Two factors draw in great talent into countries: really great projects that react to specific problems, and an environment that can allow smart individuals to tackle those problems. With 90 million people and still developing, Vietnam’s got the first factor in the bag, but unfortunately, the environment has been lacking. Many overseas Vietnamese and educated Vietnamese nationals continue to flee the nation.
But from the late 2000s to now, a new trend has been rising: startup founders and CEOs who studied abroad are returning home to Vietnam to run startups. I call them the “returners”. It’s a new movement that lies in hopeful contrast to the brain drain that Vietnam continues to face. These guys can just plow through the difficult Vietnamese environment.
It all started in 2004, when Le Hong Minh, who was educated in Australia, founded VNG and built it to become the biggest domestic software and web company in the country. And since then, companies like KMS, Greengar, Keewi, Not A Basement Studio, Tiki, Bo Cong Anh, Istart, LuvPrint, Geeky, and more are all founded and CEO’ed by Vietnamese nationals who studied abroad. It’s a new generation of leaders. But what is it that brought these folks back? What did they see that the brain drainers didn’t?
The right mind-set
Vietnamese nationals who study abroad have a significant advantage over overseas Vietnamese in Vietnam because of their understanding of the culture and the way of life. Generally, overseas Vietnamese have a Western mentality attempting to understand an Eastern mentality, but this process is too difficult for building a Vietnamese team or attacking the Vietnamese market. Going east to west and back to east is way easier.
This advantage also extends over Vietnamese nationals who didn’t study abroad, as Truong Thuy, CEO of Greengar elaborates:
I’m not sure if Vietnam’s education system has been well-developed enough so that the young local generation could be able to distinguish between what they should learn and what not. In the US, we are considered adults the day we turned 18, which means we need to live fully responsible for our lives and decisions.
It’s this sense of maturity and educational advantage that allows the “returners” to do well. Thus, according to Hai Nguyen of http://www.istart.vn, a new education startup, “Being educated abroad helps me to learn many interesting aspects to prepare for my entrepreneurial pursuits.”
The opportunities for the returner generation
And it’s these advantages that are put to the test in a market as innocent as Vietnam. Hieu Tran from Not A Basement Studio told me why he has come back:
I believe that Vietnamese people are very passionate. And hungry. Hungry to learn, hungry to prove themselves. And we’ve also got the skills. My co-founders and I want to be a part of this, to be working with these young individuals, to build product “made in Vietnam” for the world to use.
And many people share this view, Roy Nguyen, who is also on the board of directors at the US Alumni Network in Vietnam, says:
I am so excited about this new generation of “returners”. I can’t count the numerous number of tech startups here coming from prestigious universities around the world like Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Cambridge, all gather back to our homeland and make it become more prosperous.
It’s a brave new world for people educated abroad to come back. If folks educated abroad stay abroad then they face the competition of a developed nation with its higher costs of living, a more competitive job market, and a very difficult place to do startup. Vietnam is considerably more open because there’s so many problem to solve in the market and the resources are much cheaper so an abroad education goes a long way.
Of course, we’re already seeing the impact of VNG on the market, with its revenue of $90 million for 2012, and the new young returners are also building businesses that may one day scale to that level and beyond. In 2011 alone, more than 100,000 students studied abroad across 49 different countries. This impact will continue to be felt. The returners are making Vietnam more accessible and more international. I think Son Tran from Tiki.vn sums it up best:
I think it’s almost always better for any country to have people with diversified background, education, and experience to contribute to the economy (think US, Singapore). So we should encourage not just for native people to return, but foreigners to stay, work, and start new businesses.