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Vinh Chung

When you’ve managed to grow a dermatology and skin-care practice to six regional clinics in 12 years, with three more planned in 2021, a little pride might be in order. When you’ve also managed to publish a memoir about a boat escape from Vietnam, which received accolades in 2014, a touch of self-promotion and marketing would be par for the course. 

Vinh Chung instead has kept a sober eye on emphasizing joy and pride in work over arrogance, instilling in co-workers — from surgeons to receptionists — a low-key but powerful sense of worth. In fact, Chung favors integrity and humility over a heavy curriculum vitae, good GPA, or number of published studies when interviewing prospective employees for his Vanguard Skin Specialists clinics. After a prospect arrives, he asks those at the front desk if the applicant smiled and treated every employee with respect. Chung will take them to lunch and reject anyone who is abusive to wait staff. To Chung, respect is the most important aspect in building a team.

Chung was one of 11 children born to a Vietnamese family who joined the “boat people” escaping the country in 1979, right around the time the new unified nation of Vietnam went to war with neighboring Cambodia. The family’s worst experiences came not from Vietnam officials, but from Malaysian border patrols who sent the rickety boat back to sea with the intent of sinking its 93 passengers. The travails were laid out in Chung’s memoir, Where the Wind Leads, an international book club favorite in the seven years since its publication. Had it not been for rescue efforts of a ship from Christian nonprofit World Vision, Chung’s family might not have survived.

After resettling in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Chung’s father worked an assembly line intending to give all his children a higher education. As a result, the family as a whole can boast of 22 university degrees, five master’s, and six doctorates. Chung himself earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a master’s in theology from University of Edinburgh, a later doctorate from Harvard, and Fulbright Scholar post-doctoral work at the University of Sydney. While he had several interrelated specialties in skin oncology after finishing 15 years of education in 2009, he had no clear idea of what he wanted to do.

Chung landed in Colorado Springs through a fortuitous accident, and only started his own clinic on Printers Parkway after failing to find a posting he liked with an existing hospital or practice. But his Vanguard Skin Specialists grew to six regional clinics over the next decade. Additional clinics will open soon in Castle Rock, Parker and La Junta.

Chung took a brief break in a manic post-pandemic schedule to talk about how conscious choices in philosophy and faith have kept him centered for growth without suffering from the type of stress that has swamped many in the medical profession this past year.

The events in the book cover a time when you were quite young, just over 3 years old. Do you directly remember any small bits of making the trip, becoming a refugee, or is it mostly from stories of your family?

I have a couple vivid sensory memories. I grew up in Arkansas, but in college, I made a trip to the beach in Massachusetts, I smelled the ocean water, and I knew I smelled it before. Also, when I was in Chinatown in Boston, I saw all these strange-looking fruits that sparked something. When I took a bite into one, I knew I had tasted it before. Now, as for a true narrative memory, I have a small memory of the rescue itself from the World Vision ship. We had been beaten and robbed after landing in Malaysia, and kept on the beach as prisoners. When people see another category of people as a problem, they will resort to anything. After the Malaysians towed our boat out to sea, we were six days out, no food, no water, and when we saw the World Vision ship, we did not know who was coming. I was told to lie down, to look sick, in order to garner sympathy. But of course, I peeked my head up, because that’s what kids do!

What was it like moving to an inland city in the South? Did your parents try to instill Vietnamese values, or was assimilation important?

Culture shock was guaranteed. I knew I didn’t belong, at the time I felt weakness, insecurity, but now that I look back, I think of it as a source of incredible strength. My parents were in their 40s and we came with a previous life, so there was no blank slate. We adapted to the extent that we could, but we retained our values. Education was our only source of social mobility, so my siblings and I completely understood our parents’ emphasis on school. Nature and nurture were both important. English was my third language after Vietnamese and Chinese, so I really struggled in school. There’s a real positive-reinforcement loop, even in a public school. In seventh grade, I learned I was good in math, so I began to enter competitions. All of us kids learned early on that there was no safety net. 

Did academic achievement erase any racism, or did you have a new problem of being seen as a nerd?

Look, I cannot gain anyone’s acceptance if they are going to show built-in racist tendencies. The confidence I gained was coupled in my deep-seated belief in the freedoms we have in this country. We never bought into a victim mentality. There are racists in Fort Smith or anywhere, but the majority of people you meet anywhere are kind, open, very salt-of-the-earth, but I can’t take responsibility for those who are trapped in a bad mindset.

What were the circumstances of you making it into an Ivy League school?

I got lucky. I certainly was not aiming for an Ivy League school. I met my wife at Harvard, and she challenged me to apply to Harvard, and I got in — with a scholarship. I am number six of 11 children, so this gave my younger siblings the confidence to aim higher. I knew in undergrad school I wanted to go to med school, but sought the theology degree for my own personal development. This made me a better physician, and better in my relationship with my wife. If you are a doctor and consider yourself largely a technician, you will very quickly get burned out. Before I even entered medical school, I knew I wanted to see the patient as body, mind and spirit. I’ve carried this through to our organization; we try to instill in the staff a whole-person view. Look at the statistics of one physician suicide a day. We need to have a sense of purpose in medicine to fight this kind of stress. I see the employees in large for-profit hospital systems being in the greatest danger of burnout.

Did your time in Edinburgh help develop your faith?

Integration of faith is a lifelong process. But the year in Scotland helped a lot in developing discipline.

When you finished your residency and moved to Colorado Springs, did you have a clear vision of the type of dermatology clinic you would be responsible for?

I didn’t know a thing. I had just thought of being a surgeon, but I brought the power of an open mindset. The original vision in opening the practice was being a sole practitioner working in skin cancer surgery, but I did not limit myself to that vision. Medicine is just like a career in technology or anything else; you have to pay attention to what demands are, and adapt to a changing landscape. When most people in medicine think of growth, they think of forced growth, acquiring another practice, hiring more warm bodies. This has been much more of an organic growth. We have grown to 15 practitioners by emphasizing integrity above all, and insisting everyone own their failures.

What has changed in the underlying business model over 12 years?

In the course of growing to 100 employees, we have learned to thrive with a good quality of life. In developing a strong culture, I can attract people that are more talented than me. I have physicians here who could diagnose dermatological diseases I could never do, and I have to have the humility to recognize that. And look at what we do in community services — the organization has a soul. One hundred percent of the profit of our Clara retail products goes to underprivileged women. We organize mission trips to Haiti. We work against sex trafficking in places like Cambodia. But to aim to grow the soul of a corporation in such a way, you have to aim for an ideal you will not reach in your lifetime.

How do you choose your philanthropic projects?

In the case of Cambodia, I did not choose this, it chose me. When I saw the true horror of what was going on with young women in sex trafficking, I asked what could be the need, and how could we serve. It’s much better than the traditional aid view of going into a country and declaring what kind of projects will be funded. We have learned a lot about operating on behalf of others when we go through a crisis like COVID. It helps to bring everyone through a crucible like the pandemic. It keeps us from being cynical, and allowed us to double down on our values. 

In retrospect, was Colorado Springs the kind of community to realize your vision?

It far exceeded my expectations. In the same way, what the Vanguard clinics evolved into far exceeded my expectations. I came here just looking for a job. I ended up with a community of meaning. It’s really easy to think of your purpose as to consume resources, propagate your genes, leave a carbon footprint, and die. But this has become a calling, because what I do aligns with values. And Colorado Springs has been ideal in making that happen.


Editor's note: This story has been corrected. Chung's family has earned 22 university degrees, not the 32 originally reported. The Business Journal regrets the error.