Alex Ngo was only 24 years old when he heard it on the radio. It was April 30, 1975. The Vietcong took over what later became Ho Chi Minh City as the Americans frantically evacuated its troops and personnel, abandoning the south to its own devices. Like every Vietnamese who fought for the United States, Alex was left behind.
He was an structural engineer for tire manufacturer Michelin when he decided to become a pilot for the Vietnam Air Force on the war against the communists from the North. After training in T-28 and T-48 airplanes, he flew many missions in a Fairchild C119 Flying Boxcar—a military aircraft designed to transport troops, materials, and drop its cargo on parachutes—and a Fairchild AC119, a gunship airplane that was similar to the C119 except for the Gatling guns and cannons mounted on its sides to attack ground troops. In total, he flew about 2,000 hours for the VNAF until the war was over. It was then when the new Vietnamese authorities made the announcement: ‘If you fought for the Americans, then you should voluntarily present yourself to a six-week rehabilitation program or face a harsh prison sentence or worse.’ Needless to say, Alex complied.
The six-week reeducation program turned into something completely different. They actually put him in Suối Máu camp, a prison name that literally means Blood River. The six months extended to a full year. And then another year. And another. For six years, from 1975 to 1981, Alex was forced to live and work in a grim facility along with 200 other people.
After a year of hard labor, he got lucky. Along with a dozen young prisoners, he was selected to work on the manufacturing of leather products, making basic footwear and, eventually, more complex things. Others were not so lucky. His older brother spent eight years doing hard labor and survived. But his eldest brother, like countless others, died and never saw the light of freedom again.
Alex loved to draw in his free time. He was very good at it. So good that his talent soon made him popular. The young guards, who were mostly teenagers, liked him. They requested a lot of drawings from him, from Mickey Mouse to the Golden Gate. That was one of the things that made him popular too: For some reason he started to tell them stories about America and its people. He spoke about an advanced society of human rights, great engineering, art, and, for some reason, cheese. It was the old cliché of the American Dream, the overabundance of work and food, and cities paved with gold (and cheese too).
He was such a good artist that the guards started to refer to him as “Picasso”, like the Spanish painter. He kept the nickname until he was freed from prison in 1981. It was in his release papers where this nickname was first officially registered, misspelled as Picaso—a moniker he rescued when he formed this company.
After being freed by the communists, Alex went from hard camp life to hard regular life in communist Vietnam. Actually, and soon with a new family, he found that it was even harder. A bill sponsored by former POW and US Senator John McCain allowed Vietnameses who served with American troops to find refuge in the United States and, like many of his fellow reeducated inmates, he eventually left his home country and emigrated with his family to the land of dreams.
It was 1993 and he only had $90 in his pocket. America was not paved with gold or cheese, but soon he started to work as a waiter and a cleaner. When he saved enough money to buy a car, he got into food delivery. And then he saved more and bought a food truck. Then another one. And another one until he got as many trucks as years he spent in labor camp.
The food truck business was going great. One day his daughter, brought home a beautiful Macbook. The only problem: It was covered with a cheap plastic sleeve. Her father loved the computer but hated the sleeve.
A few days later, he came out of his garage workbench with his first leather sleeve. It was beautiful. Smooth and flexible but with a hard edge to protect the computer, a design product of his experience working for Michelin as a structural engineer.
He gave the sleeve to his daughter, who took it to work the next day. A friend asked her about it. He had never seen anything like it and, once she told him the story, he wanted one, offering to pay for it. Another friend saw it and wanted one. Then a co-worker. Soon, word of mouth turned his garage hobby into something else. He was having so much fun that he decided to dedicate himself to make this new leather company, which he named after his prison nickname: PicasoLab.
After that, a Gizmodo reviewed his first sleeve design. It was the first model of what we now call the Classic Sleeve. The review made his business explode. It even caught the eye of Steve Wozniak, who ordered a few. After receiving them he wrote an email to Alex congratulating him on his product: “These are exceptional cases. Beautiful and sturdy.” Alex and his son Quang, who now runs the business, met with the Woz and together they decided to make a special run for charity, signed by the legendary co-founder of Apple Computer Inc.
And that was it. The rest, as they say, it’s history. A great story on how the suffering of a man and a skill learned in deadly camp eventually turned into a burgeoning business. If there was ever a story of life giving lemons and lemons being turned to lemonade, this is it.