After 15 days stranded at sea, a 10-year-old girl from Ho Chi Minh City made it her business to become “a suit”. “It’s a dramatic story,” says Katherine Nguyen calmly, cross-legged in her riverside boardroom. Acer’s head of marketing has the title (not to mention the corporate trappings) to abolish any doubt as to whether this decision was followed through.
“I wanted to get out,” she continues, recalling the trauma of a botched attempt to escape communist Vietnam by boat. “I wanted change.” And since that day, Katherine has made a career out of chasing it. “I love working in technology,” she says. “No other category is so constantly changing. Today someone’s launching a new technology, tomorrow someone will be using it – and then someone will come up with something even better.”
The 37-year-old mother of two “gets bored easily” – ever at the mercy of an insatiable curiosity.
“You have to continuously learn and evolve,” says Katherine, “because the environment and technology… everything around you is changing. The faster you can change and adapt, equip yourself with knowledge and skills, the better.” And this is exactly how a young, impoverished child of post-war Vietnam came to conquer the corporate world. Her family’s failed journey to freedom across treacherous waters had them preparing for the worst when they miraculously found their way back to land. Their joy was short-lived; they had arrived back in Vietnam where the government labelled them “betrayers” and her father was sent to jail.
As her mother was left to fend for their brood of six, Katherine’s determination reared its head.
“There was an open community market in front of my house, so I decided to have my own shop.” She would set up each morning, flogging everything from lottery tickets to fruit from her backyard, before heading off to school. Putting herself through university, Katherine carved a remarkable passage from market stall to marketing, becoming a much-respected professional in the field.
“I made my way and had a very good life back home,” she says. “I was the top-tier marketer in Vietnam.” Soon she was headhunted by Nokia before being snapped up by Samsung where, in her role as marketing manager, she transformed the then “fluffy” brand into Vietnam’s top tech dog.
“Back in the day, Nokia was very strong,” she recalls.
“Apple was coming up too, while Samsung was seen as having bad-quality products with low battery life.” A clever marketing gimmick saw this assumption turned on its head.
“I came up with a reality show called The 72 Hour Challenge – an Amazing Race-style jungle bash that put Samsung’s mobile devices to the ultimate test. “It was the first reality show ever done in Vietnam. I’m so proud of it!” beams Katherine.
“It really changed the perception toward the brand, and Samsung is now number one there.”
Sitting pretty (and very much suited) on successes such as this, she found herself in a chauffeur-driven car, cigarette and coffee in hand, watching a young street child “not dissimilar to myself at the same age”. Her thoughts shifted to her own four-year-old daughter. “I wanted to give her better things,” she says. “It’s not about the money. Her life is what I equip her with, and how many doors I can open for her own choices. That’s why I decided to move.”
In 2010 she arrived in Australia, pregnant and powerless. “I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have a job. And I didn’t know how to start.” On the brink of waiting tables, Katherine’s global reputation (and a few pulled strings) found her at Sydney’s Cheil Communications, and six months later on, the bottom rung of Acer, where in 2014 she would be named head of marketing for Australia and New Zealand.
She was on top, again, but this time the view was very different. “Moving to Australia taught me a lot of lessons,” she shares.
“I changed from corporate queen to full-time mum in a few months. It’s not easy to drop everything that you have – all the networks and the power that you have in your corporate life.
“It changed me a lot. It made me more patient and more humble, because I was a bit of a bitch back then!” she laughs. “But you learn that it’s not your power – it’s the company’s. The only thing that you have is your ability to change, your professionalism and your skill set, that’s it. So it changed the way I see the world.”
When it comes to marketing, her mentality is still that of a little girl making the most of her market stall – on the ground, in amongst it. “Talk to people,” she puts simply. “The thing about [marketing] for corporates is that sometimes it’s too corporate. It’s lacking feeling and emotions, and that’s what I’m working on every day. I’m talking to my team and saying, ‘hey guys, you have to make it more personal.’ Each person in this world has different concerns and different problems, so how do we understand them? That’s our job. “And never stop learning from other people. Keep your mind open. It will keep you on top of everything – the news, trends, everything.” As someone who’s clambered her way there, from the most unlikely of places, Katherine would know.
Photography: Lisa Musico