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    Interview: Phi Van Nguyen on Vietnam’s Vibrant Startup Ecosystem

    Image courtesy of Phi Van Nguyen

    Interview: Phi Van Nguyen on Vietnam’s Vibrant Startup Ecosystem

    Phi is Chairwoman of the Vietnam Angel Network, an angel investor group helping to drive Vietnam’s continuing growth.

    By Bobby McGill - Nov 25, 2020

    Over the past few years, prior to COVID-19, Vietnam enjoyed some of the fastest economic growth in the world. Once the pandemic first hit the Southeast Asian country’s shores, the government was quick to respond and has since been lauded for keeping the effects to a minimum.

    The efforts are not only about the primary goal of assuring its citizenry is safe, but also about keeping the country’s economic engine on pace with other rapidly expanding economies in the region.

    A driver of Vietnam’s impressive growth has been the increasing rise of startups that fuel both innovation and growth in the region’s fourth largest economy.

    We recently caught up with Phi Van Nguyen, Chairwoman of the Vietnam Angel Network, to talk about her work as an angel investor, her involvement in launching innovative community projects, the investment climate in Vietnam, and more.


    What’s been keeping you busy lately?

    40% of my time is for business, 40% for community projects and 20% for myself and family. Since Covid, I have invested into three companies and am super busy restructuring and helping these startups and SMEs pivot.

    As an angel investor, my work is never about pure financial investment. I need to play multiple roles at the same time, as investor, mentor, coach, advisor, facilitator, friend, family, etc. The whole process can be very energy and time-consuming.

    On the other hand, both of my community projects are in important stages. The Library of Dreams is a non-profit project I created back in 2016 to build innovation libraries for disadvantaged kids in remote areas of Vietnam. The purpose is to help plant innovative seeds for the new generations of Vietnamese to better integrate and be part of the future creative economy.

    “Covid is like a washing storm. It washes away those business models or startups that are not sustainable and reveals all the quality teams who can adapt, transform, and pivot.”

    These libraries are built inside selected primary and secondary schools, filled with 1,000 to 1,500 new titles relating to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics). We currently have 36 libraries and are opening two per month. Therefore, we are quite busy with fund-raising activities for the project.

    The second community project is for teens and youth, aged 12 to 18 called FutureU. FutureU is an annual social innovation program where we incubate teams of youngsters like social entrepreneurs, to help them from idea to implementation.

    The program lasts 9 months in total, with the UN’s selected SDGs as topics, and provides training for design thinking, marketing, fund-raising, finance planning, pitching, ect. We also match very experienced mentors who are managers, directors of big corporations, successful startup founders to the teams to help them throughout the program. FutureU Season 2 is heating up this November with 153 registered teams around the country. That’s probably enough to keep me busy.

    Tell us more about Vietnam Angel Network and what it does.

    The Vietnam Angel Network is part of the ASEAN angel alliance network. We have 35 members in Vietnam and 4,000 members across the ASEAN. We are all business angel investors investing into startups across the region. Apart from educating and supporting members, we organize monthly pitching events where selected startups pitch to our angel investment communities.

    Considering that Vietnam has done remarkably well with COVID-19 containment, what is the current mood of startups?

    Covid is like a washing storm. It washes away those business models or startups that are not sustainable and reveals all the quality teams who can adapt, transform, and pivot. There are three types of startups now. Those who cannot survive and are long gone. Those who can adapt, significantly transform their businesses and pivot.

    And, most interestingly, a new generation of startups who see new opportunities during Covid and are quick to seize those opportunities. I genuinely think the startup scene now is more vibrant than ever with quality startup founders and sustainable business models.

    How about the attitude of investors?

    As an angel investor, I closed three deals during Covid. That says a lot about the investment temperament here in Vietnam. With Vietnam containing Covid so well, all eyes are basically on Vietnam. I talk to international VCs almost every week about new opportunities in Vietnam.

    “Brands should be humbled in their approach to new markets, especially a vibrant startup ecosystem like Vietnam.”

    I think Covid, though a tragic event, has a positive impact on resetting the whole ecosystem and brings everyone back to the same starting point, with equal opportunities. It is crystal clear during Covid which teams have the resilience, the growth mindset, and adaptability qualities to move forward. Those are qualities we look for in startup founders.

    You have a talk show called “Nguy – Cơ” that launched last month. What are some of the primary hopes as well as concerns of your guests regarding Vietnam’s startup ecosystem?

    “Nguy – Cơ” or “Risks & Opportunities’,’ is a talk show focusing on sharing sustainable solutions during and after Covid from market leaders for the wider entrepreneur community. The common concern is that Covid is never an event. Its effect will be long-lasting, at least for the next three years. Therefore, no one should ever plan for a short-term, reactive program.

    However, all the guest speakers are very positive about the outlook of the ecosystem and the economy. To them, Covid is like a long overdue event that puts everyone in reset mode. Enterprises are now more focused on building solid foundations for sustainable growth, on digital transformation, and strategic planning.

    Along with getting your Ph.D. in business administration, you spent a year studying at the New York Film Academy. What was that like and how did the experience shape your approach to business?

    To me, creativity and innovation come from a cross-over of ideas and perspectives. Arts, in whatever form, open up new ways of thinking, new avenues of exploring, and new visions for the status quo.

    I not only have these interests but also have spent time learning different types of arts such as film-making, Chinese ink-wash painting, arts history, music, and more, in order to open up myself to new possibilities and experiences all the time.

    I think that’s what life-long learning should be about, advancing every day in new and non-traditional ways.

    What advice do you have for brands looking to enter the market and to successfully resonate with Vietnamese consumers?

    Any foreign brands, whether established or new, should take the process of a startup when entering any new markets, including Vietnam. Just like any startup they should go through the design thinking process, starting with empathizing the consumers, defining their pain points, to ideating solutions, prototyping, and piloting.

    “To me, creativity and innovation come from a cross-over of ideas and perspectives. Arts, in whatever form, open up new ways of thinking, new avenues of exploring, and new visions for the status quo.”

    I think of the brand and whatever experiences a brand has so far as a toolbox, and this toolbox contains your assets to solve new problems. As you define a problem, you know which toolkits should be used and therefore pull out the relevant kits you already have in place.

    Gone are the times when you can cut and paste your brand experiences or can be a bit lazy about enforcing the past on the present and future. I look at new markets as a totally new startup project and keep an open mind on innovation and creative solutions.

    I also think brands should be humbled in their approach to new markets, especially a vibrant startup ecosystem like Vietnam. You should go out there, network with the startup ecosystem, create open innovation programs to transform from the outside in. You may be surprised at all the innovative solutions that are already out there waiting for you to collaborate with.

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