Earlier this Fall, Fulbright University Vietnam was delighted to partner with Yale-NUS College and leading partners in the field of Entrepreneurship and Innovation to host the Fulbright Innovation Week 2021. The event fostered entrepreneurial mindset and innovation culture among Vietnamese students via Virtual Start-up Showcase, equipped them with hands-on knowledge via Entrepreneurship Seminar Series, and cultivated creativity alongside practical problem-solving skills via a Hackathon, which took the students venturing into the region’s toughest challenges.

Inspire and be inspired

Fulbright Innovation Week 2021 attracted more than 400 diverse registrations across 38 cities and provinces in Vietnam, from high school students to fresh graduates. The Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI), the main organizer of this event series, was faced with some tough decisions in choosing the booth presenters from a pool of extraordinary applicants with fierce competition.

Although the whole week happened virtually, the engagement level still ran high with countless exciting activities. Unlike the typical events with long hours on Zoom that seemingly deplete all of the participants’ energy, Innovation Week took place on various platforms, including Gathertown – cyberspace customized for the Virtual Startup Showcase, which was a refreshing and lifelike experience, as if participants were visiting an actual exhibition.

Here, after a long a rigorous screening process, 17 best student business/startup projects from both Vietnam and Singapore were selected to present at the exhibition. This was a fun playground for students to promote their projects and ideas, acquire new leads, and find potential co-founders and investors. And this works both ways: the participants also got a chance to visit different startup booths, learn more about each startup journey, make new friends and take home some ideas to ponder upon.

Practical launchpad for daring ideas

Following the startup exhibition was the Future Leaders Forum, which was a 2-day intensive training program for student club leaders in Ho Chi Minh city. Students were immersed in a packed schedule of exclusive leadership training to create actionable plans after the program, followed by coaching to ensure the plan implementation with the combination of diverse learning approaches such as group discussion, panel discussion, presentation assignment, and interactive brainstorm and reflection.

Beyond training sessions, the Future Leaders Forum was a great opportunity for students to gain a life-long network with other talented leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators across Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

Students were also introduced to new concepts in Entrepreneurship Seminar Series, with two special workshops hosted by industry leaders. The field players added another practical layer to the conversation by sharing about their own entrepreneurial path, demystifying the halo of renowned success stories, and encouraging young minds to explore the depth and breadth of knowledge, nurturing their curiosity and creativity for future innovations.

One of the main lessons is that there is no shortcut to the valley, no one-size-fits-all approach to entrepreneurship, and no recipe for success. Indeed, there is immense value in learning from others’ experiences, but that cannot replace actual practice and trying out things for oneself. “Success story is a double-edged sword for people who are trying to live by the book written by other people”, said Tri Lecao, a founder and CEO of Vibeji.

Dare to conquer the top

With that spirit, the students went to earn hands-on experience at the Virtual Hackathon – a competition that demonstrates a similar model to the start-up process in a compact way, from starting with an idea, identifying the problem, proposing a solution, prototyping, to pitching it to the public.

Mentored by coaches from Reactor School, a top-tier Singaporean company that provides Entrepreneurial programs for students across APAC, students collaborated in randomly assigned teams of four to work on a social entrepreneur project to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Goals. After three intense working days, the teams pitched their project to a panel of judges comprising industry experts. Not only did they all get to watch and learn from other teams’ presentations, but they also received helpful advice from the mentors and special guests, who are pioneers in the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

We have been to many competitions before but none of them were as intense as this Virtual Hackathon in terms of the given time – only 3 days – to build an entire project from scratch. Although there were times when we felt exhausted, however, we overcame the ​​anxiety brain fog, climbed over the “wall of idea stuck” and finally, conquered the top of the “mountain of capability”. This hackathon holds the magic of change: You are no longer the same person when you enter as when you exit.” – Nguyen Van Thanh (Class of 2025), a member of the champion team Fabrik. The team has won over the judges with their creative take on solving fabric waste issues by breaking it down into fibers to make DIY kits/products to serve a large existing demand for authentic/DIY gifts.

Although there could only be one winning team, all teams came home with more than they have anticipated. The Hackathon at Fulbright Innovation Week 2021 provided not only companions, memorable moments, but also grounded lessons on the early stages of the start-up world. It was an entrepreneurial “sandbox” where students can fall without hitting the rock bottom, actively gain experience and useful knowledge to stand straight up with confidence.