Toni Nguyen, an assistant general counsel for Dallas-based media giant Belo Corp., traveled a long way to have the opportunities she has today. In her job, Nguyen focuses on often complicated intellectual property and Internet-related issues, but her biggest concern once was survival.
Three decades ago, Nguyen faced an uncertain future. Her story began in war-torn Vietnam, where Nguyen was born in 1971. As a 7-year-old girl, Nguyen fled her home in Saigon and boarded a fishing boat with 20 other people to begin a harrowing journey that eventually brought her and her family to the United States in 1979.
“I love this country,” Nguyen says. “There’s nowhere else you can go, start with nothing . . . and still make something of yourself.”
Because she came from a communist country, Nguyen says she has a “huge appreciation” for the U.S. Constitution, which is part of what drove her to go to law school.
In Vietnam, her family was considered middle-class, Nguyen says. Her father, Than Dinh, was a lawyer in Saigon.
Nguyen says Vietnam’s communist government required her father to attend classes to be re-educated on the evils of democracy and the virtues of communism. When her father received a notice in late 1977 that required him to go to a re-education camp, she says he and several of his friends pooled their money to have a wooden fishing boat built to flee the countrywith their families.
The friends implemented their escape plan in April 1978. Nguyen says the plan required Dinh and his friends, pretending to be fishermen, to travel on the fishing boat, while the women and children, pretending to be tourists, traveled by bus to a designated meeting place. Nguyen says the women and children then rode in a small boat to the fishing boat. When Nguyen saw her father on the fishing boat, she says she began screaming, “There’s Daddy. I know it’s him.” The women and children scrambled from the small boat into the fishing craft, leaving behind their guide, who Nguyen says reported his suspicions about the group to authorities. Nguyen says the women and children hid in the boat’s motor room to avoid detection until the vessel sailed out of Vietnam’s waters.
Nguyen says the refugees were on the open sea for about two weeks, searching for somewhere they could stay. At one stop, authorities fired warning shots to keep the refugees away. When they neared a Malaysian fishing village, Nguyen says, the men let the women and children disembark, then sailed the boat further out and knocked a hole in its bottom so it would sink to prevent authorities from forcing them back to the sea.
The group ended up in a refugee camp on a Malaysian island, where they stayed for 10 months. “That was the longest 10 months ever,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen says the camp had no school for her to attend and rationed food to the refugees. But her mother sold the family’s jewelry to purchase extra food and set up a stand to sell pho , a beef broth noodle soup, to make more money, Nguyen says.
Her stay in the camp finally ended, Nguyen says, after the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration advanced her family the money for airline tickets to the United States. The family traveled to Houston, she says, because the YMCA there had agreed to sponsor them and provided them a place to live for three months. Their next home was a two-bedroom Houston apartment managed by a couple critical of the Vietnamese family and their customs, Nguyen says.
In the fall of 1979, Nguyen entered the third grade where she says her classmates taunted her. “They told everybody I had lice on my head,” she says. “I didn’t speak English, and I couldn’t defend myself.”
The only place where she felt safe, Nguyen says, was in her English as a second language (ESL) class where she was with other children who did not speak English. Nguyen says her father encouraged her to learn English, telling her, “Someday you will speak it better than your own language.”
Her father’s prediction came true. Nguyen says that after two years in ESL classes, she became sufficiently proficient in English to assist in teaching other children who spoke little English.
Nguyen says that after working at construction jobs, her father was able to start his own construction business in Houston. Her mother often worked two or three jobs, including one as an assembly-line worker, before she started a hairstyling and manicurist business, Nguyen says. On weekends, Nguyen says she and her brother joined their parents in delivering phone books and cleaning houses.
When her parents bought a home in a southwest area of Houston, Nguyen says, theirs was the first Asian family in the neighborhood. Nguyen says a group of high school-age youths called her and other family members names, regularly drove their pickup trucks across her family’s front lawn and vandalized her father’s van. One of the youths’ favorite tricks, she recalls, was to ring the door bell and to pitch cups filled with urine into the house when she answered the front door.
Nguyen says that when she was a teenager working at a grocery store, one man told her the store hired her because she would work for less money and that she was taking a job away from an American. “I remember people coming up and telling me to go back where I came from,” she says.
Instead of caving in, Nguyen says she threw herself into her studies, becoming the valedictorian of the 1989 graduating class at High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice in Houston. Nguyen says she became a U.S. citizen in May 1990 during her sophomore year at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and government in 1993, becoming the first woman in her family to graduate from college.
“I either wanted to be a writer or a journalist and replace Connie Chung,” says Nguyen, who spent a year as a reporter, producer and assignments editor at KFDM-TV 6 in Beaumont. But Nguyen says she soon realized it would take a long time to work her way up to a television market where she could make a sufficient salary, so she enrolled in Southern Methodist University School of Law, where she graduated cum laude in 1997.
Nguyen says her goal in going to law school originally was to provide assistance to her parents, but the amount of her student loans made her realize she needed to practice law.
The single most defining time in her legal career was clerking for Jerry Buchmeyer, then-chief judge of the Northern District of Texas, in 1997 and 1998. Buchmeyer passed away on Sept. 21. [ See "Memories of U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer," Texas Lawyer, Sept. 28, 2009, page 5. ]
After her clerkship ended, Nguyen worked as an associate with Vinson & Elkins in Dallas, then as an associate with the Austin office of DLA Piper, formerly known as Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, before moving to Travelocity.com in Southlake in January 2003.
Her move to Belo Corp. in August 2006 came as a result of her friendship with Russ Coleman, Belo’s general counsel, Nguyen says. When the two met, Coleman was a partner in Dallas’ Locke Liddell & Sapp, now Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell, and Nguyen was an attorney at Travelocity, she says. When an opening came up at Belo, Coleman offered her an opportunity to practice law and return to her news media roots.
Coleman says Belo was looking for an intellectual property attorney. Because Nguyen had handled IP matters at Travelocity and had a TV background, “she was a perfect fit,” he says.
In describing Nguyen, Coleman says, “She has what I call a TV personality: She’s very optimistic; she’s very enthusiastic; she’s very energetic.”
Steve Malin, counsel at Sidley Austin in Dallas, has worked with Nguyen on patent cases. “She brings a ton of energy to basically every project I’ve had with her,” Malin says.
Malin also says Nguyen has a knack for simplifying complicated patent matters and explaining them to people in her company in a way that’s easy to understand.
At Belo, Nguyen provides counsel not only to the company’s 20 television stations and their respective interactive divisions, but also to four daily newspapers and various specialty publications owned by A.H. Belo Corp., a separate entity that Belo Corp. spun off last year. In an e-mail, Nguyen notes that she “manages both media companies’ IP portfolio, handles technology and other commercial transactions, serves the legal needs of their 30-plus interactive Web sites and oversees IP litigation, although her duties often stretch beyond those areas.”
Nguyen says that in 2007, she represented the Newspaper Consortium, which originally consisted of 12 U.S. newspaper companies and grew to 30 companies, in helping to negotiate an online advertising partnership with Yahoo! Inc. The resulting agreement covers the serving and selling of online advertisements over a network of 800 Web sites.
Life is easier than it once was for Nguyen, who is married to her college sweetheart, Dan. They are the parents of 4-year-old twins, son Austin and daughter Trinity. Although Nguyen has not returned to Vietnam since immigrating to the United States, she says a visit there is on her agenda when her children get a little older.
Looking back on her journey from Vietnam to the present, Nguyen says, “All of the challenges have made me tougher. I’m hoping to pass that on to my children.”