The first time I visited Vietnam, in 1994, I met a man who was an instructor at one of the top universities in the country. Like other Vietnamese men at that time, he wore a white short-sleeved shirt, black trousers and rubber tire sandals, every day. His belt wrapped around his waist, flapping at the back.
His opening comment was: “We conquered you in the war. Now we will conquer you in business.”
At the time, the average monthly income in Vietnam for university teachers was about $30. The power and water worked intermittently. The Vietnamese had no concept — or words — for “business,” “management,” “credit line” or “marketing.” How could such a place ever conquer the U.S.?
I decided to wait and see.
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Over six years, we delivered Boise State’s MBA to 80-plus Vietnamese university teachers and businesspeople. Now that same university trains thousands of Vietnamese in global business practices. The country has grown economically at about 6 percent yearly for the last several, and its largest trading partner is the U.S.
One of our graduates started a firm based upon an idea he generated while studying in Boise. His company, MK Smart Group, is now one of the best examples of a success in the country. The chairman and Boise State graduate, Nguyen Trong Khang, has led the firm to be a leader in the high-tech world of smart cards (Visa and other). He has done well enough that he founded a scholarship to support Vietnamese students who want to study at Boise State.
The last time my colleague, professor Kirk Smith, and I were in Hanoi with our Executive MBA students, Khang asked us to lead a workshop for his senior leaders. We focused on how the leaders could analyze the value proposition for future business ventures the firm pursues. We taught the workshop just as we would a group of American executives, 20 years after we had first offered the concept of “business” in Vietnam.
As I reviewed photos from the workshop the other day, I realized that if working together on education and trade is what “being conquered” looks like, I’ll take it.
Nancy Napier is distinguished professor and executive director of the Centre for Creativity and Innovation at Boise State University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org