Updated: May 8, 2020
In our continuing coverage of COVID 19 in Saigon, we welcome Vietnamese American, Mimi Vu onto our WHATCHA THINKIN' seat. Mimi was born in Flint, Michigan, and grew up in a small nearby farm town with one stoplight and a population of 1,000. Her parents were Vietnamese refugees originally from Hanoi and Thai Binh Province who came to the US in 1975, right before the end of the war.
Mimi has been working in the non-profit sector in Vietnam for over 14 years and has become the go-to expert on anti-trafficking/slavery. Recently she has partnered up with Vietnamese American Van Ly and London-based Italian Paola de Leo to launch the social good consulting company, Raise Partners, whose mission is to help clients elevate their social good in a strategic, forward-thinking way.
Hidden Saigon (HS): What brought you to Vietnam?
Mimi Vu (MV): I came in 2006 to work for an American NGO in Danang called East Meets West Foundation. I finished my masters at NYU the year before and was working for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in NYC, but wanted international field experience before going back to school for a PhD. Vietnam wasn’t really on my radar as I had never been there and was looking more at going to northern Africa. My father, however, had been pushing me since graduate school to go to Vietnam and use my skills to help “rebuild the country.” I decided that I’d go wherever I got a job first, and within two weeks of sending out my CV I got an offer from East Meets West. Less than two months later I left the West Village and set foot in Vietnam for the very first time, and into major culture shock. My initial plan was to stay for two years and return to the US for school, but 14 years later I’m still here.
HS: How did you get into Non-Profit work?
MV: It wasn’t a straightforward journey, but every situation I went through was a stepping-stone to where I am today. Like every good Asian-American kid, I followed the science and math path and was in dental school until I realized that that career wasn’t going to fulfill my life the way I wanted it to. So I quit (much to my parents’ chagrin) and moved to NYC three days later with a vague notion of working in fashion. Two days after that was 9/11. I was fortunate, though, as I ended up getting a job a couple of weeks later doing public relations for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which happened to be my very first non-profit. My first project with them was a cause-related marketing campaign called “CFDA/Vogue Fashion for America,” which raised over $2 million for the Twin Towers Fund. After two years with the CFDA I realized that while I love fashion, the most exciting part of the job was the non-profit, social good side. I decided to do my masters in international policy and development and haven’t looked back since.
HS: Can you tell us a bit about Raise Partners. What do you focus on? Why did you start it?
MV: Van and I half-seriously kicked around the idea of doing something together in the last few years. We have similar backgrounds: Daughters of Vietnamese refugees who grew up in the Midwestern US, same degrees and career aspirations, and came to Vietnam around the same time to work in development. We met 13 years ago when I was at East Meets West and Van started as a volunteer. She took over my position a year later when I left to join VinaCapital Foundation as their Director of Development. After that our careers ran parallel and our professional and personal circles overlapped. There aren’t many female Viet Kieu doing long-term development work in Vietnam, so it was often just the two of us.
About a year ago our discussions turned serious; I was the Director of Advocacy & Partnerships for Pacific Links Foundation (an anti-trafficking NGO) and Van was testing the corporate waters at KPMG. We both had well-established careers and reputations but we wanted to do more “good” and not be tied to just one organization or company. Our priority has always been to make sure that Vietnam develops as well as possible, and for that to happen the country needs more local experts who: 1) Understand the short, medium, and long-term development challenges and how they intersect; 2) are experienced in developing creative solutions; and 3) have diverse local and international networks that can be used to marshal resources and create multi-stakeholder partnerships. We were also at the point in our careers where our value-add was less in direct implementation of projects and more about strategy, advising, and sharing our knowledge and experience with others.
Raise Partners’ mission is simply to help clients elevate their social good in a strategic, forward-thinking way. Our client base is diverse and includes corporations, governments, NGOs, and consortiums. Some of our current projects include developing the corporate citizenship strategy for EZ Land (a Vietnam-Luxembourg affordable housing developer) that’s integrated into their business strategy and long-term investment plans, supporting LaLiga’s CSR outreach activities and visibility in Vietnam, crafting the fundraising/communications strategy for East Meets West to attract Asia-based ultra-high net worth donors, and co-organizing LIN Center’s annual cross-sector partnership conference to support sustainable development.
Van and I also choose projects that strike a personal chord. For example, we’re working with Vietcetera, a media company with the mission of bringing Vietnam to the world, to create “Bridges,” a program that will place Viet Kieu ages 24+ in internships with companies in Vietnam. The participants get to connect more deeply with the Vietnamese part of their identity through a structured cultural program while gaining valuable work experience, and companies will benefit from their international work experience and education.
Bridges came out of conversations I had with Hao Tran, Vietcetera’s co-founder, on how we could encourage younger Viet Kieu to be closer to their Vietnamese roots and create paths for them to contribute professionally to Vietnam’s growth. We worry about the loss of culture and identity for younger Viet Kieu, so it was important for us to design a program that will he