Out Of The Village: Toan Vo On Bootstrapping His Way To Success
A young Vietnamese man's story on overcoming his rural upbringing to achieve the American Dream.
Toan Vo speaking at at event. | Source: Toan Vo.
In our Minority Report series, we bring you candid conversations on race, culture and belonging with Vietnamese and Asians living and working in other countries. Join our discussion about being Vietnamese in the global workplace.
Born in a small village in Ha Tinh, near Ke Go lake, Toan Vo’s career prospects were limited: working for industrial factories in Vietnam’s South or becoming a construction worker. We trace his journey from aspiring to become a modern-day Võ Quý (an acclaimed Vietnamese ornithologist) to living the American Dream – with a high-powered job, a green card and a white-picket-fence house he shares with his wife.
A long shot
It was Facebook that provided Toan with a window to the world: college campuses dusted with snow, his friends camping among the fall foliage, casual snapshots of their exciting new life in the West. Scrolling through his social media feed as a first-year student at Hanoi’s National Economics University, Toan realized that education wasn’t just a ticket out of poverty, but a chance to completely rewrite his destiny; if he dared to dream big.
“I barely spoke any English back then and had never traveled by plane,” explains Toan. The first person in his village to attend college, he was already a success story back home. He did well in school and at the age of 12, with encouragement from his family, left the countryside behind to fulfil his academic potential elsewhere. Eventually, Toan happily set roots in Hanoi to study finance and banking. But that first year of college, with the brightest of his friends jetting off to American universities, the seed of bolder ambition was planted. Suddenly, getting a prestigious degree and a job at a white-shoe firm in Vietnam seemed like a low bar.
“A month after I told my mom about my dream to study in the US, she showed me a box with a few thousand dollars she had squirreled away so that I didn’t have to worry about money once there.” Having his family’s unwavering support was all the inspiration Toan needed to double down on his English lessons. The effort paid off. He got a scholarship for the master’s program in Economics and Finance from Brandeis University in the US.
Duty over passion
Today, Toan is doing his MBA in Business Analytics at Chicago Booth School of Business while working for Duolingo – a leading language-learning platform. After getting his Master's Degree from Brandeis University in 2015, he became a consultant at PwC in New York, met his wife there and became a homeowner. On more than one occasion, succeeding on the chosen path meant doing what was right rather than what felt good.
“I had mixed feelings watching my friends quit their high-flying corporate jobs to pursue their true passions,” admits Toan. “But then I decided that sticking with the things you don’t really like, for bigger purposes, is very honorable too.” Despite having the mindset of a global citizen, at least outwardly, Toan admits that in his heart of hearts he is still a countryman whose sense of worth is derived from being able to provide for his extended family and make them proud.
Sacrifices aside, Toan feels extremely fortunate. And he is grateful: to his family and mentors for sensing a spark in him; to America for his golden ticket; to the Vietnamese diaspora for keeping him tethered to his homeland’s culture through all these years.
From nail technicians and former gang members to Google Brain research scientists and hedge fund managers, the Vietnamese Americans he has met over the years not only offer a wide cross section of the diaspora, but speak of the American society at large: wonderfully diverse yet divided along many lines.
Coming to Waltham, Massachusetts, did you go through the usual phases of a culture shock?
Not really, as I moved to the US after graduating from college, and already had experience living alone since early age. I believe Vietnamese are generally good at adapting to new environments, not to mention that everything is easier with the internet around. Also Waltham is a small town, and the campus has a lot of pine trees, so I got to experience the countryside again.
How easy was it for a young man from rural Vietnam to adjust to life on campus at an American university? Does Brandeis University have a large Asian/Vietnamese contingent of students?
It was not easy at first. I had a famously strong accent, part of the reason being, I think, that I am from Ha Tinh. When I was in Hanoi, just like many other Ha Tinh people living there, I even had to change my accent so my classmates could understand me. It is challenging to blend in if people don’t understand what you’re talking about.
Brandeis has a lot of international students, from over 40 countries, with the majority being Chinese and a few from Vietnam. I became close friends with a Bhutanese auditor, an Indian engineer, and a Rwandan genocide survivor. I learned so many new accents and heard so many interesting life stories there.
You’ve now lived in Boston, New York and Chicago. Where did you feel most welcome and why?
I could be a bit biased, as this is where I’ve spent most of my time in the US, but I think in New York. It is extremely diverse, and you can meet literally any kind of people there, from all over the world. It’s not just predominantly the New England folks like in Boston, or Midwesterners like in Chicago. Also New York has a strong hustle culture that is usually a good fit for immigrants.
My former boss in consulting in New York was a Mexican who worked as a security guard at night to pay for his tuition at Yale and worked his way up to the Head of Americas practice of a very white-shoe firm. When I asked him about a green card sponsorship, he approved right away and told me the practice had sponsored over 200 green cards to employees, with the very first one being his.
Are you the only member of your family living overseas? How did they react to your decision to stay abroad?
Yes, I am the only one. My parents were not too happy about it as they wanted me to live near them. They were also concerned about my work-life balance situation in the US. My mom only agreed to my decision after I showed her around Boston, and she realized that I have a lot of good friends and mentors there.
What are some of the racial and cultural stereotypes Vietnamese living in the US have to face on a daily basis?
I can’t speak for all Vietnamese living in the US, but I personally find it curious that many people here think I am from the Philippines or China. Also, while it has never happened to me, I’ve recently heard stories of Asian immigrants in the US being attacked or being told to “go back to China,” due to COVID-19. Those are extremely sad and horrible incidents. Sometimes I think that because I lived in Vietnam until I was 22, I might never fully understand the true scale of racial and cultural stereotypes US-raised migrants have to face on a daily basis.
As a minority, have you ever felt discriminated against when applying for a job or felt that your professional growth was hindered?
I think it is always challenging for any minority, or any international student, to get a job or build a career in the US. It is one of the most competitive environments in the world. There were of course a couple of times when I thought I deserved better: an interview I did not get, a presentation someone else got to do or a promotion that I was not even considered for.
During my very first job interview in the US with a top consulting firm, the hiring manager encouraged me to go home and be a star there, implying they would not give me the job. But I tend to look at the bright side of things, focusing instead on what I can improve and appreciating every opportunity. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if I am really all that better than those US-born citizens who come from rural areas, just like me, but who could not afford the expensive college tuition or didn't get a scholarship, and who never even traveled to New York?
Many young Vietnamese Americans struggle to discuss political and social issues with the older generation, as the past is inevitably brought up. Have you experienced the generational gap?
Definitely. It is always challenging to discuss political and social issues with anyone whose background and life experience are very different from yours. It’s interesting to learn that many Vietnamese Americans also struggle to talk with their parents about certain topics, just like young Vietnamese people living in Vietnam. I am pretty lucky that my parents are quite open-minded, but of course I still need to regularly provide them with more information on political and social issues in the US.
You’ve maintained close ties with Vietnam despite having built a life and career in the US. Would you ever consider moving back should an opportunity to make a difference here in your homeland present itself?
Definitely, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that. The ‘when’ and the ‘how’ but also wondering how I can add value to my homeland. It feels like solving an equation; you have all the variables, and I hope I will be able to find the root soon.