From ‘invisible person’ in America to leader of a venture capital fund
In a sector largely ‘dominated’ by men, Maggie Vo has worked her way up to lead investments at an American venture capital fund
Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre profiled Fuel Venture Capital Chief Investment Officer and Managing General Partner Maggie Vo, CFA, outlining her emigration to the U.S. from Vietnam at the age of 17, and her ascent to the elite rung of GP at Fuel, the leading VC firm in the Southeastern United States.
Below, find the English translation of the article. The original piece, written in Vietnamese, can be found on Tuoi Tre.
Maggie Vo, born in 1987, emigrated to America from Vietnam to study finance abroad. She sat down with Tuoi Tre to share her story.
The archetype of female leadership in America
* When you first moved to America, what was it like?
- Leaving my hometown at the age of 17 to go to the U.S. to study, there were many challenges that I still remember well and think about today.
To be able to get a scholarship to college, I had to work hard to have both the best academic achievement and many outstanding extracurricular activities under my belt in just nine months’ time.
This was a bit of a disadvantage for me because American students have four years to work on their resume before college.
Another major challenge was going from being a top student at Le Hong Phong Specialized High School (HCMC) with a vibrant social life, to being the international student who barely spoke English upon arrival, with few, if any, friends at first. I felt like an invisible person.
* The person with the highest expectations of you and putting the most pressure on you, was not a parent or elder family member — it was you. Why?
I see pressure as a source of energy to push myself. I also like to challenge myself so I can then enjoy the spoils of my work, and the pride I feel in having overcome challenges.
* You used to sing, but that more artistic side of you took a backseat to your career in finance. Have you ever regretted pushing aside your artistic side?
I have my artistic side to thank for a lot of the soft skills I have today. Thanks to singing, I have the confidence to be a public speaker, meet new people in novel environments, etc. That confidence comes in handy in meetings and presentations with partners and investors.
Besides, in order to be able to sing and keep up high grades as a student in high school, I had to learn how to juggle obligations and create balance between these different sides of my life. From a very early age, I learned how to prioritize and plan my life according to short- and long-term obligations and goals. That went on to help me be productive and organized.
* In a recent interview, you said the person you’d most want to have lunch with is Jeff Bezos. Why not an accomplished female leader, like Oprah or Sheryl Sandberg?
Although I always want to inspire women, when asked that question, I did not focus on whether the person was male or female, but simply who was the most accomplished, most inspiring leader, who I could learn from the most.
“Feminism” or “gender equality” does not always mean having to say or do something related to a gender, but it should be seen as an aspect of an equally objective view. That’s true gender equality, in my opinion.
* As an international student — an Asian woman, to be specific — what challenges have you encountered?
First off, I had to face the pressure of being a minority woman “daring” to enter the finance industry, following graduation. It’s a highly competitive, male-dominated field.
On top of that, I was graduating from college (Center College) as the financial crisis was unfolding, making it a difficult time for anyone to land a job, especially in finance, and especially as an international student. Because of my visa, I had only 90 days to find a job, or I’d have to return to Vietnam.
I eventually got a job as an analyst with a company in the same state where I attended college, but my big break came because I was coincidentally seated on a flight next to the chief investment officer of a hedge fund. We struck up conversation and over time developed a professional relationship. He encouraged me to get my CFA, instead of pursuing an MBA, and eventually he offered me a job at his fund. I became his “right hand man.”
Helping Vietnamese startups
* Tell us about your ambitions in the near future. Do you have any plans related to Vietnam?
Fuel Venture Capital is working with many partners in Europe and Latin America to build a startup ecosystem in Miami. I want to accumulate experiences and important relationships here in the U.S. so later I have the tools and the network to do the same in Vietnam, thereby helping Vietnamese startups break into the U.S. market and find customers and success internationally.
In 2019, we invested in Ohmnilabs, co-founded by Vietnam-born Dr. Vu Duy Thuc, a graduate of Stanford University. He’s a prototypical example of a high-achieving Vietnamese immigrant in the U.S.
It is very heartening to see Vietnamese entrepreneurs thriving in America.
*Tell us about your family. What do you like to do with your daughter?
Although work is always very busy, I make sure to read books to my child every night, and every weekend the whole family watches movie together. My daughter loves Saturdays because she knows that’s when she’ll get to spend all her time with my husband and me. My daughter often plays active-learning games or does jigsaw puzzles with her dad, and she enjoys learning the piano, singing or doing math with me.
Without the benefit of having our whole families with us here in America, my husband and I of course face unique challenges raising our daughter. But we’ve taught her to find joy in simple things, to love spending time with us while we do mundane things like cleaning around the house or cooking. Thea has learned to video-call her grandparents in Vietnam all by herself. It’s important to us that she maintains a bond with her relatives in Vietnam and know where her roots are. Even though I left my home in Vietnam more than 15 years ago, I still speak Vietnamese as well as I did in Vietnam. I want my daughter to be able to do the same.
What is true happiness to you?
Because of my Asian heritage, I attach great importance to my family values, my roots, and I always want to spend time taking care of my family and children.
At the same time, I think I also embody the “modern woman” profile — always pursuing professional goals with ambition and passion, wanting to do big things for myself.
I’m very happy to be in a position today where I can do both. I was lucky to find my “other half” in someone who, like me, was a Vietnamese studying abroad, so my husband completely sympathizes and understands me, and we share everything with each other.
Climbing the corporate ladder
In 2018, Maggie said, “I joined Fuel Venture Capital in Miami as an analyst. The fund focuses on cutting-edge technology companies — from artificial intelligence to the Internet of Things, virtual reality, robotics and financial technology.”
“Within a year, I was promoted to the head of investments and recently became the youngest managing general partner. … This is the most meaningful achievement in my career to date.
I credit this milestone comes to my work ethic and drive. I always try to do more than what’s been assigned and what’s expected. I’m demanding in all of my undertaking. It has helped my peers trust me.
I recently had the opportunity to join the board of directors of a number of startup companies. Working with entrepreneurs to plan development strategies, find solutions to arising challenges, and more, has made me love and cherish my work more than ever before.”