Brain Gain: Why 2 Southeast Asian Entrepreneurs Came Home

Creating a positive impact for their home country

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BY Ezra Ferraz - 21 Nov 2016

Southeast Asian entrepreneurs

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

“Every Southeast Asian nation that’s trying to build its start-up ecosystem needs to tap into its people abroad - as entrepreneurs, partners, investors, and ambassadors,” says Rexy Josh Dorado, the CEO and founder of Kaya Collaborative.

Southeast Asians who study abroad in the West are indeed returning to their home countries to become entrepreneurs.


A greater impact at home

After spending two years in the United States as a Master in Business Administration student at Kellogg School of Management, Ekachat Assavarujikul chose to return home to his native Thailand rather than take up a lucrative, post-MBA job in the U.S.

Assavarujikul’s decision was borne out of a sense of nationalism.

“If there is one thing I’d like to do, I want to create a positive impact for my home country.? I feel like this is a place where I can create the most value,” he says.

Yet unlike a Thai person who starts a company in Thailand without ever having spent significant time abroad, Assavarujikul returns with a whole slew of experiences that could help him build and scale his start-up, the online course platform, SkillLane.

Assavarujikul singled out in particular the entrepreneurship courses and seminars he took that illustrated how tech start-ups in the U.S. scaled their businesses.

“These learning communities were not present in Thailand a few years ago. The knowledge I gained from the United States equipped me with the tools I needed to start my entrepreneurial journey,” he says.

Le Minh Hieu, who graduated from Brown University, shares similar sentiments in describing why he returned to Vietnam, where he felt he could make a greater impact than he could in the United States.

“In Vietnam, much more work needs to be done: transportation, employment, affordable education, decent healthcare for low-income groups, to name a few,” says Hieu, who is an applied math graduate.

Hieu is a serial entrepreneur, and his start-up, Wassup, leverages on the experiences he gained not just from the United States, but also from the U.K. and Singapore. Before co-founding Wassup, he found that young Vietnamese were mostly passive consumers of entertainment.

Wassup aims to make it easier for Vietnamese with similar interests and hobbies to self-organize, as is more common in the west.

“Our mission is to provide a platform for them to connect, promote their activities, grow their interests, and ultimately to create a proactive and vibrant young Vietnamese community,” he says.


Collaborating toward an opportunity brand

The experiences of Assavarujikul and Hieu are not isolated. Southeast Asians are returning home in greater numbers, nowhere more so than the Philippines. In a study conducted over LinkedIn of 350 plus Filipinos who studied abroad at top American schools, Dorado found that 40% of the subjects they profiled had returned to the Philippines in the past 5 years.

Engaging these 2nd and 3rd generation Filipinos from abroad is crucial because they are not typically oriented toward the Philippines.

“There are millions of young Filipinos in the diaspora who are growing up to be leaders, innovators, movement builders, and influencers, but have been taught since they were young that the Philippines is not a part of their future,” he said.

That’s changing as more exiles from Southeast Asian entrepreneurial ranks return to their homelands.

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