Like millions of Vietnamese kids, Viet Huynh lived with his parents in a small hay-roofed bamboo house with no running water or electricity, surrounded by farmland and rice paddies. Neither his mother nor father had gone to high school. The couple provided for themselves and their family through farming, growing watermelons, peanuts, and rice, raising chickens and pigs – typical enterprises in a country where even now, half the population still works in agriculture.
“I was there in the countryside until I finished ninth grade,” says Huynh, a personable man whose youthful enthusiasm and baby face belie his 32 years. His parents believed strongly in his education, and largely exempted him from farming duties so he could focus on school, except occasionally at rice harvest time, when he joined his parents working in the paddies.
As a rural youngster wearing sandals and ill-fitting trousers and shirts as he walked to school, dodging puddles during the monsoon, Huynh resembled the other kids in his village. But he had an invisible attribute, one that set him apart from most other boys and girls: the lad was a quant. His phenomenal ability with numbers would lead to a series of drastic upheavals in his life, as he reached up to grab one helping hand after another, taking him further and further from Vietnam.
THE POWER OF THE SCHOLARSHIP
Years later, his unflagging desire to help his country develop would bring him back – with his Harvard MBA – living testimony to the transformative power of scholarships to pluck worthy recipients from difficult circumstances and grant them power to accomplish great things. At a time when most MBA scholarship money is awarded on the basis of merit, Huynh’s tale stands as a reminder of a more idealized view of how scholarship cash can provide otherwise elusive opportunity to someone in need.
Huynh’s upward launch started with relatively little drama. In fifth grade, he entered a national student competition and won a spot to attend school in a town at the center of his district. “I lived at random people’s houses to study there,” he recalls.
That boost was the first of several that would occur over his youth and early adulthood, as representatives of various governments and schools recognized his promise, and offered assistance to pull him ever higher, ultimately to Harvard Business School, where he received an MBA, on scholarships amounting to nearly full tuition.
Huynh’s first helping hand, the one that brought him to the district center school, put him on track to a likely future: finish high school locally, get an engineering degree from the national university in Vietnam, probably obtain a master’s and possibly a PhD in the U.S., Australia, or Europe, then return to Vietnam to work for a multinational corporation. Not a bad prospect for a farm kid. But the outlook was going to evolve. Repeatedly.
He received notice about a Singapore government contest for Vietnamese students, with winners to be sent to Singapore for high school. Huynh excelled in the math and IQ portions of the contest exam, but after employing in the English test and interview the basic English skills he’d learned in school, he had doubts about his results.
“Even the English teachers in the countryside, they don’t know English well,” Huynh says. “I was surprised that I passed the exam.”
In Singapore, in a “very demanding and helpful” high school program, he shone in math and physics, placed 10th in the country in a nationwide math competition, and earned straight As.
STANFORD STEPS IN, OFFERS HAND UP
Accepted to college at Stanford University and Cambridge University in England, Huynh chose Stanford. The school gave him a true free ride: tuition plus living expenses. “My parents could contribute zero,” Huynh says. “Stanford did pretty much everything for me. I’m grateful for that.”
However, if he had not received the first two helping hands, from the Vietnamese and the Singapore governments, Huynh would’ve never been in a position to apply to a top-level U.S. college. “Without the time in Singapore there was no way I would make it to Stanford,” Huynh says.
Because his education in Singapore had included some college-equivalent courses, he was able to complete two degrees at Stanford in four years: a bachelor’s in economics and a master’s in industrial engineering. “It was very challenging, very tough,” Huynh recalls, “like the boot camp experience to get to that level in English and other subjects.”
He would later write in an application essay to HBS, “Before college, my education had chiefly focused on memorizing facts and solving problem sets, which hindered my ability to develop and articulate arguments. With barely four years of English language instruction, I struggled on my first Humanities research paper.