Many people say that if you’re going to work in Vietnam, you should do it while you’re young.
But is that necessarily the right or only way to think about professional life in Vietnam?
Linh Thai thinks otherwise.
Linh’s eight years of work experience in the startup and corporate world in America has helped her build the work ethic, commitment level, and drive needed to thrive in Vietnam.
Since leaving America, she spent five years as a director at DFJ VinaCapital and three more on the Vietnam startup journey as a founder.
We sit down with Linh to learn about her perspective of working in Vietnam, her business Rita and Phill, and why she decided Vietnam was the next best step for someone at her level of work and life experience.
How did your love affair with Vietnam grow overtime?
My first visit to Vietnam was in 1993. At the time, bicycles swarmed the streets. I came again during college as a tourist. Both times I was too young and naive to see the opportunity. I was still addicted to the concept of the American dream. Rising through the ranks and wearing a suit to work at an office that was at least 50 floors up.
After reaching that level, I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted after all. Working in investment banking, you spend a lot of time watching your bank account go up, while wondering what else life has to offer. In whatever little spare time I had, I read a lot of articles on how to be happy. One of the things that resonated with me was that, if you do something you truly love, then it won’t feel like work. The problem was, like most 20-somethings, I didn’t know what I truly loved!
Growing up, I never associated my personal or professional side with Vietnam. I would have laughed if someone had told me that I would spend the next 8 years living and working in Vietnam. And I have found this to be true of many overseas Vietnamese in Vietnam. For many, the decision to come to Vietnam is the result of a random experience that helps them make the realization that this was meant to be.
So what was your random experience?
After eight years of working at a startup and in investment banking and two years in business school, I wanted the chance to work on the venture capital side and in a new city. I was also itching for a move abroad which was when I noticed a former classmate was working at a fund in Vietnam. And coincidentally, there was an opening in their venture capital group.
I couldn’t believe it. Here was an opportunity to do what I wanted as a career, while also fulfilling my need to explore Vietnam. Fate was telling me that it was time to take the plunge! Three phone interviews later, I gave notice and packed my bags. I didn’t even know what my coworkers looked like or where I would live in Ho Chi Minh City.
As a woman, have you faced any challenges working in Vietnam?
I spent the first 10 years of my career in the US. I learned what to talk about, how to phrase things, how to hang with “the boys” (since most of my colleagues were male). And most of the women I worked with were very similar to me. Loud, opinionated and not afraid to state their positions. I’m not a very girly girl, so I felt quite at ease in that environment.
When I got to Vietnam, I not only had to learn the cultural differences, I had to also learn how to behave like a woman as defined by Vietnamese culture.
Within the first week at work, I was told that I am too loud, I walk like a man (I had just spent 2 years living in NYC, and any New Yorker will tell you that walking fast is the only way to get around town) and that I’m too opinionated.
I initially fought the assimilation, clinging to my American self-righteousness. But over the years, I’ve realized that one way isn’t better than the other way, it’s just different. And the most successful people, are the ones who can adapt.
So now, when I speak English, I’m the same rambunctious person with a firm handshake. And when I speak Vietnamese, I’m sweet, demure and shyly wave goodbye. A big, genuine smile transcends all cultures, so that is the common thread across all my “personalities”.
Don’t get me wrong, Vietnamese women are not pushovers. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s just that the communication style is different. And for any relationship, whether personal or professional, to work well, both sides have to communicate on the same wavelength. And since we live in Vietnam, the Vietnamese wavelength is the way to go.
What’s your main focus right now?
Building out Rita and Phill. We make custom tailored skirts. We design and produce in Vietnam, and target customers in the US and other developed countries. We’ve created a custom pattern system that enables us to create the perfect fit for women of any shape and size. We’ve worked with women from sizes 00 to 24, so we know our body shapes!
Our goal is to do one thing, and do it extremely well. We are building a very loyal following. Many of our customers have returned for several additional skirts and are telling their friends. We do plan on expanding our product line in the future, but for now, we’re happy creating awesome butts for women around the world.
The name Rita and Phill comes from the movie Groundhog Day: the main character, Phill, is stuck in a time loop and experiences the same day over and over again.
That’s how we feel about women’s fashion. Women wake up every morning, stare into their closets and say, “I have nothing to wear.” We want to get women out of that loop and solve their groundhog day closet problem by giving them clothes that fit perfectly and makes them look great.
What are some nice-to-knows about Rita and Phill?
- We work with women from sizes 00-24. That’s a very broad range that most brands do not have experience with. Our all-female team understands the struggles of women trying to find clothes to fit their unique bodies. 🙂
- Perfect Fit Guarantee. We offer a 100% happiness guarantee and provide a full refund if you’re not happy, or we’ll make you a new one. We’ll pay for shipping both ways.
- Empower women. For customers: we help women embrace their curves. For our all-female staff: We believe in training and teaching. Our tailor does HTML. Accountant does CSS. Fashion designer does social media.
Is there ever a right time for an overseas Vietnamese to look at starting something in Vietnam?
As a young professional in America, you’ll have more access to mentorship. During the first one to two years out of college, you’re learning the skills and work ethic that you’ll need and take with you for the rest of your career.
When you’re in an American startup or corporate environment, you see people leading projects, executing, and working hard. That’s normal. Nobody has to tell you to come in early, to volunteer to help other projects, to stay late when the rest of team is there. Those are unspoken rules that you’ll carry with you into the future.
People in their early 20s should be in America so they build a strong work ethic, and more importantly, so they can learn the hard skills necessary to effectively execute on projects. You should have at least two to three years of rigorous training in America.
Emphasis on “rigorous”. With that said, just because you have a job that happens to be based in the US it does not mean you are learning all that you can or should be. Find a job where you are challenged. You should be doing things where you secretly fear you have no idea what you’re doing.
Get your ass kicked, then come to Vietnam with real experience and skills that people will recognize you for.
What restaurants and cafes can someone spot you in Vietnam? Specifically in Ho Chi Minh City?
Between my family and leading the company, I like to order-in.
My latest obsession is with JuicElixir. It’s a health brand started by an awesome woman who got her masters in nutrition from Cornell. She has created her own juice recipes that are all natural and sugar free. I drink 2 or 3 bottles a day. It prevents me from snacking on chocolate, which is my biggest guilty pleasure.
If I’m being naughty, Gong Cha and one of their coconut foam drinks combined with 4-5 toppings (go big or stay in bed!). Or a hot chocolate from Maison Marou.
When friends are visiting, I’ll take them to Cuc Gach Quan. It’s kitschy, you feel like you’re in a quaint traditional Vietnamese home, and the food is great.
Tell us one memorable story from your experience growing up in United States as a Vietnamese-American.
I attended high school in Victorville, a small town between Los Angeles and Vegas. My concept of being Asian was blurred. In Victorville, there were 30 Asians in the entire school.
When I enrolled at USC, I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet more Asian people, so I joined an Asian sorority. One of the sorority sisters asked me, “so what Asian are you?” I remember being a bit confused and thinking to myself, what do you mean?
I think I’m Vietnamese. But I speak Chinese too. Am I Chinese or Vietnamese? I had never actually explicitly asked my mom.
At the age of 18, I learned for the first time that I was 100% genetically Chinese. Growing up, my Asian identity was a question that was never asked. I spoke Vietnamese in the house, but was genetically Chinese. Race was never a big deal. I was Asian, our neighbors were Mexican, I had Armenian and Filipino friends. Skin color never played into the equation.
Who should I talk to next?
Crystal Lam. She has learned her family business from the ground up and is now leading it into the next growth phase. A great model businesswoman!
Julie Huynh. She is relatively new to Vietnam and has made a big impact on the growth of Rita and Phill. She offers the unique perspective of the latest cohort of VKs – both learning from and teaching her local Vietnamese colleagues.
Huyen Tran. She leads the the publishing business and business development for Sentifi, and runs marathons for fun. An awesome person who works hard and plays hard.
Caroline Le. She launched the JuicElixir brand of all natural juices. She’s a champion of healthy eating and lifestyle in Vietnam.