Ngoc-Tu Thuy Ngo: Entrepreneurial Drive Opens up the Education Marketplace

Ngoc Tu Thuy NgoForbes names her to its Top 30 Under 30 for Vietnam

A survey of Ngoc-Tu Thuy Ngo’s, MBA‘14J resume leaves little doubt about her determination and entrepreneurial instincts. Nor does it cover the fact she has accomplished a great deal at a young age.

Forbes magazine had no difficulties uncovering her talents when it recently named her to its Top 30 Under 30 in Vietnam.

When the INSEAD graduate was asked how she managed to make the elite Forbes list, Tu responded, mischievously, “my age,” accompanied by a smiling emoticon, before adding she felt it was due to her “commitment to business and social impacts, my creativity, hard work and inspiration to younger Vietnamese students.”

According to the Forbes article in its February issue, Tu and her fellow Top 30 “are full of the startup spirit, and are representatives of an active, confident generation that is able to control their own destiny . . .”

After graduating from Stanford in 2009, Tu returned to Vietnam and put her entrepreneurial determination to work immediately as a co-founder of Yola, now a leading educational services company in Vietnam. Yola trains and prepares thousands of Vietnamese students for success at leading educational institutions around the world.

Tu doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges she and her partners faced at the outset. “I decided to become an entrepreneur right after college, and had to lead Yola from failures and through pivots before it could become the company it is today,” she says.

Though in short order Yola had grown into a significant player in the education marketplace in Vietnam, the entrepreneurial bug kept nipping away at Tu till she had to respond.

“At 26, I knew I wanted to build products and companies that take advantage of similar opportunities in the emerging markets’ and play a part in the countries’ development stories,” she explains. “So I decided to pursue an MBA, connecting my entrepreneurial intuition with professional management knowledge and a global community of business leaders.”

INSEAD was her choice because the school answered the requirements she was seeking to broaden her education. “We’re all shaped by lots of experiences and people,” Tu says. “Having studied in the U.S., I wanted to challenge myself to learn with people from other cultures. I also wanted to be in Singapore to connect with the business community in Asia Pacific.”

And while INSEAD met the characteristics she was seeking, it was also crucial to Tu that her education align with her career goals.

“In the startup world, there’s skepticism for MBA programmes and there’s a reason for that, given the majority of graduates choose to work in consulting, finance and industry,” Tu explains. “But it takes a lot of effort to bring ideas into reality, let alone build innovative solutions. Entrepreneurs can have many ideas and insights, but we also need disciplined business minds to build growing and sustainable organisations.”

Tu says INSEAD mirrors the characteristics of an entrepreneurial enterprise, and has the energy of a startup. As evidence she points to the fact the school was founded years after some of its peer schools, yet has managed to rise through that competition to become one of the leading business schools in the world.

“That was very attractive to me, especially from the private education industry perspective,” Tu says. “Do I want to learn how to run a school that feels traditional and is about corporate suits, or do I want an environment where there’s lots of excitement and growth?”

A scholarship provided by Ian Potter MBA’93D helped make INSEAD possible. “Without this scholarship, I might have had second thoughts about attending INSEAD, so Ian’s gift enabled me to come. His support was more than just the scholarship. His ongoing mentorship and our shared interest in impact investing is a source of strength and inspiration to me. At graduation, he reminded me to do the same and support others when I have the chance.”

Forbes VietnamNow, from the vantage point of a recent graduate, Tu articulates some of the key benefits she derived from her INSEAD experience. “It has given me the ability to look at businesses from multiple perspectives, let alone building innovative solutions, and I am part of a global family and its ongoing support. It provided me with the confidence to reach out to international partners for Yola’s strategic expansion and investors for my new education technology startup, No Barriers.”

No Barriers came about after INSEAD. On graduation, Tu had a variety of opportunities, but none really “felt right.” Then she met a friend, an expert in deep learning, one of the latest cutting-edge areas in artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley, and they shared the vision of making English education accessible to billions in the world. Together, they founded No Barriers, beginning by building a mobile application that helps students speak English while reducing accents with automated feedback and “gamified” contents.

In her time at INSEAD, Tu threw herself into all manner of educational and personal activities, and these enriched her experience. “I wish I could have slept less and had more fun, study more, have more student club projects and part-time projects, but that’s not really helpful advice, I know,” she notes. “I’d say if you have a non-traditional career vision, bring it to every experience at INSEAD, classes, meetings, drinks, clubs, and you’ll be surprised at what INSEAD brings to you.”

When Tu entered INSEAD she had already identified her entrepreneurial interests, and she was determined to use the year to test her ideas. She recalls talking with Prof. Neil Bearden one day about a fashion app idea. His response was somewhat cool, he questioned whether this was truly what captured her interest, and challenged her to explore what she really wanted.

“I did and found myself gravitating to the mission of enabling others’ potential,” she adds. “I make many decisions everyday as a co-founder of my new education technology startup, as a Board Member of Yola, or just in daily life, and this experience with Neil and his class on Management Decisions always sticks with me.”

Given what the recent past has unveiled, the future should hold much promise for Tu. One certainty is her experience at INSEAD will last a lifetime. “There were so many things (at INSEAD) that I can’t choose one that stands out. There was learning in class, preparing for the Dash (and the Dash), running to clubs, working in the courtyard, directing Cabaret, parties, travels, etc. And although these were not always the most enjoyable moments, I really appreciated feedback from friends and professors, earnest and sometimes coupled with great humour, and it helped me reflect and grow. It all makes for a global family I really treasure.”

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