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Nguyen Thi Phuong Nhi’s journey from student founder to DNES CEO

In a span of five years, Nguyen Thi Phuong Nhi went from university startup founder to CEO of an incubator in Vietnam's third-largest city.

Nguyen Thi Phuong Nhi has battled early failures and other challenges to become a leading figure in Da Nang's startup ecosystem.

In 2014, Nguyen Thi Phuong Nhi was a recent university graduate in Ho Chi Minh City. While in school, she had attempted to get two startups off the ground, but both quickly failed.
Six years later, she became the CEO of DNES, an incubator in Da Nang, Vietnam’s third-largest city – an impressive rise through the ranks for anyone, and especially a young woman in a male-dominated field.

Before getting involved with DNES, Nhi was working at a startup investment fund in Ho Chi Minh City, where her role was to verify and evaluate startups before a decision was made on whether to invest in them or not.

“This offered me chances to meet, connect with, and be profoundly motivated by the business and startup world,” Nhi shared.

Still, her earlier startup failures hurt, though they also offered learning experiences that now serve her well at DNES.

“The first failure taught me about people management and teamwork, because you start with a team of eight people and it was very challenging to have one leader and seven staff,” Nhi said.

“There are challenges in leadership, planning strategy, and other areas. And when you don’t have like-minded people, it’s very difficult to move up to the next level.”

Despite having an established job at the investment fund, Nhi eventually decided that Ho Chi Minh City wasn’t right for her: “At the end of 2014, I left for Da Nang since I felt there were too many hardships in my startup journey.”

She took an office job, but the entrepreneurial flame that had been instilled in her from a young age still burned.

“My family background is of great significance in leading me to startups and innovation,” Nhi explained. “I was born into a family with a business tradition, from which I inherited a business mindset and an entrepreneurial spirit that dared me to challenge, face failure, and always strive to pursue new opportunities.”

Eventually, Nhi built a desire to connect resources from startups and investment in Ho Chi Minh City with Da Nang, a much smaller city which, at the time, had a very limited entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“Da Nang was new, and it lacked resources related to the ecosystem like events, training and incubators,” she explained. “There was one center that supported SMEs, but there were no connectors, and nothing related to tech or startups.”

To her, Ho Chi Minh City was a big ocean which individuals could only be a small part of, while in Da Nang, you could be a leader who drives change.

“In early 2016, I got to take part in the Vietnam-Finland Innovation Partnership Programme and founded the Google Developer Group Mien Trung, a community aiming to connect and support developers in the central region of Vietnam,” she said. “It was a huge stepping stone and made me one of the first members of the Da Nang business incubator DNES.”

She shared some of the lessons she learned along the way, and how she sees her role as a woman in the startup sector.

“In the face of any problem, I look for positive aspects to compare and analyze,” Nhi shared. “As a modern woman, I suppose I have many opportunities and advantages in the startup world. Regarding the community aspect, I find that the startup and innovation communities in Vietnam devote a great deal of respect and honor to women when they achieve success or contribute value to society.”

She also noted the resources in Vietnam dedicated to supporting women in the field, including WISE, WomenTechmaker and SheMeansBusiness.

“Not only that, there are even more bootcamp programs and training courses for women from international organizations and startup support agencies,” Nhi added. “From my perspective, the advantage points of women, in general, and Vietnamese women, in particular, are their persistence and commitment to each value and goal that they pursue. It is evident that women always fulfill their roles whether at home, at work, or in society. I feel extremely proud to be a female leader in the startup and innovation world.”

This support has been invaluable for Nhi, while she credits her family for their early backing as well: “When I raised the idea that I wanted to go into startups, I was in my first year in university and I called my parents and said I needed VND50 million to start my business. They supported me, and they really wanted me to do it.”

As the CEO of a Swiss EP partner organization, Nhi also benefits from that relationship, though she only began receiving direct support at the start of this year.

“Though it is still early in our relationship, one of the most valuable opportunities which Swiss EP has brought me was to participate in the Swiss EP Summit in Phu Yen Province,” she said. “This helped me to reconnect with leaders in the startup and investment ecosystem. It’s a very good starting point for my journey, while an immersion program designed by Swiss EP and DNES helped me to learn about different business models of ecosystem players in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and expand my business network and strengthen relationships.”

Moving forward, she hopes to provide inspiration of her own, as her family did for her.

“If I’m able to inspire someone, even just one person, then that would be delightful,” Nhi said. “It would tell me that I’m not alone, and it would play a crucial role in motivating myself to keep working to create value for society. Hopefully, women will always be firm, strong and tough, and most importantly I wish that all women can be successful in their journey of finding a personal identity and becoming the best version of themselves.”