Sophal Pettit was a young child when the Pol Pot Revolution happened in Cambodia. Sophal and her family are survivors of a time called The Killing Fields of Cambodia. They came to the United States with nothing but their lives. At the age of 14, Sophal was enrolled in a school for the first time. In this episode, Sophal Pettit shares her story of surviving a coup and how she improved her finances throughout her life. She also shares the benefits of hiring a financial coach and how she co-founded a financial services business with her husband, Charles Pettit.
Sophal Pettit 0:00
Hi, my name is Sophal Pettit and you are listening to the Millennial Wealth Builders
Danielle Desir 0:17
Co-hosted by Acquania Escarne, the host of The Purpose of Money, and Danielle Desir, the host of The Thought Card, Millennial Wealth Builder Series is where we share the stories of women of color, building wealth.
Acquania Escarne 0:33
But this isn't your ordinary interview-based show. Throughout the series, you'll be hearing from women who are creatively
Danielle Desir 0:40
securing the bag, stacking coins. You know what we mean.
Acquania Escarne 0:53
Sophal Pettit was a young child when the Pol Pot revolution happened in Cambodia. Sophal and her family are survivors of a time called The Killing Fields of Cambodia. They came to the United States with nothing but their lives. At age 14, Sophal was enrolled in a school for the first time, not understanding or even knowing how to speak a word of English. She navigated her way through school, and to being a successful adult. Sophal, in this episode, shares her stories from the beginning. With the normal everyday life she experienced as a child to the isolation and unspeakable death tolls and devastation that she experienced as she tried to survive the killing fields of Cambodia. When her family finally escaped to the United States thanks to the UN camps and subsequent sponsorship to America, she was finally able to see a better opportunity for her and her family. Sophal's touching story will grip you as she talks about the struggles of adapting to life in the United States, as well as her journey of discovering herself after surviving such a tragic event. We hope that this story inspires you and helps you understand that you can overcome trials that life may dish but we also want to warn you that the details of her story are very gripping, sad, and emotionally difficult to hear. So, you may want to prepare yourself for the realities that she experienced as a child during a regime. This is Sophal Pettis' story.
Sophal Pettit 2:43
So I was from I was born and raised in Cambodia and capital of Cambodia is called Phnom Penh. And when I was about five years old was the last memory that I had was very happy memory. Remember have tons and tons of shoes different color and an uncle bought those for me because I was the only firstborn and the only child in the family and then after that, my next memory was just that happy memory just disappeared overnight. And then I woke up in the countryside. I remember riding the train with lots of people and up in the countryside where my other grandfather he's a farmer and you know stay there for a few months and really almost like a hidden quiet place it because my family on my mom's side come from very high rank military background. And my my grandmom choose to go back to live with my youngest aunt, and they all got killed in Cambodia. Going forward from there you know, we have to leave my grandfather location because now my grandfather and father got scared that they might know where my mom coming from. So now we have to escape to a new location and that new location I wasn't sure what it call it's located around near Battambang. Battambang is another big town city in Cambodia, that closer to Thailand. So nobody know us there. And we would just integrating and working hard. At one point the question my mom because she has lighter skin color. They said , "Why is your lighter skin? Are you a teacher Are you you know rich? Are you you know..." whatever that they asked to get quick answer from her and she said, "Oh the reason why she's White is because she's the inside sewing clothes for people, she never got a chance to go outside. That's why she was white should never be out in the sun." Then they said, then why you use, you know, should sew clothes. So they had, you know, those big hats that you see a lot of Asian people wear in the country working out in the rice field, my mom sold those hats, and so she would end up sewing hats for them. And that's how she was able to survive. And then laughing my brother and I, at home at the shack, the little shack, I mean, we don't have any bedding or anything, just the dirt floor. And we only have clothes or clothes on our back. And that's it. For us to have, you know, shower or anything like that. We have to run out in the rain to get shower. And my brother, you know, he we just tried to be happy and waiting for our parents to come home. But later on, I found out that my parents are in two separate camp. You know, my mom in one camp and my dad in a different camp. So they asked the same question. But in separate camp, and somehow the answer was the same. That's how they were able to live. While they were in the camp, my brother and I, at that time, I've probably about seven years old, you know, and my brother he's three years younger than me. So you know, he's in his four or five years old, we have to learn how to survive and you know, finding food and everyday food getting smaller and lesser and, you know, in the community, everything that we do, we have to put in the community home. So they're the one who give us food, you know, we don't decide that.
And our food is just basically is rice, rice porridge in some time. Sometime. It's a lot more water than just rice, you know, through that process and learn how to pick berries, berries that are you know, maybe good or not good for our body. I don't know, but I know it's edible. And the reason why I know it's edible is any bird or any animal eat. Oh, eat it, you know, as they eat an animal eat it and then will not die. I eat it. You know when something going around in my life that I felt is so hard in America. At that moment, I look back in Cambodia, like there's nothing compared to that. So passing forward. We escaped in 1975 79 walking torwards Thailand and my mom said, "You know no matter what, we're going to go towards other country to get help. We're not going to stay in Cambodia." But during that time, I overheard My dad said, "You know, I want to say that he wanted to stay in Cambodia." But my mom said "No, we're not going to stay in Cambodia. So I'm gonna struggle to leave Cambodia, even if I die." And so on the way to Thailand, she got pregnant. Um, you know, already she was nine months pregnant and deliver a baby under the mango tree. And it happened to be twins. And they have absolutely nothing. This is me looking at the necessity necessity of pregnant women in America what they need. Well, my mom didn't have anything. And she had a midwife that come over and cut the umbilical cord and things like that. My dad had to rip his shirt in half, one for each baby, wrap them and that's all we have. And, and I was having a little kettle that I you know, making water boil waters before we can drink it. Because you know, that's another thing we learned through hardship. We learned that if you don't boil water, it's contaminated water, you won't be able to drink it, it would hurt your belly. So we learned how to boil water. You know, and I'm not sure if anybody else do the same but from my family because my mom has some education in the university before the war. So she learned a lot about nursing, you know being in nursing, how to get how to be clean, and you know what it needs to be clean when it comes to contamination. So with that knowledge, she helped us a lot through that process, but stay under the mango tree. My my dad left us there for three months. Now. It looks like he left us for three months. But he kept he got captured for three months when he left to go find us food he got captured. And we didn't know his story, why he got captured until we, you know, until I came back. But during that three months, it was the hardest three months I ever sometimes when I get scared I get anxious about my life today I would get that nightmare back reflect back to that time, because I had to go and dig that people to find gold, so that I can trade it for food. That moment I discover how gold and you know, important gold is to, you know, to trade for food because they don't have any money. It changed him the way gold exchanged for food. And I went and asked people how can I get some, you know, food from them. If I could work for them, they will allow me to work because you know, there's no job during that time. So I that's the reason why I went and they that people because there's a big pinhole of their people all around. And the grave is very shallow. You know, when it rains, you can almost see the bone stick out and stick out the head stick out, you know, everything. So I figured out when they killed these people, they're the jewelry and everything they wear is on themselves. And you know, and I said I have to go get those gold. Even though it scared me so much. I still you know, have to dig because my parents, my mom and I need to, to live and feed the twins that were just born. And my brother. So while I was digging, I'm, you know, the smell, I just couldn't, I couldn't remember, the smell was so bad. And I'm scared to death. And then I was just talking in my head at that time. And for me, I don't know if I talk it out loud. But in my head, I know I say, "Oh, you know, if I wish, I wish I can find something for my mom." And the next thing I know, I turned around, I found his big Ruby that just shining really bright on my you know, on my face. So I got Ruby and no and went to the market and treat that movie. It's so bright. I mean that Ruby is so great that they call it nowadays they call it Ruby diamond, you know, so bright, despite of everything around like dark too, and it's still shine, you know, and so I trade that for 10 cup of rice. That's all again, in a cup of rice. And that's keep us surviving every day. And at that time, the Vietnam soldier is they fighting in you know, they keep coming in to help killing the Pol Pot out of Cambodia to take over Cambodia, and I'm not sure what your political issue is, I was too young to know that. But I know that there'll be at least coming in Vietnamese soldier coming in. Um fortunately, my mom also speak Vietnamese, she picked three languages speak French, Vietnamese and Cambodian very well. And so she's, you know, talk to them and tell them that her story and they, the soldier keep coming, bring by some food here and there. And, and, and that, again, I don't have to go out and beg for food because they keep bringing food, you know, for us on that magno tree. Three months later my dad show up, you know, and then again, you know, he shared with us his side of the story, it was the most horrific story. But you know, going forward, we we take a family and then all the rest of the people that follow us. Um, you know, my dad are very generous, you know, when he came back, he got a lot of food that he traded and he sold water on the way to the tourists, and he bought all those packaging food and bring it back to us and he gave to everybody around us. And and I remember one time like that, "Um, you know, why don't we save some for us and we can move forward with that?" He goes, "Don't worry, you know, we're gonna have enough." So, when he said, I'm like, wow, you know, even as as little that we have he's still give to other people around him. And but and then I know now reflecting back why he does all of that. They help us especially when we have to cross the water.
I was so i mean i'm so fragile then by then but again He didn't, you know, if nobody hold my hand, I'm like, the current of water will take me away. But because all those people follow him to, you know, my mom and dad to Thailand, they help us, they help all the kids like carry, you know, take our hand and just drag us along. And then that's how we cross the water to Thailand. In Thailand camp, the UN set up, you know, everything there. And that's when we first you know, found out that we can apply to go to America or Paris or France, even though my mom can speak French, but she choose to come to America, because America is the she said "It's more free for you for the kids to make decision. Nobody dictate them what to do, you know, take away their right. "So that's why she fought to come to America, she says "America is better for the kids, even though they struggle to fight for themselves, but they can only learn so much more." And she always choose the place that are hard for us, especially when she when we fought to stay in California Long Beach, it would be easier for life to be there. Because we have groups of people that we know we speak similar language, we can assimilate with, you know, my mom said that would be too comfortable to be at that stage. So he you know, she moved to Pennsylvania and the coldest place on earth, and our sponsor have to rent us a home near near the trip the railroad track. And every five o'clock the train come by, you know, it just shake everything up. But here, the funny story is that they we have two bedroom that we could share. Let's talk about how we ended up all seven of us, stayed right in one room, we never touched another room. You know, we were just so grateful. Like, when when we found a spoon, and then you know the bed to lay on everything that we have, we were just so grateful. Like, you know, everything just seemed big for us you know, like just even the house when I go back and look at that house now, like that's a tiny home. But it was so big for us back then, you know, we was just grateful that we were there. Well didn't speak any English. Again, you in the middle of all the town, I will say all Caucasian, I don't see any other color except me at that time. You know?
It was hard. It's not something that I wish for any kids have to go through. But at the same time, they built who I am today, the whole built who I am today, and I'm grateful. I didn't know it at that time, you know, but at the same time, I felt like because of that I learned how to fight for myself. I don't allow you know them to bring their hatred towards me, I look at them, and I smile at them. And I you know, I'm friendly to them, no matter what they do. And my parents the same way it is. I'm struggling to get them out of that neighborhood right now. They still want to be the same place, the little home that we purchased because we were nobody rent us the home to us anymore because the home was our landlord said we don't have money to fix the home anymore. Because the people keep throwing rocks at the window and putting dirty water at the door so that when my dad walked out it was dropped on his head will drop in our heads. And that happened several times. We didn't we were so afraid to call the landlord so we have to use the cardboard and snow up in Pennsylvania wintertime in the snow is not very friendly to us. It's very cold. But you know one thing that I know my parents always and for us we always grateful where are we at no matter what happened to us. And in some ways somehow we build resilience through all those obstacles. And that's led me to you know, to do whatever it takes to work two or three job if I have to. And you know, just just to get away from all that environment and have the mindset that I can do. You know, if I'm able to breate, I can do anything, anything, any, you know, anything that, um, that God put me on this earth to do. And so that was my mindset. I was like,"I'm not afraid I'm not scared, you know, like, I should have been there already several times in Cambodia. But here I am living and breathing." So I didn't focus on you know, what was happening to me at the time I was looking, "How can I speak English better?" Even though I didn't have a chance to start learning English until I was 14, because that's when I came to America. And it's been the hardest one because English is not something that is easy for me. Because I'm, where I came from my word is only one word, you know, and we don't have past and present tense and all this plural you know, all these word that I want to there, or keep or sound the same. But it's mean differently. We don't have that kind of word you know, and so English was like, important for me when, you know, start out in kindergarten, and so my sibling, they're very blessed, they have a chance to go from kindergarten all the way to university. They graduate and you know, they speak English very well. And so a lot of time, I think I felt like, I'm not I'm good enough from that, that from that standpoint, like, wow, how come every time, the more I tried to speak English better, the more I fail in, like, because my sibling would, you know, would make fun of how I speak my, you know, how I say thing and how I addressing and then and where I came from, I'm trying to translate from what I understand to how I address it, we have a gap of disconnect, you know, because my siblings are 10 and 12 years younger than me. And, and you talking about that gap, you know, it's a big gap. Some time they don't understand, like who I am, and I don't, they don't understand who they are, is they're millennial and I'm, you know, another generation a generation X. And so it's, you know, it's hard to connect with them. Now, well, when, when I met Charles todo the financial side is because I was so driven. Like, I was studying to be an accountant at that time. And that's part time, you know, I work and then go to school at the same time. Because I have kids/ It's not that I enjoy having kids and then going to school just happened to you know, got married early. And, and that's another story to talk about Asian culture, especially in you the oldest one you want to have, you want to be the one that set example for your sibling. And you are your responsibility is to take care of them, you know, and take care of all their needs. And I've caught between American culture and Asian culture. I was torn between the two when I was in my teens, especially in my 18/19 now I become more aware I can speak English better. So the more I know, the more it's almost like you will have war in your head. You know, sometimes, ignorance is bliss. And it's so so true with that statement. Because the more I know, the more I became like, you know, unhappy with what I have. And I'm continue to work harder. And one more and then I got married early. Because my culture is that, you know, you your parents arranged for you. And the way they arranged for you is that the guy has to be the one who have enough money to support you and have good career and all that stuff. So women absolutely mean nothing. You can't do anything. So I went the opposite of what they want. You know, I basically did a 360 on I mean, you know, 180 on them. So the opposite. I did a 180 and I go against them. I said no to all the marriage arrangements that come and asked me when I was 19 years old and I get married to the guy that I choose who I thought was good for me. But at the time, I didn't know anything, you know, you only know what you know. And so our marriage was this, you know, was kind of forced into a place where we needed to be together. We were not ready to be married, we were both too young. And that was another problem that add up, escalate in my relationship and problem in life that I shouldn't be having. But because of that decision, I add that major problem into my life. And from that marriage, I had two, you know, kids with him. And now my son is 29, and my daughter, Elizabeth 26. And, you know, at the same time, why have raising those kids, children, I went to school and work at Blue Cross Blue Shield, at the same time. While I was working at Blue Cross Blue Shield, I put myself into school to finish my degree in finance and accounting. So that's how I wanted to, you know, better my life, and help my family out. So when I met Charles, I was working three jobs, because I want to make money, I know that we don't, we don't start with money. So that was my mindset. That's how I run into Charles. And I was just there with my two little kid running around while I'm trying to hear his presentation. And, and then I left it like that, because I want it to know how money works so bad. You know, if I know how money works, then I know it will change my life, as we all know, money run through the fabric of all human life of all of everything that we do money run into that. So for me, I just wanted to know how is how is the money work. And then when he comes to me, but me after that presentation, I have purchased life insurance through
the company called Prime America, at that time for America was big, they go around selling life insurance selling mutual funds. So I wanted to buy a mutual fund, you know, I didn't know what mutual fund it really, I didn't even know what it is, at that time, Charles, keep joking around, you know, mutual fund when you get together and having fun. And that's how you do fun. And then I thought that was really fun. So um, I bought Mutual Fund and from from Prime America, and I didn't realize the fees that they charge in fundsf. You see, when you don't know, it could be good, and also very bad for you. You have to choose how to be. So that's a big lesson in when it comes to investing. And then after that, I was like, I hate any kind of investing. So I went straight to learn about life insurance product, you know, when you again, anyone you don't know, it sounds private, good for you. And then somehow is very bad for you, especially when it comes to companies that you deal with. Now, we know a lot more. And we have to make a decision to stay with that company after 12 years of working day and night or leave. And the first things that happened in 2001 was really bad. It was the.com crash. And during that crash, it really impacted how I was thinking about money and how I was thinking about the whole industry, in the financial industry, overall, how crooked they are, you know it just like overnight, you could lose, you know everything. We we just build a new house and we have to sell that home very quickly. And we have to revamp everything that we do and you know we still believe in business. But then in 2008 that's when it hit another crash. That was the mortgage crash. We at that time we have a mortgage broker license and we have about 200 loan officer working with us. And again, when the finance the come, you know the bay, the Bendigo Bank bankrupt they take all our profit and loss with them that we put a hole in in them to pay our loan officers. So that's another crash that we, you know, we get hurt really bad when it comes to financial industry. So, you know, again, that's coming from a place when you don't know you don't know. And, you know, when, when you know about certain things, and you go about to doing it, and you don't have the right structure to do it, and you don't have the right information, you know, you so you, you putting all your eggs in one basket, and you lose it all, we experience all of that loss, because it hit us big time. And that's my experience in the financial industry. And then, you know, we decided to just redo everything all over from scratch. So with a new company, because of our track record, with a previous company, we get really good, you know, contract with new companies, and we go directly to wholesaler. And do you know, it, just two of us. And we somehow, you know, everybody continue to believe in our choice in our direction, where we go, and we build a really nice team from there, and continue to grow, listen, and learn, taking all that choice and bad experience that we got to, you know, to put a shield to it on that, we don't have to be like that again, you know? So now we got all these knowledge that we accumulate for the past 20+ year, 25+ year, to put in front of us of what we have today, and still continue learning and growing, and continue to put ourselves with great people, you know, and learn from them and grow from that. And that's fun on my business side, or on my journey to why money is so important to everyone, no matter how old they are, and where they are, and who they are. And they need to know that money is not the it's not something that make them happy. Money is just the tool, the tool that helped them to be whatever they want to be, you know, and if you can discern from that, that money is just a tool, then you you're not afraid of money anymore. You're not you're not so like, driven to find money, you know, because it's gonna be there. But if you know, but only if you willing to search for it, and you willing to step out of your own self to find that and that's what we did. Always step out, we always expand our circle where, you know, where can we go and find people who can help us? Where can we go to learn from the people who are successful? You know, and that's our journey in our business is always improving, always growing, always getting a coach to help us.
Acquania Escarne 33:22
What do you think is the greatest challenge to getting your finances in order?
Sophal Pettit 33:28
Greatest challenge is their habits. And they have to be willing to change their habits. You know, and if they're not willing to sit down and admit that they have a problem, then we cannot help them. That's the greatest challenge is for people to own up to what they have been doing is not good for them all along and leaving them with their own devices, it's gonna only lead to destruction. So that's is the biggest challenge.
Acquania Escarne 34:08
Do you think that people need help with their finances? Is it something they can navigate on their own?
Sophal Pettit 34:16
I think every one of us need help with finances. We always need a third party come in and look at, you know, what we have and what we don't have. And then what is the best plan and how we can restructure our life you know? And people should always do that before they have any big problem come up. In most people, when they look for help is when they already have problem. And that's why it's harder to change that habits you know, because people don't want to hear that they have a problem. Just want to hear that they everything in their life that they're doing is somebody else's problem, not them. But even me, I mean, I still have coach, I mean, I need a coach to tell me every single day. And we have coaching call every Monday and we have coaching call, you know, one on one coaching call, I'm paying a lot of money for my coach to get coaching, you know, and I don't mind because I know that if it leaves to my own device, I become very destructive. And I can't help anybody if I'm destructive.
Acquania Escarne 35:36
So tell us a little bit about your current business. And ways that you're helping others build wealth.
Sophal Pettit 35:45
Who we are, why we exist, you know? To create the life that you love. I love that, because that is that, that exactly what I feel in my heart, like, I really want you Danielle to have the life you love. Because you know why? If you have the life you love, you make the whole world around you better. And then I don't have to go out and spread so many you know, because you, if I can get ahead of you to get the life you love your world is so much better your world create that peace that you love, because you know, who wanted to bring disruptive into their life? No. Right? So, um, no, it's if you can make the life that you love, I will say the whole world's gonna be, you know, a ripple effect from that. So, that's why we create and we rebrand our company to that, why we exist. Charles and I the first one, we we never got anything given to us, we create everything that happened to us. And what we have today is all from what we created, through the grace of God wrapped around that, you know, and all purely from, you know, our intention is really good. But through a lot of mistakes. Our company give out books like the Power of Zero, you know, that's the books that is easy to read and easy to understand. And, you know, now we create a comp, a class called Financial Foundation. And I encourage anybody to have to go to class, when you read books, it's not necessarily that, that you're not going to know what to do from books. But it's, it's not as clear. You know, when you go to a class that, like a company, that giving out to people, for free, you know, is the 16 hours of hard work in all intellectual property for the last 25 years, wrapping around into 8 class sessions, and give it to you for free. And if anybody who got willing to put themselves intentionally, and go through the class, they will come out no more than, you know, then any financial advisor out there, knowing what to do with their own home, and how to plan for that, and how to structure the home, you know, their own life with that. And with that, and you absolutely need a coach, you cannot do this without a coach. You know, even if you know that you're smarter is at finance, at number, you know, and all of that, you still need a coach, you need a coach, to guide you to, you know, to live to the fullest of what you made from your own financial money. Not because it's, you know, you need a coach to tell you what to do, but to help shed some light of what you you know, you already know, but allow you to see more. You know, you cannot see with your own circle, you have to see a bigger circle.
Acquania Escarne 39:15
What should we look for in a financial coach? What qualities?
Sophal Pettit 39:21
Hmm, that's a good question. For me, I, I look for people who have a good heart. Number one, you know, not so much what in their head, but what's in their heart. And that lead to next question is why they got into that position where they are. So you want to ask your coach, "Why do you you know, wanting to do what you're doing? Why do you become a financial coach? You know, what made you to become a financial coach?" Then you really know where their heart is that because if they don't love what they do, they come to become a financial coach just because they want to make money or more money and because of that industry made more money, then it's the wrong place to be to choose that kind of coach. You want a coach that love what they do, and, and willing to walk through, you know, through all the process with you holding your hand and pa be patient enough to listen to all the things that going on in your head and help you to see what you don't see on you know, on the way there.
Acquania Escarne 40:40
What do you want to be remembered for?
Sophal Pettit 40:43
A good mom, a good friend a good wife, you know to my husband, a good business partner to him. And I don't give up on people. And even it's hard. Even when it's hard. I don't give up.
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Sophal Pettit is the co-founder and COO of CSP Financial Group, a financial services company that helps people create a life they love by finding a purpose for their money. CSP specializes in retirement planning, asset management, and protection as well as wealth coaching.
We hope that this story inspires you and helps you understand that you can overcome trials that life may dish but we also want to warn you that the details of her story are very gripping, sad and emotionally difficult to hear. So, you may want to prepare yourself for the realities that she experienced as a child during a regime. Sophal’s touching story will grip you as she talks about the struggles of adapting to life in the United States, as well as her journey of discovering herself after surviving such a tragic event.
In this episode Sophal Pettit shares:
- What life was like growing up in Cambodia before the coup.
- How she and her family survived the Pol Pot Revolution.
- Adapting to life in the United States as a refugee.
- The greatest challenges people face when trying to get their finances in order.
- How to improve your finances by hiring a financial coach.
- What to look for when hiring a financial coach.
- Financial Foundations: A free 8-week program sharing how to successfully manage your money and feel more secure about your financial future.
- The Power of Zero
- Read Sophal’s memoir — From Hell to Heaven: From Surviving the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the Beatitudes of Living in Gratitude
Connect with Sophal Pettit
Listen to other episodes of the Millennial Wealth Builders Series:
Episode 1: Our Wealth Building Stories
Episode 3: How To Negotiate A Raise
Episode 4: How To Invest In Hotels
Episode 5: How Women of Color Advance in the Workplace