Michelle Pham is not just the guiding force behind a new business, but the guiding light of her family.
The 28-year-old Butler County woman has seen her share of tragedy in the past four years, but persevered for the sake of her younger sisters — 25-year-old Jackie, 23-year-old Jennifer and 18-year-old Anna.
The four sisters grew up with a stay-at-home mom of five, one who decided several years ago that she wanted a salon of her own. With Michelle Pham attending university in Texas, and their father working 12 hours a day, six days a week, the remaining sisters worked hard and made their mother’s dream a reality.
But 49-year-old Trang Dai Tran didn’t have much time to enjoy Envi Nails & Spa. The Liberty Twp. business opened on April 1, 2011, and she died 12 days later due to a brain aneurysm.
The family started to crumble. Michelle Pham dropped out of university and was so despondent at one point that she threw herself out of a moving car. Their father stopped working and started to withdraw from his children.
School became difficult and suddenly all the other sisters were failing their classes at university and high school and losing academic scholarships in the process.
“We all became shells of who we once were,” said Jackie Pham.
The solution turned out to be work, and a lot of it. Michelle reopened Envi Nails & Spa three months after her mother’s death and made it the family’s mission to keep it open. She also made her sisters re-enroll in school and between the 65-hour work weeks and full-time class loads, they no longer had the time or energy to spiral downwards into depression.
Michelle also took the profits from Envi and kept the family’s home out of foreclosure.
After working at the business for more than a year, she told her siblings she had saved $30,000 to cover them for two years worth of tuition.
“I said ‘OK. You guys can go back to school and I’ll work,” Michelle Pham said.
But her sisters declined the offer, having not only grown accustomed to the business, but actually enjoying it.
“To be honest, we fell in love with all of our clients,” Michelle Pham said. “When you’re there with somebody 14 hours a day, you get to know them for everything — their birthdays, their weddings, anything that they hold dear to them.”
Michelle Pham took the money and instead used it to open two more salons in Loveland and Mason.
“She’s always had this ambition, this amazing drive, that I have always admired,” Jackie Pham said. “She wanted to make something of our family, to prove that we could come back from this, that we could succeed.”
Although she was only 24 years old at the time of her mother’s death, Michelle became the family’s leader.
“She taught us that through faith and hard work, we will persevere,” Jackie Pham said. “She gave us a goal to set our sights on, a reason and dream to live for, and as we began to follow her, we slowly began to heal.”
The future was looking brighter for the siblings when in 2013 tragedy struck again — twice.
One of the family’s aunts died at 54 years old just 29 days after she was told she had a polyp in her stomach. While packing to go to the funeral, the family’s 59-year-old aunt fell and hurt herself, slipping into a coma before eventually dying in an intensive care unit.
Their grandmother, having lost three daughters in less than four years, saw her own health decline as a result.
That’s when the Pham sisters decided to open a restaurant, one that would simultaneously memorialize their mother and honor their grandmother, who had run a restaurant in Vietnam.
“My mom grew up around it, and cooking is where she excelled, so Michelle asked my grandma to teach us everything she knew,” Jackie Pham said.
The sisters set about to learning all they could from their grandmother, opening Dai Trang Bistro at 4970 Union Centre Pavilion Drive in West Chester Twp last Sunday.
“I just wanted something for (the family) to be able to sit and reminisce and remember my mom and kind of leave her a legacy,” Michelle Pham said.
The sisters say they realize Michelle put everything on hold for them and sacrificed everything in her life to save theirs.
Sometimes they wonder why she takes on what she does, why she keeps pushing them through so many of life’s trials, but then they look at where they are, how far their family has come and what they have the potential to be, and they’re just incredibly thankful.
“We know we’re alive today because of her and from the bottom of our hearts, we couldn’t be more proud of her,” Jackie Pham said.
The sisters also credit Michelle’s fiance, 31-year-old Lorenz Medina, a U.S. Marine, with being a guiding force in their lives and the backbone of the family.
“He’s a whole support system that we can rely on,” Jennifer Pham said. “Michelle did all this for us but … she’s our family. She’s the oldest. With Lorenz, he was of no relation, of no obligation (and) he just did it.”
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