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Interview with Diem Culley

From Vietnam War refugee to leading an innovative action sports company, this is not your average immigrant's journey.

As COO of Irvine’s Sole Technology, Diem Culley has the heads of some of the most innovative departments in the action sports world reporting to her every day. She’s in charge of the day-to-day operations for cutting-edge shoe, clothing and accessory brands such as etnies, Emerica and ThirtyTwo – brands that are deemed cool by some of the most core action sports youth in America. It’s a post you might expect to be held by a person born and raised in a skatepark, someone with the “street cred” earned through years of ripping half pipes or dominating rail- and curb-rich urban landscapes.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Culley never owned a skateboard growing up, or any other kind of board, for that matter. Her story is not one of action sports, but it is one of action. Action, survival and beating the odds through a combination of luck, determination and hard work. To understand this, though, we have to go back a bit, to a darker chapter in history...

You grew up in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Was that hard?
To be perfectly honest, I was an extremely spoiled rich kid in Vietnam because my father was so high up in the government. My father was a province chief, which is equivalent to a governor here. His province was close to the Cambodian border and we had three houses. One there, one in Saigon and one in between. There were four kids in my family and we each had our own nanny. I remember going to school and not even having to pay attention to the teacher because my father was so high up. I would just play.
But that started to change in the months and weeks leading up to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when the air filled with increasing tension and your family was separated, right?
Yes, it wasn’t safe for our family to be with my father. We had bomb shelters in our houses, but by that time in the war my father had us in Saigon most of the time, while he was in the house near the Cambodian border. He wasn’t allowed to leave his province because the government was locking down travel for all the government officials thinking they would flee if they got the chance.

So how did he get to you in Saigon?
He was allowed to go back for my sixth birthday because [the government] knew the end was coming, and since I was the eldest, which is pretty important in Asian culture. So they let him go home to visit me and the family for my birthday, April 19. As soon as he got to Saigon he was working his connections in Saigon and the American Embassy for a way out for us.

And it worked?
Yes. We fled Vietnam April 23, 1975, which was exactly seven days before Saigon fell.

Describe that day.
On the 23rd, I remember him coming home and saying we have to go. My parents just threw together what they could; it was seven at night. My sister was 4 ½; my brothers 18 months and six months, and my mother was pregnant. My uncle drove us to the port and we got on the last American freight liner out of Saigon.

Did you know what was happening?
I had no clue. I remember sitting in the bed looking at my mom and dad literally throwing everything together. Because it was after hours we couldn’t go to the bank. I remember clearly thinking we were going on vacation.

When did it hit you that your life was changing?  
On the boat I saw my father cry for the first time. I was complaining that I wasn’t getting any rice and I wanted rice and my father was so used to being able to give us everything we wanted, he broke down and cried. So that was the first time that reality hit.

Where did the ship land you?
Guam. Which was another eye-opening experience. It was open-air tents with army cots lined up as far as you can see, no indoor bathroom, with thousands of people. It was intense. We were there for two weeks, then we were moved to Wake Island [a tiny atoll near the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific]. Finally, we were moved to the refugee camp at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.

After months in Fort Chaffee, your family found sponsors?
Yes, we got placed in a very small town in Wisconsin with a population of only 2,000 people. The way you got placed was churches would sponsor refugees, so we had a block of five churches in northern Wisconsin who sponsored our family. They were responsible for making sure that we had food and clothing and our parents were employed.

What was your new life like?
I went from a spoiled rich kid in Vietnam in a very important family to only ever having hand-me-down clothes and toys. Mom got a job at a framing company where she glued picture frames. My dad got a factory job sewing men’s wear. He took English at night and eventually became a bank teller at the one bank we had in town. But at times, my parents had to go on welfare and food stamps and they were so ashamed of that I remember having to drive two hours to the next city because they didn’t want to spend the food stamps in their hometown where people would see. That was especially difficult for my father, who went to the most prestigious public policy university in Vietnam and was selected to become one of the leaders of the country.

When did you decide education was your way to a better life?
When I was 12 I was with my mom and sister on the weekends cleaning a bar and restaurant for cash. Saturday and Sunday we’d go in and clean everything, even the bathrooms. We knew we had to do well in school to get out of this situation by going to college. But it was never about getting things or money. For my sister and me it was about getting our parents a better life again.

You studied political science at University of Virginia, so how did you end up in retail?
I had gotten into a couple master’s programs in public policy, but my sister convinced me to interview in retail just for the interview experience. And the recruiting process was really nice. You got flown to Washington, D.C., taken out to dinner, put up in nice hotels. And the offers were more than what I would make coming out of a master’s program and going into a government job. So I decided to try it for a few years and ended up never looking back.

And after a few other assignments, you ended up in New York as an assistant buyer in men’s underwear. That seems like an odd fit for a petite Vietnamese woman.  
Well, in the training program they tell you if you can buy one thing, you can buy anything. So in the training program I was in women’s hosiery, but the men’s underwear buyer requested me personally for men’s underwear and loungewear. And he only bought Jockey underwear and GoldToe socks. Everything else went to his assistant. So even as a buyer in training I had about $10 million of responsibility.

Then, in 1988, you came to California to work with then-national powerhouse retailer PacSun. How was the transition to action sports from department store men’s underwear?
What helped me was that I really respected and loved the brands. And coming in from the retail and buying side helped. It was just a good time to come into the action sports industry. Hurley had just launched and Billabong was rebuilding. Volcom was just taking off and I was able to help them build their brands.

You came to Sole Technology in 2007. Was Pierre-André Senizergues, the company founder and a man on a mission to make Sole Technology a leader in innovation as well as environmentalism, a big reason you came to the company?
Pierre is absolutely why I came. He’s contagious. He’s so inspirational and so visionary. What drives me is I don’t want to stop learning. Sometimes on the retail/apparel side it’s too much about business and not enough about the vision and the creative. With Pierre it’s such an amazing vision and he’s got such a passion and commitment to skateboarding and his family, and the company that he’s built in Sole Tech. And his integrity and his commitment to the environment, with our commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2020, is truly inspirational. We’re going to get there because it’s his vision.

The action sports industry has had a tough few years. What’s your take on its future?
Pierre and I are pretty bullish on the action sports industry because what we have is a culture. Part of the infiltration of some of the athletic companies into our industry, trying to make it a sport and commercializing it, then pulling out… That said a lot. We feel like the industry can take it back out of the athletic sports world and show the difference, which is that it’s really about the culture of our sports. We’re more a lifestyle. So I think we went through the years of doubting ourselves. In our culture, you have to be authentic.

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