Vietnamese immigrant donates $5 million to GMU

Vietnamese immigrants say $5 million gift is a show of gratitude

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Print this page by Robert Burke

Long Nguyen came to the U.S. from Vietnam almost 50 years ago, believing the best education could be found here. By 1965, he had earned a master’s degree in physics from the University of Virginia and had his sights set on a doctorate in computer sciences at Iowa State University.

Then calamity hit. Nguyen’s visa expired, and he was forced to return to his war-torn country where he was drafted into the army. His story, however, has a happy ending.  Nguyen managed to return to the U.S. to pursue his doctorate and his American dream.

He created Fairfax County-based Pragmatics Inc., now one of Northern Virginia’s fastest-growing IT firms. That success left Nguyen and his wife, Kimmy, feeling they owed a debt to their adopted home. So last year the couple gave $5 million to help build a 180,000-square-foot engineering building for George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Information and Technology. It holds research, classroom and office space and was named for the couple. The structure, which opened in mid-2009, is the biggest academic building at GMU’s Fairfax campus and is also its first LEED-certified green building.

“We are very grateful to this country,” says Long Nguyen. “We would not be able to get the kind of education I received … or the opportunities we’ve had, anywhere else. Our children grew up here. We have four grandsons and they have grown up here, too. So we want to pay back what we can.”

Nguyen founded Pragmatics in 1985, leaving behind a faculty position at Georgetown University. The company’s growth has been extraordinary: It nearly doubled its work force last year, to about 600 employees, and saw revenues climb from $80 million in 2008 to $110 million.

Pragmatics is in a booming and competitive market. The company has about two dozen major IT contracts with government clients. Pragmatics will move from its current home in Tysons Corner to a bigger headquarters in Reston this year.

Nguyen has been named a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Greater Washington area, nonetheless he is modest about his formula for growing a company so quickly. “We try hard,” he says, smiling. “We are lucky in the sense that we have a very strong team spirit.”

GMU President Alan G. Merten called the new engineering building “a world-class facility for teaching and research that broadly and profoundly affects the quality” of the school’s IT programs. Nguyen, a member of GMU’s board of visitors for eight years, called it “the premier university in Northern Virginia. So it made sense for us to support George Mason.”

The couple raised their two sons in Fairfax, and the family has a string of professional accomplishments. Kimmy earned a bachelor’s in business administration at the University of Saigon and worked more than 25 years for IBM before joining Pragmatics in 1987. She’s now its CFO. The couple’s sons both graduated from Langley High School in Fairfax, and later from Harvard University. Dr. Ben Nguyen is a neurosurgeon in Fairfax; his brother, Kim Nguyen, earned his doctorate in economics from the University of California at Berkeley and is now Pragmatics’ vice president of special programs and its chief business development officer.

Long Nguyen has put his money into other education efforts. He has created endowments at Iowa State and George Mason, and in 2007 he honored his parents by establishing the Lanh and Oanh Nguyen Endowed Chair in Software Engineering at Iowa State. Nguyen knows the timing of the donation to GMU is especially good for the school’s budget since state funding is shrinking. “It’s important that we help them now. They have ambitious plans,” he says.

He has big plans for Pragmatics, too. The company still is privately held, but its rapid growth is attracting interest from bigger firms, he says. The current plan is to keep the company private until it approaches $250 million in revenue, which he thinks will happen in three or four years. Then it will go public.

He has come a long way since those teen-age days when he was being sent by his parents to the U.S. for college. “Immigrants appreciate this country” the way those born here might not understand, he says. His wife agrees. “We have a lot of friends who live in different countries,” she says. “Nobody has the opportunity like we have here.”

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