Vietnam recognizes education as a national priority — spending 20% of its yearly budget on education. The Vietnamese government’s strong commitment to education and long-standing cultural and social support for education has led to significant progress in the sector and in every child.
Mai Nguyen values education and excelled at it. As a child, she already had the passion for teaching, to impart knowledge — first, she wanted to become a math teacher and then eventually, an astrophysics professor. Quite specific and rare in that case, when normally, kids just say, “I want to be a teacher” or “I want to be a scientist.” Just goes to show how, even at a young age, she already knew what she wanted in life.
And just like a real teacher, then-young Mai was already a firm believer of a person’s potential and how what one does today will affect her tomorrow. “I didn’t study for the sake of getting a trophy degree, I need to know how useful it is to my future projects.”
In 2010, Mai got her Mechanical Engineering degree, with honors, from the National University of Singapore. A year after, she joined ABB Robotics, still in Singapore, and commissioned industrial robotics projects to gain experience in automation and working for a big, global company. “We built robotic packaging lines for food, pharmaceutical, and many other industries.” She also spent three months in India as a robotics developer intern at Robots Alive Consulting Pte. Ltd., as well as a fellow for sustainability and social entrepreneurship at The DO School in New York City.
She considers herself really fortunate for being able to study and work in Singapore and other countries. “But at some point, in 2014, I developed this feeling that I had seen enough of the world, and I wanted to go home and explore what my country has to offer.”
After four years of gaining useful knowledge and skills across Asia and the US, she came back to Vietnam with a goal to make things a little better by sharing everything she learned with others — enabling ordinary people to also master technology by bringing a sense of purpose and creativity together.
“I took the time to visit different places throughout Vietnam, see different communities, build connections and learn as much as I can. Interacting with the youth here gives me hope and I wish I could share with them new ways of thinking and doing, to boost local innovation and sustainability.”
“Independent woman who does whatever she likes”
Mai grew up in the peaceful coastal town of Danang where she spent her summer afternoons with her parents, driving a Honda Club to the beach. “I had a lovely childhood with lots of opportunities for constructive / make-believe play in the garden of my paternal grandpa and I always had my cousins and neighborhood kids that I could play with.” She bonded well with her grandparents. In fact, she got her love for plants from her grandfather who introduced her to gardening. “My paternal grandma was my hero when she wiped a big fat toad off a door which scared me, with her bare hands.”
To her father, Mai is a stubborn daughter “who did not heed his advice to study economics for university, instead opting for engineering, and again not going for post-graduate studies for the past four years.”
As for Mai’s partner, whom she met in the university, she’s someone who does not want to be constrained, “always has some crazy ideas, rarely lets go of them but is also easily distracted,” and is doing many things at the same time. When she puts her mind to something, she’s just unstoppable.
To her younger sisters, she’s an independent woman who does whatever she likes, enjoys traveling, and is a hungry artist. “Several people often asked me to tell them where I’m traveling next so I guess they think I know off-the-beaten-trail places to go?”
However people defined her, one thing was true to her ever since: her love for doing hands-on projects and making a difference in the best way she can.
New reasons to stay in Vietnam
Coming back to Vietnam, things got a little messy for Mai, but in a good way, as she discovered new reasons to stay longer — there was the maker community, craft community, technical-artist circles, and “I wanted to take on interdisciplinary projects that somehow involved design, art, tech and social impacts”, confirming what Mai’s partner thinks of her. However, she’s not the type that starts something all at once and leaves it all behind unfinished. In fact, her practices and business services revolve around three core values: learning by doing, sustainable design, and creativity and innovation.
Mai’s social entrepreneurship project is called INGO. It’s a DIY kit for children to discover the traditional art of making Dong Ho woodblock prints either at home or at school.
The last four years have been somewhat exploratory for her. She worked on a variety of projects from STEM education, media art, circular economy, and design consulting which hugely helped her in coming up with the core values.
Mai loves engineering, just as much as she loves technology, entrepreneurship, sustainable innovations, arts and design, culture, and creativity. And her LinkedIn profile says, “The intersection between technologies, design, and social innovation get the best out of me.”
In addition to that, her life’s philosophy that she coined during her last year in the university while applying for jobs is “create more while consuming less”. She said she learned a lot about consumerism and sustainable living and production in the university, mostly from documentaries and grassroots leaders.
“So I tried to buy less, focusing on what one really needs, buy things that are good for the long-term, and maintain a lifestyle that minimizes the use of resources, from food to water to transportation and reduce footprints on the planet.”
At the same time, Mai always wanted to work on building innovative solutions, that are also sustainable and valuable to others. “So that philosophy is just about thinking of myself like a mechanistic body, connecting what goes in and what comes out. The inputs are resources like food, water, clothing, etc. that I need to maintain my existence, and outputs are products, and solutions, and ideas too.”
Creative social entrepreneur
A maker, a circular designer, and a creative social entrepreneur is how Mai describes herself to the Fablab or Fabrication Laboratory community. Together with a friend, they set up Fablab Saigon — where they provide a space, tools, training, and community to support making, prototyping, design, and innovation. She also co-organized the 4th Fablab Asia Network Conference in 2018 focusing on sustainable development goals.
Just to give a quick background, the first Fablab worldwide was started by Neil Gershenfeld at the MIT Center of Bits and Atoms in 2004, with the intention of giving ordinary people the tools to design and innovate. Presently, there are more than 1,500 Fablabs in the world, each operating independently but must follow the MIT charter. Fablab Saigon is the first registered Fablab in Vietnam.
“People contact us when they have a new product or project idea and would require a 3D-printer, laser-cutter, CNC machine, electronics or sewing machine, etc. to make it. By sharing infrastructure and tools, and enabling a model of pay-per-use, we reduce the burden of investing in your own workshop and lower the barriers to innovation.” They’re in partnership with Toong Vista Verde co-working space, sharing the same vision of growing a creative community in Saigon where art and science can meet.
“By distributed innovation, an ordinary person, when empowered, can design, produce, test and innovate just as productively as someone working in an R&D department of a company.”
When things don’t work out, take a small break
When asked how she moves forward when someone says her idea won’t work or isn’t good enough, Mai said, “I will do it anyway, if I can afford to, and with an open mind. And if I’m wrong, at least I won’t regret not listening to that little voice inside.”
To her, when things don’t work out, one can simply take a break, do something else, and come back stronger to improve what needs to be improved. If anything, she’s not too afraid of taking a break from things. “While you’re trying, if a new opportunity comes up, take it.”
Mai said that when you’re losing the motivation to continue, just ask yourself the question, “are you motivated enough to take on any challenges that come with pursuing your idea?” And apparently, for her, she always gets a roaring yes.
Talking about taking on challenges, Mai is making a catalog of sustainable materials from Vietnam to get certified and become the first Vietnamese instructor of Fabacademy — a global educational program where you can learn to make almost anything in just five months and making this program available in Vietnam and promoting more open-source hardware projects to the community, especially women.
Having a degree in mechanical engineering but pursuing a different career path, she often gets asked about her choices. “One can choose to be shadowed by narrow clouds of the past, or to have a wide-open future led by curiosity.”
Mai is determined to build a better tomorrow, in the best way she can, using creativity and technology to help the community.
TechLeads features technology leaders as well as the latest tech trends — how they change lives and businesses, and the problems they solve. The goal is to bring out the human side behind the tech.