“While taking only classes heavy in problem sets would have been easier, I was determined to be fully deserving of Stanford’s full scholarship. I quickly adapted, earning A’s in courses that were initially very difficult: Citizenship, Ancient Empires, and Social Psychology. Excelling in courses outside of my comfort zone helped me discover new strengths and redefine my perception of learning, giving me confidence to pursue learning to the fullest.”
HE LEFT HIS HEART IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Even as Huynh was pushing deeper into American academia and society, he remained profoundly connected to Vietnam. His proposal at Stanford to study development in his native country won him a Chappell-Lougee Scholarship to conduct research at the World Bank. With a group of Stanford students, he co-founded the Southeast Asian Leadership Network, a selection of leaders in Southeast Asian communities in the U.S. and abroad who have conducted dozens of education and health projects across Southeast Asia since SEALnet was founded in 2004. The same year, Huynh joined close friends to lead VietAbroader, an organization presenting educational and professional workshops, conferences, and sustainable development initiatives for Vietnamese young people. And he coordinated the 2004 Vietnam Medical Project, which sent U.S. doctors and students to Vietnam, where they provided medical services for more than 1,000 highland villagers, and trained 20 nurses.
After his junior year at Stanford, Huynh worked a summer on Wall Street as an intern analyst for Lehman Brothers, working in – add sinister soundtrack here – subprime mortgage trading. “I honestly did not understand what I was doing, and I was supposed to be pretty good in math and physics,” Huynh says. “I did not enjoy it.”
For his Stanford graduation, Huynh’s parents left Vietnam for the first time and came to watch him receive his diploma.
Following his college graduation, Huynh took a job with Morgan Stanley as an investment banking analyst in mergers and acquisitions. Huynh’s HBS application essays track his response to the challenge of jumping aboard Morgan Stanley without some important preparation. “I assumed that as a fast learner I would pick up the necessary finance concepts without much difficulty and thus decided not to take relevant finance courses during my last two quarters at Stanford,” Huynh writes. “I made the mistake of preparing inadequately, mainly because I had interpreted ‘learning on the job’ too literally.”
During a short training program, Huynh watched his peers applying advanced financial concepts and completing financial modeling exercises, while he struggled to understand and keep up. His deficiencies continued to hinder his work when he started for the company in Los Angeles.
HOW TO FAIL AT BUSINESS
“My inadequate preparation not only hurt my early performance at the firm but also slowed the overall progress of my deal teams. I felt guilty and disappointed,” he writes. “At Stanford and in my various non-profit initiatives, I always sought to be a proactive team player who motivated my peers and led by example. It took a few months of hard work and consistent performance for me to prove myself and become a trusted analyst.”
After two years with Morgan Stanley in Los Angeles, he shifted within the company to New York, as a senior analyst in asset allocation and investment strategy.
Determined to prepare, this time, for a new job, he researched asset allocation concepts and reviewed the principles of finance relevant to investment banking. He had arranged for one-on-one training sessions, two months before the start date, with departing Morgan Stanley analysts.
The advance work paid off. To the HBS admissions office, he described his “pivotal contributions to a high-profile proxy contest” in which his team advised a pharmaceutical company on its defense against dissident shareholders.
FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE IN CRISIS MANAGEMENT
“This extensive interaction with senior management was exciting and transformative,” he writes in an HBS application essay. “I relished the opportunity to learn about decision-making and crisis management from sophisticated professionals, as well as to manage complicated situations involving many stakeholders.”
But then, after two years in that position, a job offer from a $5 billion private equity fund in Los Angeles led him to start thinking about next steps. He began to question his career choice. He was on a highly regarded and rewarding track in the U.S., but the further along that path he went, he knew, the “deeper and narrower” he’d go. His college education had given him valuable knowledge and skills, but not a “holistic view of what I wanted.”