Updated: April 10, 2 p.m.
After decades of hustling to make a living to support everyone’s needs but her own, Gigi Nguyen has settled in at what she calls her “baby,” The Nail Bar on Fremont Avenue in Los Altos’ Loyola Corners.
Nguyen signed the lease for her first salon – which offers nail services, facials and waxing – last June after working as a nail technician downtown for 15 years. With support from her clients and fellow technicians Tanya Le, Susan Truong and T-Mai Nguyen, women whom she considers her sisters, she was convinced by her client and startup investor Jocelyn Goldfein that this was her opportunity to do something for herself.
“She told me, ‘I will help you. I will give you a loan,’” Nguyen said of Goldfein’s encouragement. “I just broke down crying, and I said, ‘Thank you for believing in me,’ and she said, ‘I see it in you.’”
However, just like bearing a baby, bringing her business concept to life presented challenges, according to Nguyen.
First, a contractor who spent three to four months renovating the space at 981 Fremont Ave. – slowly, Nguyen added, as he and his workers took as many days off as they spent on-site – lied to her about how much electrical and plumbing work was needed and attempted to cover up the mess with sheetrock. Then, Nguyen installed what she thought were Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant doors and windows, only to have a city inspector inform her that they were not up to code.
Nguyen was devastated when her contractor abandoned the project; she had paid five months’ rent only to have it sit empty, a complete wreck. Tom and Mary Rees, her clients-turned-friends, looked at the space and sent over their contractor Mark Torres, who rescued the project and finished it two months later – just in time for Valentine’s Day. Nguyen's mentors and friends Nickhil Jakatdar, Sudnya Shroff and Melinda Mandell helped support her through interior design choices.
It may sound like a lot to overcome, but Nguyen is no stranger to adversity. She was lucky, she said, when Goldfein and the Reeses reminded her that she had triumphed in much tougher battles.
Life as a refugee
As a child, Nguyen attempted eight times to escape from communist Vietnam. The first three or four times were with her parents and the rest of her family. By the eighth and final time, she was alone, below deck in a fishing boat for two or three days at age 11 with just a piece of gold her mother had given her in her pocket.
About halfway through the boat’s journey in 1986, the nearly 100 people aboard learned that all food and water had run out. They sat together and prayed in total darkness, Nguyen recalled. Finally, she said, a “big German ship” came and rescued the refugees. The crew greeted Nguyen and her shipmates with apples and water.
“I could never forget that apple,” Nguyen said. “It was so good. It basically saved my life, everybody’s lives.”
The refugees were taken onto the ship and transported to a Malaysian camp. Without connection to family members in another country, such as the U.S. or Canada, people sometimes lived at the camp for months or even years, Nguyen said.
Nguyen was more fortunate; her uncle had fled from Vietnam shortly after her second birthday and volunteered to be her sponsor. She spent seven and a half months among the minors of the camp before she traveled to San Jose, where her uncle and her grandfather lived.
As a new student here, Nguyen remembers learning English in middle and high schools and having all of the quintessential American experiences without the guiding hand of a parent. She served carnival food from trucks at the San Jose fairgrounds every weekend once she became of age to sponsor her own parents. Approximately five years after she arrived in the U.S., her parents were granted sanctuary.
Things did not necessarily get easier then. Nguyen tried attending college and working at the same time, but she was responsible for financially supporting herself. She dropped out to take a job as an AT&T telemarketer.
Nguyen was married at 25 and had two children: a daughter, now a 19-year-old chemistry major at University of the Pacific in Stockton, and a son, a 14-year-old eighth-grader who loves basketball. When her husband was injured at work, she became her family’s sole provider.
“I was working six, seven days a week for 10 to 12 hours a day to support my family because I regretted I did not finish college, to do what I really wanted to do,” Nguyen said. “I’ve been telling (my children), ‘Please don’t follow my path. Education is the most important thing.’”
Fifteen years ago, Nguyen began doing nails with no prior experience. Her first manicure took two hours to complete, she admitted with a chuckle.
Now, all she wishes for The Nail Bar are happy customers and happier employees.
“This place is not only for me,” Nguyen said. “I want everyone to come here to work happy. I put myself into (my technicians’) situation, because that is (where I) came from. … I only have two hands, so I am grateful to everybody for helping me.”
For more information on The Nail Bar, call 797-8779 or visit thenailbarlosaltos.com.