YESD At a Glance

Vietnam is a country with great scenic beauty where the natural environment abounds with beautiful bays and beaches, breathtakingly beautiful mountains, and hill-liked rock formations that protrude majestically out of the bay. The innumerable luscious green mountains and hills often are shrouded by a mesmerizing mist. To complement the above, Vietnam is also blessed with cultural diversity such as the over fifty ethnic minority groups that live mostly in the northern provinces and often in the mountainous areas, where they live today with the customs and traditions that have been passed on from generations ago, as if time had stood still.
As the global community begins to recognize and appreciate the value and beauty of cultural diversity, there has been increasing interest in visiting, learning, and understanding the persistence, tenacity and resilience of cultural minority groups throughout the world that have strived to maintain their identity, and integrity existence. Against this background, we would like to introduce a young social enterprise in Vietnam, the Youth Employment and Society Development (YESD) which was founded by three young Vietnamese women whose ideals, efforts and achievements to date are worthy of recording in this volume of best practices of women entrepreneurship in the APEC economies.

Genesis: the Beginning of a Business Journey

Three lively and energetic young women have graduated from university and have started working in a non-government organization (NGO) that had many projects focusing on working with young people as well as promoting the development of “local” people in mountainous and remote areas. Although working in the same field, not all three people knew each other initially.
Ms Tuyet, who was born in 1992 and earned a BA degree in Accountancy from Hanoi University, knew Ms. Tuoi, who was born in 1989 and has a degree in English from the Hanoi Open University. While Ms. Trang, born in 1990 had a degree in English from Hanoi University, knew Ms.Tuoi but not Ms.Tuyet. However, after Ms Trang and Ms Tuoi went to work in Ha Giang province on a project of the Volunteers for Development (VFD) and Ms Tuoi went to work with the Sustainable Rural Development (SRD) project and wrote a paper on “Factors Promoting Business Development in Vietnam”, the three persons seem to arrive at the same conclusion that the way forward for sustainable development in Vietnam must be grounded on local, social entrepreneurship. The three persons met one another and had long and deep discussions. They had resolved to burn all bridges behind and plunge into creating a social enterprise together. It was not an easy task to make such a move because the three of them were quite young then. Ms Tuyet was the youngest of the three and was 23 years old at the time (2015). Ms. Trang was 25 then and Ms. Tuoi was 26 in the year 2015. Their determination to work together was propelled by their firm belief in doing something good for young people and Vietnamese society through active engagement in a business for social purposes. In their words, “No more idle talks” but to go ahead and register a business for youth and local development. Although they shared similar backgrounds in working on social development in remote areas, they did not have real experience in the tourism business or industry.
Their families should be credited for their brave venture because no criticism or discouragement was given by their families on their decision. In fact, they received warm support from their families to embark on a somewhat risky path. But even in childhood and while growing up, they were blessed by their parent’s support and trust in them, always allowing them to pick and choose what they wanted to do, as also the choice of what courses to take, which major to choose in college and which career they were to pursue.

The Initial Phase: Venturing into a Brave New World

In the early phase of 2015-2017, the enterprise focused more on the education component. Using their skills in English, they organized classes to improve their English skills. Admitting those who can afford to pay for the classes helped them to extend themselves to give free classes to disadvantaged youth and those in difficult circumstances like living in remote areas. Other courses for youth also included leadership, communications and marketing skills. The ladies acted as a catalyst to draw universities in Vietnam to assist them in delivering some of the courses on a pro bono basis. They built a credible platform of non-formal education which was activity-based, fun to learn, easy to understand and practical for the learners to apply to life and work. It was fairly successful as it was a departure from the conventional learning methods and system.
The three leaders’ creative and non-conventional methods of providing learning were supplemented by recruiting volunteers from abroad to help teach which was effective, especially for students to learn the English language from native speakers. The enterprise helped pay only room and board for the foreign volunteers which did not cost the enterprise a lot. The foreign volunteers in turn probably felt some sense of satisfaction for doing good for the Vietnamese students. It seemed like a win-win situation for all parties: the enterprise, the volunteers and the students. Especially, in view of the fact that the not rigidly structured system of learning allowed for modifications while delivering learning through play and engagement of students who felt excitement in learning.
In this initial phase 2015-2017, tourism as a business was also being explored and tested. Websites and other communication tools were being designed to promote tourism. The enterprise aimed for “local destination” tours and therefore they had to train local people to support the business. The local people need to know and support the intended tours by helping to build and design the tour programs. However, the local people also needed to be ready for language and communication. It is therefore not surprising that the tourism component in the initial phase did not generate revenue, unlike the education component. However, in this initial exploration phase and through the educational component, the YESD did make invaluable contacts with external entities, like foreign volunteers, foreign educational institutions, and foreign donor programs and projects which helped to build the foundation and infrastructures for the Enterprise to enter into its subsequent phase.

The Need to Transform: Learning Doing to Realize Ultimate Goals

The first two years of YESD helped to prepare the enterprise to embark on the second phase of its journey. The rich experience from hard work, dedication and commitment to the enterprise steered the founders of the enterprise towards opting for sustainable and responsible tourism as its main focus. They believed that it would be the kind of tourism that could yield the results that they had intended from the outset. If tourism can yield adequate income not only for the YESD but also for the local community, it will help the local economy. They also rationalized that their specially designed tours would not only help the local people earn money but also help preserve the richness of the local culture and traditions. In addition, this type of eco-cultural tour will enrich the lives of the visitors as well as deter outward migration of local young people. Moreover, they believed that for Vietnam as a whole, this type of tourism would enhance visitors’ understanding and appreciation of Vietnam’s cultural diversity as well as bring in foreign currency.
The enterprise needs to survive to be able to compete with many conventional tour companies that also bring visitors to see the ethnic minority people. Because the founders were like-minded people who had worked in non-profit organizations focusing on youth and social development in general, they agreed to go forward in making the enterprise a value-based entity.
Not to be overly concerned with making a profit, they aimed for their tourism service to be memorable, if not a life-changing experience for the customers.
In the above context, the owners of the enterprise sought quality guides by training them and by using some experienced free-lance guides who meet their requirements. In order for the business to survive, it had to be lean but efficient, agile and effective in its service delivery. Hence, customers’ wishes were often accommodated by them. It’s like offering somewhat customized tour packages by the company.
Specifically, customers’ requests while on the tour would not be frowned upon. By doing this, the enterprise would have to make special provisions like extra payment for the local service providers so that they will treat the customers well, like adhering to the customers’ requests for more stops and longer hours of touring. The YESD enterprise would pay the drivers of transportation more and they would also pay more to the free-lance guides as well. In fact, the YESD would also pay their own employees well, not only in cash but also in kind. As the enterprise is not large, in terms of permanent staff, it relies on experienced volunteers to provide good services. It had been explained that “Volunteers” in this business include professionals from different fields who know Vietnamese society, history, culture and the natural environments well. They would work ordinarily in their regular professions but are willing and ready to pitch in to assist on occasions as special guides.
YESD enterprise tries to pay special attention to customers’ satisfaction and happiness, balancing it with what the local community could receive in return. When both parties are happy and satisfied as when the visitors feel that the experience of a homestay in the village is satisfactory and the host village family is happy to share their way of life, food, and hospitality as well as make some money, the YESD would consider it a success beyond huge profits.
It is also interesting that the management of the YESD is more horizontal than vertical. Perhaps because the founders were young people and the size of the company was not big, the management and communication styles could be informal and personal. On the issue of a small number of employees, YESD had been fortified by recruiting a network of service providers to deliver services. Because of the nature of this niche tourism business’s flexibility and agility, the management believes in the active participation of its motivated staff to yield good results for the company. To make its employees feel valued and appreciated, they are given gifts to take home on annual festivals/holidays, which is a much-appreciated symbolic gesture that the employers think well of and care for the employees.

The Need to Seek New Partners and New Path Ways

Since its inception, the founders have ever been on the lookout for new opportunities to grow their enterprise. With great ideals of helping youth and developing society as a whole, the enterprise needed to seek special means to achieve its business and social goals.
While providing formal education courses, they partnered with universities in Vietnam. Simultaneously they sought to expand their partnership network beyond Viet Nam. To their credit, all three founders had good command of the English language and were not shy or reluctant to make contacts outside of Vietnam. As a result, they became the core partners of the European ERASMUS+ program with many projects that YESD was involved in.
It was good to be connected with the European Union (EU) because YESD was able to receive grants for various projects from the EU over the years. Connecting with external parties must have been an eye-opening and rewarding experience for the enterprise. The continuous exposure brought the enterprise new partners and opportunities, both big and small, which helped to solidify the status, visibility, and credibility of the enterprise. Chief among them is the partnership with the National University of Singapore in a special internship program. Student volunteers or interns from NUS descended on Vietnam and were taken to the remote province. Placed in an ethnic minority village, they were exposed to local culture, traditions, food and a beautiful ecosystem that was devoid of modern comfort and luxury. The NUS students experienced an austere living but were driven by the realization and desire to better improve the local situations. Having been used to urban living and all the amenities that they had enjoyed but had taken for granted all along, the NUS students, various batches (between 10-20 students) in each came to the YESD’s special program.
The student interns felt appreciative of what they had in life and were resolved to help improve the local village. They had helped to build and improve local infrastructures like the kindergarten building in the village. The interns also did a lot of teaching English to youngsters and even older people. But above all else, it was a life-changing experience for many of the NUS students to realize that in this world that they live in, there were other peoples, other cultures and traditions which are not bounded by the “fast” life of urban situation. That life would not have to be ever so driven or that life would have always to be on the fast lane. The balance between nature and human beings in the village that the student experienced was also appreciated. They were also in awe of how the villagers could live in harmony with nature. The NUS students were especially touched by the hospitality and kindness of their hosts where village life was simple and living was physically austere and yet abundant in goodwill and generosity of spirit.
All told, the NUS project provided significant publicity to the YESD enterprise which helped to attract niche customers to their tour programs. They have become known as the “real” thing in the world of experiencing local ethnic groups and their culture.
In moving forward, other foreign partnerships have also contributed to the progress of YESD as well. An Australian national for instance had redesigned the YESD website for them, making it friendly, easily accessible and above all else international. To this end, it was explained that formerly the YESD website catered more to the Vietnamese context. It was “very local” and lacked the specifications and information that non-Vietnamese would like to look for. In addition, members from abroad like their former customers have contributed much to the company via good comments that went viral.
In fact, YESD was becoming well-known, sought after and vibrant as an enterprise on an upward trend when an unanticipated event took place which shut them down for two long years.

The COVID-19 Pandemic: the Great Disruption

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the global community, Vietnam was not exempted. As a result of the lockdowns necessitated by containing the spread of COVID-19, many, if not most businesses, were hard hit in Vietnam as elsewhere around the world. However, the hardest-hit industry was tourism. Needless to say, YESD was forced to shut down because no tours could be organized and no foreign visitors came to visit the country.
During this difficult period, the founders decided to stay afloat themselves so that they would be able to revive the enterprise once the COVID-19 situation improved. Because they have enjoyed a good reputation, a loyal customer base and especially a strong partnership with the local villages of the minority ethnic groups, they were optimistic that their business could be resurrected one day.
The founders and some other staff members looked for alternative employment or sources of income. Because the founders were well educated and had English language skills, they found good jobs, such as in the telecom industry.
Living on net income, the original three founders have now been reduced to two directors of the enterprise. Ms. Tuoi left the enterprise after it veered from dual goals (non-formal education and tourism) to tourism as a main priority. Because Ms Tuoi’s strength and specialization were in education, she withdrew from active participation in the enterprise, leaving Ms. Trang and Ms. Tuyet who have more skills, specialization and passion in tourism to carry on the task.
Just as predicted by Ms. Trang & Ms. Tuyet, when the situation with COVID-19 eased up, Viet Nam opened its doors to external visitors. Both foreigners and foreign-born Vietnamese started to visit Vietnam again. Although the number of visitors was not yet as large as before, it is expected to grow. Tourism again has come alive. For the YESD to revive its business was not too difficult because the human infrastructures were already in place the company’s own employees and the vast network of tourism-related personnel like tour guides, transportation operators and more importantly the villagers that provide homestays, food and cultural amenities and enhancements. Villagers and village or local guides had been trained already and local community members were eager to welcome visitors again.

Gaining More clarity through Self-Reflection as the YESD Marches Forward

In an interesting way, the COVID-19 pandemic had propelled the founders to reflect and gain more clarity on its business model which is a tourism business focusing on capacity building and community development of the ethnic groups. The founders could reaffirm that they were chartered on the right path. To provide capacity building in language (English) skills to the young as well as older villagers was indeed a positive decision. Not only could the villagers, both young and old, receive and interact with their visitors but they could do it meaningfully and confidently. Advising the local villagers to prepare their homes and cuisine to cater to the outside visitors was important. Designing what elements of the existing local culture: artefacts, songs and dances, traditional practices, as in health and well-being, as well as herbal usage and practices, were to be displayed or showcased to the visitors require some care, attention and work between the YESD enterprise operators with the local members of the community. In fact, YESD even designed a rotational system for homestays in the village, allowing participating households to take turns hosting and receiving monetary as well as in-kind benefits from the visitors. This system is based on fairness of access to opportunity. It also engenders a spirit of participation by more members of the community which helps to strengthen and empower the community.
The founders are convinced that by partnering with the villagers, they have contributed to deterring the young people from the village from migrating out of their villages to look for work in the cities as has been customarily done in the poorer villages of the mountainous areas in the Northern provinces of Vietnam. By not migrating to the cities, the villagers do not stand to lose their traditional livelihood in farming the land for their daily sustenance. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, having food to feed oneself and one’s family was critically important. As the economy faced a lockdown, wage earners, and salaried employees in industry and business faced hardship and peril when wages and salaries were either not meted out or were paid only partially.
For the above reasons, YESD now emphasizes responsible tourism where the entire tour package and experience is grounded on fairness and equity to all concerned. Added on is the component of mindfulness of the natural environment, local culture and traditions. In other words, ten per cent of the tour business income is allocated to a special fund for the local community for development purposes as decided by members of the local community. Examples of usage of this fund are special scholarships for needy but worthy students or infrastructural building or improvement. Under the Responsible Tourism mandate, we also find special care not to violate or destroy the natural environment directly or indirectly including, the imperative of clearing up and minimizing waste. All trash would be collected for disposal and not left behind. The use of green products or environmentally friendly products throughout the tour would be another example of responsible tourism.
YESD enterprise will carry on its task but will be especially receptive and mindful of customers’ needs. In other words, its principles are solid but its practices and activities are flexible and can be modified as needed or required by customers. Realizing that Vietnam has much to offer for the diverse needs of foreign visitors, the YESD will try to address requests for cultural experiences outside of provinces like Ha Giang and Sapa where ethnic minority groups reside. YESD can and will expand customized, cultural, experiential tours to central Vietnam or even to the South as in Hoi An. These customized tours will also be catering to returning Vietnamese foreigners who have already taken the Northern Province tour.
No matter where the tour goes, YESD will not forego or forsake its vision of utilizing the tours to serve young people building their capacity, co-share benefits with the local community and local businesses, enhance Vietnam’s status in the minds of the tourists and bringing in foreign currency to Vietnam. These ideals will be held true as the cornerstone of the enterprise.
Source: Doctor Nguyen Lan Phuong, “Stories of Women’s Economic Empowerment: Best Practices” – APEC Thailand 2022.