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Trinh Le and the ups and downs of being a female founder

“For many of us, the idea of founding our own startup sounds glamorous,” Trinh said. “But building a new business then maintaining it following the proper path has never been an easy journey for any entrepreneur.”

Startup founder Trinh Le has pushed through both personal and professional challenges to get where she is today.

It is estimated that, on average, Vietnamese read just one book per year, while textbooks and reference books dominate Vietnam’s book market.

This presents a major challenge for Trinh Le, co-founder of Umbalena, a startup which aims to provide engaging digital books to children - but it is far from the only challenge she has faced, both personally and professionally, on her journey as an entrepreneur.

“For many of us, the idea of founding our own startup sounds glamorous,” Trinh said. “But building a new business then maintaining it following the proper path has never been an easy journey for any entrepreneur.”

From the start, this required constant hard work and dedication, while early on, Trinh handled every aspect of the business, including sales, marketing, hiring, finance and product development: “Sometimes, of course, I felt overwhelmed, and pressure was inevitable.”

She found that hiring the right people was one of the biggest early challenges, as it is difficult to lure talented people away from lucrative corporate job offers to a new start-up and much lower salary expectations.

But she did offer some advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out:

“Try things out. Make mistakes. Grow and learn and don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice from other mentors and experts. And learn from other founder’s experiences also.”

This is precisely what Trinh did through DNES, and while her journey with Umbalena has certainly not been easy, it has created some immensely positive moments and experiences.

“One of the most prominent memories for me is winning the Startup Wheel Competition 2020,” she shared. “This was a really unexpected joy, as Startup Wheel is like the Olympics of startups with more than 1,000 participating projects, including international startups.”

The annual competition is organized by the Business Startup Support Centre (BSSC), a Swiss EP partner organization that works to strengthen and create value for Vietnam’s startup ecosystem.

This also exposed Trinh and her team to other founders, mentors and peers, which served as an excellent learning experience.

The Umbalena co-founder is also fully aware of her position as a female leader in a male-dominated industry, and does not take this lightly.

“Female entrepreneurs are much more common compared to previous decades, but despite this positive trend, female founders face unique challenges that prevent them from matching the success of their male counterparts. For example, there is an enormous gap in capital raised between female and male founders. Does this mean that women are less inventive? I don’t think so.”
Trinh Le - Founder of Umbalena

She goes on to note that gender biases begin early: “Women are expected to be both aggressive and reflective, an impossible combination of skills that is one of the main hurdles in reaching senior positions in organizations. This same bias negatively influences how female founders are treated while fundraising.”

“Although it’s hard out there right now,” Trinh said, “one of the best things we can do to help change the industry is to be there. Women should be brave! As female founders we have special challenges and special strengths, and we should find both and own them.”

Along the way, Trinh and her team have received substantial assistance from Swiss EP through DNES, the organization which incubated Umbalena in its early stages. This has boosted Trinh’s professional growth, in tandem with her own personal growth.

“During our four months of incubation, we had the chance to verify market assumptions and business models through intensive workshops and weekly one-on-one mentoring meetings,” Trinh shared. “DNES provided hands-on support with learning, office space, mentorship and networking opportunities. The mentors focused on building our fundamentals in product-market fit, go-to-market, HR/team, and fundraising.”

“Entrepreneurship without personal development is a disaster,” she said. “To capture the quick changes in developments, founders should be the first to gain the latest knowledge and skills in order to elevate their business, and supply these new changes to their employees. So learning, learning, learning is what I truly believe is essential for both myself and Umbalena.”