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A Midsummer Night’s Update from Saigon

Okay, so it’s not quite midsummer anymore. I’m posting this entry a bit later than planned because my days have been action-packed. (Thanks Aaron for the slick overview of what SOM'12 is up to this summer).

I’m currently in Vietnam courtesy of an alumni-funded Emerging Markets Internship grant. I have long had an eye to come here and make a difference. My original plan was to wait until farther into the future, but having come up with a vision – and a grant to support it – why wait? I decided to take the plunge now, at least for this summer.

The bulk of my effort has been dedicated to starting up an NGO focused on higher education. In the past several weeks I’ve been networking hard in order to socialize the idea with students, recent graduates, education experts, NGO leaders and business executives. Reception has been quite positive: in fact, I have just begun a round of seed fundraising, and next month I’m slated to get my proposal in front of the presidents of Vietnam’s top universities. There are still many challenges to overcome but I’m already much farther along than I had expected to be.

I’m also using the opportunity to immerse myself in doing business here. After getting the grant, I had shot off my resume to a few private equity funds for a 4-6 week gig (I wanted to keep it short so that I could continue to push on the NGO).

I ultimately joined the corporate strategy team of VinaCapital, Vietnam’s largest asset management company with investments in PE, real estate, infrastructure, and tech. My project – mapping and optimizing high-priority business processes – has given me a really broad view of the company’s activities and put me in touch with leaders across the company’s investment, communications, legal, and accounting teams. Meanwhile, thanks to some hard work and providence, I overcame initial concerns about my limited Vietnamese language abilities and finance experience to also land a role with the firm’s venture capital team. It has been really interesting to deploy my learning from SOM’s integrated curriculum to support assessment of this investment opportunity (cheesy but true!). So to recap, I am now spending 13 weeks launching an NGO, taking the lead on a corporate strategy project, and helping out with a venture capital investment proposal.

Pretty much the best summer I could imagine. And yet there are so many other highlights worth mentioning: - dinner and Bia Saigon (Saigon Beer) with two incoming SOM students - the warm welcome from the Yale Club of Vietnam - the touching auction organized by the VinaCapital Foundation to fund heart surgeries for impoverished children - meeting actress Ngo Thanh Van (“Veronica”), who has been called Vietnam’s Angelina Jolie for her combination of beauty and dedication to humanitarian efforts (see right, though this photo really doesn't do her justice; she had been on her feet all evening as co-organizer of the auction) - all the pho I can eat

Perhaps the capstone so far has been my hour-long chat with Henry Nguyen, managing general partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam. Several people had suggested I talk with Henry about my NGO idea, as he is exceptionally passionate about improving education. But we ended up discussing much more than my idea or even education generally. As it turns out, Henry and I share a lot in common – not just in our backgrounds but also in our mindsets. Talking with other individuals experienced in Vietnamese business, I had encountered a disconcerting resignation about the difficulty of achieving any results. I've had to steel myself against the insidious cynicism. But talking with Henry was refreshing. He of course acknowledges the challenges that plague Vietnam, and like me he continues to have the utmost faith in the strengths and resilience of the U.S. But he also recognizes the untapped potential in the Vietnamese people and, as a corollary, the immense opportunity available here. By the end of our conversation, he had expressed confidence that I could come back to Vietnam and make a positive impact immediately after earning my MBA. “Why wait?”