Once an underdeveloped country, Vietnam has undergone an incredible transformation over the past decades. From a regional centre for cheap labour and land, it has grown into one of Southeast Asia’s most promising innovation hubs, with a ready pool of talent, a fresh crop of tech start-ups, and five of its own unicorns.
NUS alumnus Mr Dang Tan Duc is one of the dynamic changemakers powering this transition to the future. After completing his Bachelor of Science in Building at NUS, followed by a master’s degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, he worked for several years in Singapore. He then returned to Vietnam in 2016 to join Becamex IDC Corp, Vietnam’s leading industrial and urban real estate development group, as the Executive Assistant to Group Chairman. Today, he draws inspiration from the social impact that Becamex IDC Corp has made in transforming rural areas into vibrant industrial parks and townships, and driving the acceleration of the local tech start-up and innovation ecosystem. Mr Dang’s contributions are aimed at kickstarting innovation initiatives, creating higher-value jobs for the economy, and laying the foundations for Vietnam’s next phase of economic growth.
REALISING A CHILDHOOD DREAM
Like many changemakers, Mr Dang’s journey began with a simple dream. He was born into a working-class family in 1987, when Vietnam was just opening up its economy. “My family struggled with day-to-day living. My mum — who didn’t have the opportunity to finish primary school and left her job after giving birth to me — only had the simple wish that her children would grow up to be literate,” he shares. “As a child, I couldn’t clearly imagine what I wanted to do later on, but an inner voice told me that when I grew up, I ought to contribute to improving the lives of those around me — and education was the key to realising that.”
Studying abroad was an unlikely prospect when Mr Dang was in high school because of limited opportunities, unaffordable tuition fees and living expenses. However, this became his teenage dream. He even recalls a day back in high school, when he learned about the story of Singapore’s progress from Third- to First-World nation, and wished that he could go to Singapore one day to learn from then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Little did he imagine that these seeds of hope would eventually bear fruit, when years later, he became part of the first generation of Vietnamese students to study abroad on an NUS scholarship. Fittingly, he would later move on to pursue his master’s degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Looking back, Mr Dang remembers standing upon the hill where the former School of Design and Environment sat during his undergraduate years, mesmerised by the night view of Jurong Island. “Seeing the lights of Jurong Island glowing throughout the night, I asked myself how Vietnam could develop a vibrant, industrialised economy like Singapore one day,” he recalls. He instinctively knew that to contribute to Vietnam’s transformation, his career path had to be one where the worlds of business and social impact intersect. That was why he decided to join Becamex IDC Corp, which has created millions of jobs in the country. Mr Dang currently spearheads the development of a science and technology industrial park with the ambition of aggregating a complete innovation ecosystem to attract global companies that enable the Vietnamese economy’s transition from labour-intensive to skill-, capital- and technology-intensive activities. With nine industrial parks currently in operation, one of his key roles is to drive initiatives that connect the innovation ecosystem with manufacturers. “We want to engage in higher value-added activities that use more technology — so when investors come to Vietnam, their priority will no longer be to look for low-cost labour and land,” he explains. “Instead, it will be to identify talent and tap on an innovation ecosystem in order to develop the competitive advantage of their ventures.”
BUILDING A START-UP ECOSYSTEM
Mr Dang’s passion for nurturing innovation and driving change extends beyond his regular job. He is also the head of BLOCK71 Saigon, a tech ecosystem builder and global connector created by NUS Enterprise to provide a launchpad for regional tech start-ups seeking to expand overseas and support Vietnamese start-ups that are going regional. BLOCK71 Singapore was started in 2011, with the transforming of an old industrial estate into the country’s most vibrant innovation hub. This was followed by the setting up of branches in strategic locations such as Silicon Valley, Suzhou, Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Nagoya and elsewhere. Launched in November 2020, BLOCK71 Saigon has since developed into a vibrant community comprising more than 20 tech start-ups primed to disrupt incumbent industries. These include Nano Technologies, a fintech start-up that enables early wage access for blue-collar workers; Antsomi, which has created an AI-enabled customer data platform; Otrafy, which automates the collection, management, storage and transfer of certification data for the F&B industry; and Sobanhang, which empowers nano- and micro-businesses to thrive though the use of technology. “Tech start-ups are one of the key drivers of transformation from a labour-intensive economy to an innovative one,” he shares. “BLOCK71 Saigon plays the role of the enabler: connecting start-ups to funding, markets, and talent from NUS and top local Vietnamese universities. We also provide mentoring and training programmes to support tech start-ups and groom unicorns of the future.”
PAVING THE WAY
Mr Dang shares that his time at NUS has shaped who he is today and proven pivotal to his career. It equipped him with critical thinking, problem-solving and leadership skills, as well as values such as meritocracy, pragmatism and integrity that have served him well throughout his career. The large network of successful NUS alumni — many of whom have joined MNCs or founded their own start-ups — has also been invaluable in supporting BLOCK71 Saigon. The life experiences he gained during his undergraduate years were just as important in shaping his values. Many may be surprised to learn that the native Vietnamese almost lost his life in Ghana during a three-month internship for a non-profit organisation. While there, Mr Dang contracted malaria and had to transfuse three-quarters of his blood. This, and his other experiences while participating in community service projects in Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam, taught him the value of ‘servant leadership’.
Social impact has become the central motivation of his career, inspiring him to become an agent of change. This was one of the main reasons he decided to join and stay at Becamex in the first place. “Becamex is a state-owned enterprise, not a private or multi-national company, hence it was not based on the decision to get the best compensation,” he shares. Instead, it is the desire to devote his time and talent to the organisation that continues to make significant socio-economic impact in Binh Duong province and Vietnam as a whole, that drives the father-of-three to work tirelessly. Mr Dang’s days regularly begin as early as 4am, when he wakes to plan his day, and he also optimises his time by working during his daily three-hour journey to and from the office. “I remember during one of our meetings, the Chairman — who I respect very much — said, ‘When you are on your deathbed, you are not going to bring wealth with you. Think about what you can do that will leave a legacy,” he shares. He hopes his legacy will be to make a small but meaningful difference to the lives of the people around him, contribute to the acceleration of Vietnam’s new economy — and of course, bridge the partnership between Singapore and Vietnam.