten out of Waterloo and at this point, were you like a Ph.D.?

Thu:  No, my God. But I knew all this stuff. That’s the thing that’s different from the US. So companies in the bay area love hiring Waterloo people, because at Waterloo they make us work from first year in real jobs. So we’re more practical and we have such confidence that we know how to do it—even if we don’t.

RW:  That’s a great gift.

Thu: Yeah. Many people from Waterloo never have Masters or PhDs. That’s why we’re cheaper down here. It’s been a good feeder school for all the companies in the Bay Area.

RW:  Okay. So you must really like this subject area.

Thu:  It’s fine. In the beginning, I got myself into a lot of trouble with stress and overwork. Having wireless and connecting the world was the only mission I had in life. And maybe I'm doing it again. That’s why I have the startup today.
     In my last job at TELUS I realized this next network that the big guys are building—AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Google Fiber, and TELUS and Bell in Canada—that it’s so expensive the only way they can make it possible is to put it in rich areas. There’s a study that was just released from Haas Business School that says in California, AT&T’s fiber service is only available in median income areas of over $100,000. The median family income in California is sixty-something thousand dollars.
     There’s a growing disparity now where the Internet was supposed to be an equalizer for everyone. The reason I'm doing Flowzo is because Internet connectivity is going to go the way of cable TV that used to be over the air and free. Then Comcast got their hands on it and paid channels came along.  Now there are thousands of channels for the rich, but poor people only get like ten channels, or maybe even not that. And the new FCC under the new government, is about getting rid of net neutrality that used to make it kind of a fair playing field for people to have connectivity.
     The Internet had benefitted me, and I think taking it away from the have-nots, is not a good thing. So I started Flowzo. All the big telco firms are struggling to put fiber everywhere. So, it’s actually a time that you can go in and do it faster than them by using wireless equipment. Once you do that, at least these people have connectivity, and as time goes on, you can make that network better and better.
     The big guys are so big that even if they made a million dollars off a small city, they don’t care. There’s a stat saying that 75% of the US still doesn’t have fiber today, and that’s the backbone of the next network. That’s going to be the 5G. We came up from 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G.

RW:  And the people that don’t have fiber are out of luck?         
Thu:  Yeah. So, that’s why Flowzo is here. The way I want to build a network around the world, is to have all the hardware, all the software, all the systems, and enable it like an IT in any city that wants to be an entrepreneur. All the millennials, for example, want to work for themselves. It’s like, “Can you stay in your small city, get everyone connected and everyone can participate in the online economy?” That’s my life’s work at Flowzo.

RW:  Where is Flowzo, in terms of its development, at this point?

Thu:  I got into a startup accelerator program last year. A year ago, I came down to the Bay Area. My first business idea was about making hardware boxes that are small and affordable. That was how I was going to reach everyone.  I would do it at a $100 range, whereas most of these things are in the thousands of dollars right now. But I realized that the issue wasn’t a hardware problem.  So, I started Flowzo in November, 2016.
     If you look on Reddit, for example, there’s all these examples of small school towns with students that are like, “Hey, Internet really sucks here and we want to do something about it.” There are all these cities with prestigious engineering schools, like Ann Arbor, Michigan and Lincoln, Nebraska, but they have really bad Internet outside of campus. So there are 19-year-old kids trying to do it on their own. Whereas, I have many years of big telco experience with wireless. So I want to enable these residents to get set up within weeks, not years, and not just sit there waiting for Comcast or AT&T to come.  
RW:  Actually, I just had a problem with my phone carrier and I spent hours just going trough these Kafka-like recorded mazes, getting dropped and looped and starting over and resorting to selecting categories that didn’t actually fit, in hope of reaching an actual person who could help me. Eventually, I did, but it was an ordeal.  

Thu: Because they’re treating you as a billing number. That’s who you are. I think that’s what happens when corporations get bigger—you’re become a revenue generating unit. You’re not a person, and they’re trying to find ways to not talk to you.

RW:  Right. Everything was designed to try and channel me into these little categories that didn’t fit.

Thu:  No. So, that’s like my ethos. “Hey, I want to bring Internet to neighborhoods because there are people there.” I want people to use it to help themselves and each other.

RW:  That’s a big thing if you can actually do something like that, if there’s a sensitivity in your whole business plan of conceiving of people as people.

Thu:  Humans.

RW:  What a revolutionary idea. It seems very funny to say that.

Thu:  Yeah. The way we’re different is we don’t have to do a whole city. We can do specific city blocks, and we’d like to enable a local person, who’s kind of the franchisee for this area. And for them to do well, for us to do well, we have to help our customers do well. So, it’s just a different incentive.
     That’s why I think I can take on the AT&Ts of the world, because I want to make a platform that’s for any community. Any hungry entrepreneur in the community feeling like, “I'm really sick and tired of not having any options here and being treated like a number. I’m going to take it into my own hands, and connect this neighborhood.” And we only need five buildings in a ten-block radius to kind of be profitable.

RW:  Wow, that’s amazing. Can I ask you a little bit about your own background like where were you born?

Thu:  I was born in Vietnam in ’81. Before I was born, my dad had left already. My mom has six brothers and they escaped by boat before I was born. At that time, a lot of people in the South were trying to escape Vietnam and there would be all these horror stories of boats that sank, or boats that had thieves and pirates, and never got to the other side.  I think five of my uncles and my dad left.  

RW:  When they left, were they on a boat?

Thu: Yeah. So my mom and me and my brother, and my grandparents, stayed in Vietnam. My dad went to Australia and my uncles got sponsored to Canada. And when I was three-and-a-half my uncles sponsored us to Canada. So we flew to Canada.

RW:  Good heavens, I have not a clue. I mean, most of us have no concept of the difficulties.

Thu: I don’t remember much about it then. I remember growing up in Toronto, though. I mean we were poor. My uncles sponsored us and we all lived in government housing. It had three-bedrooms—kind of two stories and a basement, There were a lot of us in there, my grandparents, my uncles, me and my brother.  So, that’s how I grew up. From when I was three to when I was in grade six, we were in this terrible area in Toronto called Regent Park. That’s where all the immigrants came.
     There was a lot of gang violence. They’d always make sure someone took us to school. My brother got beat up a bunch of times as a kid. I think me and my brother got into a lot of trouble, because there were turf wars.

RW:  What was that like?

Thu: I was part of the Vietnamese gang.  And there was a black gang, and there were like the Indians. I mean, it’s life on the streets.

RW:  So what kind of trouble did you get into?

Thu:  I was part of a gang. I think when I was in grade one or two, and was on the swings, this black girl pushed me off the swings and I cried. Then these older Vietnamese kids came by and scared her away. I used to skip school with them and we would steal toys at Bargain Harold’s, which is like a dollar store. Some days we just wouldn’t go to school, We’d hang-out and get into fights. This is when I'm in grade four and grade five.

RW:  Oh, my gosh.

Thu: My brother got in trouble for stealing baseball cards and he actually got arrested. I never did. In grade five, my uncles pooled their money and bought a house in a suburb of Toronto, in North York; it wasn’t as bad. So, we all moved—all the uncles, and my mom and my grandparents. So I started grade six in North York.

RW:  How long were you in North York?

Thu: They still live there. I was there until end of high school.

RW:  How was high school for you?

Thu: Academic-wise, I think I was lucky. I was always in those advanced classes. School was really easy for me. I never did homework. The school part was easy. But I got into a lot of trouble because of that.

RW:  What kind of trouble?

Thu: Again with gangs, like I’d date guys in gangs. I didn’t go to school very much because I’d rather work.

RW:  What do you mean?

Thu:  In high school, I got a job close by. First, it was packing and shipping CDs and then I got into web development. So I used to skip school to go to work.

RW:  You preferred work.

Thu:  Yeah. I was always practical. I wasn’t into getting marks for the sake of. It was like, “Okay. What can I do with this? or how do I apply things?” But I was lucky, because at that job, the CEO helped me out and told me to apply to Waterloo in computer engineering. And because my family was poor going to Waterloo was the only way that I could do it without getting much of a student loan, because there you work every four months, so you can pay for school.

RW:  In high school were there any particular courses that you did like?

Thu: Yeah. In junior high school, I was like top marks, like I won all the awards in everything. And then in high school, I won awards in English, as well as in computer science and computer technology. I was pretty good at the tech side of things,

RW:  Did you have science courses like chemistry?

Thu:  Yes. In Canada, we have grade 13. They call it the Asian six-pack, which is like three maths, three science—like calculus, algebra, and what’s the other one? And physics, chemistry and biology. So I took all of them. I mean, there were smarter people in those places, but I definitely was in the top ten. Then when I went to university, I thought I could keep on not trying.

RW:  Because you were used to that.

Thu: Yeah. But it was a rude awakening that first year. I almost failed because I wasn’t trying. I did fail one class, chemistry. Then things changed after that. I was like, “Okay. I have to work.”

RW:  Well, when you got into university and then had to readjust, did you go right into computer science?

Thu: Yeah. Computer engineering.

RW:  And you found it was okay working hard in those fields?

Thu:  It was hard.

RW:  I'm thinking of my own experience, which relates a little to your story. I could do fine without working very hard and then I got to college. I thought I’d be a chem major, because I’d loved in in high school. But then I took organic chemistry. That was hard, and I found out I really didn’t care that much about chemistry.

Thu:  Yeah, I did that.

RW:  So was there something I’d be willing to work at because it was really interesting? Did you find something like that?

Thu: So, no. I think I went into computer engineering because I have this competitive side. And in my application to Waterloo, I said I wanted to connect the world. So I wanted to go to Waterloo to go to Silicon Valley. But I went to school during the dot com bust, too, and there were no jobs in the beginning. So I knew it would help me to go to computer engineering, because it’s high paying, and it’s practical. So I did it for the practicality.
     Looking back at what I was interested in, it was actually English and psychology and the Humanities. But in school, I never even tried any of those things.

RW:  And your vision about wanting to connect the world—where did that vision come from?

Thu:  When I was growing up, my oldest uncle was really into computers. He had an Apple IIsi, and all these Mac products early on. He was doing Photoshop and he would teach me that. So, I was using Photoshop 1.0 and was learning how to program on that first black and white computer we had back then.

RW:  How old were you when you were learning to program?

Thu:  I think we had our first computer when I was in Regent Park, so grade three?

RW:  Wow, that’s amazing.

Thu:  It was just natural. He was always teaching. So in the time before the Internet, there were modems, where you’re dialing at 2400-baud; it was amazing, right? And he actually had a second dedicated phone line before that I’d use to connect to BBS—Bulletin Board Services.

RW:  I remember that.

Thu:  So I would join these Bulletin Board Services. In Canada, they had something called first-class services. I would be part of these communities and I was so excited back then. And when I got connected to these other nerds, I realized there was a whole other world out there. One of the first social networks we had was Asian Avenue in high school; it was all the Asian people, I guess, and I was connecting with people in other schools I never would have met. So there’s a huge power with the Internet, and it’s definitely helped me throughout my life.

RW:  I see. 
Thu: So once I knew about social networks in high school, I wanted to come to Silicon Valley. I wanted to work in these companies that built the Internet.

RW:  It’s kind of amazing to me that when you discovered this thing, you knew where you wanted to go.

Thu:  I mean, I didn’t know. If you asked me if I knew I’d be the CEO of Flowzo and have an advisor who used to be the president of Oracle —it’s pretty cool. But did I plan that a long time ago? No way.

RW:  No. Of course not.

Thu:  There have been a lot of false starts. Like I’ve come to California for Qualcomm and Marvell, and I’ve always gone back to Canada—and actually, I’ll be going back to Toronto to start there next year. As much as Silicon Valley is great and all the money and dreams and amazing people are here, it’s also the most expensive place to do this. In Canada, they want 90% of Canadians to be connected to high speed Internet by 2020, and they’re willing to support startups. It’s like, “Hey, what are all the innovative ways we can get everyone connected?” But in the US under the new FCC, that’s not what they want. They want all the duopoly, the monopoly to continue. Do I want to fight that or do I want to start a startup in a place that’s friendly?

RW:  Yeah.

Thu:  So I look at this world right now and I'm like, there’s a time and place for everything. and right now there are a lot of forces pushing back here. So okay. The exchange rate is better in Canada. You can hire really talented people from Waterloo and not have to pay as much as here, and they’ll still be happy and taken care of.
     Every time I go to Silicon Valley, it’s a mixed bag, because this time I met ServiceSpace and Awakin Circles and Reverend Heng Sure and all these people. It’s been amazing, but also at the same time I need to remember, “Hey, maybe I'm only here to be inspired, so I can help my own country—Canada or Vietnam.”

RW:  Sure. So you just met Nipun and Service Space?   
Thu:  I started coming down a year ago, but off and on. It was amazing, because I've never met other people with a vocabulary for kind of things I already knew inside, but didn’t know how to articulate or express. 
RW:  Nipun is quite extraordinary. One of the things that’s special is the way he’s thought through so many things. Maybe that’s what you’re talking about.

Thu:  Yeah. You know, I'm just really practical and I’ve hustled all my life. I haven’t really questioned why I needed to make money. So it’s been interesting talking to him, because asks a different question—what makes you come alive? How does money serve you? 
     I grew up in this capitalist society, and I'm an entrepreneur. I'm looking for funding and I deal with people who are like, “Okay. How much money are you going to make me? How many zeroes are there?”
     So, in the last six months, it’s been, “Okay, how do I play in this space when you remove money from the equation?” Because at the end of the day, there are economic benefits to people, too. So I don’t know where that middle is. I’m kind of in the middle somewhere.

RW:  Well, we all are somehow, right? I mean, people like Nipun are exemplary, and support us in finding our own paths. And he’s not telling us how to do that, which is so beautiful. So it’s a process, and you’re on your own journey. I don’t know how much how you want to share about some of the difficulties you’ve been through.

TN:  I'm open.

RW:  Okay. Maybe you could talk about some of the things you’ve struggled with and have gotten through.

Thu:  So kind of the beginning of this, and I only learned about it later, was when I was living in North York in my family’s house. There was a big riff between me and my family, and there still is after a long time. It was because I got abused by my uncle when I was in my pre-teen years. I blocked it out. As a child, you block that stuff out. So, there’s a lot of irrational things I would do, like gain a lot of weight to be unattractive. That also led to me focusing on work, so I wouldn’t be home or depend on anybody. I’d have a job in high school.

RW:  Right.

Thu:  Then I would go to university. I think I had this singular focus on career because I didn’t want to deal. I didn’t even know how to deal with that side.

RW:  Right.

Thu:  So I became really unhealthy over everything between the age of 13 to university. I wanted to get out of my house as soon as possible. I only applied to schools that weren’t in Toronto. Waterloo was the best choice because it was a good school and also because I didn’t need any parental support. My brother also left. He was four years older than me. When I left, I wanted nothing to do with my family, ever.
     So in Waterloo, with a sense of freedom of someone who hasn’t fully grown up, I just ate out a lot. I went to Vietnam for a work term. I went to San Diego for a work term. They paid me a lot of money, and then I would eat a lot of bad stuff.

RW:  You put on a lot of weight?

Thu:  Yeah. So, I was very unhealthy. Then I went to Marvell, which was down here, and I was still not grounded. Marvell made me fly everywhere, like China, France, Hong Kong, Japan—all these places. I travelled all the time and I was like, “I love this.” I wanted to explore the world. It was so fun. But I drank a lot; I ate a lot, and I didn’t have a pattern or a routine. I didn’t have a home. So for three years, it was terrible. I mean, I was not in good shape at all. But I was doing cool stuff. So, I just threw everything at that.

RW:  At work?

Thu: Yeah. Then in 2009, the week before my birthday, I ended up in the hospital. I was bleeding uncontrollably. It was like a period, but I was losing my red blood count, and they had to give me blood transfusions multiple times. It was hormone imbalance, diabetes, and I was in the hospital for a few days. They set me up with an endocrinologist to look at balancing hormones.
     I’d say from that point on, it saved me. Because the weekend of my birthday was going to be an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink thing. So I didn’t have to do that.
     For a long time, I escaped a lot of things and just threw myself at work. Anyway, that was the start of my life awakening, I guess. But I still didn’t have anybody around me who could show me anything. So I lost a bunch of weight then, and I learned how to cook.

RW:  How many years ago was your hospitalization?

Thu: 2009. So in 2009 I stayed in California for another six months. I started hiking; I started going to Yosemite; I started seeing California, rather than being cooped up in an office in Santa Clara. I loved it. I was like, “Hey, I like life!” And I thought, “Okay. I better cook. This is fun.” And I wanted to do something new. But unless I stayed at my company, I wouldn’t be able to afford my new preconditions for health.
     So I left California and went to Vancouver for a year where I started a cooking blog called, YouCook, and I started getting quite a following. My whole idea was to have a startup, because iPads were just coming out and I thought, “Okay. Wouldn’t it be cool to have an app where people could buy recipes by the recipe?”
     YouCook was my first journey of getting out of a big company. And I think my ego was pretty big. I was like, “Oh, man. I was amazing at Marvell. I know what I'm doing.” But then how do you make an app? And how do you make money? I had no idea. That was my first time of thinking, “Maybe I need to be humble.”
     So I was there for a year. It happened to be during the Vancouver Olympics. And I started blogging about all the restaurants and food of the different cultures.  And I became “official media.” I had this pass and I could go to all these houses set-up, like the Germany house and the Italy house, the Switzerland House. They would all showcase their chefs and their food.

RW:  How cool.

Thu:  I was burning through money—Vancouver is expensive—so after a year, I moved back to Toronto to home base. So it’s been like a rollercoaster. And back in Toronto, I was a little bit lost. I didn’t know what to do next. I was living at home and hated it.
     Then I thought, “Okay. One last hurrah. I have $5,000 left in my bank account. I’m going to go to Vietnam and learn how to cook my own food.”

RW:  Wow, yeah.

Thu:  I came up with a plan. Kickstarter was new at that time and I thought, “Maybe I'll just put my idea on Kickstarter and go on my trip. If it gets funded, I'll publish a book. If it doesn’t, maybe I'll just do a blog.”
     So, I started something called My Quest for Yummy Banh Mi—that’s a Vietnamese sandwich.  And I went to Vietnam.  My project got funded, and I decided to stay, because it’s cheaper to print in Vietnam. My dad lives in Vietnam now, and I have a half-sister there, too. They hosted me while I was there.

RW:  Was that okay living with them?  
Thu:  It was interesting. My sister is now like my best friend. We have all this distance apart, but she also never needed to try at school. We have a lot in common, I guess. It was amazing to be there with her. My dad and I, our relationship has always been like another complicated mess. He left before I was born and disappeared forever. So it was complicated. I was smoking and still drinking a lot. He just saw me as a bum, like a lost kid. And. He didn’t want me to influence on his daughter. He was scared I might show her the Bohemian or something like that. He tried to kick me out.
     Anyway, I wrote my book and published it. There was a dent in my plan though because I published it in the wrong place. It’s a Communist country, so it has to be approved by the Government.

RW:  I see.

Thu:  I couldn’t ship it out of the country. I made 2,000 copies and it was printed the week before I had to leave. There was just not much I could do. So I called all the places I wrote about and I asked them if they wanted to sell it. They did and, actually, those books sold out in Vietnam. But I saw it as a failure. I had to smuggle books out of Vietnam to satisfy my Kickstarter backers. So I saw it as business fail number two. But looking back now, I go, “It’s pretty cool that I wrote that book.”  I had all these photos and it actually was my first successful startup, because I made a profit on it.      
RW:  It’s interesting that one can feel like a failure, but now when you look back, you can see it really was pretty amazing—the whole thing.

Thu:  It was. I was in the top two newspapers in Vietnam. So that happened. Again, I was eating a lot. But when I came back to Toronto, I jumped into another startup—a friend’s startup—kind of a desperate. last thing before going back to a big company. They couldn’t afford to pay me, but it was a good experience. But I had a big falling out with my friend who had invited me to that startup. And after that, I was sick; this time it was diabetes and cancer and I bled out again. This was in 2012.

RW:  Oh, my god.

Thu:  Yeah. At that time I’d joined TELUS, a big company. It was good, because I had health benefits, and also serendipity. I met up with a friend from university. She’d just returned from Thailand and was a Naturopath. I was getting really sick. I was like, “Can you help me?”
     She said, “Thu, you’re in trouble,” and she took me under her wing.
     We did homeopathy; we did everything under the sun—and a lot of counseling. So that’s when I finally admitted, “I really don’t know how to live.”
     Lily said, “Okay. You don’t have to pay me for the rest of the year. I'm just going to help you.” She helped me a lot. We did it her way.
     The bleeding had to be stopped before they could do scans on my uterus, and after the bleeding stopped, they found what’s called a complex atypical hyperplasia. It’s like pre-cancer and was going to turn into cancer at any time. So the gynecologist, was like, “You need to get a hysterectomy like right now.”  Then I had to fight that. At that time, it really killed me to think about what it meant to be a woman, one without a uterus.
     So, I didn’t listen. I got second and third opinions, and Lily was right beside me explaining all the risks and what I could do.
     I was of the fundamental belief that if you just cut out body parts, your body wakes up and realizes, “Hey, that body part is missing.” Then it has to recover from that trauma, and you’re not even recovered from the original problem. I firmly believe that if you start cutting off stuff and not getting to the root cause, you’ll keep repeating the problem. Then you cut off more body parts. So that’s not a solution.
     I had to sign all these waivers with health insurance of like, “I told you so. You didn’t listen to me. If you die, it’s not our fault.” All that stuff.

RW:  Right.

Thu:  I was like, screw you! Right? So with Lily’s help, I didn’t do a hysterectomy. I didn’t do any of that. We went through a lot of counseling and a lot of naturopath drugs. That whole experience, I would say took three years—learning how to meditate, looking inside, realizing I was abused as a kid. All these layers opened up as I tried everything, I mean, acupuncture, Chi nei tsang, energy healing, angel reading, Egyptian numerology, past life regression. I had a guide who I trusted, not like a woo-woo person, but a Waterloo graduate who is a doctor. She was practical, as well. And obviously it wasn’t about making money, I didn’t pay her. So I did whatever she suggested, because at that time, I was open—like, ”Hey, this is cool. I never knew any of this existed.”

RW:  Is this Lily?

Thu:  Yeah. And we became really good friends. I'm really grateful. Without her, I would have died, or faced a nice steep decline to a non-quality of life.

RW:  That’s incredible.

Thu::  Yeah. So, I was going through that from 2012 to 2015. And I was at TELUS during that time—and doing really cool work, too. And I found a boyfriend. I’d never really had a boyfriend before, because I always chose work. And yeah, I still have a boyfriend. I feel like I got a second chance at life.
     In 2015, I was getting a little restless, because I was sort of healthy again. I’d dug deep and taken all these skeletons out of the closet, right? And I was working in a big corporation that dldn’t care; they treat people like numbers. But once you have a second chance at life, your view changes. You need to use all your time to serve, because, well, why else are you here?
     So that’s been my pull since 2015. How do I use these random skill sets? I have this wireless connectivity background. I have this startup blogging, book publishing thing, and I have had a lot of friends who have supported me. So I quit. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew I wanted to make an impact.
     But first, from 2015 to 2016, I traveled to Vietnam. I did Vipassana. I looked at non-profit stuff. I found Zilong online. Because he wrote about a non-profit restaurant in China.

RW:  Zilong Wang. Right?

Thu:  Yeah. I became friends with him online, and he introduced me to KarmaKitchen. I was thinking I might want to start a non-profit restaurant in Toronto. So, that’s how we became friends. I just let it happen. I took writing classes. I let myself have a year of meditation, yoga, and just exploring. I went to Thailand and did a motorbike trip around this loop called the Mae Hon Son Loop. And I helped out musicians, too. I made Kickstarter projects for this ‘90s pop star named Jennifer Paige from Nashville. She also had cancer and both her parents passed away. So I connected with her at that level.
     Then I helped this restaurant in Oakland, Locol. They had a restaurant in L.A. and opened a second one here. Roy Choi is a famous food truck guy—the Korean taco truck; that’s how he got famous. He wanted to go to food deserts, like Watts, West Oakland, the Tenderloin in SF—places that people avoid, like grocery stores don’t want to go there. So the people who live there are not even nourished. How are they going to help themselves if they don’t even have decent food? So Locol’s mission is to create these restaurants that are cheap, good fast food. And they also employ people from the community, so everyone helps each other.
     Last year, I helped them out with their website and ecommerce and social media.
     I was just open and wanted to help other people with my random skill sets.
     Then my old roommate called me. He was working on this chip and asked, “Hey, Thu, can you help me get into Alchemist?” one of these startup programs. I was like, “Sure. Why not?” Then I became his partner and explored that. But since I’m more mission-based, it wasn’t a fit. So I started Flowzo.

RW:  I see.

Thu:  So, it’s been a rough journey. Maybe what I'm learning is that building a mission-based project that fits my vision could take over a decade. Right? Like this is my life’s work. I’m not looking for people who are just dabbling, or who aren’t aligned in their own life path. Like, if it’s not your life path, why are you wasting your time? Go find what it is you want to do.
     I think if I’ve learned anything it’s that shit happens. And it will continue to happen. You can’t always get what you want. So I think at ground zero when you ask, “What am I supposed to do?” signs do appear if you look out for them.
     I read a book by Anita Moorjani, who is one of my heroes. She also reversed cancer. She was almost like, being in this world is like being in a dark warehouse, and having a flashlight. We can see a little bit, and it’s dark. You bump into walls, you trip over things, and it’s okay; the little flashlight is what you’re armed with in this warehouse.
     There’s been a lot of trial and error in my life. I’ve found the edges of my boundaries, and other people’s boundaries. I know something about how the world works and something about how to be kinder to people. Now how do I serve? 


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor or Parabola magazine.


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