Meet The MBA Class Of 2020: Profiles In Courage

Daphne Pham   

Harvard Business School

“Curious about the world. A bit idealistic. Unapologetically ambitious. Also a self-proclaimed fashionista and skincare expert.”

Hometown: I’m from Hanoi, Vietnam, but I have spent the majority of my adulthood in different parts of the world: Western Massachusetts, New York City, London, Bangkok (Thailand), and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam).

Fun Fact About Yourself: I have a certificate in wine tasting, even though I am slightly allergic to alcohol.

Undergraduate School and Major: Mount Holyoke College – Bachelor of Arts in economics and mathematics.

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: I started my career in investment banking in New York, advising media and telecom companies. After two years in finance, I went to Bangkok, Thailand, to work for Lazada, one of Southeast Asia’s leading e-commerce companies (ultimately acquired by Alibaba). Then I was recruited as Uber’s first employee in Vietnam. When I left Uber, I was a Senior Operations Manager, leading Uber Vietnam’s national operations team and managing over 150 employees and contractors.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: I was at Uber from the first day we launched in Vietnam to the last day, when we sold to our regional competitor (Grab). Therefore, I was able to see both the joys and pains of starting up and scaling up a business, one that faced significant challenges of difficult regulatory battles, frequent press attacks, and hostile incumbents.

To be in the frontline of such a business is not for the faint of heart. I still remember some of our toughest days, when we had to calm our anxious/angry driver partners, who were worried about our legality; persuade our friends and families that the news they read was not entirely true; and, yes, convince ourselves that we were doing the right things. Disruptive innovation is never easy, after all. We also had many problems that were unique to a developing market: extremely low car ownership and a lack of solid payment infrastructure, for example.

To solve those problems, my team and I couldn’t stick to an US-centric playbook; we had to be agile in adapting to the local market’s needs. I led a few major launches that were tailored to our business in Vietnam: cash payment, which helped increase our user base massively, and partnerships with financial institutions to let drivers easily borrow money to buy vehicles (before us, no bank was willing to do so). Those initiatives paid off, helping our business grow to be Uber’s third largest market in Southeast Asia. But in all of this, the achievement I am really most proud of is my journey from being an individual contributor to being a leader, with the accompanying development of my “soft” skills and emotional intelligence as well.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? As I write this, I have not started school yet, so my sample size is rather small. I have met only around 10 of my future classmates, but they have all impressed me with their intellectual curiosity.

They are also very different from each other in terms of backgrounds, work experiences, and perspectives. I guess I have always heard about great diversity at HBS, and my experience so far clearly attests to that claim.

Aside from your classmates, what was the key factor that led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA and why was it so important to you? Frances Frei, one of HBS’s faculty members, came to Uber in 2017 as SVP of Leadership and Strategy. She organized a corporate training program via HBX, an online learning platform that simulates the case method experience of an HBS classroom. I attended a few sessions and immediately fell in love with the discussions, the energy, the intellectual vitality coming from the best minds sitting in the same room. To me, it is an extraordinary learning experience compared to a traditional lecturing style. I also read quite a lot, and many of my favorite books were written by HBS professors (Nancy Koehn, Bill George, Clayton Christensen), so I’m really excited to learn from them as well.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school? It is so easy to have the infamous FOMO at business school. I have browsed through the list of student clubs, and there are so many things I want to do and participate in. However, I am most looking forward to activities at the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship because of my interest in startups and technology. I’m also very interested in the Retail and Luxury Goods Club.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? To be honest, for a long time, I had not seriously considered getting an MBA. In the world of entrepreneurship, the value of an MBA is often underrated. If I want to start something, isn’t it better to just start it rather than to go to school? But after spending a few years at one of the most prominent startups, I became more aware of my shortcomings as a leader. I am not interested in building a 10-employee company, but an organization with lasting impact, and to achieve that goal, I need to understand what makes great leaders and great organizations. I hope that the HBS experience will be transformational, helping me gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to run a successful business, grow tremendously as a person, and build a strong lifelong network.

What do you plan to do after you graduate? / Where do you see yourself in five years?I try to keep a very open mind about my future plan after graduation. However, at the moment I can see myself doing my own startup or joining a very early stage one, ideally in Asia.

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