When someone mentions e-commerce, your mind probably draws a picture of an online store where flash sales, promo vouchers, and hot deals excitingly await. But what about the people behind the scenes? Do they think about sales and revenue all day long? Or do they hope to find a deeper purpose in all this number-crunching?
To find out, Vietcetera met with Kristine Nguyen, the CEO of Awake Asia Vietnam (AAD). Her company — a bespoke e-commerce agency active across Southeast Asia — provides digital platform services ranging from managing flagship stores to producing content, making Kristine well placed to speak from the center of an industry that’s seen its revenues skyrocket since the start of the pandemic. (International Trade Administration predicts Vietnam’s e-commerce market to be worth US $23 billion by 2025.)
Fresh from a five-day leadership bootcamp, she is ready to embrace the new and improved version of her directorship. Kristine 2.0 puts a greater effort into empowering the people around her while making sure it’s a two-way street — she is a strong believer that everyone you meet has something to teach you. And that the more people you inspire, the more inspiration you get in return.
Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?
As a leader, I take my mentorship very seriously. And when I am in need of reinforcement and TLC myself, I’m lucky to have people in my life I can turn to for advice. And as cliché as it may sound, I believe that every person has something interesting to say and a unique perspective. Just last week I was part of a leadership bootcamp where I met 27 young entrepreneurs, founders, and industry leaders, and they’ve given me so much inspiration!
For matters personal, I go to my best friend whom I’ve known since high school and with whom we share a very strong bond. Professionally, I can always count on my boss as well as on my former superiors.
How do you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
Before the bootcamp, I was content with where I was. For me, it’s true that if you’re the boss it can get lonely at the top but I was fine with that because the view is definitely worth it. However, the program has changed my perspective in ways unexpected. My present self now accepts that to be a leader who motivates and encourages, the old top-down management approach needs to be shelved.
In the same bootcamp, I declared I needed to grow and be someone who has a personal connection with the staff. My goal is to be that boss who spreads positivity and guidance; the boss who can walk around the office without making the staff anxious. I trust I can do all that by putting myself in my team’s shoes to fully understand them and empathize with them. So that’s how I intend to continue to grow — through developing with and through my staff. After all, it's less lonely at the top if you can help someone join you there.
In your present role as the CEO, what is your vision for AAD?
I started my career as an intern, and I’ve seen the organization from different points of view. Looking back, I was independent and mapped out everything on my own. But things have changed and now I want to co-create and co-develop by involving my team more. Presently, each of them is sharing their vision for the next five years and together we will find ways to make it happen. My personal vision for AAD is to be both client- and employee-centric.
At this point in your life, what is your dream?
Ever since I was a little girl, my biggest dream was not for myself but my family: I wanted to give them a better life. I feel very fortunate that through hard work I am already making it happen. As for myself, I look forward to doing something to inspire as many people as I can. Especially young Vietnamese women in the corporate world — using what I’ve learned to help them become better versions of themselves.
How do you move forward when everyone is telling you that your idea won’t work?
I didn’t get to where I am now overnight. And I must admit, there were times when people didn’t see the potential in my ideas. The old me would react by jumping into a heated debate and refuse to back down. But now, I take the time to really listen and understand where they’re coming from. I had a hard time accepting this before, but the truth is, your opponent might actually have a point.
That being said, as a leader you need to believe in yourself. There will be situations that will require you to fight for your ideas. Occasionally, you will be proceeding on your own, with no backing, and it’s on you to get the results. And sometimes those results will fail to materialize. When it happens, file the experience under “lessons learned” and take responsibility for what went wrong.
You have been instrumental to the regional expansion of AAD. Briefly share with us the highlights of your experience in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore.
The trip to the Philippines was the most memorable one because it was my first time to leave my home country; my first passport stamp. In 2018, I was sent to Manila to establish AAD in that market. We started with a team of four, including myself, and it was a bit of a wild ride as I didn’t speak the language or know anything about the country.
But despite all the challenges, we were a revenue-generating success. In fact, after the Philippines, all the team members went on to assume leadership roles with ADD. It gives me so much joy and pride.
Malaysia was more laid-back in comparison, as e-commerce was already a well-established sector and local businesses knew what they were doing. And I have to say, the food in Malaysia was superb! Singapore was a short excursion but just as productive. Overall, I see my overseas experiences as instrumental to my professional and personal growth.
If you are to sell only one product online for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
I’ve been in the field of e-commerce from the get-go and if I am to choose only one thing to sell online, it will be my knowledge about the industry. In 2014, when I joined Lazada, I had no idea what the industry was about but immediately saw how it could help startups and those selling from home to earn money and be more financially stable. With my experience, I’d like to run online classes about the opportunities e-commerce offers.
What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
If you’re not there yet, wherever it is that you want to be, remember you're the only limitation and the only thing stopping you. When I got a promotion for the first time, people were against it. They couldn't understand why an intern was given a supervisory role when more experienced people were passed over. I felt bad, but it also pushed me to work harder to prove my worth.
To you who's reading this, people will say that it gets easier along the way. And it does, but unfortunately not for everyone. Believe me, you have to be tough because the real world is harsh and not all people are nice. Whenever I get discouraged, I remind myself of the quote about pineapples: “Be a pineapple: stand tall, wear a crown and be sweet inside”.