Don’t Fear the Fire, Become It: The Journey of Lan Anh Nguyen
admin 24-11-2020, 14:59
Don’t Fear the Fire, Become It: The Journey of Lan Anh Nguyen

Despite having one of the world’s highest workforce ratio of women to men, in Vietnam, only 25% of senior management positions are held by women. Breaking gender-based stereotypes and biases is the story of a strong-willed woman’s rise to leadership: Ms. Lan Anh Nguyen. As current Managing Director of Endeavor Vietnam and former Editor and Managing Director of Forbes Vietnam, it took a lot of hard work and determination to reach where she is now. For this determined woman, through perseverance, she was able to compete against and make it amongst the male-dominated top leadership roles in the country.

I had read about Nguyen previously and was thrilled when I heard that she would be one of the speakers at a ‘Women’s Story Telling’ event celebrating successful women through their self-described journeys. That evening, she had captivated the audience and owned the room with her effortless charisma and wit. She spoke softly, with modesty and a gentle feminine demeanor. Underneath that modesty, shined a fire in her soul and I felt compelled to unearth what kindles it.
Before making a career shift to her current role of Managing Director of Endeavor Vietnam, Nguyen had worked with Forbes Vietnam for six years. The Endeavor prospect came after Nguyen had been awarded the prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship in 2015, a lifelong engagement program which connects and allows leaders to interact with professional peers to expand their worldviews and gain cultural insights.

Managing Director of Endeavor Vietnam

The Eisenhower Fellowship had allowed Nguyen to travel amongst a group of young women leaders to the United States. There, she had the opportunity to meet people from different publications, old and new, conventional and digital. Upon her return to Vietnam, one of the Eisenhower Fellows, a businessman had approached her, proposing that she join Endeavor Vietnam.

Endeavor is a non-profit non-governmental organization which seeks to help promising entrepreneurs of highest potential to expand their business through mentorship and a network of experienced and knowledgeable businessmen, and thus enabling economic and social transformation. Selected proteges must then commit to giving back when they achieve success, by mentoring others that lack experience. “The key here, in the end, is getting people to believe in something greater than all of us- to build the economy for their own country, not only in their own interest”, Nguyen elaborates with conviction.

Based on her experience, connections and knowledge of Vietnam, she was seen as a great candidate to run Endeavor Vietnam as Managing Director. Nguyen was especially drawn to the fact that this could potentially greatly benefit Vietnamese society and boost economy. The idea of being part of doing something aiding her country made her feel very proud and so, she agreed.

“It wasn’t the money. I saw a challenge and I could visualize what had to be done, which made me think, ‘Yes, I can do it!’”

Nguyen was 44 years old at the time she joined Endeavor, two years ago. “It wasn’t the money. I saw a challenge and I could visualize what had to be done, which made me think, ‘Yes, I can do it!’”, she says. Challenges thrill her, especially when she feels it is something she is able to actually accomplish, however difficult. “It may seem like a big jump from journalism. Actually it isn’t; running a magazine, essentially, is running a business.”

She fondly recalls her early days Forbes Vietnam at a time when, “Vietnam was changing rapidly. Vietnam had joined the World Trade Organization and its economy was booming. The stock market was hitting all-time record highs.” she says. At the time, Forbes was “the model of perfect journalism”, a school in itself. They had initially hired her as a fact-checker for articles written by Forbes journalists, during which, she learned their ways and standards. “Being a business magazine, everything at Forbes had to be concise”, she explains. She was then assigned as part of a team to compile the ‘Forbes Richest’ list in the region. From there, began soaking in all the information she could about the business and worked her way up to pitching ideas for articles and writing them, as a Forbes journalist.

“Journalism is a religion.” Nguyen’s eyes narrow, extending her neck with conviction. “You believe in a fight-worthy cause and in finding and telling the truth unbiasedly and live up to it.” At Boston University, to which she had earned a Fulbright scholarship, she was taught that journalists are the “watchers of society.” With disappointment in her expression as she looks down, she says, “Now that concept seems so distant and upside down from those principles. Since the rise of social media, the whole journalism business model has changed.”

At that time, social media had begun taking over traditional media, it was clear to her that journalism was forever going to change. She saw no clear future, at that point, for the path of journalism. She came to the realization that the classic business model of pitching and writing articles, selling advertising, printing monthly, would no longer be sustainable and would soon become obsolete.

Upon returning to Vietnam following her Fellowship in the US, before encountering Endeavor, Nguyen had initially decided to take a step back and re-examine her journey and what she wanted to achieve next. Not only her career, but on the journalism industry in general. With her new perspective, she had intended on taking a year-long sabbatical from Forbes and see where that leads her next. Ideally, she felt wanted to pursue her passion and endless quest for traveling, eager to unlock the possibilities out there and lead way for her next venture. She also felt that she needed time for her personal growth, to practice piano and learn a new language. She had been working so hard that she rarely had time for her hobbies.

“I’m actually an introvert. I do love to hang out with my friends and I still go partying, but I just love to stay home and read.” Nguyen blushes. However, the Endeavor proposal interrupted that plan and thus fatefully changing her course.
Her time at Forbes had given Nguyen the opportunity that she so longed for, to travel and explore the world. By the time Lan Anh Nguyen was 35 years old, she had been promoted to take on the role of Forbes Vietnam Editor and Executive Director. Upon her promotion, she immediately had begun to visualize what that would necessitate: a team, and a strategy. Nguyen explains, “I didn’t accept out of ambition. I accepted because I was confident I could add value to Forbes Vietnam and do it well. I knew the magazine; I knew the country.” However, running a magazine came with its own set of challenges.
The Editor of Forbes Asia at the time, Tim Ferguson, had given her some sound advice: ‘Pick your battles wisely.’ To Nguyen, a self-described perfectionist, that would sometimes prove difficult to do. She now had to “figure out how to balance between interests of stakeholders, readers, investors and staff, and still hold the upmost quality,” and thus, ringing true indeed, had to learn to pick her battles wisely.

In her earlier days as a journalist, she would fight for what she believed would make her article or the magazine better. She elaborates, “Some battles are worth standing your ground and some need compromise. The thing about advice is that it is often understood later than when it is given, when you’re put in a certain position, then it makes sense to you.” She raises her eyebrows and chuckles recalling once being called, ‘a dragon lady’ by a man she once worked with for what he saw as stubbornness and willfulness.

As a child, Nguyen had first been introduced to the concept of journalism, when a family friend, who was a journalist himself, visited the family home. He told captivating stories about articles he had written and places he had traveled to. That ignited her curiosity and quest for knowledge about the outside world even further. She would spend her spare time immersed in a book that would transport her to mysterious places and possibilities.

Nguyen was raised in Dien Bien Phu, in northwest Vietnam, a simple town, she describes as “quite isolated from the outside world”. Born in 1974, to a loving traditional Vietnamese family who emphasized the importance of education. Nguyen’s expression softens as she fondly recalls her “beautiful town in the mountains with cherry blossom trees in the spring. It had this tiny airport built in war times, with one flight coming in weekly from Hanoi.” Her father would travel for work back and forth to Hanoi; when she would hear the plane descending, she would hop on her bicycle and race to greet her father. Being in a rural town, the airport had a makeshift runway and, “sometimes cows would roam and obstruct the landing strip”, she chuckles in nostalgia, timidly covering her smile.

Nguyen would later succeed in gaining the attention of the New York Times by retelling a story from her youth, in her job application letter upon graduation from Boston University. Ms. Lan Anh laughs shyly, recounting when she “was 18 years old in 1993, the NY Times people were in Vietnam preparing a special issue on Vietnam, as part of bridge-building efforts. At the time, my best friend’s sister was Miss Vietnam she was hired for a photography shoot for this issue. I came along to watch and ended up being in the shoot myself, getting my makeup done for the very first time by a famous makeup artist and dressed in a long fancy ao dai!” She bursts into laughter, remembering how awkward she felt there looking so elegant, despite standing in a field surrounded by buffalo, and shooing curious ducks flapping all around her.

Nguyen recounted this story in her application letter saying that her “first-ever job was a model for the NY Times in rural Vietnam. All I had gotten was $20 USD from you! You owe me!” They were thoroughly entertained by her story and persuasive writing, that they contacted her to schedule an interview. Circumstantially, it did not eventuate since she had already left the US by that time for Thailand for journalist position at the Thai Day (a daily insert in the International Herald Tribune).

Nguyen has always found the human side of journalism fascinating: uncovering a subject’s background that shaped them, their own unique life experiences, what makes the person who they are. She has found that people and their opinions are a result of their own life. “What may seem normal to one person, may seem disastrous to another. People are complex. It depends on your perspective.” she explains. Regardless of how a journalist personally feels about an issue, it is not their position to judge. It’s all about perspective.

Nguyen goes on to explain that, “Different people are motivated by different things. People tend to view others with opposing views as ‘evil’ but that it is not necessarily true.” She has always sought to capture a deeper insight when interviewing a person, to dig deep into “who they are as a person”.

Nguyen’s advice to aspiring journalists is to “Do what you love; love what you do. Have a passion for something and go for it. The key to finding fulfillment is to find meaning in what you do.” She continues with wisdom in her eyes, “Not only in journalism, but in general. Bring something to life that may benefit other people. Wanting to make more money is OK, but it shouldn’t be a goal.” Nguyen describes success as “Being able to do what you love doing and enjoying it, feeling fulfilled by it.”

“Different people are motivated by different things. People tend to view others with opposing views as ‘evil’ but that it is not necessarily true.”

Vulnerability, as Nguyen sees it, is not something negative, contrary to what a lot of people believe, and she is very open about it. She feels, “Vulnerability makes you stronger. Being vulnerable actually makes you try harder.” One can only attempt new things outside their comfort zone and accepts challenges by allowing themselves to be vulnerable.
Ms. Lan Anh ponders, “Growing up in a male-dominated society makes you adapt in a way you don’t realize until society brings up the issue of gender equality and you start reviewing the way you lived all along. Like many other women, I worked very hard to be where I wished to be without even thinking how my way might have been more difficult than many men. I never paid any attention to that issue or even complained. The fact that I am where I am doesn’t mean it is easier. It’s important to realize the difficulties women are facing in a male-dominated world.” Her expression lightens saying, “On a more personal note, I think most men who have worked with me have learned that they shouldn’t mess with me when it comes to work principles!”

For the moment, “There’s still a lot of work to be done in Endeavor Vietnam. We have just begun and have a long way to go”, she says. She is excited to see it come full circle and reach its full potential in Vietnam.

Nguyen would still like to continue her passion for writing at a later point in time. She still supports Forbes Vietnam to this day and will continue to do so.

Her dreams of traveling the world are still very much alive and perhaps one day, she would like to live in an exotic country to expand her horizons further. Her most exciting destination thus far has been Antarctica, the land of ice, which she has visited twice and seen glaciers and icebergs, both thrilling and tranquil.

If she had the chance, she “would love to travel to outer space.” she laughs. During her time at Forbes, they had once interviewed two civilians whom had paid a fortune of $20 million USD each to experience outer space tourism. “Who knows?” she shrugs, “Maybe in our lifetime Elon Musk will make that available and affordable!” The sky is literally the limit.

By Hind Salah Korraa