Huong Nguyen is a force to be reckoned with. Her savvy business mind has been behind the project launches of non-profit entrepreneurship collective Viet Youth Entrepreneurs and the co-working space CirCO. Consistent to her vision is the creation of sustainable platforms for collaboration that disrupt traditional business models. These are underpinned by supportive networks that are helping to nurture business leaders of the future.
Naturally, we wanted to know more. So we took a break from our daily grind to pick her brain about the secrets of her success conducting business in male-dominated industries, what inspired her to leave a potentially comfortable corporate career in America and Singapore to return home to Vietnam, and what ambitions she still harbors for the future.
What excites you about Vietnam?
Society here revolves around the family much more than in Western culture, and even compared to many other Asian countries too. In that regard, our community here is much more tightly knit. I think this allows women the opportunity to take charge, and play a leading role in professional contexts.
Are there still challenges with being young and ambitious in traditionally male-dominated industries?
I’m part of a new wave of entrepreneurs. We’re challenging the incumbents in the industry, while also working alongside them. Most, if not all, are open to working with me. It takes some time, but I am successfully managing to build relationships with older-generation business leaders, some of whom don’t speak English. We can and do find middle ground when conducting business within a more traditional framework. It probably helps that I’m Vietnamese at heart. I’m able to communicate our shared values.
What are some of the most important things you gained from studying overseas?
Well, everyone wants to make a difference and I was lucky to be part of a community centered around that ideology. On the other hand, I find that some Vietnamese want prosperity and change, but mostly for themselves alone. That equates to a competitive desire for a high-paying job, and a wish to be based overseas rather than to contribute to the economy here.
At Stanford, I was massively inspired to see peers not only working for themselves, but also contributing to society. Satisfaction for my peers at Stanford was very different to the kind of things that satisfy many of the people around me here in Vietnam. At the same time, it was intimidating because these people at Stanford were incredibly smart and passionate in articulating their visions.
Did you often get the feeling that you didn’t fit in at Stanford?
Before my studies had ended, I had already decided to return to Vietnam. My wish was also to contribute to society and build something great, but Vietnam was where I wanted to do that, not the US. Progress in Vietnam will require more of us to help propel it. The US, on the other hand, already has the people to do that, and the infrastructure is already in place there. That’s not to say things work well 100% of the time, but they do have well-developed systems of education, healthcare and pensions, for example. As a result, as a community-oriented entrepreneur, there’s not as much opportunity to build something from the ground up. Vietnam is still laying those foundations, and industries like retail and real estate provide the chance for massive growth and development. That’s where I want to be.
What separates CirCO from conventional co-working spaces?
CirCO is a unique form of real estate that doubles as an incubator business. We want CirCO to be a place where we can incorporate high-level services while providing a physical platform that facilitates the growth of young startups. Through our model, we have created deal flow and investment opportunities for our community by offering partnerships, products, and services. This makes us a bit different from the traditional co-working space.
While we mostly work with technology entrepreneurs at CirCO, we know that innovation is a dynamic process which doesn’t follow a fixed formula. Young people in Vietnam, including foreigners and Viet Kieu, have distinctly different needs in regards to work culture. The CirCO concept caters well to each of these different segments. We’re more open than the typical co-working space, which helps members connect with a wide range of people. We like to mix it up and support our community to take part in events and social gatherings with like-minded people from different backgrounds.
We also look carefully at the details of our physical space. For example, one of the largest global workspace businesses in the world, Regus, is known for creating closed-off spaces that cater to corporations with different needs—like privacy and formality. CirCO, however, is targeting a different kind of customer. To them this is more than just an office.
How has that concept become a business model?
We help facilitate important business events by leasing out our space when it’s beneficial to our community. We encourage these kinds of activities at CirCO with discounts or even by hosting the free events ourselves. However, we approach our business from a few different angles. The first is focused around location. We chose an area that is attractive for our young demographic. Second is the quality of the building’s structure. We notice small details like the materials used and the approach to interior design. These come together to create a space that projects inspiration. The customer’s journey is our third pillar—from their enrollment through to their day-to-day experience of working here. And lastly, we consider the services we offer. Are they competitive in among the existing market, and are we creating innovative options that don’t exist elsewhere? With these four components in place, we have a space that is ideal for the fruition of entrepreneurial ideas.
You’re also co-founder of the Viet Youth Entrepreneurs (VYE) group. Can you tell us more about your engagement with this nonprofit organization?
We started in 2011, so this is my seventh year. And, in fact, founding Viet Youth Entrepreneurs is what led me to CirCO, and also into the real estate industry. Being around like-minded young Vietnamese conditioned me to think outside the box, and to this day I still keep in touch with many of them. In fact, I’m currently business partners with a handful of the people I met through that organization.
It was after helping to found Viet Youth Entrepreneurs when I left for America to study at Stanford. During my time there, I realized that my education wasn’t only about taking classes or absorbing the information in books. It was rooted in my peer-to-peer interactions. An upbeat energy and enthusiastic atmosphere is what shapes our work ethic. When I graduated and started work at Bain & Company, I knew that I didn’t want to stay for too long. It helped me build skills, but served more as a stepping stone to my business-building ventures in Vietnam. My combined experiences at Viet Youth Entrepreneurs and at Stanford have both helped me bring a fresh perspective to Vietnam’s construction and real estate industries.
What are some new projects that you’re working on?
Right now, I’m focusing my efforts on two hospitality projects—one in Hoi An and the other in Danang. I’m also looking at a few residential projects in Ho Chi Minh City. While real estate is one of my primary focuses, I’m eager to get involved with something more tangible like consumer products or manufacturing, though I’m still giving that some thought. Real estate is certainly more cyclical, and I’d like to build a brand that is completely stable.