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At the age of four, Laidlaw scholar Chi Ninh (MBA2022) was selling pyjamas on the streets of Saigon. At 16, she left Vietnam for Canada, before moving to the US and climbing the ranks in New York’s asset management industry. Today, she explains how her ability to thrive in high-pressure situations has led to an MBA at LBS.
The Vietnam War (1955-75) completely uprooted my parent’s lives. They were only 10 at the height of the war in 1968, and violence in Vietnam meant they had to cut their education short and move around the country to stay safe. My mother was one of the eldest of 12 siblings and my dad was one of 10; they shared the responsibility of caring for their families, which meant there wasn’t an opportunity for education.
My parents never knew what it was like to have stable jobs and did whatever they could to make ends meet. When I was two, my mother grew beansprouts to sell on the streets and made hats to sell at different markets. They worked extremely hard – all in order to ensure my brother and I were fed and looked after. Seeing this first hand really motivated me to give back by working hard myself.
At four, I was selling pyjamas on the streets of Saigon. My mother made them and I acted as her model and helped charm customers. The experience meant I developed people skills at a very young age and knew how to talk to and relate to people, and how to make them feel comfortable.
One of the first times I went to work with my mother was when she was transporting artificial flowers from Cambodia back into Saigon. I remember taking a tiny boat across the Mekong River and walking through the jungle, terrified that a snake would appear at any moment. My brother and I joined her on several of these trips until we were hit by a huge storm when crossing the river. My mother then decided trips were too dangerous for us; we stayed at home after that. During tough moments, these experiences remind me that the limits I’ve known previously don’t have to be the limits I’ll always know.
I had very little career guidance at school, but my parents always said that if I did well in school, I’d get a good job. It wasn’t hard for me to understand their rationale; I’d seen first-hand how hard they’d had to work to survive. Growing up there were times when they had to borrow money for groceries. I knew that I needed to put everything into school or my future would likely be the same as theirs.
When I was 11, I was lucky enough to get into Tran Dai Nghia, one of the most prestigious- middle schools in Saigon. Today, the acceptance rate is one in 10 and I had to pass two entrance exams to get in. Teaching English was a primary focus for the school, and we spent three times as long learning English as the average student in Vietnam. Because of this, many of my peers went on to study abroad, and this was the first time I saw an opportunity to leave Vietnam and do the same.
After two years of applying to different boarding schools around the world, I won a scholarship to study at New Westminster Secondary in Canada. It was a huge life change – suddenly I was 16 years old and living halfway around the world. My family were back in Vietnam and I had no relatives or friends in British Columbia, so I did sometimes feel lonely, but throwing myself into education really helped.
After high school, I moved to the US to study sociology at Connecticut College, which was a huge culture shock. The majority of my classmates came from privileged backgrounds and were predominantly Caucasian. It was also a big shock from an educational perspective, as up until then I was used to being in the top 5% of the class. In my very first term, I failed the first paper in my human development class, which was a huge blow to my confidence. But it ultimately taught me to deal with the discomfort of failure – an important lesson.
In my second year of college, I visited New York City and instantly decided it was where I wanted to be. I loved New York’s energy and the fact that everyone there was trying to make something of themselves. Like Saigon, it was chaotic – and it felt like home straight away.
After graduating from Connecticut College, many of my friends went on to work in finance. Before Connecticut, I’d never heard of asset management or investment banking, but after speaking to my friends in the industry, I was blown away by how driven they were. Having always thrived in high-pressure environments, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in finance too.
In 2014, I began my career as a Portfolio Assistant at Franklin Templeton – hungry to learn about equity research and portfolio management. I then moved into my current role in Investor Relations at Fulcrum Asset Management. Having studied sociology at college, I’ve always been motivated to help others and do good. I initially thought the only way of doing this was in the public sector or through social work. But I’ve since discovered that investment management can have a positive social impact on those in need through investment in infrastructure and community projects.
I wanted to do an MBA to shake up my career and make a real impact in finance. Working and living in New York, I had a comfortable life but I got to the point where I wanted to do something new and challenge myself. My family still live in the same neighbourhood in Vietnam. Every time I go home, it reminds me how far I’ve come, and I’m motivated to work even harder in order to make a positive difference in the world.
During my career to date, I’ve succeeded by keeping my head down and working hard – something I’m aiming to change with the MBA. I’m excited to advance the specific skills needed to take me further in finance, such as my analytical and strategic abilities. But more than anything, I want to focus on becoming a better leader. I know that to get beyond where I am today I need to reinvent my mindset and be bolder – something that I believe the MBA will help me do.
The Laidlaw Scholarship has allowed me to be bolder when thinking about my future plans. It alleviates a huge financial burden, without which I wouldn’t have been able to do the MBA. My family are so proud that I’m in a comfortable position and don’t have to take the risks that they did – and I’m now more motivated than ever to take risks and push myself to consider new opportunities.
Living in London has been an amazing experience. There’s so many things I love about the city. It has wonderful architecture, like the different mews close to the LBS campus that are so cosy and understated. London also has great bakeries – my favourite is Gail’s on Seymour Street, just across from Fulcrum Asset Management’s London office. Whenever I’d visit from New York, I’d drag a co-worker there and we’d end up becoming great friends, so I associate it with one of my earliest and fondest memories of London.
I’ve been so inspired by my peers at LBS – by their ideas, their ambition and their experience. In the long term, I originally wanted to go back to Vietnam and use my asset management experience to help drive investments in working class communities. But I’ve already started to think beyond what I know and move towards a future vision that’s not bound by previous experience.
During lockdown, I spoke to some elderly family members and was troubled by the lack of mobility that comes with age and how this has affected them during the pandemic. I wanted to do something about it but thought ‘what do I know about this field?’ Fast-forward to a dinner with some LBS classmates, where one of them was sharing his interest in medtech and how he too wants to help his grandfather improve his mobility. I originally wanted to go into impact investing or finance, but the people I’ve met at LBS have inspired to me to look beyond that and explore new ideas and interests.
Learn more about the Laidlaw Women’s Leadership Fund.
Chi Ninh was a recipient of the MBA Laidlaw Women's Leadership Fund