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Exactly three weeks ago, I landed in Hanoi Vietnam. As part of SAP Corporate Social Responsibility, I am here with 11 other participants from different parts of the world to serve as Pro Bono consultants for different Social Enterprises. Based on our skills sets and the needs of our clients we are divided in groups of three and assigned to the appropriate host clients.

I am assigned to a social enterprise with a pretty unique name “Chie Dupudupa”. The brief provided before we arrived.., they are a social enterprise supporting ethnic minority women. They have a shop in Hanoi and a factory in a remote town near Hanoi. Their ask…, Refine Chie’s Development Strategy and grow their Revenue.

Outside Chie Store in Hanoi from left Nguyen — Local Project Assistant/Translator, Laura-SAP Germany, Jane-SAP Australia, Naomi- SAP USA and Thuy — Chie founder.

When the host clients and the respective assignments were communicated, I was thrilled. In my mind “Chie Dupudupa” was the perfect match for me. I had a couple of things working in my favor I thought… I know how to run and grow a business, my parents have been successful entrepreneurs for many years. I have been exposed to this environment. Secondly I consider myself an experienced finance professional. Thanks to my multi regional role at SAP, I am exposed to different business environments and certainly diverse cultural awareness. And not to forget, I love hand bags, (it is borderline a criminal offence for me to buy any more handbags) but the Chie shop, sells handmade unique products, surely its okay for me to purchase one more hand bag. My heart is warm just at the thought of owning one. With all these aspects weighing in my favor I tell myself. I got this…Its in the bag…

Inside Chie Store in Hanoi. Handmade fabric by the Lao ethnic minority group and                                                              naturally dyed

So I thought I had it in the bag…, until I was immersed in Thuy’s world, the founder of Chie. She started the business more than 10 years ago as a household business. This was birthed after she was involved in a Japanese funded program to promote the livelihood of Vietnamize minority groups. Thuy’s story is intriguing, heartwarming and eye watering compassionate. She told of how for 10 years she lived among different ethnic groups in the most remote areas. Being one of them, living like them, experiencing their challenges. She once mentioned that they ate rice cooked in bamboo tube and peanuts everyday as that was the easiest food available. But most importantly, Thuy understand the cultural heritage of the different tribes, she lived among them teaching and equipping them to make quality craft. Giving them a voice and enabling them to believe that they too have something valuable to offer the world.

Thuy Duong Nguyen, Chie’s founder, in her beautiful artistically decorated shop office

Thuy is so passionate about the livelihood of the women in the ethnic groups that she has invested her own money into building a factory that employ more than 60 women. She works relentlessly (without a salary to herself) and pays back all the revenue to the communities. She never bargains the cost of raw materials with the villages and is ready to give back more than she is making for the women to feel empowered. The corporate finance person in me was visibly perplexed at how she has managed to keep the business running this long.

                              Tools of trade to traditionally weave fabric

                            Fabric Orders awaiting weaving

But the more I talked to Thuy, the more I quizzed her (and being highly attentive to the cultural nuances), the more we build trust. She revealed more of her story, day by day and before long I fell deeply into her vision. I understood, this is no ordinary business, neither is it a charity — she made that very clear. The ethnic women are not poor, they are not seeking handouts, these women are rich, they are well able, they are living life to the fullest. Thuy is there to make the beautiful handicrafts and authentic fabric a means to their economic livelihood, for if not, the cultural practices will slowly be lost and forgotten. Her passion is to ensure its continuity and share it with the world. And in so doing impact the livelihood of minority ethnic groups for generations to come.

Well, the challenge cut out for me and my team mates, was not in the financial modelling and templates I mapped out for Chie, It was not the detail marketing strategy spear headed by Naomi, not even the professional photography done by Laura (even though on several conversation, Thuy said our work as a team was life changing for her). Our biggest challenge yet was finding a way to deliver our message, our observation in a manner she will understand. To give our skills so generously and make it relatable to their world. To convey our recommendations in a culturally palatable and consumable way. To give input in a language that will shift perspective but still uphold her vision and purpose for Chie and the ethnic minority women. And in Thuy’s own words to ensure the ‘circle’ does not break. To ensure Chie’s survival for continuous impact.

Without us griping the real challenge at hand, we will be bickering corporate ambassador with no place in their world.

In the end, I still think we got this… we have it in the bag!!

“One should not aim at being possible to understand but at being impossible to misunderstand.”
Marcus Fabius Quintilian