“It can be extremely frustrating for students to come out of University with a degree and then find out that it’s not as applicable to the workforce as they thought it was. The way Fulbright enables students to gain experience within some of the best companies in Vietnam is really, really valuable.” Toby Scregg, Managing Director at Eve HR.
Eve HR is one of eleven partners to our Center of Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s (CEI) Venture Fellows Program (VFP), a program that aims to address the delicate transition between school life and employment through quality, well-planned internships and continuous support.
On Saturday July 4th, 2020, Fulbright University Vietnam and our CEI celebrated the successful launch of the first VFP through a congenial “Summer Party”. The event gathered management and executives of some of Vietnam’s leading companies in digital technology, from innovative software solution start-ups such as Eve to established videogame corporation VNG, together with the participating students currently interning at their companies. Organized at the halfway point of the internship program, the summer event was the perfect opportunity for our students to connect with key actors in the entrepreneurial space. It was also a chance to share first impressions and assess the successes of a groundbreaking initiative that aims to deepen the link between education and the private sector in Vietnam.
Building the talent pipeline
“Vietnam is just now picking up on the trend of internships, but it is a crucial component linking education and the private sector. They are extremely important for workforce development, connecting future – or recent graduates with employers through a ‘talent pipeline’,” explains Ken Watari, Director of the CEI.
This talent pipeline should provide young graduates with better career opportunities, while addressing an increasing need for a highly skilled workforce. As Toby Scregg explains, “Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. What does that mean? That there’s a massive demand for good talent.” Recent research conducted by Fulbright University Vietnam and the American Chamber of Commerce further confirms Vietnam suffers from an “Employment skill gap”: employers overwhelmingly lack confidence that education institutions in the country will equip the future workforce with the necessary skills to thrive in tomorrow’s labor market.
VFP addresses this problem by bringing both sectors into a collaborative partnership, where students can learn more about professional expectations while exploring their career options. Employers on the other hand are involved more deeply in educating the next generation of talents as they adapt to the demands of the real world. Where a classroom or an incubator tends to isolate student projects, internships force students to confront very real issues, such as how high the bar is for results, how hard it is to sell, or how difficult compromises can be.
Le Lan Chi, Managing Director of VNG’s ZaloPay Division, also understand the mutual benefits of tighter collaboration, saying, “the program allows employers to understand the value of Fulbright students. This exposure to the students helped me convince my company that this is such a great university for us to have a long-term employer relationship with. And for students who have that exposure, they understand what it’s like to be in a workplace environment and they go back to school and understand what skill set they have to build during the time in school to better prepare them for the future.”
As Le Lan chi explains, long-term partnerships would also foster better channels, allowing students to find productive internships more easily in the future. “I thought that as a first-year student, it would be difficult for me to go out and look for internships that would be really useful for myself, because students like us lack a lot of working experience. But VFP changed that,” says Venture Fellow Minh Tu.
CEI’s Venture Fellows Program also aims to lead by example to foster a culture of productive internships, as not all internships are created equal. Mismatching expectations or poor planning can hamper growth, especially in a country that is only beginning to adopt this model. As Ken explains, “the culture of talent development in Vietnamese companies is mixed. In a place like the United States, internships and how they are done is well established. People know you need a manager to support interns, you need to have a plan, you need to give them a concrete piece of work, provide them feedback and room to grow. That culture exists in some companies here, but other companies are still figuring out how to do that.”
“I had a terrible prior start up experience, so I would not have normally considered a start-up for my internship. But I applied because on top of the exposure to entrepreneurship, the VFP offered a scaffold to the learning experience, a plan for what would benefit us as interns and the partner organization in welcoming us, and continued support through the program,” relates Venture Fellow Phuong Thao.
Preparation is the name of the game
In the short amount of time students had to prepare, the CEI focused on some core skills that would help students adapt to their temporary work environment.
“We worked on two individual projects. One was data analysis, the other deep-dive research. We got divided into teams of 2-3 people, to eventually come up with a mock memo intended for a CEO,” remembers Phuong Thao. The self-led projects aimed to familiarize students with a combination of skills. The data analysis memo involved a variety of skills from project management to selecting and making sense of information, and presenting it in a compelling manner. The deep-dive research project drove students to learn detailed information about their partner company and reflect on their goal and place in their business to propose a mock strategy.
After practicing the core skills that would accelerate their integration into their partner organizations, our interns also received coaching on how to conduct themselves in an interview, a skill that was put to the test through several rounds of interviews, which were organized to find the best fit for their aspirations and skill-sets. The results showed.
“I look for three things in employees. One is logical thinking, two is clear communication, and three is a very good attitude. And I think that Fulbright students exhibit all three of those things. Even during the interview process, all the candidates greatly impressed me because they were so well-prepared with their research and they very clearly communicated in the interview process. If I could take all of them, I would,” asserts Le Lan Chi.
One step at a time
At their varied companies, students discovered many quirks of adapting to a workplace environment, and all found individual growth. For some, the hardest part was to shift in how they communicate information, from essay to emails, reports and presentations. Others felt embarrassed to ask for help or instructions. “The first week, I was told to install all this software to work on a project, but I couldn’t find much documentation on the process. I was afraid that if I asked for help people would judge me, so I was effectively out of options. Thankfully, my senior checked in on me and imparted to me that I should just ask if I don’t know, and it’s ok,” remembers Venture Fellow Nhat Khoi.
Finally, some students discovered that even small things can lead to bigger projects. “I am a very independent person, and I’m very used to doing more personal projects in smaller groups. It was a challenge for me to work in a bigger team. When working at VNG, it is a big company, so it was paradoxically difficult for me to start small. I had to learn to follow instructions and fulfill my responsibilities. I learned that working small problems is essential, and how small missions add up to something bigger,” reflects Venture Fellow Tung Lam.
Indeed, for Tung Lam, maybe the biggest lesson of all is to realize that tackling the issues of the world starts one small step at a time: “At Fulbright, we are encouraged to think of the bigger picture, and the larger forces at work. My experience as a Venture Fellow gave me a better idea of how we can have an impact and improve things. Big issues are only big before they are broken down into smaller steps.” And for the Venture Fellows Program, this is only the first step.
While it is true that many internship opportunities are geared towards students in their junior year, at Fulbright University Vietnam, we believe that students should have the opportunities to intern as early as in their freshmen year. Through the internships, students can gain invaluable hands-on experience by building their business toolkit, working on real projects in real startups, figuring out their own entrepreneurial pathways and growing their network in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
In April 2020, the Center of Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CEI) at Fulbright University Vietnam (Fulbright) launched its flagship Venture Fellows Program (VFP), which prepares, places and supports students to work at Vietnam’s most exciting startup and technology companies. This year, the program is placing 17 students at 11 notable startups in Vietnam, including Aspire, CoderSchool, Holistics, EcoTruck, Eve (a Fram^ venture), Kim An, Lixibox, Manabie, Ru9, UrBox and VNG. Despite an uncertain economic outlook due to COVIDd-19, Fulbright and its partner startup organizations have prioritized the VFP program based on its potential.
The program was inspired by the track record of similar programs in the USA and Singapore, specifically the Mayfield Fellows Program at Stanford and the NUS Overseas College Program at the National University of Singapore. These programs have produced some of their region’s biggest entrepreneurial talents, including Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s founder, and Quek Siu Rui, Lucas Ngoo, and Marcus Tan, the founders of Carousell.
“With Vietnam’s rapid economic growth and organic entrepreneurial spirit, we have a unique opportunity to design a program that would equip students with the toolkit to chart their own entrepreneurial pathways and make a real difference in Vietnam,” Ken Watari, Director of CEI, emphasized.
The Venture Fellows Program
The Venture Fellows Program is a six-month entrepreneurial work-study program for Fulbright students, spanning April to September 2020 with a rigorous selection process. To secure a placement, Fulbright students had to undergo a series of interview rounds, both with the CEI team and our partner organizations. The format of the interviews varied based on the requirements of our partners, and included developing pitch presentations, taking competency tests, and completing data analysis tasks. 17 VFP Fellows were selected this year.
“The students of Fulbright demonstrated outstanding traits and qualities that we are seeking for young Manabians. We have high expectations for any member to join our team. Each person must possess strong cognitive ability, clear and structured communication, as well as high impacts through proven teamwork and leadership records. We entered VFP knowing that we would meet bright students but were still amazed at how each candidate addressed our critical interviewing questions, and fitted Manabian’s qualities well. How fortunate we were to be a participant of VFP. Looking forward to more Fulbright students joining us and making prominent contributions to Vietnamese education and beyond,” shared Takuya Homma, CEO and Founder of Manabie. Manabie has recently raised $4.8 million from investors to build and scale their online education technology platform and in-person learning centers across Vietnam and beyond.
Once the VFP Fellows are matched to their partner organizations, the program is split into three distinct phases: pre-internship, internship and post-internship. In the pre-internship phase, the CEI team will work with the fellows to help them analyze and derive business insights through data analysis, as well as support the fellows to conduct research and develop a venture capital-style investment memo on the company they will be working for. They will also attend off-the-record sessions with notable figures in Vietnam’s entrepreneurship community. This year, our VFP Fellows had sessions with Khanh Tran (former Founding Partner of VinaCapital Ventures), Charles Lee (Founder of CoderSchool), and Sao Lonsdale (Founder of Lixibox).
During the summer, VFP Fellows will spend 9 weeks at their partner organizations, working on a range of projects from new market entry to marketing optimization. The VFP Fellows will also be supported throughout this summer by a dedicated mentor from their partner organization and a team of expert advisors from Vietnam’s entrepreneurship community.
After the internship, VFP Fellows, with the support of their advisors, will reflect on and present their internship experiences to their cohort. This gives them the opportunity to learn about various industries in depth, and allows them to lock in their learnings from the program collectively.
Chien-Teng Chia, CEI Officer, comments: “While some of our Fellows may not choose to pursue startups in the future, our long-term goal is to build a tight-knit and collaborative community of changemakers that will continue supporting and working with each other in the years to come.”
Meet our VFP Fellows
As we await the commencement of the internship experiences, let’s meet two of our VFP Fellows, who will spend this summer test-driving their skills in a real-world setting and earning valuable experiences that will be coveted by future employers:
Hoang Mai Linh, Co-Design Year Student, Class of 2023 – Placement at Ru9
“Start-ups are developing rapidly in Vietnam, especially in recent years. However, about 80% of them failed and could not operate the company in 2 years. As a person who wants to start my own business in the future, I want to (soon) emerge myself in a start-up environment to gain fundamental skills and real experience, so that I can prepare myself better in Vietnam’s intensive start-up environment.
To become a VFP fellow, I underwent 3 rounds: CEI’s application round, CEI’s interview round and partner organization’s round. Before we participated in the final round (interview with partner organizations), CEI held a mock interview session to give us some tips and advice to be successful in the “real interview”. I don’t know about others but my interviews with partner organizations were very “intriguing”. 2 out of 4 companies conducted interviews with me without noticing in advance. I was surprised but I think I did well.
Though my internship is not yet started, I already learned my Lesson No. 1: We should always be ready, because in this “uncertain” world (and an “uncertain” start-up environment), who knows when the opportunity will come. We have to always be ready or else, we can miss that opportunity.”
Ninh Quynh Anh, Co-Design Year Student, Class of 2023 – Placement at Ru9
“As I realize my strong passion and curiosity for entrepreneurship, I think becoming a VFP Fellow will offer me valuable opportunities to learn and develop entrepreneurial skills and mindset. Besides, as a Fulbrighter, why shouldn’t I try out something as new and interesting as this?
First, I had to submit an application form together with my updated CV. When filling out the form, I had time reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses as well as the areas I am most excited to explore for my future career path. CEI then followed up with a 20-minute interview to better understand my expectation and interest. Those who passed this interview proceeded to the next step: interviews with partner organizations.
I was over the moon when I learned that my two-month internship will be with Ru9 this summer. I hope that through this internship, I can gain more insights into the startup ecosystem and how challenging a real working environment can be. I cannot wait!”