Return to Vietnam: Offering Global Perspectives to a New Generation

11 August 2016, Hanoi, Vietnam (Postcard)

“… On perhaps my eighth trip here over the past two decades, I have visited with family and colleagues from Da Nang & Hoi An in the Central coast to HCMC/Saigon in the South, to Hanoi in the North.  On this trip, I made it to the mountainous region of Sapa just as the emerald rice paddies were at their most verdant peak.

Here in Hanoi, I was invited to teach an international business class to a young, eager and “green” crop of college students at the Foreign Trade University.

It has been an honor to pass on my global insights to these Vietnamese students.  I hope they will be inspired and grow into future explorers and leaders at home and further afield… MDN”

mark-hanoi-aug-2016-back17 July 2016, Midway City, California

“Take my suitcase,” my father offered as I searched my parent’s home for luggage to carry my books, gifts and various items for a month-long trip to Asia.  As a seasoned globe-trotter, I usually bring only carry-on bags for most trips… but this journey would necessitate more baggage.

As my father handed me his dusty black nylon Samsonite, which he last used on a trip to Seattle for his brother, my uncle’s funeral in March 2015, he did so with a nostalgic gesture.  “I don’t think I will be using it again,”  he said firmly, as has always been his manner throughout my upbringing.  The words struck me as I couldn’t really fathom him not traveling, ever again… the man who instilled such a great sense of exploration in me.  From the many visits to American national parks where my brother and I slept in the backseat of his Toyota camper, to a European vacation to visit my brother when he was stationed in Warsaw, or a return to Vietnam to visit relatives.  This wanderlust has been rooted deep in my cultural mindset, physical stamina and restless soul.  I just couldn’t imagine retiring luggage — or a traveler at heart who could no longer venture forth.

Prior to the trip, I consulted my oncologist friend on whether I should go on the trip at all as it was a delicate stage in my father’s health.  His cancer had reappeared in the Spring as a Stage 4 development, and some doctors suggested this time would be tougher and more unpredictable than before it went into remission.  I also noticed a change in my father’s attitude, as he was more resigned towards the inevitable.

About two months earlier, my colleague at Cal State University Fullerton (CSUF) had asked if I would be interested in teaching an international business and management class at the Foreign Trade University (FTU) in Hanoi, which has a long-standing faculty and student exchange program with CSUF.  I initially agreed, though took precautions in the event I had to return home earlier than expected.  Also, the summer would be full of international travel as I had work meetings in London and an alumni reunion in Italy in June… and knew that beyond this season, I would need to stay closer to home.  Then as July approached, I packed my bags and my father’s suitcase, and left for Singapore for a stopover to visit with former classmates prior to arriving in Vietnam.

1 August 2016, Hanoi

“The women of Sapa are examples of savvy global entrepreneurs,” I explained to my class upon the start of our second week together.  “They were trekking guides, spoke many languages, invited foreigners to stay with their families in local homestays, and got us to buy all these handicrafts they made!”

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I had just spent the weekend and taken the overnight train to the mountainous region of Sapa, where our group hiked all day in the rain and across rushing streams to the village of Lao Chai.  The journey was worth every soggy step as we were immersed in the cascading, terraced emerald rice paddies and welcomed by hospitable and enterprising local hill tribes.

The journey provided me with some local anecdotes for my class of 32 Vietnamese college students at FTU, many of whom were age 21 or younger and had not left Vietnam.  As their teacher, I tried to inspire them to become astute decision makers as they experience more of the world.  Unanimously, they all wanted to spend time working or living abroad; no surprise, as the focus of FTU is on international business.

Personally, it was an enriching experience for me to be invited back to Vietnam to offer my global perspectives.  My previous trips since 1995 have been short, after having left the country of my birth over 40 years ago.  I shared with the class stories about growing up in America, and how it was a more individualistic yet an innovative culture.  Later, I would go on to work for a multilateral organization — the WTO in Geneva, and support multinationals like FedEx and Toyota with trade negotiations at ministerial conferences in Mexico and Hong Kong.  When we discussed the Saudi Arabia culture case from the textbook, I recounted a trip to Riyadh with my boss to advise on the country’s WTO negotiations.  From meetings with officials in Brussels and Tokyo, to speaking on panels in London, Sao Paulo and Shanghai, over a decade of international trade work provided useful insights to the students on the conduct of cross-border transactions, regulatory frameworks and collaboration in cross-cultural teams.

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By the time we finished the class with group presentations on August 12, I was delighted that several of them told me they were inspired by what they learned, and would seek global careers after graduation.  My greatest hope for them, or any of my students, is that they can be better prepared in their education to succeed in whatever their passions or dreams they want to achieve — in a more borderless, connected and competitive world.

As for me, I decided to return to California the next morning even though I usually would linger and catch up with family and friends in the region.  I had some events to attend to back home with my day job and creative gigs, prepare to teach again in the fall semester at CSUF, in addition to the annual gathering of UCLA Anderson’s global MBA programs where I remain active in the alumni network.

Also, I was simply, eager to spend some quiet time at home with my father and family given that in the following seasons, the days will grow shorter… and with the faster passage of time, a sentimental and inward journey awaits.

In the uncertain yet inevitable paths ahead, we can only hope for good health, greater happiness, and a lasting love and legacy that transcend the boundaries of the short time and space we have on this earth.

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When Worlds Align: 2015 Year-End Reflections and New Year Greetings

1 January 2016, Los Angeles, California

“When Worlds Align:  2015 Year-End Reflections and New Year Greetings”

“Make sure they call you Professor Nguyen!” My friend Nhutrang said jokingly when I announced I would start teaching an International Business Management course in January 2016 at California State University in Fullerton.

My dear friends Phong and Nhutrang were hosting a holiday brunch at their home in the Washington DC area where long-time friends joined, some whom I had met during my first time in DC in 1993 when I started an internship on my 21st birthday at the Department of State.  Earlier that week, I had lunch with Ambassador Tomseth and his family, who was the Chief of Mission on my first trip abroad as an intern at the American Embassy in Vientiane, Laos in the Summer of 1994.  Over two decades later, it seems timely and appropriate for me to impart some of that knowledge gained from international and entrepreneurial pursuits to a group of millennial students and global citizens.

Sometimes and in distant lands, worlds align… as was the case on my first trip to Colombia in November to visit my long-time musical collaborator Juan and his family. Since we met in UCLA Extension’s music program in 2009, we have been writing songs together and released our last album “The Universe in Me” in 2012 (also when I closed the full-time operations of Planet LA Records).   After a three-year impasse, we are about to launch our defining effort and musical called “Lovers and Angels” about the City of Los Angeles on January 4, 2016 (click image below for a preview).

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It was also an opportunity to visit my Fletcher School classmate Jeroen who is now the Belgian ambassador to Colombia. The worlds of music and international diplomacy crossed in Bogota… leaving me feeling a bit nostalgic about a diplomatic career that could have been, and the hope of a creative legacy that has yet to be.

2015 also took me to other new countries including Sweden in April following an aviation conference in Germany and a visit to manufacturing facilities in Italy, as part of my work with global sourcing company Wessco.  While in Milan, I caught up with my MBA classmate Daniele who suggested hosting a reunion in Italy next summer. I also returned to Asia in July with my mother on a trip to Japan, Singapore and Vietnam, and to attend the graduation ceremony for the dual-MBA program between UCLA Anderson and the National University of Singapore.  During that journey while in my birthplace of the beach town of Da Nang, I woke up to the news that I was appointed to serve as vice president of the UCLA Anderson alumni network for a three-year term.

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My father wasn’t able to join us in Asia, though fortunately his health has stabilized since his major surgery.   His uncertain condition has been a constant reminder to appreciate and take every moment in stride.  In the Spring, my family traveled together to Seattle for the funeral of his brother, my uncle Ky who passed away in March.   We had a large reunion among my cousins, all of whom had children of their own – in contrast to my brother and I who have none.

As in previous years with Planet LA, I continued to facilitate synergies between artists, brands and causes by supporting partners including Whole Foods Market and their charity Whole Planet Foundation with an annual Pre-Grammy party and Summer Music Series.  The third annual party set records by raising more than $20,000 for global micro-lending programs and was attended by over a thousand industry guests.  Planet LA also showcased emerging and global artists during the SXSW festival, the Gibson Guitar showroom and with other partners.

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As I look back upon 2015, it was the first year in awhile where my diverse worlds came into balance, both personally and professionally.  My family was intact and distant friends still close. I was gainfully employed and could better serve my professional and creative communities, and alumni network.  For the first time in three years, I was able to write music again and will soon share this labor of artistic passion.  And, after selling my homes in DC followed by years of transitory living between family and friends, I found my own place again.

My footing has been restored after a prolonged journey defined by relocation, repositioning and reinvention.  Now, I am in a good position to share some of these lessons in a classroom and beyond.  Often times, it takes focus and perseverance to set worlds that collided back into harmony and alignment.

So thank you to my dear family, friends and believers for their unconditional support and faith in my hopes and potential.  Best wishes to all for a promising 2016!

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Lifelong Learning and Lessons Learned

July 7, 2015, Singapore

“So, what do you hope to accomplish with this degree?” my fellow classmate Jakob asked, as we celebrated after our graduation ceremony earlier that day from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

The question struck me — was this second chance and effort at reinvention going to lead to a more balanced professional career, or will it be filled with as many thrills and spills as the preceding go around?

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Life can be ironic as it is forgiving as I had come full circle after two decades and double degrees from the same institutions UCLA and NUS (a BA in 1994 and an MBA in 2014 from UCLA; a Fulbright Fellow in 1995 and an MBA in 2015 from NUS), and had reached a point where I was finally finished with school, but not with learning.  In fact, I was far from done in my association with these repeat alma maters…

July 14, 2015, Da Nang, Vietnam

“It’s official! Welcome to the Executive Committee as VP!”  Wendy the president of the UCLA Anderson Alumni Network of over 30,000 Andersonite Bruins, wrote in a congratulatory email I received upon waking 14 hours ahead in the place of my birth, Da Nang, Vietnam.   I had been confirmed as vice president of the alumni network a year after graduation and having served as president of the class of 2014 UCLA-NUS Global Executive MBA for the Asia Pacific.

As I gazed outside towards the bright, rising sun as it dashed above the South China Sea, the moment seemed all the more amazing.  All this privileged education, the ability to serve in global institutions, pursue a creative passion, and yes, perhaps still have the drive and ability to accomplish something more meaningful.   What do I hope to accomplish?  How should it be defined or measured?  (maybe based on return on investment (ROI); now that I have an MBA, I probably should think that way!)

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Why was I provided such incredible opportunities, as opposed to the fisherman hauling in his catch that morning to feed his family, or the taxi driver waiting to earn a 40,000 Dong fare (about US$2), or the budding local entrepreneur who had a later start than I did as Vietnam embraced capitalism two decades after the end of the war?  Not to downplay their livelihoods, but I do feel very grateful.

Coincidentally, 1995 was when I first returned to visit the country after leaving in 1975 at the age of two as the war ended with just a small suitcase of clothes my parents had packed, though with plenty of space for a hopeful future.

Over the past two decades, I’ve returned to study, work and vacation on more than a dozen trips to Japan, Great China, Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia.   Every time, I’ve been amazed by the energy and dynamism of the region — and how increasingly interlinked it is with the America and the rest of the world, whether culturally or economically.

Given my cross-cultural upbringing and education, if I can serve as a bridge between East and West and improve commerce and understanding — then that’s a useful purpose.

July 17, 2015, Hanoi, Vietnam

Văn Miếu known as The Temple of Literature — is Vietnam’s first imperial university founded in 1070 by then King Lý Nhân Tông for the nobility and wealthy based on Confucian principles and worship of knowledge.  I first visited this historic site in 1995 along with two American classmates studying at NUS in Singapore.  Today, I thought it would be fitting to end my latest journey to Asia by paying homage to this academic mecca.  For good measure and appreciation, I brought along my latest credential earned over the past two years of hitting the books and sweating out the exams (not to mention, in sweltering humidity that day).

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For over 700 years, this esteemed institution paid utmost respects to its teachers, laureates and elite students that excelled in their tests as they strived to attain revered status as mandarins and become public leaders.  Since 2010, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often filled with tourists as well as locals who come to pray for skill on their own exams (or usually, parents praying on behalf of their children), and all can now buy lucky amulets with encouragements like “Study” and “Intelligence” for just a dollar.

The temple’s layout is similar to the Chinese temple at Qufu in Shangdong, Confucius’ birthplace, and divided into five main courtyards, with the third containing the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” before approaching the inner sanctums.

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I came here today to reflect, whether divinely or in egalitarian spirit, upon my own lessons learned in the classroom or otherwise over the past two decades (and recognize we all have different objectives, so not proselytizing).

Here is my simple list of three:

Humility Leads to Growth:  The more I am able to learn, whether it be a new skill or from an unforeseen perspective, the more I feel humble and enlightened.  Humility often arises from an open mind and heart, which allows growth to take place.  This could come from an engaging conversation with someone we thought was too different, or experiencing the world.  Otherwise, we may become too fixed in our ways.

Giving is Rewarding:  I have found that offering my time, knowledge or resources to support others or a cause is a wonderful and fulfilling investment, especially when it’s done with no return expected.  Generosity is rewarding in itself as well as to society.

Opportunity Offers Great Potential:  Perhaps being an immigrant, I have had an engrained sense of not taking opportunities for granted.  In approaching each new idea, partnership or innovation — I instinctively think of whether it is possible to attain the synergistic 1+1 = 3, which should make something that is not ideal better.  Opportunities can be remarkable if we achieve their greatest potential.

With these lessons learned and latest credentials earned… I still have much left to accomplish whether as a business leader, a humble servant or in lifelong learning.

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A Good Fortune in New Orleans and 2014 Year-End Greetings

French Quarter, New Orleans, 19 November 2014

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“… Long life, much travel and creativity… you have found your balance — except for love.  That will come later as you make money again… and be less analytical!”  Gina the Gypsy told me as she closed my palms, after a brief reading in Jackson Square.

I’ve traveled here several times before — with a love, to witness marriage in this historic square — and on the verge of a new career at a crossroads. 

Now, here on behalf of a new job — I’m starting to regain my footing again.”

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December 26, 2014, Southern California

In 2008 on my previous trip to New Orleans, I met with a potential employer from Switzerland which would have kept me in a global career – but instead, pursued a passion and started working for myself the following year.  A global financial crisis hit, and I managed to survive out West, barely, in support of creative artists.

Just as I was about to catch a flight back to L.A., I walked passed Gina in Jackson Square, who casually insisted that I could benefit from a quick reading at a reasonable price:

“Your family is overcoming cancer, and some other ailments that will pass. And you, you have a strong aura. Long life, much travel and creativity… you have found your balance…” she explained.  That sums up the year.

Tokyo Dinner 2014Hawaii Dinner 2014

Paris Dinner 2014February began with a trip to Tokyo en route to an MBA session in India.  In April, I returned to Geneva and Paris which brought back fond memories while en route to a conference in Hamburg. The studies continued in Singapore in May, followed by a visit to Vietnam for a conference and to visit family and friends, and a layover in Hawaii.  It was nice to reconnect with distant and longtime friends, after recent years of being more grounded in L.A.

The studies concluded at the end of summer with my graduation from the UCLA Anderson-National University of Singapore global executive MBA program (“GEMBA”). My event organization skills came in handy as I was recruited to help with the GEMBA program’s 10th anniversary celebration, and also was elected class president and party planner in chief by my peers.

Anderson Graduation 2014Fortunately, my family and father in particular were able to attend the graduation. He had been fighting pancreatic cancer since last year, and was strong enough to overcome a serious surgical procedure and chemotherapy treatments.

In recent months, I returned to the corporate world in a marketing role supporting a global sourcing company. The new role drew from my creative network as I helped re-brand the company with American Idol finalist Pia Toscano and the talented Jared Lee. Meanwhile, I continued to support brand partners and causes at an annual Grammy week event, during the SXSW festival and in a summer music series at Whole Foods Market locations to benefit the Whole Planet Foundation.

GEMBA Celebration Pia Jared

The year ended with a celebration involving my MBA alumni friends, creative artists and brand partners. Corporate types mingled with musical composers, in a spectacular private home and studio in Malibu on a perfect December day.

Studio Malibu Holiday 2014Being an entrepreneur, then returning to school taught me one thing: how to throw good parties!  On a more serious note, it allowed me to connect the dots by leveraging networks and opportunities in ways that made sense and offered value to those involved. Memorable experiences can be precious products.

“You are now in a good place… Love will come later as you make money again… and be less analytical!” Gina said as she finished our brief but surprisingly prescient session, then collected $20.

In what seemed like years of being lost at sea, followed by steadfast determination to right the ship… I feel I am on the right path. 2014 was a good year. The years ahead should be even better with a more sturdy vessel, newfound navigation skills and a stronger sense of direction – to realize personal and professional goals.  In any event and notwithstanding the detours, the journey looks more promising than ever.

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Second Chances and a “New Age” in Singapore and L.A.

1 June 2014, Singapore

MarkBlog-SporeFront-June2014“… ‘Welcome to the new age’!  the familiar chorus from Imagine Dragon’s global hit “Radioactive” reverberated through the atrium at the NUS Business School.

Earlier this year, the band joined me at CES to see Fleetwood Mac in Vegas — and a year ago, I entered this building to embark on an educational journey with familiar institutions NUS and UCLA, and destinations along the way — Shanghai in November, India in February — and this summer, the conclusion of the academic adventure in Los Angeles.

Today, as I prepare to depart Singapore, I am a bit wiser, more optimistic and ready for the dawning of a ‘new age’… MDN”

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August 23, 2014, Los Angeles, California

“Congratulations! Look forward to what more you will do for the program,” Dean Judy Olian said as I accepted my second degree from UCLA, an MBA from the Anderson School of Management, after having received a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1994.

Anderson-Graduation-Smaller Like twenty summers ago, my parents and brother returned to the campus to witness the ceremony, thankfully.  A year prior, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had a major surgery known as a Whipple procedure in January and was still undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

Life sometimes gives you a second chance,” he said, both in self reflection and as a proud parent.  For him, each new day is hampered by uncertainty… though filled with a stronger awareness of the present.

UCLA-Family-Graduation2014The hope and irony of the moment struck me.  Two decades of promise had passed with much ebb and flow, peaks and valleys, marked by cross-cultural studies as a Fulbright fellow at the National University of Singapore (NUS), to a global trade career in Washington D.C. and Geneva, followed by a return to L.A. to pursue creative expression and entrepreneurship.

Then, coincidentally, back full circle at UCLA and NUS again, where I had to start over and retrace my steps in order to find a path forward.  Once again, I became a starving student strapped with huge loans… but more optimistic and humble than ever.

Notably, this year marked the tenth anniversary of the partnership between the two renowned business schools.  What started as a sensible concept of facilitating business education between East and West, led to an established reputation and global rankings of #3 by The Economist and #4 by the Financial Times in 2014.  Of course, we had to celebrate the program’s progress, and since I was known in the class as a professional “party planner” (as a result of all the Planet LA Records showcases), I became highly involved with the commemorative events.

Paul A. Hebert / www.PaulHebertPhoto.com

Paul A. Hebert / www.PaulHebertPhoto.comSomehow, it made sense to align an MBA anniversary celebration with talented musical performers and corporate sponsors including from my new employer, and in historic settings in Southern California.  It was gratifying to help create these memorable experiences, which sure required a lot of education and risky business ventures to master the art of party planning (lol).

At the graduation, my classmates chose me to present one of the teaching awards to Professor Prem Shamdasani, our most entertaining marketing professor who guided us on concepts about branding and customer loyalty, and with much humor and passion.

“Before I begin, I wanted to thank my classmates for the undemocratic election,” I said jokingly before presenting the award to Dr. Prem.  This was due to my selection as the class president, which happened while I was away on an urgent business trip during our final intensive session in August.

Joking aside, it is an honor to represent the class on the UCLA Anderson alumni board and continue to build the academic brand, while helping to sustain the camaraderie of our group… and yes, probably more reunion parties to plan!

On a personal level, the past two years have been an amazing opportunity to gain more practical career skills, and to offer greater emotional value in every moment… given this precious, second chance at learning and life.

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From Bollywood Premieres to Hollywood Releases

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14 February 2014, Mumbai, India

“We had our wedding reception here,” Bappa mentioned as he and his driver picked me up in a bright red Audi from this hotel (ITC Maratha Mumbai).

As we drove past the airport, there was a huge billboard announcing the release of the Bollywood film “Gunday.”

“Dad has a super hit in this mega film by producer Aaditya Chopra,” Bappa explained.

The name of this Indian movie icon didn’t register, but should have since I represent Bappi Lahiri — India’s “Disco King!”  So unfamiliar, yet somehow makes sense like this overwhelming country! … MDN

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August 16, 2014, Los Angeles, California

“I am so happy to release my latest album ‘Bappi Lounge’ today,” Bappi Lahiri announced as I stood next to him at Yamashiro in the Hollywood Hills, known for its majestic views of Tinseltown and the urban sprawl of L.A.

BappiLounge-FrontIt was the fifth album we have released together in less than four years since my label Planet LA Records has represented the prolific artist “Bappi-da” as he is affectionately known by millions of South Asian fans.  The first release “World, Peace, Love and Harmony” on September 29, 2010 was almost a fluke as I knew practically nothing about Bollywood.  My business partner and I were reluctant to take on such a daunting task, but we did it anyways.

“You are like my brother… I have so much music to share.  Someday I will get nominated,” Bappi has insisted, while I assisted him with Grammy consideration for each new release.  Every year since 2010, Bappi has returned to L.A. with his latest collection of contemporary and traditional songs, cross-over genres and unusual collaborations with American jazz greats, notorious rappers, Middle Eastern pop stars and Indian gospel singers, to name a few.

This time around, he came with his family including his son and producer Bappa Lahiri — who I met for the first time in February of this year in Mumbai, during a trip to India as part of my global studies with UCLA.  Bappa cued up the tunes as his father performed two new songs “Mystery” and “East Meets West” from the electronica-infused album.  The mellow lounge tunes held sway over the courtyard, keeping the conversation hushed.

BappiRelease-pic2“Now, I am going to sing my super hits,” he told the crowd, which was an eclectic mix of Grammy staff, a former member of The Supremes, Bollywood fans and my classmates and alumni from the UCLA Anderson-NUS global executive MBA (“GEMBAs”) who were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Asia-Pacific program.

“Oh La La… Oh La La!” Bappi belted out.  The song’s fast tempo and catchy chorus quickly changed and uplifted the mood.  The song was a huge single off the popular Bollywood film “The Dirty Picture” — which led to Bappi’s resurgence in recent years.  His duet partner on the song, Shreya Ghoshal has over 21 million Facebook fans (more than Madonna’s 19 million likes)… India’s “Disco King” was back!

As Bappi sang to the dance track, I pulled the audience towards the stage, starting with my Indian classmates, then the rest of the global contingent joined the party.  I knew well from working with creative talent that many of them feed off the energy from the crowd.  Many artists are brilliant because they are egocentric.

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Bappi  began to sing with vigor as the crowd danced around him.  He kept going beyond his scheduled set with encore numbers including his 80s megahit “Jimmy Jimmy” which has since been covered by M.I.A. (a female rapper of Sri Lankan origin who sang with Madonna during half-time at the 2012 Superbowl, and caused a mini scandal with her middle finger).

“Thank you, thank you,” Bappi repeated as he placed his hands together in a namaste-style prayer, signifying the end of his performance.

As my classmates and industry colleagues surrounded Bappi for a group photo in front of the UCLA-NUS step-and-repeat banner… I felt deep inside that somehow, my seemingly impracticable foray in the music industry in recent years — followed by an academic restart in B-school since last year, was beginning to make sense.

BappiRelease-pic1This evening involved many moving parts and dots to connect, marked by years of trial and error.

For the most part, I believe it was a memorable experience for every star and guest that danced and smiled that night — which made it worth the overwhelming effort expended since I began on this passionate journey… five Bollywood albums and counting!

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A Record Snowstorm and Flurry of Perspectives in Tokyo

8 February 2014, Tokyo, Japan

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“… the snowstorm began late in the evening as I left R2 Lounge in Roppongi where old friends, creative colleagues and current classmates gathered, celebrated and cross-pollinated in the midst of the Tokyo winter.

It’s been nearly four years since my last trip, and my Fletcher friends from the mid-1990s remarked how astonishing my network had evolved since we last met in 2010, with entertainers and MBA students now among the mix.  Perhaps the coming Spring and future visits will yield a flowering of new perspectives.  MDN”

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7 February 2014

Tokyo, Japan

“You know so many salary men!” my former colleague Sayaka Shiomi said with exaggerated surprise.  She had supported me during the founding of Planet LA Records while we were students in the UCLA Extension program on Entertainment Studies between 2009-2010, and recently moved back to Tokyo to carry on with her career as a music journalist.

Sayaka was referring to my Fletcher alumni friends in dark suits at the Japanese trade and defense ministries, as well as recent MBA colleagues who worked for Japanese insurance and construction companies.  She, on the other hand, was wearing her trademark leopard print skirt which matched her fuzzy purse and seductive name cards.

Earlier in the evening – my Fletcher friends and I exchanged our new and updated business cards at Sushi Zanmai, a fantastic restaurant next to Tsukiji seafood market in the Ginza district.  I would often stay at a hotel in Ginza like I did this past trip just to have sushi for breakfast in Tsukiji, or sometimes observe the record-setting tuna auctions in the early morning hours.

Since we last gathered in 2010 during a Fletcher alumni dinner, most of my Japanese friends had more elevated titles:  Director, Vice President, Head of Unit; and most were still working at the same government ministries and corporations.   My business cards this time were no longer black and white with raised ink as issued by a traditional law firm, but had a unique Planet LA logo as founder of a music entity.  They must have thought I had a serious case of confused identities, and commented on the flexibility for career changes in America compared to Japan’s traditional employment for life.

After dinner at the hip R2 Lounge in the entertainment district of Roppongi – Tokyo’s version of Hollywood or Times Square – the distinct groups from my past and present mingled uncharacteristically but in good fun.   Japanese suits and rebellious rockers, fighter pilots based at the U.S. Embassy, a dash of French and Italian expats, along with a Ukrainian girl who had become a Japanese citizen – found common ground despite bureaucratic rigidity and creative frivolity.

Some of us continued on to a live music venue called Red Shoes in Aoyama until past 3am as the largest snowstorm in a decade hovered over Tokyo (which ended up canceling my flight).  The restless conversations continued on as we ended the evening at one of the city’s all-night, yet elegant watering holes called Bar Deuce — savoring whiskey cocktail nightcaps turned champagne breakfast elixirs until the patient manager politely told us he was closing around 8am.  By then, daylight revealed a vast megalopolis covered in a new snowy coat.  So chill, cleansing and enticing like the evening that would not exhaust itself until dawn.

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