- Kim and Vanessa Pham founded Omsom to start conversations about Asian food and culture in the US.
- The first-gen Vietnamese American sisters left careers in VC and consulting to start their business.
- They said starting Omsom has allowed them to express themselves to the truest extent.
In Vietnamese, the phrase “om sòm” means loud and rambunctious — two qualities Kim and Vanessa Pham say describe not just their personalities but also the brand of their company.
Omsom sells food starters that pack together sauce, aromatics, and seasonings for traditional Southeast and South Asian dishes like spicy bulgogi and lemongrass barbecue. Given the vibrancy of the flavors and the eye-popping packaging, you’d never know the Pham sisters used to be working stiffs: Kim in venture capital and Vanessa in consulting.
“I wanted my work to feel like I’m building the world I want to see,” Kim told Insider.
Kim, 29, and Vanessa, 27, represent a class of millennials who have recently left stable, full-time jobs for entrepreneurial pursuits — since 2020, over 8 million new businesses have been started in the US. In the year and a half since Omsom’s launch in May 2020, the company has sold over 800,000 starters, acquired 55,000 customers, and sold out of inventory 10 times, according to Kim and Vanessa. (The cofounders declined to share exact revenue figures.)
Part of the motivation for the career change, they said, was feeling “pigeonholed into the model-minority myth as Vietnamese Americans,” Vanessa said, referring to the stereotype that Asian Americans must be hardworking and, as Vanessa said, “submissive or docile.”
It also emerged from a desire for purpose, Kim said, and developing a mission that can reshape culture and national dialogues — something neither could find in a regular 9-to-5. While both agree the experience has been harder than they expected, in many ways, they say, it’s been even more fulfilling.
Building a business inspired by the first-gen experience
Growing up as first-generation Vietnamese Americans and children of refugees, Kim and Vanessa were raised with their parents’ “stories of their struggles, their sacrifice, and what they worked hard for,” Vanessa said.
As the oldest daughter, Kim had experiences, such as going through the American school system, that were firsts for her family. “I think my reaction to feeling really different all the time was, ‘All right, lean into it,'” said Kim, who began working in early-stage startups at 16.
She left her family in Boston to attend New York University, then moved to Europe after graduation to work at an early-stage venture fund, where she was a Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe recipient in 2017.
While Kim was more open to risks, Vanessa thought making her parents proud meant seeking the most obvious or traditional markers of success. After graduating from Harvard University in 2016, she joined Bain & Company as a management consultant. Still, she knew she wanted a career more aligned with her values.
At the end of 2018, after observing a shift in American dialogue around Asian stories and flavors, the sisters quit their full-time jobs. They spent the next 12 months working on an idea for a business centered on being “proud and loud” about Asian food and Asian stories, which is how they landed on the name Omsom. Never mind that they had no connections in the food industry.
One by one, the sisters spent the first months sending cold DMs and emails, launching a newsletter, distributing products, and even knocking on the doors of prominent tastemakers and chefs, asking them to partner with Omsom. The chef Jimmy Ly, of New York’s Madame Vo restaurant, was the first to take a chance on the pair, Vanessa said.
“He’s Vietnamese, and he treated us like family,” she said. “It’s a really special memory of him being like, ‘I’m in.’ That’s where it all turned for us.”
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Vanessa said they wanted to launch in May 2020 because they felt Omsom “would be able to resonate even at a time as wild as the pandemic.” They sold out in 72 hours.
“People got really excited to see a brand that was first of its kind,” Kim said.
It was “really proud and loud, unapologetically Asian,” she added, saying Omsom is “really about this larger cultural movement happening around Asian Americans.”
What Omsom means for them
Starting Omsom wasn’t just about quitting their jobs to start a company; it was a way for the sisters to express themselves to the truest extent, said Vanessa, who was named a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient in 2021 for cofounding Omsom.
In the consulting world, Vanessa said she often felt silenced. “My voice as a Vietnamese American woman wasn’t being heard,” she said. “I felt if I tried to fight for that, it would take many years, and there’s a high chance that my values and my worldview would be shaped by that structure and culture.”
Her career path going from a “safe” corporate job to working on something more deeply aligned with what she cares about in the world was a way for her to shift away from the survivorship mentality that she said follows many people, especially children of immigrants and refugees.
For Kim, working next to founders in venture capital was fun, but it wasn’t the same as being able to start something closer to home.
“It’s so hard, but nothing you do can prepare you for it,” Kim said. “You almost might as well take the leap when you still have the energy and the time. I’m really glad we did it in our 20s.”