Co-founded Misfit Wearables, a technology start-up that was acquired for $260M in 2015, and now Alabaster investment funds as well as Arevo 3D printing company, Mr. Sonny Vu and Mrs. Christy Le are ideal role models for many young people. Not only are they successful entrepreneurs, but both of them also have admirable educational backgrounds. With great passion for learning, Sonny and Christy spent some time last December to sit down and do an “If I were you” fireside chat with Fulbright community to share their inspirational stories about lifelong learning.
Buckle down, study, and enjoy it
‘One in eight of the Forbes 400, which are the 400 richest billionaires in the US, are college dropouts’ is one of the many headlines that have been floating around the internet, stirring the idea that a college degree is not necessary to become successful. People malign on and on about how college is a waste of time and that what’s learned in these programs are rarely relevant to the actual job. Invigorated by the stories of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, a number of students decide to not invest in their higher education but instead go straight into the workforce, or following their entrepreneurial spirits. However, Mr. Sonny Vu deliberates that they might be missing the point: “College education is about having an environment, we have the time, space, and peer learners that will enable you to focus on learning and building the habits and skills for learning that you’ll have for the rest of your life. So enjoy it, savor it, don’t drop out and do that startup, don’t leave to learn something more practical, you will regret it.
“The foundation for lifelong learning is more satisfying than any money or status could ever give you… Start early! Start now! Because the reward of learning is like compound interest, it multiplies over time,” Sonny expands.
But learning is not easy, it requires grit and takes a lot of work to really excel in it. Even as a Valedictorian and a Legatum Fellow at MIT Sloan School of Management, with Double First in Economics from Oxford University (Bachelor of Arts and Master of Philosophy), two of the most prestigious institutions in the world, Mrs. Christy Le admitted that she, too, hit stumbling blocks to her academic career. Christy confessed that she once studied just because her mom told her to do so, or in hopes that it would help her make a lot of money in the future. She assured that those are not strong enough reasons to get you through the rocky roads of the learning journey. “It is difficult, boring, and painful. If you have the root, the true reason that ‘if I know that I can do more things and become a better person, contribute more to society,’ then the journey will be way more interesting and pleasant. Trust me, the difficulty level is still the same, but at least you will do it with joy.”
Researches confirm that intrinsic motivations lead to the most positive outcomes because you would be driven from within, doing things for ‘all the right reasons” instead of following money or status like extrinsic pushes. Mr. Sonny Vu also agreed that these pretentious motivations would never last, so “Let’s feed your curiosity now! If you’re curious and wondering let’s dive into it. You are students, you’re in college, you can take all sorts of classes, it’s amazing… Learn many things, be a generalist for sure, but also allow yourself to be obsessed about some topics, be a specialist with passion.” This resonances with Fulbright’s liberal arts approach to education in that Fulbright students do not have to decide their major right of the back, but instead, they are encouraged to explore different fields before finding one to commit to.
Emphasizing the importance of college education, Sonny said: “If I had one piece of advice, I could go back in time and tell my 18-year-old self, it would be to buckle down and study. Even though it sounds really contrarian, I would tell myself to sit down, study, and enjoy it.”
Always be hungry for knowledge
Learning isn’t just a shared passion between the two co-founders of Alabasters but also amongst the millionaires of the world. Surprisingly, the one thing in common of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Charlie Munger aside from the fact that they all have billions of dollars is that they all know quantum physics. That is not to say quantum physics is the key to success, but being able to sit down and spend time to really learn something is how one advances in life.
But the concept of being a learner has shifted. With the fast pace at which industries, business, and technology evolve, modern careers become nonstop conveyor belts — you need to keep moving and learning no matter what the stage of your career. Being content is a mindset that puts us at risk. Mrs. Christy Le reiterated: “Over time you realize that learning skills will become one of the most important skills in life because that’s how you grow. It never ends, you don’t stop, you keep going.”
The question is, how to keep that fire of desire for knowledge in you burning? While many people think that financial circumstances could pose a hindrance to the learning journey, Christy begged to differ. She reasoned that when people settle to be on a good track of their careers, it is way harder to be curious than when they are materially deprived. “The time that people usually learn the best, is when they don’t have enough, when they’re hungry. To keep going when you have enough, is usually unusual. And by the way, even when you are trained for trade, it may not be the trade that you will work on. You will learn so many things, you have plenty of time to learn, try to be curious, and feed that curiosity for a long time. That’s what will give you the most happiness of learning.”
Both Sonny and Christy believe the ability to learn is a gift that everybody has. The reason people don’t learn is mainly because out of fear, or because of lack of inspiration – people are afraid of failing, of trying new things, of pushing beyond their limits. Say, learning to swim is scary, but you just have to overcome that fear, jump in the water, get soaked up, and only then you learn how to swim. Mrs. Christy Le made a comparison: “To me learning is just like going to the gym, you have to do a lot of exercises, and you become really good at learning, then learning becomes a skill. And the better you are at learning them, the more you can learn, and the more you will enjoy learning.”
Reflecting upon the experience of changing her work environment many times in the past five years, Christy said that she learned new things from each place. While she could have stayed as the CFO and COO of Misfit, she decided to venture out and take executive roles at tech companies including CEO of Facebook Vietnam, Fossil Vietnam MD, and VP of Operations for Fossil Groups, CEO of GoViet, etc. Christy shared: “It was scary at first. And it’s a lot of work because you don’t build on something that you are familiar with. But trust me, coming out of that experience, you learn way more than you would otherwise do.”
Echoing the love for learning, Mr. Sonny Vu wished he would have the superpower to learn anything. “With the power to learn, you can build marvelous things, experience the full range of human conditions, meet incredible people you probably never have the chance to, and see the wonders of the world. And you can understand yourself and others in profound ways. Like Gandhi said: ‘live as if you’re going to die tomorrow, learn as if you’re going to live forever’.”
Looking at his heroes of learning: Bill Gates is 65, Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger are in their 90s, yet they spend all day learning. So, there is no reason for us to ever stop. “Learning one of the greatest and most satisfying, deeply satisfying gifts that we can give ourselves and to our friends and our children,” Sonny exclaimed.
Make technology serve you, not the other way around
We have seen more crises and unexpected events in recent years than ever before, and parts of that are due to the high speed of technology development. The rise of social media and digital platforms has revolutionized our way of life. And as a respected entrepreneur and founder of many successful technology companies, Mr. Sonny Vu professed that it is incredibly easy for these outlets to consume your time. In order to save time and focus on learning, Sonny shared with Fulbright students a few tips to be indistractable: turn off most notifications (only leave the emergencies), timeboxing social media out, and timeboxing learning in. Also, having a physical space associated with learning is important – a desk, a comfortable chair, with lighting. “Make a ritual out of it, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day, start from there and build on it.”
Given how much information is out there every day, especially when we mindlessly scroll through Facebook or TikTok, with information flashing, we need to create a system to absorb information wisely via multiple layers. To learn in a fast-changing world like this, we have to be picky about the things we learn. “Learn something with substance that would give you the opportunity to think, to wonder, to ponder, and to draw some conclusion. So choose things to learn wisely to help you adapt and create impacts in this ever-changing world,” Mrs. Christy Le added.
In the digital age where everything is available online, people can learn anything like science, arts, history and so on. Resources are easily accessible on many platforms such as YouTube, Khan Academy, Coursera, etc. It can be for beginners with no prerequisites, for example, it can take you through intro to algebra to calculus and advance to number theory. There is even an entire MIT education for free on OpenCourseWare, all it takes is commitment – people just have to make time for it and put in the hours to do the diligence.
Sonny believes that nobody is incapable of learning. Definitive “I can’t” or “I will never” statements are often self-fulfilling prophecies. He advised the students to nurture a growth mindset, embrace challenges, change and critique on the way to learning goals. People should accept that skill acquisition requires effort, that improvement is possible and that obstacles and others’ success are not reasons to stop your progress. “It also requires a certain attitude: humility. Who cares if a 12-year-old genius is smarter than you, just get started. And the most important thing is persistence – don’t ever stop learning,” Sonny concluded.
Last week, Tran Viet Hoang and Dong Thi Hai Yen, two visually impaired students, received their early Christmas gifts. These are two sets of artificial vision devices, given to them by Christy Le and Sonny Vu, co-founders of Alabaster and avid supporters of Fulbright. Christy is also a member of Fulbright’s Young Advisory Board.
Ordered from OrCam, an Israel based tech company whose founder is a close friend of Sonny, these devices look like normal eyeglasses but with a small optical sensor attached to the hinge. They are products of artificial intelligence that allows visually impaired people to understand text and identify objects through audio feedback.
Christy recalled how Hoang’s speech at this year’s Convocation inspired her and made her realize that she wanted to do something to help. She applauds Hoang’s and Yen’s efforts to rise above difficult circumstances. “No matter how advanced these technologies can get, its power is not comparable to the simple yet kind actions we see students of Fulbright share with Hoang and Yen. We’re gratified to witness the support that this community have for one another, very admirable,” said Christy.
“I have heard of and tried a few sensory glasses on before, but the most they could do was to only buzz when there’s an obstacle in front of me, which was not really helpful to me because I can still partially see shapes,” Hai Yen shared. She said because of the prior experience with other assistive devices, she was not expecting much this time. However, the OrCam device amazed her with its voice activated features, which can read texts for her from any surfaces and also recognize faces.
On the other hand, Hoang never tried these kind of devices, so he was eager to play around with this new technology. “I am really happy and grateful to receive this present from chi Christy and anh Sonny. I’m so excited to learn all the features on this new glass and become more independent,” said Viet Hoang.
When asked what they look forward to use the glasses for, Hoang expressed his excitement to go home and just know who’s inside without having to ask every time. As for Yen, she cannot wait to go to a restaurant and read the menu herself. Hopefully, these devices will facilitate Hoang and Yen’s studies, while also enabling them to a fuller and more independent life.