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 help strengthen personal and professional ties between future generations of Viet Kieu and Vietnam.
HS: What are some challenges you face as a female entrepreneur?
MV: I haven’t had any challenges from the gender perspective; I think it’s because I’ve lived here for so long and our business occupies a very niche market. Entrepreneurial challenges Van and I encountered include navigating the red tape of setting up our own business, coordinating work styles, and switching our mindset from non-profit to for-profit because as NGO people we're not used to putting a value amount to our work. I’m not an extravagant person but I live and eat well, so it’s been interesting to learn how to strike a balance between doing good and making sure that we can support ourselves now and in the future. Van and I are very much in the vein of “we can always do more to help!” but then we have to remind each other that we also need to make money to grow our business.
We also want the business to do well because a key part of our plan is to hire and train local Vietnamese to be the next generation of multi-disciplinary development consultants. There are many young Vietnamese who studied abroad and want to work in development back in Vietnam, but there aren’t too many job options besides NGOs. We want to offer a different career avenue in which they can play an important role in shaping Vietnam’s future.
Van and I work hard and are constantly hustling, but it’s not really “work” because it’s actually a lot of fun, intellectually stimulating, and personally and professionally fulfilling. We’ve been through worse challenges so we’re happy that we get to begin and end each day feeling a little bit more positive about this crazy world.
HS: How has COVID 19 impacted your business and what have you done to sustain yourself through this?
MV: The good and bad thing about my work is that it will always involve people who need help, and COVID-19 has increased the number of vulnerable people in Vietnam and all over the world. We’ve had a couple of projects delayed, but for the most part, we’ve been busy. Early on we decided to join forces with Paola de Leo, a London-based fundraising and development expert who shares the same vision for a social good consulting practice, so now we cover US, Europe, Middle East, and Asia markets. For example, we’re working on a joint project with a French NGO to create a tuition-free coding school in Jordan for young Syrian refugees and disadvantaged Jordanian youth. It’s really exciting as it’s our first project in the Middle East, and of course, anything refugee-related is very near and dear to our hearts.
HS: How has COVID 19 impacted the NGO sector?
MV: The NGO sector was hit hard—the number of vulnerable and disadvantaged people needing help swelled by the millions, yet funding across the board was cut. NGOs had to reduce salaries and lay off staff – essential workers, in my opinion – which means that an under-resourced yet vital sector was further depleted. Now with social distancing rules relaxed and businesses re-opening, Vietnam is expected to “bounce back,” and that’s not going to happen without the NGOs. In case it wasn’t clear before, COVID-19 showed the world that countries are only as strong as their most vulnerable. Investments and other funding will start flowing back into Vietnam, and NGOs need to prepare themselves for these opportunities. They’ll have to adapt their program activities and both identify and clearly articulate how investment in their programs, be it scholarships, climate change, health, etc., is integral to Vietnam’s sustainable and timely economic recovery and growth.
HS: What can the everyday person do to help the local NGOs and local community?
MV: One of the most impressive things during this pandemic was the combination of Vietnamese ingenuity and compassion from everyday people, like the engineer who created the free rice ATM, the company that opened the “Zero VND” grocery stores, ABC Bakery and their dragon fruit bread, the free food kitchens, or the kids who used their Tết money to buy masks and pass them out to strangers. There’s no such thing as being too small to make an impact.
These individual and collective efforts to care for those who are suffering more than us need to continue (along with social distancing/good hygiene practices!) as the country re-opens, or else it won’t be a truly sustainable recovery. People can continue to donate to the rice ATMs, masks to underserved communities, or volunteer kitchens that provide free food to the poor and homeless. Just do something, consistently.
For a more organized effort, they can contact LIN Center for Community Development, a local Vietnamese NGO that supports the capacity building of smaller Vietnamese non-profits doing grassroots community work. LIN created a COVID-19 community fund that provides grants and volunteer opportunities to at least 30 non-profits so they can continue providing services to the most disadvantaged Vietnamese without worrying about how to pay their staff or keep the lights on. Their member organizations work hard in the trenches day in day out, their tiny budgets dwarfed by their hearts and determination, and will always need as much help as we can give them.
HS: Have there been any programs/activities any of the NGOs have done during the pandemic that has impressed you so far?
MV: The NGOs that impressed me the most were the ones that responded nimbly to the domino effects of the virus that went beyond their usual programming. LIN Center’s community fund for local non-profits is a great example. The Help A Teacher (H.A.T) fund, created by the founders of the VietSeeds scholarship fund, provided survival grants to private school teachers who fell into poverty as soon as schools were closed because they had no social safety net. H.A.T recognized the detrimental effect on students’ education if teachers couldn’t financially survive the pandemic so they quickly mobilized to fill the gap. Moreover, all of the grant recipients agreed to “pay it forward” by tutoring the children of the lower-income first responders and frontline workers.
Saigon Children’s Charity recognized that the COVID-19-related economic struggles of their scholarship students and families could quickly lead to higher dropout rates, as kids seeking employment to help support the family would be less likely to return to school. They deployed a program to provide emergency support to their students and families in the form of food, housing allowances, books, and e-learning equipment to help relieve financial burdens in the short-term and keep students engaged in learning while their schools were closed.
HS: What did you do to keep yourself busy during the pandemic?
MV: Work! It didn’t really slow down – just a lot more Zoom calls instead of face-to-face meetings. I became more disciplined about my daily meditation and yoga practice, which was balanced out by the many virtual drinks and dinners with friends and family. And Netflix like everyone else, especially Korean dramas. I had zero interest before COVID-19 but my sister convinced me to watch “Crash Landing on You” and I got sucked into the vortex.
HS: When the country opened up again, how did you spend your first day out?
MV: I got my nails done and then met up with friends for a meal in a restaurant. I was very happy to eat at a table that was not my dining table at home!