Surviving & Thriving: Paulina Ngov Makes a New Life

Born in 1975, Paulina Ngov grew up amidst civil war in Cambodia. Anyone who resisted the government was put to death. There were unimaginable atrocities. “Starvation was common,” she says. “Although many of my family members died, I survived.” Scavenging for food in the forest, Paulina’s mother used her exceptional survival skills to keep the family safe and fed, often bartering whatever she had for something they needed more. “The horrors of war will never be forgotten,” Paulina remembers. 


Arranged marriages are common in Cambodian culture. At 21, Paulina was pressured into marrying a man she’d never met. He lived thousands of miles away, the son of a close family member. Neither she nor he had prior experience with relationships. “It was quite awkward for me, leaving home and then living in an intimate environment with him,” says Paulina. Then they moved to the United States.


Paulina enrolled in an English as a second language course and within a year, obtained her high school equivalency. She worked several menial jobs, was introduced to cosmetology as a nail technician and acquired a nail technician’s license. Paulina was efficient and enjoyed the work and the interactions with her clients. “After working in the industry for a couple of years, starting my own salon just seemed like the right direction for me to go,” she says. She felt confident that she could run a salon that would be very profitable.  

“As time went on, [my husband and I] definitely had some personality conflicts between us,” Paulina explains. Her husband was a hard worker and a terrific father, but they had different perspectives on how to manage situations that required critical decision-making. Paulina was not going to remain silent. Her outspokenness caused her husband to behave aggressively, which put her at risk several times. Paulina says, “I chose to sleep at the salon, as I could control the space and not be at risk.”


The strength to set aside her personal problems during the day and completely focus on her clients came from surviving the killing fields of Cambodia. “Everything is relative,” says Paulina. “The challenges of surviving in a war-torn country and later, starting your life anew in the United States, gives you an upper hand in keeping your perspective.” A practicing Buddhist, she focuses on the positive and not the negative.

Her business grew, and Paulina rented her own apartment. She purchased a larger salon in a better location in 2004. Providing clients with quality service and products at a competitive price, she kept the overhead down. Paulina was cautious with both her business and living expenses. Even though she was doing well, Paulina felt insecure.  “My language skills were limited, and I lacked a formal education,” she shares. In 2008, she decided to obtain a degree in business and accounting and graduated in 2012 from Winona State University with a bachelor’s degree. After receiving her business degree, she sought out funding, sold the salon and purchased Tips N Toes. Paulina went back to cosmetology school and received a cosmetology license. 

Life has presented many challenges, and through it all, Paulina Ngov maintains a positive attitude. She has overcome obstacles, survived and thrived and continues to grow both mentally and financially. 

Anne M. Scherer is a writer and artist living in Rochester, MN.