Kieu My Doan on building Vietnam’s emerging tech ecosystem: Women in Tech

YellowBlocks links up entities working in emerging technologies in Vietnam and abroad. 

Kieu My Doan, who goes by Kimiko, founded YellowBlocks in 2018 to connect Vietnam’s network of tech companies, investors, and stakeholders with the rest of the world. YellowBlocks focuses on linking up entities working in emerging technologies—artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud networking, and data processing—in Vietnam and abroad

This year, YellowBlocks organized Vietnam’s first blockchain event, unpacking how the technology can be applied to sustainable social development. YellowBlocks now has 120 partners in 40 countries.

Kimiko thinks of herself as an activist for adopting emerging tech in Vietnam. She also started the Women in Tech Vietnam initiative (unrelated to KrASIA’s “Women in Tech” series) and is a frequent speaker at events, such as TechCrunch China, Vietnam TechFest, and Taiwan Open UP Summit.

KrASIA caught up with Kimiko to talk about Vietnam’s tech scene and the vision behind YellowBlocks.

KrASIA (Kr): How did you come up with the idea for YellowBlocks? How will it become the gateway between Vietnam’s tech ecosystem and the world? 

Kieu My Doan (KMD): I founded YellowBlocks in 2018, but the idea occurred to me several years ago, while I was advising major global tech companies that are present in Vietnam on their communication strategies. The country’s tech ecosystem has received a lot of attention in the past three years. For many investors, their task now is to find the next Indonesia.

However, our tech ecosystem at that time was very fragmented, and it was extremely challenging to find information about startups in certain sectors to recommend to investors due to information gaps. My goal was to establish an entity that can connect all of the stakeholders and partners within the system, so they could easily plug into our network to connect with ecosystems outside of the country.

Not all VCs, foreign incubators, and other foreign partners have teams in Vietnam, and we can provide support on the ground, and bridge information or culture barriers for them through our network.

Kr: This year, you hosted Vietnam’s first deep tech-focused meetup with SGInnovate, which is a private organization operated by the Singapore government to help entrepreneurial scientists build deep tech startups. YellowBlocks has also been actively connecting startups and stakeholders in Vietnam in the areas of ABCD (AI, blockchain, cloud, data). Why do you focus on this segment? 

KMD: There’s no doubt that deep tech will drive the “third wave” of innovative startups, and we hope that will happen in Vietnam in the coming years. Obviously, in an emerging market such as Vietnam, we often catch these waves a bit later than other countries in the region. Now, most investors are only looking at the country’s potential in a platform-driven economy, and there are already other well-known actors in our ecosystem focusing on that. We want to be ahead of the curve so that we can bear the fruit and empower future stars of Vietnamese deep-tech startups, even though it’s still too early to talk about deep tech in many places in the world, not just Vietnam.

From the initiative that you mentioned, alongside SGInnovate, we also established the ABCD tech community in July, bringing together different partners in AI, blockchain, cloud, and data processing. This will drive many community initiatives in Vietnam and Southeast Asia that are related to deep tech. We have secured a network of experts and advisors in this area to support us in this mission.

Kr: Vietnam has drawn a lot of attention recently, as many investors have made large bets on Vietnamese tech companies. However, there are also many challenges ahead if the country wants to become a trailblazer in regional innovation. What do you think are the missing pieces? 

KMD: You are right about investors having poured in huge amounts of funding lately, but generally, the companies that have received investments were already prominent players in the market. Most of the other startups are still in very early stages and it would take us quite some time to catch up to Indonesia.

In our experience, investors do see the potential of Vietnamese founders, especially since the tech talent in this country is immense. What some Vietnamese founders lack are globalization skills. I do not refer to just the language skills, but also style of communication, operational and business skills, so that they can build a market-fit product and scale that product across the country or in different markets. Education plays a hugely important role, requiring founders to embark on a lifelong learning process. I think that some startups in Vietnam are either too tech-focused or too marketing-focused, so founders need more well-rounded information and training.

Becoming a tech startup founder has become a trend in Vietnam, but that’s certainly not enough. We need different partners in the ecosystem to leverage this potential and ensure that our startups focus on solving real problems that the country faces. Many government incentives to support Vietnamese startups have been rolled out recently, but many startups have difficulties in accessing these resources. We hope that this can be changed in the future.

Kr: You graduated from Helsinki University of Technology in Finland, majoring in telecommunications, engineering, and computer science. Later, you came back to Vietnam and worked in different areas: marketing, communications, and tech. How did you become fascinated by technology?

KMD: I describe myself as a tech evangelist and a community builder. For me, I’ve always loved technology. Tech is my passion. I was a very competitive gamer back then, and I have always had an interest in gadgets. I think the reason that I got into the tech scene was because of my father, who told me to follow my passion, no matter what.

At 16, I got two scholarships and I could either go to Finland or the US. I chose Finland because it’s all about innovation and technology there even though the country has a very small population. There was nothing wrong with me and a few other women being in a university auditorium with 500 males. For me, it felt natural to work in the technology field. My experience in business, communication, and marketing certainly helped with establishing YellowBlocks in a cross-sector strategy. We’re just getting started, and the road ahead is still exciting and challenging.

Disclaimer: KrASIA is one of the media partners at YellowBlocks’ sideline event as part of Techfest Vietnam 2019. 

This article is part of “Women in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of women who are a driving force behind South and Southeast Asia’s tech startups.