An HSE Alumnus from Vietnam: Stand out Fit in

Nguyen Minh Luan, an HSE alumnus, shares his university experience in Russia and his views on entrepreneurship.

An HSE Alumnus from Vietnam: Stand out Fit in

Nguyen Minh Luan earned his bachelor’s in Marketing and Market Analytics from HSE Graduate School of Business (GSB) in 2022. Although majoring in marketing, he has showed a special interest in the technology field.

In 2019, he founded Virelic, one of the best Vietnam travel guides for foreign tourists to explore. From 2021 until 2022, he worked for Onechain Technology as a project manager. Since graduating in 2022, he has been in charge of ecosystem growth for one of the fastest growing blockchain companies in Southeast Asia. In this interview, he shares about his university experience in Russia and his views on entrepreneurship.

What made you decide to study Marketing and Market Analytics? Why HSE?

I decided to study Marketing and Market Analytics for two obvious reasons. First, marketing is a trending industry. Second, studying marketing can make it easier for me to jump into other industries thanks to the background knowledge it provides. Really it is more than just marketing. For instance, I can do market analysis. And I can also develop the ecosystem as I am doing now. Later, if I start my own company, become a CEO or work for private corporations, marketing knowledge will definitely help me a lot. This is because the most important stage is not the product creation, but the sale.

As for the motivation to choose HSE, after graduating from high school, I always wanted to study aboard or in an international campus. Meanwhile, HSE was having a reputation for its dynamic academic environment, world-class research and teaching. Winning a full scholarship here was such an irresistibly attractive opportunity. The question “Why not?” immediately popped into my head. That's when I seized the opportunity and made it to HSE.

Many people think that the labour market in the field of marketing in Vietnam has been saturated since 2017 when you came to Russia. Don’t you think that opting for marketing can be a risky decision if you want to find a job in Vietnam?

I don't think marketing is a risky choice. In the first place, it is not entirely correct to consider the marketing labour market in Vietnam saturated. It is necessary to assert that regardless of industry, the need for marketing is always there. Besides, the fact that Vietnam is growing at a rapid pace and many companies have jumped in will certainly make the marketing industry expand. This expansion is logically in line with the development trend of the Vietnamese economy. For example, since 2018, in Vietnam has appeared many tech companies, leading to an increased demand for marketers in the technology sector. The same went for the emergence of Vietnamese startups in the agricultural sector. In addition, as I mentioned, marketing knowledge could give me a good foundation to work in different positions, not just in marketing ones. For this reason, this major is absolutely consistent with my orientation.

Was HSE GSB what you expected?

GSB has lived up to my expectations. My curriculum in HSE GSB is rather good, even better than that of numerous European countries. The programme trains students to be data-driven – that is, everything needs to be based on statistical data. Moreover, this programme encourages the application of technology, thereby enhancing students' analytical skills. The good thing here is that technology has been brought closer to business. They are not separate like in most universities in Vietnam but they blend together. This, I think, is very important in today's era with the rapid development of technology.

Were classes difficult to you as an international student?

Yes, I must admit that it is painfully difficult for me to grasp all the lectures and seminars partly because of the language barrier and partly because of the huge amount of knowledge. HSE has inherently set the bar high, and GSB has raised it even higher. Additionally, while the marketing industry typically involves more hands-on experience, the faculty is highly academically demanding. On that account, I have to strike a balance between the two.

Do you feel that studying in such a demanding environment is a burden or an opportunity for you to challenge yourself?

In essence, it's both. Such an environment gives me both practical and academic value. That is to say, I can be sure not only of the theory but also of the practice. In other words, it makes me more comprehensive.

Since you were a sophomore, you have started up with Virelic. What is the Virelic project?

Virelic is an application I initiated with one of my close brothers, Nguyen Thanh Nhan. Although Virelic is not my first startup project, it is probably my beloved brainchild that has brought me many things – relationships, experiences and opportunities. 

The basic idea of ​​Virelic is the Vietnam Travel Guide for Foreign Tourists to Explore. After conducting a survey, we discovered that there is a small niche of the tourism industry that hasn’t been touched: a tool to help visitors explore historical sites on their own. By using Virelic, instead of hiring a tour guide, users can easily and quickly approach text or audio guides about destinations through some photos due to AI technology in Virelic. More specifically, you can go to any tourist destination and use the photography tool available in the application to take pictures. Virelic's system will recognize and retrieve information about places and historical sites through the photos you have taken. What is more, the application also provides folk tales revolving around those places. Of course, an internet connection is required, but in the 4.0 era this is accessible to any traveler.

When did you become interested in entrepreneurship and how did you get started?

I became interested in entrepreneurship back in high school. I’d call myself a risk taker. There is an English word that I like very much – “venture”. When starting a business, you are always at stake because your project can either succeed or fail. Venturing often makes me pay the price, but sometimes it brings a lot of interesting and rewarding experiences. Therefore, the venturing price seems to me so cheap compared to what I could get. Changpeng Zhao, CEO of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, Binance, once said in an interview in Hanoi that entering a new field, if you were afraid in the first place and did not dare to take risks, you couldn't do anything. Indeed, if you don't try then you will never know how far you can go.

I believe that entrepreneurship starts by looking at what problems exist, also known as customer pain points. Then we go and fill those needs. Previously, when I participated in the Hackathon in Vietnam, a competition where participants sit together to solve a problem through a piece of software, I realized many people make the same mistake: They start their creative journey with an idea. Only when the idea takes shape do they think about what problem it will solve. As a result, the final product could be a grudging and ineffective solution. 

Also, when starting a business, you don't need to put too much emphasis on originality. In fact, it's not easy to come up with original ideas. Chances are the ideas you think of have already been thought of by someone before you. Instead of struggling with the originality of your product, you can choose to improve on an existing foundation or come up with a more unique application. From my perspective, a good idea should be a well-improved idea.

How intense is your work? Entrepreneurship seems to involve a great deal of psychological stress.

The intensity of my work is fairly high. Nevertheless, I suppose that in order to pursue your passion and achieve success, you need to put in a lot of effort and dedication. During that journey, a positive attitude is a must. Success is not easy to come by, is it? I can't say I've succeeded, but I think building a team is similar to building a machine. Good gears will still work fine even without 24/7 supervision. The colleagues who I have been working with are truly great companions.

Did you have any difficulties combining work and study?

At that time I didn’t because what I learned was related to what I did. To illustrate, when I needed to know how to manage and build a website, I was coincidentally studying a subject like that.

Sum up, please, your university experience in Russia in a single word.

It's hard to use just one word, but I would like to use the quote “Stand out fit in” to describe this wonderful experience. “Stand out fit in” is the name of a song by ONE OK ROCK. This is what I always aim for in both study and work.

I came to Russia when I was 18 years old. It was also my first time away from home. No friends. No relatives. I couldn’t even read the Russian alphabet. In front of the 18-year-old boy was one of the most prestigious and strict universities in Russia. But at that time, I was daring and extremely curious about the surroundings. Generally speaking, living in the world without having any “stand out” thing to tell your progeny is such a waste.

To become the person I am today, I had to go through a lot. After all, what Russia has given me is not merely knowledge or finance, but experience. I go places I've never been, try things I've never tried, keep an open mind to be receptive. “Fit in” is to know how euphoric it is to drink a 40-degree bottle of vodka in minus 10-degree weather. During my time in Russia, I also met many people to whom I am very grateful. Without them my experience wouldn't be complete.

Since you just mentioned vodka, there is a stereotype: "Russians drink a lot. It's not a myth". How about you? Do you like Russian vodka and beer?

Certainly. Although I am not a drunkard, I do enjoy drinking, especially beer. I feel that beer in Russia is better than in other places I have tried. Maybe it's mainly because of Russian bitterly cold weather.

I at times sit at a bar (pub) drinking a few bottles of beer, having a few small talks. For me, the drinking table is the closest socialism when young and old raise glasses together regardless of class, and in the end the bill is still split equally. Sometimes drinking is the time to reflect on something and then forget it. People go to bookstores not just to read books, to cafes not just to drink coffee, to bars not just to grab a beer. Simply, people go there for stories, good ideas or even for a moment of silence.

What is your current goal?

I am currently working in the technology field so naturally I would like to learn more in this area. Besides, I am also interested in the F&B industry. According to BMI, Vietnam has become one of the most attractive F&B markets globally. Vietnam's F&B industry is forecasted to grow even more in the coming years with widely open food services, coherent policies to stimulate tourism and attract tourists. It can be said that F&B is an industry with enormous potential in Vietnam.

What would you recommend to those who are studying at university now?

The university’s motto is perfectly appropriate in this situation: "We study not for school, but for life".

Interview by

Minh Nghia Pham