STARTUP

Lessons Learned: Founder Invites Foreign Students and Interns to Vietnam

Student Exchange Vietnam does this for a fraction of what it usually costs

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BY Adelle Chua - 19 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Thirty-three-year-old Nguyen Thi Mo had to face more than the average start-up challenges when she established her venture, Student Exchange (SE) Vietnam, in 2014. SE Vietnam helps bring foreign students and interns to Vietnam for a fraction of what would normally cost them.

She had to balance the traditional expectations of being a wife and mother to two children with her desire to go after her dream and embrace the hardships—long hours and uncertainty, among other things—that come with quitting her job and setting up her own company.

“There was so much worry, so many don’ts,” recalls Nguyen. “People say you’re not a good mother when you leave your baby at home and go after your hobby, passion or career—it's a mental crisis, a moral hurt.”

There were so many things Nguyen needed to do for her start-up and she did them all by herself, with only one intern helping her out once in a while. “We had no income. I went to work early and came home late. I was exhausted all the time. My mother-in-law helped take care of my children. At one point, my husband told me to stop,” she relates. Still, Nguyen persisted because she believed in what she was doing.

When the first customer came, after six long months, she felt like celebrating. From then on, there was no looking back.

The road to entrepreneurship

Nguyen's education and history, in hindsight, seemed to set her on a path that would lead to establishing SE Vietnam.

Hailing from a mountainous province in Vietnam, she studied English in university, but could not even speak it with confidence. She had her internship for PLAN, where she became exposed to working in an international environment, and worked for Volunteers for Peace Vietnam after graduation. Here, she realized she wanted to both work with and for young people.

She went into corporate work as training officer for Panasonic, and successfully showed that a trainer was not a person of authority telling people what to do, but a partner sharing and obtaining information as well.

Then came her experiences with globally-oriented schools: Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, where she is still currently a director, and FPT university where she worked as secretary and director of international cooperation. Her job was to help the university have more international partners. These engagements enabled her to travel to different countries.

During one such trip to the United States on a professional fellowship, Nguyen was shocked that many are still ignorant about her part of the world. “Some of them think Vietnam is still a poor, third-world country, or that we are still at war,” she says. “This was when I realized I could actually do something to educate people about my country.”

SE Vietnam, based in Hanoi but with a new office in Ho Chi Minh City, offers internships in various industries such as agriculture, hospitality and tourism, information technology, business development, education, social work and community development, engineering, medicine, environment, and finance.

“So far, we have hosted more than 200 foreign students of 17 nationalities. Majority is from the U.S., Australia, and Japan, with most of them enrolling in business, nursing, and environmental engineering,” Nguyen says.

They are able to keep the costs down because they eliminate middlemen who charge considerably for their services. “For a simple four-week internship program in Vietnam, each student might find himself paying $4,000. With us, it is a little more than $1,500.”

Learning, not limited to the doors of the classroom, is reinforced by the local buddy system. “The local buddy is our specialty. They are students around the same age as the students, who love to have foreign friends, want to practice English, and learn about other cultures. They are the people who are the face of the authentic Vietnam for our students.”

Lessons gleaned

The idea for Nguyen’s start-up is to entice foreign students to get to know Vietnam, but Nguyen herself learned some practical education in being a leader and entrepreneur.

1. People are the most valuable assets of the organization

Student Exchange Vietnam now has 10 team members, seven of which are full time and three are interns. “A start-up does not have a lot of money to hire someone experienced, and more likely you cannot keep them long. So inspire people by what you are doing. Find someone with the same passion.”

2. Keep the house in order

When a start-up is established, it does not have a lot of money yet so finances are not a big deal. But when the business grows, you need someone to [make sure finances are in order]. “It is not only about how much to spend or invest, it is about laws and taxes,” Nguyen says, emphasizing that these are very important in Vietnam.

3. Have a mentor

The demands on an entrepreneur can get overwhelming, especially when compounded by worries about one’s personal life. Nguyen counts Dau Thuy Ha as both a professional mentor and a friend, giving her wise counsel. “She is like a sister to me,” she says.

4. Always look at the bright side

Nguyen gets scared, too, but she says she is an optimist. For example, when she was worried the start-up would not take off, she always thought she could always apply for another job. These days her problems are what she describes as happy ones. They get so many invitations for partnerships. She wonders whether they might be growing too fast. Whether they are on the right track.  She is wary she might lose focus. Or not have enough people to run the programs.  

All these, however, are not, “difficulties” but “challenges”. When faced with doubt, Nguyen just bears in mind that she believes in what she does.