Linh Thai: Earning Her Stripes In America, Building Her Company In Vietnam
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 Thai’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’s competitive market today.
Since leaving America, she spent five years as a Director at DFJ VinaCapital and three more years on her own startup journey.
We sit down with Linh Thai to learn about her perspective of working in Vietnam, her business Rita Phil, 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 what 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 people in their 20’s, I didn’t know what I truly loved!
Growing up, I never associated my personal or professional life 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 for numerous overseas Vietnamese in Vietnam. For many, the decision to come to Vietnam long-term often results from a random experience that helps them understand this path was meant to be.
So what was your random experience that led you here?
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 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 follow my professional dreams, 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, and 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, but also 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 to any situation.
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. However, 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 style of communication is different. And for any relationship 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 up Rita Phil. We make custom tailored skirts. We design and produce in Vietnam, and target customers in the US and other developed countries. We’ve created our own 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 Phil comes from the movie Groundhog Day. In the film, 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 make them look great.
What are some nice-to-knows about Rita Phil?
- 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 (or a remake) if you’re not happy with the product. We’ll also pay for shipping both ways.
- Empower women: For all our female customers we help them embrace their curves. And for our all-female staff we believe in training and teaching. Our tailor does HTML, the accountant does CSS, and our 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 or 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 with other projects, or 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 20’s 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 projects. Having at least a few years of rigorous training in America is ideal.
And let me make sure to put emphasis on “rigorous”. Just because you have a job that happens to be based in the US does not mean you are learning all that you can. 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.
Which restaurants and cafes can someone find you in Vietnam? Specifically in Ho Chi Minh City?
Between my family and leading the company, I like to order-in.
But, 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, I will go for “Gong Cha” and one of their coconut foam drinks combined with 4-5 toppings (go big or stay in bed!). I also love the hot chocolate from Maison Marou.
When friends are visiting, I’ll take them to Cuc Gach Quan restaurant. 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 the 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 knows the ins and outs of her family business and is now leading it into the next phase of growth. She is a great model businesswoman!
Julie Huynh: She is relatively new to Vietnam and has made a big impact on the growth of Rita Phil. She offers the unique perspective of the latest cohort of Viet Kieus—both learning from and teaching her local Vietnamese colleagues.
Huyen Tran: She leads the the publishing and business development for Sentifi and also runs marathons for fun. She’s a great person who works hard and plays hard too.
Caroline Le: She launched JuicElixir and is a champion of living a healthy lifestyle in Vietnam.