By Emma Kopelowicz
BU News Service
On a warm afternoon in Sevilla, Spain last December, Mia Nguyen and her family returned to their hotel after a long day of sightseeing. While everyone else settled into their siestas, Nguyen grabbed her laptop and immediately dove into research.
“Mia’s never been the siesta-type,” said her sister, Morgan. “She’s always had an all-or-nothing mentality when she’s passionate about something.”
Two months earlier, Nguyen and her best friend, Eliana Berger, had co-founded the Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship (WISE) at Northeastern University. As leaders of the Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club, they noticed few women were leading alongside them.
“Eliana and I wanted to have WISE be a community for women to develop an innovative mindset,” Nguyen said.
Twelve years earlier, she had set out to create the best lemonade stand on the block in the Chicago suburbs where she lived. Her first entrepreneurial idea offered customers the option of adding a friendship bracelet or duct-tape wallet to their order.
In Nguyen’s junior year at Barrington High School, she participated in a business incubator program. A local investor decided to back her team’s project, called CC Cords, a combination of a phone charger and a lanyard to be sold as a promotional product at company trade shows.
Mia arrived on Northeastern’s campus in 2017 ready to pursue a degree in business administration with a concentration in finance and a minor in global social entrepreneurship. She said she had the drive and the passion, but she hoped to find a female business mentor to help forge a path.
“You can’t become what you don’t see, and I didn’t see a lot of women doing what I wanted to do,” Nguyen said. “That’s ultimately what I wanted to change.”
While brainstorming in Sevilla, Nguyen said she had no idea how to organize WISE. She said she had a vision of assembling a team in charge of leading each of the club’s programs: WeSupport, WeLearn and WeBuild. Nguyen was determined to choose board members who were relatable and transparent about themselves.
“The last thing I want is for the WISE executive board to be viewed as untouchables,” Nguyen said. “We actually suck sometimes too, and we’re struggling right alongside you.”
Nguyen said she believes struggling is a key to success. Her father came to America from Vietnam as a war refugee with $17 in his pocket, she said. He taught himself English, went to medical school and is now a successful dermatologist.
Nguyen said she has modeled her own self-discipline after her father’s work ethic. She gets up at 7 a.m. to work out, goes to classes, attends four or five meetings, does homework in the evenings and is in bed by 11 p.m.
However, even in her busiest moments, Nguyen makes time for friends and loved ones.
“Mia is very creative and prioritizes personal touches above all,” said Keith Corso, Nguyen’s boyfriend. “Whether it’s writing a handwritten letter or dropping soup off at the doorstep of a sick friend, she is empathetic on a whole new level.”
When her sister left for college in Ohio, Nguyen compiled a packet of letters to open on specific days when her sister experienced a life milestone, from her first kiss to her first F on an exam.
Nguyen used to think empathy was a weakness but now she believes it is one of her greatest strengths. She created a spreadsheet documenting signs the Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship board members show when they’re upset –– from a shrug of a shoulder to their lack of response in group chats. Nguyen calls this technique “people managing” and uses it as a way to offer her peers help even when they didn’t know they needed it.
“I’m managing women who want to support other women,” Nguyen said. “So of course, everything I’m going to do is very people-centric, and I think about how I’m going to get people together and make them feel comfortable to share.”
Nguyen said she thinks that few women truly know their worth and even fewer have learned to communicate confidently.
A Hewlett Packard internal report cited in a 2018 article in Forbes found men apply for a job or promotion when they meet only 60% of the qualifications while women only apply if they meet 100% of them.
Nguyen herself has struggled with the notion that she must learn every skill before she applies for a job, and she said her friends have taught her she doesn’t need to know everything to accomplish something because she can always learn on the way.
“I didn’t use to think like that and I would be like ‘I need to learn everything before I can go out and do anything,’ but if I don’t do anything, how am I going to learn anything?” Nguyen asked.
Last summer, Nguyen got an internship at Underscore VC, a venture capital firm in downtown Boston. After completing her internship, she was asked to work part-time during the school year and was reassigned to work with the investment team. Nguyen said she felt uneasy about the new position but she was encouraged by one of the partners at Underscore who felt she could take on this role.
“She was someone that you could tell was going to be a hard worker and give it her all,” said Jenni Goodman, Nguyen’s previous manager at Underscore VC.
Nguyen said she has met many inspiring female mentors through her work with Underscore VC, as well as WISE. In October, Nguyen helped organize a summit for WISE, inviting women from colleges all over Boston to participate in workshops and hear from leading female executives.
A 2019 Leaders & Daughters Global Survey identified a lack of mentors as a significant career barrier for younger generations of women.
“When you’re talking to women about what’s hard about the workforce, it’s a very different conversation than with guys,” Goodman said. “Having those conversations from the get-go and being able to be in a safe space as a young woman is incredibly exciting and a great networking opportunity.”
Berger and Nguyen said they have been able to execute their original vision for the Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship. Nguyen wants to cultivate a supportive community that encourages young women to “fail forward” and be their authentic selves in professional settings.
“Mia takes initiative and gives 100% to everything she does,” Berger said. “She is always supporting and cheering on our team to do their best, but in so many other aspects as well.”
“One of the reasons I got interested in WISE was Mia,” said Hannah Chaouli, the Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship’s VP of Operations. “It’s her positivity and the way that she’s established this community of women––separate from a sorority, separate from any other club––that is empowering and wants to push you to be your best self professionally and personally.”
WISE now has over 100 members and holds workshops every week. Nguyen said she is humbled by the positive feedback she has received and knows the club is just beginning to tap into its potential.
“All I can hope for is that I’ve conveyed my vision — I’ve chosen the right board to sustain and add onto that vision,” Nguyen said. “I think it’s bigger than myself, so who am I to direct where it goes?”