A Working Woman: Truong Ly Hoang Phi On Supporting Vietnamese Startups
We met Truong Ly Hoang Phi on a Saturday, after securing an appointment slot in her hectic schedule. Her weekdays, she explained to us, are booked until 9pm, and meetings and deadlines often stretch her workday until midnight. To find the time to sit down and discuss her career and life passions is a tough task, and even on the Saturday of our meeting, Phi’s obligations immediately seized her at the conclusion of our interview.
The country knows her as a guest investor on Shark Tank Vietnam, but long before that, Phi was renowned as a dedicated leader in the startup world. Formerly the director of BSSC’s Center for Youth Entrepreneurship and the current CEO of VinTech City, as well as being actively involved in many domestic startup support activities, she has been leading the development of strong entrepreneurship ecosystem in Vietnam.
In this next article of the A Working Woman series, join us in meeting one of Vietnam’s leading entrepreneurs. Our hope is that her insights can help inspire young people as they embark on their careers.
Please share the 3 values that you believe in and will never compromise.
The three values that I believe in are integrity, responsibility, and creating real value.
Why did you decide to associate your career around the development and support of start-ups?
I’m someone who likes to observe innovations in a positive and creative way, and the start-up environment is exactly that. The innovative change here is not just in terms of ideas, business models or finance. In the end, it’s a change in people’s perspective. Finding the right direction; turning an idea into a realistic business model; and bringing value to society requires the maturity of a startup team. Witnessing that process makes me happy, and that is the catalyst for my long-term attachment to the startup environment.
What is the mission you set for young entrepreneurs?
Initially, people named me the “midwife” of the startup community, because I had been doing start-up support work from the early stages, when the term “startup” was still new in Vietnam. I think my mission is to be a partner with startups – supporting, advising and connecting the necessary resources for startups. Not only that, I hope I can create new values and new support resources for startups.
Can you share some of your strengths at work?
I think I already had “entrepreneurial blood,” and then developed the traits of a mentor more sharply through training.
Regarding my strengths, first, I think that I can listen well. Any support that comes from empathy and sharing becomes more comfortable and enduring. Secondly is the ability to observe and analyze people and problems with an optimistic perspective. We can ask for a job to be done perfectly but it is difficult to ask for a person to be perfect. Therefore, there should be a positive perspective to help a person and find their strengths to promote.
Next comes fierceness and always asking questions. Starting a business means you hear a lot of varying perspectives, from supporters to opponents who think that your ideas are impossible. But at the end of the day, I have to ask myself, “How is it impossible?”, “How can I overcome weaknesses?” … Fierceness is the guide to help you take action every day, and the focus will give you the results to keep going.
Finally, perseverance – an element that everyone in the startup world has, and I am no exception.
Do you have any weaknesses that you need to overcome?
I have many weaknesses and I’m still trying to improve every day. But most prominently are the cases where I “allow” my heart to dominate support and investment decisions.
People often say that bringing emotions into business is not good, and emotions reduce rationality. But I’m a woman, so the “struggle” between emotion and reason is inevitable. There will be rational models of protection that are not timely and risky, but the heart says that things can be better if it can help. So I think I need to be aware of when I should listen to my heart. If you do that, affection will become your strong point.
Can you share the nature of your current job?
My work always revolves around the two keywords: “people” and “business”. In other words, the worlds of entrepreneurship and education. The nature of this job gives me many perspectives on resources regarding people, talents and supportive platforms.
Specifically, in the past, at BSSC, I mostly gave advice and support to young people starting a business, but now with VinTech City, I contact more diverse talents. I spend a lot of time interacting and working with applied researchers who want to bring their products from the lab to the market. They share passion and creativity, and most of them work hard to bring their products to the startup market.
For the start-up ecosystem in Vietnam, I think that there are three important pillars that need to be built: human resources technology, product technology, and ecosystems for support for those two. I’m lucky to be trying to contribute to these pillars, little by little every day.
I work towards finding solutions, creating a platform to encourage the cohesion of technological talent from universities, professors, lecturers, researchers, startups and intellectuals in the field of Vietnamese technology. Working globally to create a diverse and long-term ecosystem is the most unique and exciting aspect of the nature of the work.
In the process of selecting a startup or research application to support, what are the criteria and factors you need to observe before making a decision?
The first element is innovation and creativity both in technology and solutions. Whether startups or applied research teams are “looking” through the lens of this creativity. This key question raises another important question, what are the breakthroughs and the differences here?
The second is market factors and the ability of the product to commercialize. Will the market accept this product after a long period of research? Accept it to what extent? How big is the market? And importantly, are there any market barriers that have been, or will be, created?
The third but extremely important factor is the human element. The startup or the research team, in order to create results, depends on their execution capacity, commitment, and reliability as a team.
In fact, not all successful, highly regarded research projects can have high commercialization potential. To go from an academically successful project to a product, researchers need to persevere in pursuing and finding the most appropriate application for the market. This process requires the patience of the reviewer and support, accompanied by tools to measure levels of effectiveness.
What are the challenges you often encounter at work?
The relentless innovation and creativity that the startup environment brings is also its challenge. The speed and spin of the startup economy does not allow entrepreneurs to stop. They always have to strive to improve themselves and the products they create.
Startups need a team willing to engage with and dare to accept a life with uncertainty. It’s a challenge. Even if you are the best planner, you cannot always foresee changes in such a creative, uncertain and risky environment.
In your career, do you have a mentor? How have they affected your career?
I think everyone should have a mentor. They don’t necessarily have the deepest or “best” insights in your field, but a mentor should be someone who understands you, and the best of both your strengths and weaknesses. Mentors will be the one to motivate and encourage you to step out of the comfort zone and to make decisions at the most important moments in your life.
I’m fortunate enough to have a mentor who understands and makes me more confident in making decisions when I have doubts. And I’ve walked out of the safety zone twice.
The first time was in 2010, when I was a lecturer at the University of Economics – Ho Chi Minh City, and had a good job at the telecommunications company but wanted to start with BSSC – a completely new idea in Vietnam. It was my mentor at the time who encouraged me to make the decision to give up my inherent stability and follow the “ego” that likes challenges and creating new things.
And the second time was when I took up a new role at VinTech City. At that time, BSSC had come a long way and achieved certain successes. It is difficult to step out of a place where we are at the peak to start over in a “new race”. The mentor comes at times when I need to make a decision, giving me more perspectives. Ultimately, I make my own decision, but I’m grateful for the support.
Do you feel that there’s a lack of women in entrepreneurship? And do you encourage women to participate in this environment?
I’ve always asked, why there are so few women? Even when they are very persistent, drastic and creative.
However, with the development of society, I believe that women will increasingly “untie” the conservative mindset, being responsible for their family while following their career dreams. I believe we will see many more women achieve significantly in the field in the future.
Of course, with that said, I’ve encouraged women to participate in the startup environment with a good mentality and good preparation. Why not encourage them? The start-up environment is really interesting for women who want to create new values to make their lives more interesting.
In your opinion, what skills do women need to be able to succeed in this environment?
Women should be prepared to spend a lot of time, sacrificing short-term interests for longer-term goals, which are their work and passion.
It is often said that women are weak. Emotionally, they are more easily moved by outside ideas than men, so the second thing to prepare is consistency, principles, goals and beliefs in what they are aiming for. Naturally, consistency is different from conservatism.
In addition, the business environment has many unknowns around us, so we need to prepare ourselves to face things that do not go as expected. To balance work and emotion, women need friends and mentors to share with and support each other.
What is one lesson that you’ve focused on throughout your career path?
I always told myself that speed is not as important as creating real value a positive impact for the community I am working with. It is these things that will motivate me to keep going, whether taking the short or long route.
The current environment allows us, especially young people, to try and do more things than ever before. But at the end of the matter, I hope people always ask themselves: What value am I creating? Is that the value I really want? Do I feel satisfied with my job? On the long road, who are you? There is a need for principles to learn and help oneself grow.
Up until now, have your milestones or achievements made you satisfied?
Definitely yes. Achievement does not need to be great things, going back to my earlier point, it can be about whether we are engaging with work we love, and creating value for the community we love. If you look at it from that perspective, you have achieved and done something meaningful if those things are true.
For you, the definition of success is…
When you are happy with the value you create for yourself and the community. Success does not mean wealth or influence. For me, a successful person is someone who is pursuing their passion and realizing what they believe in. They have the life they want, and they are themselves. I think happiness is the point between what you have and what you want. We all want happiness and success.