Irene Ohler on her brainchild “Ba Trieu’s 21st Century Daughters”
When being asked what the most lovely thing of Vietnam is, Irene Ohler, founder of LightPath Group said that it stayed in the dynamic spirit and bold thinking ingrained in the young generation. "I will surely miss these two things so much when we go back to my homeland someday" - sharing with TheFace Magazine Vietnam.
1. In 2012, in which situation did you come to Vietnam?
I arrived in Hanoi in 2012 with a newborn baby, my husband, the newly appointed New Zealand Ambassador to Vietnam, and a career in leadership development that had taken me from my native Austria to China, Brazil, New Zealand and now to Vietnam.
We were so excited because Vietnam was exactly the place we wanted to be.
2. Which the reason you choose Vietnam as a long-term workplace?
Our first 4 years in Hanoi opened so many windows into Vietnam for us, we had made so many connections, had learned so much. We loved Vietnam’s dynamic spirit, and we wanted to stay a part of this dynamism. We also both felt that we had something to contribute to Vietnam at this point in time.
Ba Trieu’s 21st Century Daughters, the Book I had co-authored, had just been published around Women’s Day in October 2016, I was organizing regular Women’s Storytelling Salons, and I was ready to do much more in the space of leadership development in Vietnam.
My husband saw opportunities to contribute to the ‘hottest’ sector in Vietnam, international education; what sector would be more rewarding to be part of than education, where you can impact the lives of numerous young people, their families and the future of Vietnam?
So in 2016, we made the big decision to stay in Vietnam, move to Ho Chi Minh City and for my husband to take the big step from being an Ambassador to becoming a startup entrepreneur. We co-founded Lightpath Consulting Group, a wholly foreign owned Vietnamese company. I already had a New Zealand based consultancy since 2007, and I was ready for every opportunity Vietnam had to offer!
3. When you first came to Vietnam, how did you feel about the capacity and personality of women in their business?
When I first arrived in Vietnam in 2012, I was immediately struck by the resilience and resourcefulness of Vietnamese women in every facet of life. I kept on meeting impressive women in official leadership roles as well as in informal leadership roles. I was hugely impressed and curious at the same time because my background was in leadership development and I had lived and worked across four continents, but no one had ever mentioned the force of Vietnamese women to me. I felt I had uncovered a treasure, which I wanted to share with the world outside of Vietnam but also to champion and celebrate this national asset within Vietnam. I wanted to hold a mirror up to Vietnamese society and say "look, what a treasure you have here."
4. Vietnam has a large percentage of women-owned businesses. What is your comment about this?
There are two different stories for me in the fact that Vietnam has such a large percentage of women-owned businesses: one of celebration, and one of sheer pragmatism.
First, let’s celebrate that according to the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI), by the end of September 2019, the country had 285,700 women-owned enterprises. That’s 24% of all businesses in Vietnam and the highest rate in Southeast Asia!
The other story is around the fact that the majority of these businesses are small and micro businesses, operating primarily in the service sector. To me that’s a story of women being both entrepreneurial and pragmatic, and fearlessly setting up their small businesses in their houses, online, making use of every opportunity they can see to earn money for the family.
The super successful, visionary entrepreneurs we often read about in the media are only a small part of this group to my knowledge. These are stories we want to amplify to show all of us what is possible!
5. However, women still struggle to reach top leadership positions and are also less likely to become entrepreneurs. What are the main challenges?
Women and men share a lot of challenges – top positions are hard to reach for all of us. Enterprises share many challenges as well: limited availability of capital or market information, putting together the best team, etc.
But we do know that women entrepreneurs confront gender-specific barriers. According to an IFC (International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group) report from 2016 these challenges include a “lack of business and financial management training, insufficient networking opportunities, and difficulty in balancing work and family responsibilities.”
I often say that Vietnamese women feel they need to be “the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect daughter-in-law, the perfect daughter, have a career and look beautiful 24hours a day” – this is humanly impossible!
And these expectations keep us, women, from going for these top jobs, even when we really qualified and want them.
6. Would do you like to share with us about the process of founding LightPath Leadership?
Ligthpath Leadership is the perfect summary of me to this date: it brings together my 25 years of work career across four continents and my personal mission to contribute to a better world through developing leaders with a purpose.
LightPath Leadership is part of the Lightpath Consulting Group, a wholly foreign-owned Vietnamese company, which I co-founded with my husband three years ago. It’s my baby - it’s only a bit more than 1 year old.
7. What achievements are you most proud of in LightPath Leadership?
Lightpath Leadership is a young brand, but I’m proud that we’ve succeeded at making the topic of women leadership part of the conversation in Vietnam, that we introduced Storytelling as a powerful tool in leadership development, and that we have had coaching clients who lead with purpose from across the AsiaPacific region over the past year.
I am proud of building our vision of an ecosystem for women leadership - with events, like the Women’s Storytelling Salon in Saigon and Hanoi, and the upcoming SPARK! and IGNITE! Women leadership programs, my international programs designed for women in Vietnam.
I am proud to be part of Women in Leadership programs for women leaders in the North of Vietnam by Flinders University, and to have consulted to the first Gender Conference, the first ‘Conversation for Women AND Men’ organized by the Australian Consulate General in HCMC last October.
The first Lightpath Leadership engagement was last May to speak at KPMG Vietnam’s 25 years celebration about the Remarkable Women Leaders of Vietnam to their clients and staff – a great honour.
8. You are co-author of a best-selling book on Vietnamese women leaders, BaTrieu’s 21st Century Daughters. Could you please share the birth and your contribution to this book?
Already in our first few months in Vietnam, I kept on meeting and hearing about all these impressive women. I got really curious because my background is in leadership development, but no one had ever mentioned the force of Vietnamese women leaders to me. I felt I had uncovered a treasure, which I wanted to share with the world outside of Vietnam but also to celebrate this national asset within Vietnam. I wanted to hold a mirror up to Vietnamese society and say "look, what a treasure you have here."
I deeply believe in the power of stories. I followed my inner voice and decided to collect the stories of the remarkable Vietnamese women and tell them to the world. This has been one of the strongest drivers I have ever experienced - a direction that I never anticipated before I arrived in Vietnam.
Fate brought me together with my co-author Do Thuy Duong, a remarkable Vietnamese woman leader herself, and the Book combines our two perspectives on 20 women leaders from her, an insider, and me, an outsider looking into Vietnam. I conducted all the 20 interviews with the 20 women leaders, and I can honestly say that this was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life.
9. What are the contents that you favorite most in the book?
I ‘fell in love’ with each of the women’s stories in the Book. Stories are magical; they open windows into people’s lives and into their hearts. All of the 20 stories in the Book tell us something unique that we can learn from and get inspired by.
10. You also curate the unique live event series, the Women’s Storytelling Salon in Hanoi and HCMC. Would you like to describe more the main purpose and activities of this event series?
Since 2014 we’ve had 25 Salons in Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City with always 2 inspiring women storytellers from different fields sharing their different perspectives on a theme, and share their stories of triumphs, trials, and turning points on their pathways.
Our Salon Community has been growing and growing, in numbers as well as in diversity in professional backgrounds, nationalities and generations; our storytellers have been CEOs, entrepreneurs, ambassadors, university presidents, filmmakers, founders of social enterprises & NGOs with an age range between 25 and into their 70s.
Four words describe the Salons:
CELEBRATION – CONVERSATION – CONNECTION – INSPIRATION
The Salons are a unique place for deep Connection, meaningful Conversations, Celebration of women’s diverse achievements, and Inspiration from stories that help us to imagine what is possible and move us to action.
11. What effect does Covid-19 have on this series of events? After pandemic, are there any changes in your business?
The magic of the Women’s Storytelling Salon is that it is a live event and people connect over stories in the same room. So, we had our longest break yet earlier in the year until our Summer 2020 Series - Stories Through a Pandemic – with 2 hugely successful Salons in Saigon and Hanoi. Everyone was so happy to be with others in the same room again!
As of today, the 30th of July I am not sure whether our August Salon will go ahead.
The Pandemic has affected Lightpath Leadership in a number of ways: like every business this year we had to look closely at our costs, and I work with more part-time staff for the moment, some clients postponed workshops, others put them online and I could work remotely.
On the positive, these unprecedented times have helped me crystalize what’s most important and what I want to focus on: 1) build my ecosystem for women leadership of LightPath Leadership programs and events, 2) attract 1:1 coaching clients who want to live their leadership purpose for the good of their businesses, communities, and family, and 3) use the Power of Storytelling to support leaders and businesses.
12. What do you think about the Vietnamese women who have been collaborating over the past time? What impressions do you think you can learn from them?
I admire how fearless, resilient, and resourceful the women are who I’ve had the pleasure to work with or interview. I draw a lot of my own inspiration and resilience from their stories.
Many of the women seem to share one thing: they ‘did it their way’. They listened to their inner voices, followed their own guiding star, their own values rather than what others told them how and who they should be.
Especially, in these unprecedented times where we are learning that all our best plans may be worth nothing the next day, it’s fundamental to have the ability to listen to our strong inner voice of guidance, and know that life is a sequence of ups and downs.
14. How do you feel about your life in Vietnam? What is different and more interesting than other places she has ever worked?
What I love about Vietnam? The sense of dynamism that’s in the air, this spirit of ‘Anything is possible’. Now is a unique window in time for Vietnam’s society, and it’s hugely exciting to be a part of it and to be able to contribute my part.
15. If one day you will leave Vietnam to work elsewhere, what you will miss most about your life here?
I am sure I will miss this dynamism and ‘anything is possible’ attitude when we move to one of our home countries one day.