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.

DaNang-Beach2

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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“Conscious Capitalism” and Lessons from the Bangladesh Factory Collapse

Washington DC, May 4, 2013 and United Airlines, Flight 802 (LAX to Singapore), May 14, 2013

“Wal-Mart and other Western retailers share some of the blame,” my friend Hussain said as we stayed up late talking about D.C. politics, global affairs, and tips on M.B.A. programs.

“Their focus on maximizing profits has squeezed suppliers to cut costs in dangerous ways, creating unsafe working conditions,” he added.

We were discussing the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 13, 2013, which injured over 2,500 and killed 1,127 workers.  The factory is one of over 5,000 in the country, which is the world’s third largest exporter of clothing after China and Italy at $20 billion in exports annually, and employs over 3.6 million workers earning a minimum wage of less than $40 a month.

Hussain had just returned from Bangladesh a few days ago, though as a son of a distinguished diplomat, he had spent much of his life abroad including grade school in Geneva, university studies in the D.C. area then graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the Boston area where we were classmates in the mid-1990s.  In the graduate dormitory Blakely Hall where we and about 60 students lived while at the Fletcher School, I remember seeing pictures of Hussain and his father, the former Ambassador of Bangladesh to the United States, taken with world leaders including President Reagan and Pope John Paul II.

After the Fletcher School, Hussain collected more graduate degrees in law and business with a J.D. from Georgetown University and an M.B.A. from New York University.  Our conversation veered towards M.B.A. programs and corporate profits in the age of globalization,

“Well, multinational corporations are not only driven by profit… they can do good,” I noted, given my work on international trade matters for over a decade, including at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, and private law firms in D.C. and L.A., and more recently as an entrepreneur in the entertainment space.

Though, unlike Hussain – I had not received in-depth training on corporate behavior and financial analysis – and decided recently to enroll in the UCLA Anderson School of Management – National University of Singapore Business School Global Executive M.B.A. program, starting this month.

“Consumers are more aware of product supply chains, look at Whole Foods Market and organic producers – it’s not all about the lowest price,” I explained, given my partnership with Whole Foods over the past several years.

I had also been reading “Conscious Capitalism” by John Mackey, the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market and Raj Sisodia, leaders in advocating more benevolent business philosophies.   In the book, the authors write that: “Conscious businesses think caringly, creatively, and strategically about the environment.”

Mackey also noted that Whole Foods Market from early on developed a strong partnership with their suppliers – and not just based solely on profit margins.  In fact, the original store established in 1978 in Austin, Texas was on the verge of closure after a serious flood – and it was the suppliers that urged the specialty retailer to rebuild and provide shelf space for organic and natural products that struggled to find distribution in other grocery chains.  Now, Whole Foods Market has nearly 350 stores in prime locations like New York City’s Time Warner Center who I met with earlier in the month, and a market value of nearly $20 billion.

Since 2010, I have fostered a collaboration between my entertainment entity Planet LA Records, Whole Foods Market and its charitable organization Whole Planet Foundation by raising awareness with artists and brands during the SXSW festivals, Grammy Awards week and music events.  This has exposed me to partners who have business models and value chains that are mindful of product sourcing, sustainable practices and equitable standards of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – sometimes referred to as the “Triple Bottom Line” of people, planet and profit.

Interestingly enough, Whole Planet Foundation collaborates with many of these suppliers in the over 50 countries where it has global micro-lending programs averaging $160 per loan to mostly women entrepreneurs and households with an impressive repayment rate of over 90 percent – creating stronger bonds between Whole Foods Market as the retailer, its over 50,000 suppliers and the millions of American and other consumers that support them.

Some promising examples include Sambazon and their preservation of Amazonian rain forests and support of small farmers of acai berries; VOS Flips and their sourcing of natural rubber products and matching donations of slippers; Nika Water and their donation of all profits to clean water and other causes; Mrs. Meyers cleaning products made from non-toxic and essential oils; Justin’s Nut Butter and their sourcing of sustainably-harvested cacao for their chocolates; Wear Pact clothing made with organic cotton in sweatshop-free facilities, and many others.  These are profit-driven businesses with unique stories and charitable aims, which can prosper in the age of “conscious capitalism.”

In fact, the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh has spurred widespread social media and other demands for preventative action – importantly, among the world’s leading clothing brands like H&M, Gap, Zara and other major retailers.  In the wake of the disaster, a coalition of private, non-government and public interests have formulated legally-binding agreements aimed at improving safety conditions in the factories of Bangladesh.

Earlier this month, some of the largest retailers including H&M (the biggest buyer of clothes from Bangladesh) and Zara have reached a critical agreement aimed at improving labor and safety conditions, though have argued that such agreements would only be effective if a substantial threshold of global suppliers also align their practices.  Some U.S. companies like Gap and Wal-Mart have argued that strengthening “best practices” and self-enforcing agreements are preferred, while others like Disney have suspended supplier relationships in Bangladesh in favor of suppliers in countries like China and Vietnam.

Having been born in Vietnam which also offers cheaper labor and less enforced standards – I can certainly empathize and support poverty alleviation and economic growth despite the costs.  Like the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America in the late 19th Century, rapid development certainly took a toll on the populace and the environment – and conditions were pretty awful for the working poor before an expansion of the middle class.

Given the speedy actions among a handful of key multinational retailers – spurred by swift public outcry to the Bangladesh factory disaster that killed over a thousand exploited workers, there is hope that businesses are not only driven by the bottom line.  In fact, these twin objectives of better standards and higher profits – often requires greater harmony between the trinity of the modern business model:  sensible suppliers, benevolent retailers and aware consumers.

On a personal level, and as I write this on a United flight from LAX en route to Singapore as I embark on my M.B.A studies this month – I hope to contribute to the global business dialogue in a profitable, as well as meaningful manner.

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Déjà Vu in Singapore and Los Angeles: Re-Learning and Renewed Opportunities

Singapore-FrontMar2013

17 December 2000, Singapore

“…  yet another déjà vu along the Equator — and another return to the self-proclaimed Switzerland of Asia.  Since my last trip over two years ago — the city has become more affordable owing to both the strength of the dollar and my own rising income.

And, new additions — malls, of course — and the first child of my friends Ron and Annemie — Otis!

Now, as he ran barefoot in the grass while gurgling his first phrases of Dutch and English — he will soon grow, and quickly.

Singapore-BackMar2013

As the Millenium marches on — we are all bound to evolve… MDN”

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March 21, 2013, Los Angeles, California

We like entrepreneurs.  They add a lot to the peer learning of the program.”  One of the professors in the interview committee said over a speakerphone from Singapore.

Based on your credentials and our discussion today, we intend to grant you admission,” another professor added.  “Congratulations, you will receive a confirmation shortly.  We hope to see you when the program starts in May in Singapore!”

As the call with the UCLA-NUS (University of California, Los Angeles and National University of Singapore) Executive MBA committee ended, it felt like déjà vu — though not in a circular and redundant sense, but rather as if being lifted up a spiral path, which would finally allow me to move upward and forward after a challenging three years as an entrepreneur.

Over two decades ago, I began my university education at UCLA and graduated in 1994, then went on to do a Fulbright Fellowship at the National University of Singapore from 1994-1995 before my graduate studies.  I find it rather coincidental these two institutions have linked their renown MBA programs, and that I would be returning to both soon, for a second round of training.

In fact, the start of Spring had been particularly eventful, and earlier the same day I was offered a job with a global media company I had been interviewing with over the past month.  I had more meetings with their executive team, who told me they were ready to welcome me on board starting May 1.

After an incredibly difficult year in 2012, in which I had to reassess my career and life ambitions (coincidentally upon turning 40) — I actively took steps towards re-learning and re-focusing.

Last year, my business partner and I closed the offices of our start-up Planet LA Records in June 2012 (a week after I turned 40; something about that milestone…).  I then applied for new positions and with MBA programs in L.A., as well as the Midwest, East Coast and options abroad — which might have taken me back to Asia or Europe, where I had lived and spent much time in my previous profession.

Many who I encountered were often intrigued or perplexed by my background and transition from a decade-long career in international trade and at global law firms in Washington D.C. and Geneva, Switzerland — to working with musical artists and events in L.A. and cultural hubs like Austin, Texas.

“Why Music?” was a common question I was asked by interviewers.

Music icons and independents alike in the industry would find that a challenging question in the digital age.  As I have learned firsthand, it is extremely tough to be profitable, or even sustainable in pursuit of a musical career.  Many artists and their supporters do it out of passion and to establish a creative legacy, and not because of any predictable or financial returns.

So, how did I answer this question?  And what does my future look like in 2013 and beyond?  At least, according to my Facebook post today about the pending career and academic changes, 111 friends “like” the news and are curious to find out.

… The answer is, as expressed in the postcard I wrote above from Singapore in 2000:  “We are all bound to evolve.”

As I or we age, grow from pitfalls and progress, learn and re-learn from classrooms and life lessons, and take second chances and seize new opportunities — we must constantly evolve in our perspectives and through our actions.

For instance, a week ago, my team from Planet LA and I returned from Austin, Texas after our fourth consecutive year of showcasing artists during the annual SXSW festival (a leading music and branded-entertainment event).  On the first trip in 2010 after Planet LA started, we brought on tour three bands from L.A. and showcased them at local venues and a suburban Whole Foods Market cafe I reached out to weeks prior, and with no sponsors involved.  On the second trip in 2011, we showcased a dozen artists in front of the same Whole Foods Market and had two in-kind partners offering free snack bars and drinks.  While in town, we saw the posh Gibson tour bus pass by and had joked how cool it would be to go on tour with the bus someday.  A year ago in 2012, we partnered with a collective group to showcase over three dozen artists (including now well-known bands The Lumineers and Imagine Dragons) at the Whole Foods global headquarters in downtown Austin with dozens of brand partners and sponsors.  This year, our showcase with the Whole Planet Foundation on March 10, 2013 attracted a record-breaking, capacity crowd on the main rooftop plaza as we featured leading artists and sponsors in support of Whole Planet’s annual prosperity campaign.  Also this year, our brand partners at Gibson Guitar reserved their national touring bus for the event which was parked next to the Whole Foods Market the entire day.

We are all bound to evolve.

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Honestly, I don’t know whether that means I have figured out the answer to: “Why Music?”

Given the challenges and despite the progress, perhaps the time is near to suspend Planet LA after three years, and hope that its innovative business model will transform and live on in a renewed capacity.   I do know that I have gained valuable skills and brand networks that I intend to leverage in a new position soon.   Moreover, I recognize that I have additional and critical tools left to gather and sharpen in my toolbox, and must go back to school.

Interestingly enough, it may well be déjà vu academically and professionally — as I prepare to return to the classrooms of two familiar institutions with UCLA near home and NUS in Singapore, and reinforce my abilities to lead in a global setting and creative environment.

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