Jean Pham (left), VietChallenge COO, believes that the next Alibaba could be applying for this year’s competition.
Over the past 30 years, Vietnam has become the world’s second fastest growing economy. Its economic growth rate currently averages 7% annually. While China remains number one, Vietnam is expected to outpace it in the coming year, 2018. Nearly 60% of Vietnam’s population (93 million) is under the age of 30. This number has placed Vietnam on track to become the 20th largest economy in 2050.
Startups have recently become a trend in Vietnam with more than 3,000 currently in existence. The country’s enviable supply of talented human resources in the tech industries has convinced leading technology companies such as IBM, Panasonic, and Toshiba to invest in research and development there.
Few American venture capitalists, however, have recognized the potential in Vietnam’s startup businesses. One can justify the hesitation. The startup is a relatively new business form in Vietnam, whose economy only opened up internationally in the 1980s. Beyond that, the vast majority of entrepreneurs are young; few have been exposed to capitalist business practices. Vietnamese entrepreneurs face the added challenge of not understanding the American business model. Too often they fail to present themselves or their businesses in a way that will capture the attention of American investors. Even those who secure funding face challenges in phases ranging from product development and team building to fundraising.
VietChallenge, a social startup, was designed to provide more effective introductions between Vietnamese entrepreneurs and American investors. Recently VietChallenge joined VDC.
VietChallenge runs an annual competition for Vietnamese startups from all around the world. Over the past two years, the competition has attracted more than 250 applications from 23 countries. Approximately 2/3 of the competitors have come from Vietnam. Early next spring, with the assistance of the Vietnamese Students Association at MIT, VietChallenge will bring six finalists to MIT for the final round of competition. These six finalists will be selected from a rigorous semi-final round conducted in both Vietnam and the United States.
What separates VietChallenge from other competitions for Vietnamese entrepreneurs, it provides a four-month mentorship program for the six finalists. Each of the teams is paired with a pool of mentors each of whom works on a specific set of skills, among them product development and pitch presentation. During the mentorship program, teams are introduced to potential investors, who themselves often provide feedback and advice not merely to win the competition but to develop the sort of business that will attract investors. The team is also provided with a stipend to focus its energy on product development.
Thanks to VietChallenge, not only the winners but finalists have also found investors. Backbone Labs, the winner of VietChallenge 2016, sold $467K worth of pre-orders for their smart back brace, Backbone, and raised $500,000 for their seed round funding. Scholarjet, the 2017 winner, became a finalist in MassChallenge and has begun raising seed money for its action-based scholarship platform.
Mai Zymaris, CEO of VietChallenge, credits the competition’s success to the closeknit nature of the Vietnamese community: “When one of us succeeds,” Zymaris explains, “all of us share in that success. We’ve also benefitted significantly from the generous support from American investors, sponsors, judges, and mentors.”
In keeping with the original mission of providing a pipeline between Vietnamese entrepreneurs and American investors, VietChallenge would like to see more American investors involved in this year’s competition. Jean Pham, VietChallenge COO, believes that the next Alibaba could be applying for this year’s competition. “If so,” she promises, “we will find it and present it to you in the best light possible.”
Meet VietChallenge Founder: Mai Phan Zymaris
Six years ago, Mai Phan emigrated to the United States from Vietnam. Mai had two goals in mind, one personal, one public: to become an attorney here in the U.S. and to help gain recognition for the budding Vietnamese global community of entrepreneurs.
With those goals in mind, Mai gravitated toward Boston, the city rich in colleges and universities and a fertile incubator for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Mai received her Juris Doctor degree from Boston College. While studying law, she founded VietChallenge, a non-profit organization with the sole purpose of providing a pipeline between Vietnamese entrepreneurs and experienced startup mentors and investors. As VietChallenge enters the third year, Ms. Zymaris says “We had over 176 contestants in last year’s competition, and we expect many more this year. Each year the quality of the entrepreneurs involved just gets better and better.”
Ms. Zymaris passed the Massachusetts bar exam and will begin her legal career in November with Foley Hoag here in Boston.
To learn more about VietChallenge, please visit the website www.vietchallenge.org.