Setting up the Australia – Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue was an exercise in leadership, growth, connection and empathy for Thao Nguyen.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Vietnamese parents, Thao moved to Australia at just three months old. She grew up in western Sydney until she moved to Ho Chi Minh City ten years ago to work as a corporate lawyer. Growing up in Australia, Thao saw the composition of the Vietnamese diaspora change ‘from refugees, through family reunions, to international students, skilled migration and business migrants. This not only mirrors Vietnam’s growth journey, it signals a rapidly changing bilateral relationship with Australia’, she says. Thao’s story is captured in her acclaimed book, We are here.
Thao started a new role as Regional Director for UTS ‘Insearch’, a pathway college for the University of Technology Sydney. Through this work and over her ten years in Vietnam, she saw a growing number of Vietnamese students studying in Australia as well as increased two-way investment, trade and tourism. Thao thought it was timely to establish a youth dialogue, similar to the already-established Indian, Chinese and Indonesian youth dialogues. ‘Given the unique history between Australia and Vietnam, there are opportunities to deepen trade, professional collaboration, and people-to-people links’, she says.
I believe it will lead to an enhanced understanding of each other—the basis for realising our potential as individuals and as nations in an interconnected world.
Thao and two other co-founders, Rachel Bui and Khai Ngo worked together to create the Australia – Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue (AVYLD). Their mission was to bring together outstanding Australian and Vietnamese young leaders to facilitate deeper understanding and enhance collaboration.
20 volunteers and 9 advisors worked over 24 months to prepare for the Dialogue supported by 15 sponsors including the Australia–ASEAN Council. ‘We received over 1,400 expressions of interest and 375 full applications’, Thao says. Australia’s Ambassador to Vietnam, Craig Chittick, sat in on the interview panel for Vietnamese delegates and both the Australian Embassy and Consulate hosted events leading up to the AVYLD. ‘The Australian Government has been incredibly supportive and we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we did without this support’, Thao says.
The first AVYLD was held in Sydney in early 2017 and was a great success. The platform brought together 20 emerging leaders from Australia and Vietnam from very different backgrounds and industries, including business, education, policy, non-for-profit and the arts. A total of 54 speakers presented under the themes of education, business, national development and leadership. While the dialogue explored the huge potential of Vietnam’s economic growth and existing trade links between the two nations, it also established strong personal links between participants. ‘Beyond exposing each other to opportunities that are inherent within each nation, it’s about grounding those opportunities in personal narratives and relationships.’
For the Vietnamese delegates, Thao thinks that the dialogue ‘really broadened their view about how they can engage with Australia’. And for the Australians, ‘we tried to demonstrate how complex and multi-dimensional engagement with one Southeast Asian nation can be—ultimately broadening the nature of how we can engage with Asia and therefore the rest of the world. I think that’s incredibly important in a globalising age’, Thao says.
Now back in Ho Chi Minh City, Thao is working towards running dialogues bi-annually in both Australia and Vietnam, as well as holding various events and workshops in between. ‘It’s certainly early days’, she says, ‘but I think if we track this project over time, we can measure its real contribution to prosperity, whether it’s the creation of jobs, increased investment and trade, or cultural exchange. No matter what, I believe it will lead to an enhanced understanding of each other—the basis for realising our potential as individuals and as nations in an interconnected world.’