When most people look at a number two wooden pencil, they see graphite and an eraser.

Tommy Dao sees much more.

“Have you thought about everybody that has to work on this pencil to make it a pencil?” asks Dao. “This was once a tree.”

Dao takes hard work to heart. This spring, he became the first member of his family to graduate from college, earning a degree in mechanical engineering from Dunwoody College of Technology. (Because of social distancing guidelines, Dunwoody’s graduation ceremony has been postponed until August.)

After working through school at his brother’s construction company, Dao was able to start his own business in 2018. His GRIT Engineering designs custom fixtures like stairs, elevators and catwalks for commercial businesses and residential properties. Because it is considered a construction-based company, and therefore an essential business, Dao said the work has not been unduly impacted by the pandemic.

Dao credits his early successes to his upbringing. Neither of his parents received a formal education, but they raised a family of four children and opened a landscaping business.

“They always told us, you know, go to school, study hard so you don’t follow [in] our footsteps. They basically managed through manual labor and hard work just to buy groceries or pay rent,” Dao said.

At age 12, Dao began helping the family business by translating English and Vietnamese for his parents, who both emigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the 1970s.

He was also drawn to the business by his desire to figure out how things work. It wasn’t long before he decided to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.

In class, Dao and fellow student Benjamin Larsen designed and built an automated machine that is able to measure complex shapes. They went above and beyond the assignment, deciding to finish it at least three weeks early so they could have time to troubleshoot and make sure it functioned properly despite its complexity. Dao’s determination through school, Larsen said, stood out in class.

“I don’t know how he sustains himself. You know, I like to work a lot, but he just takes it to another level,” Larsen said.

Dao starts work at 6 a.m.

“You can be sleeping while other people are out there doing things to make things happen, or you can be the one out there making things happen while other people are sleeping,” Dao said.

Larsen said it has been inspiring to have a friend who is so motivated despite current challenges. While some people lose focus when stressed, he has seen the opposite in his friend. Dao, he said, can get stressed out and still maintain focus.

“I find that pretty valuable,” Larsen said.

Although he is disappointed about the delay in his graduation ceremony, Dao said it’s most important to him to appreciate what he learned during his four years of school.

“We have to learn how to appreciate certain things in our lives to fulfill a meaningful life,” Dao said. “A lot of times we get caught up in our daily [lives] and we think it’s terrible. … We forget about all of the things that we have, and all of the support that we have.”


Cleo Krejci, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in May, wrote this story as a student on assignment for the Star Tribune.