Losing a limb is never easy, regardless of the reason. Amputation inevitably changes the life of a person as well as the lives of the people around them.
The number of amputees in developing countries, especially those that were ravaged by wars in the 20th century, is truly staggering. In fact, Vietnam is reported to have 200,000 amputees and it’s increasing by 3-4% yearly since 1996 mainly because of undetonated landmines.
Then twenty-four-year-old Toại, a passionate game app developer, lost one of his arms, one leg, and an eye after a landmine accidentally exploded near his house in Kon Tum. But that didn’t stop him from continuing to live his life, he can even play the ukulele and hold a beer with his prosthetics on.
However, many amputees in the country are having a hard time finding stable earning jobs, what’s worse is some, even when they’re already wearing a prosthetic limb, are still unable to go back to their normal life.
As a result, the smallest disruptions they face every day and society's perception of them have made them question their true potential.
“All I know is I want to take a lead”
Trịnh Khánh Hạ, or Ella to many, has made it her life goal to empower every amputee in the country.
Growing up in a military household, Ella learned to take care of herself at an early age. “I was raised to be a very disciplined, resilient and don’t-mess-with-me kind of kid at school and in my neighborhood.”
She excelled academically and socially; teachers loved her and her parents were proud. “Kids want to be my friend. Everyone seems to want to be around me.”
While she was aware of her potential and capabilities, Ella didn’t have any specific answer to a question kids are commonly asked: “What did you want to be when you grew up?”
“All I know is I want to take a lead, to help others become better and happier, and I want to be in a position where I can make my own decisions,” she confidently expressed.
In 2017, she got her Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and Management from Cardiff Metropolitan University, one of the UK's prestigious institutions. Immediately after, a shopping fashion site for modern women was founded, Ella’s first brainchild.
“Boss Lady is my first business venture as a response to my desire to embark on an entrepreneurial journey as soon as I can.”
Problems create opportunity
London is like Disneyland for anyone with dreams, and that’s one of the directions Ella wanted to take — “to stay in London and kickstart my career there.” But like many successful Vietnamese who left home to face a bigger world out there, Ella still found her way back and decided to stay in her homeland since then.
She came back to Vietnam for three main reasons: one, people don’t think too much, they just do; two, it’s cheaper and safer to fail; and lastly, wherever there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity to solve it.
On “people don’t think too much, they just do,” Ella said it might be one of the weaknesses usually, but at least for startups' context, “this quality works out quite well. When speed is key and you don’t know how things would turn out if you don't take the first step, this attitude gives us an edge.”
According to her, in an early stage for any startup, you only need 20-30% of “thinkers” in your team and the rest should be those who are comfortable taking actions with minimum data and analysis — the go-getters and risk-takers.
“This is my observation from having international talents in the team. While expat team members are good at thinking multiple steps in advance and with multiple perspectives, Vietnamese team members are utterly fierce doers and execute things at light speed, failing on their faces sometimes, but they would again just pick themselves up and rebuild and improve and upgrade their game.”
On why it’s cheaper and safer to fail in Vietnam, Ella based it on her own experience. Although it failed, with Boss Lady taking away $5000 from her bank account, she was able to gain more from it. Priceless ones.
“The cost of failing or starting up a tech startup would have been 10 times higher in other countries, while the problem we're solving here is as big, or even bigger!”
Speaking of which, Vietnam is full of problems… and opportunities, according to Ella. “This is a big yes for entrepreneurs who are seeking for problems and gaps in the market to design solutions and provide values for.”
To Ella, her biggest adventure so far is when she started her own startup business with little money and knowledge right after college. “I failed on my face, broke like a student, and still came back to startups.”
“She Loves Tech”
Ella is best known for her pitching skills. In fact, she won She Loves Tech in 2020, the world's largest startup competition for women and tech in over 40 countries.
In the same year, during the Hult Prize, the largest global competition for social entrepreneurship in partnership with the UN and former US President Bill Clinton, she was invited to deliver pitching training to 16 startups in Vietnam, mentor three finalist startups and judge for the Regional Semi-final of the competition.
When asked how she would pitch herself to a crowd, she said “It's hard to imagine the answer for this question but I would say the most valuable thing I could contribute to a business is the ability to attract, keep and work effectively with people to deliver a shared goal. The quality of a solution depends on the quality of thoughts and execution of the people who work on it. In the early days of a startup, when your funding is very limited, you need this skill to attract talents to work for half or a third of their market price and still feel motivated and happy. In later stages, you need this skill to work with people who have more expertise and experience in the field. At all stages, you need this skill to gain support and trust from others including but not limited to customers, distributors, partners, investors.”
Proud-to-wear piece of tech
A simple Google search reveals the word Vulcan means “god of fire and metalworking.” True to its definition, Vulcan Augmetics creates something with metals.
Vulcan Augmetics believes that everyone can do amazing things for not just themselves but most importantly for the people they dedicate their products to: Vietnamese amputees. It’s their main goal to not just fix what they’ve lost, but eventually, upgrade their quality of life, and bring back their sense of personal value.
Ella is the co-founder and COO at Vulcan, currently managing a team of talented engineers, developing affordable and modular prosthetics for targeting developing markets.
“Vulcan Augmetics aims to turn human augmentation technology into consumer products. This includes changing how they are designed, manufactured and distributed to end-users.”
Remember Toại, the game app developer who plays ukulele with his prosthetics on? That was from Vulcan Augmetics. Matter of fact, he’s now joined the product research and development team of Vulcan.
Vulcan started with a prosthetic arm. Since then, they figured out there is a huge market gap and abundant opportunity to make innovation in this field. This is where Ella’s “wherever there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity to solve it” comes in.
“The original idea came from my co-founder Rafael Masters,” Ella revealed. Rafael grew up next to the biggest disabled college in the UK and soon realized how technology can help improve the lives of the disabled. When he came to Vietnam, he saw the gap in the market and the technology and found that Vietnam is a perfect place to start such an initiative.
As for Ella, growing up in a military residence and often seeing people with missing body parts from the war, “I knew Vulcan would be where my entrepreneurial skills and my purpose-driven mindset finally meet.”
She joined Vulcan in its sixth month in operation, at that time they only had two prototypes. “My job was to turn the little project into a company with a decent culture and sound process in place. I started to recruit CPO (chief product officer), some more engineers and other key members to speed up product development; started to pitch Vulcan to partners like The Coffee House and UNDP, and represented Vulcan in various startups competitions and awards. Eight months into my job, we had the first successful fit of the robotic arm on a user.”
To build the momentum, Ella and her team at Vulcan spent another year and a half to refine and make it into a commercial product that is “cost-effective to manufacture and a proud-to-wear piece of tech for users.”
With their efforts and hard work, Vulcan is now available and accessible to amputees across Vietnam through a network of 17 prosthetics clinics and hospital partners — providing a sense of hope to those who need it the most.
Clear expectations + trust + recognition = empowerment
When asked about her proudest moment, Ella didn’t refer to her own accomplishments. Instead, she mentioned a certain team member named Được, an amputee who then joined Vulcan as a product tester. Được was in his sophomore year at the university when Ella met him and according to her, “had little goals in life, not sure what to do with his current major he didn’t know why he was taking.”
Ella referred to him as “the bravest person on Earth to say yes to work with hungry engineers at Vulcan who were developing new tech to attach to his body.” But apart from his courage, she saw a future community leader and “made it my personal goal to develop him into one.”
Được became a TEDTalk speaker and to Ella, that was the first true moment of pride in her years of experience in building her team and the product. And it was Được’s first time to ever do public speaking.
“We had spent two months getting ready for it with me coaching him every day. From a shy guy who didn't interact much with others, he was there on the TEDTalk stage — wearing our Vulcan arm and sharing how one can create unique value from one's own uniqueness.”
Presently, Được is Vulcan’s Sales and Community Developer. He develops the product by being the main product tester and when they launch it to the market, he helps share the product experience, with webinars and workshops, to more users and create a user community where everyone feels a great sense of belonging and pride.
“Được was the first example of how I managed to empower and grow an individual to excellence,” Ella shared.
As a female leader in tech, when empowering others, it’s pretty simple for her. “To me, clear expectations + trust + recognition = empowerment.”
She continued, “Don’t try to do it alone, however smart you think you are.” And that great work takes a team to deliver but for one to have a team, one needs to define their values and standards.
Giving disabled people another shot at life through prosthetics is just the beginning of Vulcan’s mission. Seeing thousands of more people wearing Vulcan products and transforming them into becoming stronger and happier keeps Ella and her team going. They want to be a part of making Vietnam into a tech innovation hub of SEA, not just for manufacturing.
“Looking forward, we want to be the first place people come to when they think of assistive technology. We want to be the place where people can come online, become aware of the best and easiest technology there is, and have it delivered to their door at a price point that suits their needs.”
At the moment, they intend to improve the user experience, especially those who come from remote areas in Vietnam. “The products will cover a range of assistive technologies and will be supported by a proprietary software and app suite which will use edge computing and ML (machine learning) on people’s phones to make the learning and calibration process easy and seamless.
To Ella and Vulcan, it takes a joint effort from both the amputees and society to change the current situation. With the people who use technology to enable those with limitations, and a community that accepts and supports, the future holds a promise for the amputees — where instead of feeling they lack something, they become empowered and capable. Because truly, they are.
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