6 Lessons from Vietnam on Entrepreneurship and Life
Did you know that Noonday Ambassadors have the opportunity to travel with us to meet our Artisan Partners face to face? Julie Godshall recently traveled with a group of her fellow Ambassadors on our first-ever Ambassador trip to Vietnam. Julie returned home from the trip with some beautiful souvenirs of her time in Vietnam. But she also returned with some beautiful lessons on perseverance, hope, and the power of doing life with others.
Across an ocean, across the supply chain, we piled into small workshops and lush courtyards to watch some of our favorite pieces come to life. In the Artisans, and on noisy streets and quiet beaches with friends, I encountered wisdom I want to emulate in my own business and life, and share with those I coach. And as our Artisan business partners commit so fiercely to their work, I’m compelled to step up in mine so that together we can grow this movement. I hope these six takeaways will inspire you along your own path too.
1. Remember your why.
Mai and David are the power couple behind Au Lac Designs, which helps 27 artisan businesses in Vietnam grow and connect with buyers like Noonday. We were in awe of Mai’s style through the week – she literally inspired applause when entering a room – and she often wore a big smile.
Mai says her smile came from her mother.
But her smile faltered as she tearfully described women she meets who stay with abusive husbands because they cannot support their children alone; rural families separated when the father moves into the city to find work; families devastated because they don’t earn enough to save for an emergency. All of these, for Mai, point to one thing: the need to create great jobs. Now, she’s made it her life’s work to empower entrepreneurs throughout Vietnam to do just that.
What drives you to do what you do? Reconnect with it, deeply and often.
2. Patiently build toward dreams not yet realized.
Hoa grew up very poor in a rice farming village where frequent flooding makes crop yield – and therefore income – unreliable. With Au Lac’s support, Hoa started his own marble business in Hanoi. With consistent orders from Noonday, his business has grown enough to allow him to invest in equipment that enables him and his team to do the entire marble-etching process on-site.
During our visit, I shared with Hoa photos and stories of my customers enjoying the pieces made by his team. I thanked him for creating beautiful pieces I’m honored to showcase and that help me earn an income, too.
Etching of the Mod Marble Studs
However, Hoa is only just beginning. His dream is to build a workshop back in his home village to provide stable income to families there. As Hoa’s only buyer, Noonday – that is, women like you and me – has the potential to help Hoa transform his village. Meeting Hoa reminded me that until a dream is realized, there’s a long, tough “middle” that we have to go through first.
Do your dreams feel far off? Can you elevate the less-glamorous “middle” as valuable and beautiful while you build toward them?
3. Stay tenacious through setbacks.
This wisdom, really, is displayed by the Vietnamese people as a whole: their history has been marked by painful military conflicts, but tenacity, forward-thinking, beauty, and joy abound there, too.
On a smaller scale, in a little town outside Hanoi we stepped into a room filled with colorful secondhand Hmong garments, just waiting to be repurposed by Hien’s group of eight talented seamstresses. Hien employed 15 women until a large buyer recently withdrew. My heart sank as I thought of the families who lost this income (and I further appreciated Noonday’s long-term commitment to its partners).
I thought of setbacks – with far lower stakes, mind you – in my own business and life. I often mope or panic over what’s gone wrong. But Hien focuses on what she still has: eight employees who love their work and whose talent will help the business grow again, so they can hire their friends back. If she can stay tenacious after such a major setback, confidently stating her plan to rebuild, surely I can weather mine too.
Have you had setbacks that made you want to give up or feel sorry for yourself? Can you nurture what you have as you recover?
4. Evolve, innovate, and collaborate.
Vietnamese crafting culture is ancient and rich. Merchants throughout Hanoi’s shopping district proudly emphasize the handmade nature of their embroidery, silk garments, lacquered bowls, lanterns, and bamboo purses. (And we responded by returning home with duffel bags full of souvenirs.) It’s true that these artisan crafts and techniques have evolved over the years. But buyers like Noonday who are committed to the nine principles of the Fair Trade Federation are helping to ensure that these important cultural elements are preserved.
The village of Bat Trang has been home to renowned ceramic artisans for 1500 years, but factory-produced goods are diminishing the domestic demand for handmade. Au Lac is connecting artisans there to global markets. What a joy it was to witness the production of Noonday’s first piece crafted in Bat Trang, and to be part of the story of cultural preservation for this special village.
Jessica Honegger visiting Noonday’s new partners at Khanh Ngat, a family-run workshop in Bat Trang. We watched them producing Noonday’s first Bat Trang piece (not pictured – stay tuned!) for the upcoming Winter 2018 collection.
Similarly, artisans have been utilizing water buffalo horn after the animals pass away for 800 years. It’s traditionally been used in Buddhist ceremonies, but has now evolved into broader markets with jewelry, combs, trays and more.
Noonday’s best-selling Calypso Earrings being cut from flattened, upcycled water buffalo horn
Jessica and I with Lanh (left) and her employees as they inspect and match Calypso Earrings
It’s been exciting to see how Noonday has played a role in helping traditional crafts evolve. When Noonday’s design team has proposed new ideas, like bringing horn and metal together in one design, Au Lac has facilitated collaboration among businesses, yielding ambitious designs that have never before been executed. At once ancient and novel, their appeal to Noonday’s customers is bringing growth to these businesses.
Are your eyes open to new opportunities?
5. Have fun with the women around you.
The Hmong women who weave the fabric repurposed by Hien’s group aren’t interested in producing it for sale. (Nonetheless, it’s a nice bonus to them to now have groups interested in bartering for their would-be discarded clothing!) In fact, they don’t view it as work, but as social time as they gather to weave in their mountain villages. Likewise, Hien’s employees enjoy socializing while they sew.
In fact, when we arrived, I almost couldn’t hear Hien over her employees’ chatting and laughing. This felt familiar: it is what I found in Vietnam with my friends on the bus rides, on the dance floor, over bowls of pho, at poolside bars and during long layovers. It’s what I find when I chat with my Noonday teammates. Sisterhood knows no language. Looking for a sisterhood to call your own? There’s always room for you in ours.
Starting something new need not be lonely. Who can you laugh with on the journey?
6. Pause to celebrate.
We left Hanoi for the weekend to see the gorgeous limestone islands of Ha Long Bay.
During a day cruise, kayaking and sunbathing and gaping at our surroundings, it was clear that Noonday wanted to give us an unforgettable experience together, taking in the beauty of this country whose story we’re honored to be a part of. We were months into 2018 in our businesses, but here we paused to celebrate 2017, together.
Au Lac later hosted our farewell dinner, with delicious food, riverfront views, and karaoke. Vietnamese people, on the whole, are more reserved than 36 Americans belting out “Roar” by Katy Perry, so we were quite a sight. David, one of the leaders of the business, said with a big smile that this is what he wanted for tonight: to show us a great time and celebrate our partnership. I’m thankful for Noonday’s and Au Lac’s culture that values both hard work and celebration. Seeing it in action reminded me that I too want to be intentional about taking time to celebrate myself and others.
What can you celebrate today?
Seeing these entrepreneurs up close inspires me to emulate them and work even harder to grow a marketplace here, so they can grow their businesses there.
Because you see, my success is intertwined with their success. And now that I’ve been with them, my story is more intertwined with their story than ever before. This is pulling together in the same direction. This is business as it should be.
(Photo: Abbie Foster Chaffee)
Julie Godshall lives in Madison, WI with her husband and two young kids. She’s a math geek with self-proclaimed great taste in binge-watchable British dramas and fair trade coffee shops. She’s a former direct sales failure turned Ambassador who loves fostering community around beauty, story, and living a life of kindness toward the planet and its people. You can find her at juliegodshall.com or on Instagram @juliegodshall.