While we’ve been able to cover stories of culture, society, design, and fashion in Vietnam, we’ve been wanting to branch out further. At Vietcetera, we want to uncover the stories of the makers of the new Vietnam outside of the metropolitan landscapes of Saigon and Hanoi and into the backdrop of the industries that power this country’s growth.
That’s when we met up with Crystal Lam of Vinawood, the managing director of one of Vietnam’s leading makers and distributors of wood-products. Born in California, Crystal grew up alongside her family’s business, learning the trade after school and on weekend tradeshows that she would attend with her father around the country. Today, she’s managing the business in Vietnam. And she’s ready to bring it up another level.
How did you find your way from the corporate career route to Vinawood in Vietnam?
I have always known that I would live in Asia. The region was experiencing such robust growth in the 2000’s, it was obvious to me that if I wanted to be a part of development as a first mover, it was where I needed to be. As an undergraduate, I attended as many courses as I could which focused on Asian political economies. I learned of the economic growth models of China, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, etc. but found so little on Vietnam. This was because the tiger economy was still writing its story, and it was a story I wanted to be a part of.
Even though I originally intended to seek multinational corporate opportunities in larger cities such Hong Kong or Singapore before permanently residing in Vietnam, I eventually decided to join the business in Ho Chi Minh because of the unique position it was in externally – the 2008 economic crises. The world was in panic and businesses were focused on sustainability and survival. I decided to forgo what I could have learned from a corporate environment, in order to dedicate my time to what I cared most: my father and his business. Thus, without prior knowledge of operations or business administration, I dove in hoping my dedication coupled with my degrees in Rhetoric and International Political Economy could contribute.
What keeps you in the lumber and commodities business? Why not pursue a trendier industry like technology or fashion?
I deeply respect and am passionate about the businesses that brought Vietnam to the world stage as a significant trade economy: agriculture and manufacturing. These are the foundational industries that drive this country’s growth and there is still a lot of opportunity to strengthen it, especially with a population of over 90 million people.
I can understand the allure of engaging in trendier industries such as technology or fashion. However in the context of societal impact (ie. job creation for thousands), industries such as manufacturing has the opportunity to reach a more advanced state and scale up, offering stability for a larger workforce.
What are your core responsibilities as managing director at Vinawood?
My primary focus it to create an environment where people feel appreciated and constantly motivated to building a great company. Over the years, I learned that the Vietnamese people truly work from the heart if they enjoy working with you. Therefore, I would say that my core responsibilities includes developing a more creative human resource dynamic.
How did your perspective of Vietnam grow overtime?
I’ve come to deeply appreciate the spirit that thrives in the people here. In the factory setting, I’m blessed with the opportunity to engage with individuals who venture from various regions in the country to work in Ho Chi Minh City. Although there are subtle cultural difference among those from the North, Central and South, the commonality among them all is their fierce dedication to their families. If one were to conduct a survey among the staff and ask why they chose to work so far from home, most would answer it is because the wages are higher here and therefore they will earn more to send back to their loved ones in their home town. They are not necessarily pursuing lofty dreams or spending their family’s savings on personal projects. At the core, many Vietnamese prioritize their family and commit to taking care of them. It is a quality I am very proud of and strongly identify with.
As a woman, have you faced any challenges working in Vietnam?
From day one, there were a couple of factors that posed challenges for me. I am a female in a male dominated industry; and an overseas Vietnamese who had the opportunity to step into an important role based on luck. But over time, those initial facts became less of a challenge because I was able to earn the trust of and to establish credibility with the team. Through means of learning all ground-level operations and standing beside (and defending) them in high stress situations, a special rapport developed with the team which serves as a strong foundation for all that we do together.
Is there ever a right time for an overseas Vietnamese to look at starting something in Vietnam?
If you seek adventure and have the courage to figure things out as you go, anytime is the right time.
Tell us one memorable story from your experience growing up in United States as a Vietnamese-American.
Eager to learn more about the country’s history, I enrolled in a Vietnamese history course as an undergraduate at Berkeley. Much of my perspective of my Vietnamese upbringing made so much sense when I studied the role of Vietnamese women. Historical and Fictional females were recognized as heroines like the Trưng sisters, talented poets like Hồ Xuân Hương, and honorable individuals like Thúy Kiều. There is a widely known phrase, “Giỏi việc nước – Đảm việc nhà”. Which means it is a known fact by all that Vietnamese women are great in matters of the society and of the family. I truly believe the Vietnamese woman is this country’s secret weapon; and I am very proud of it.