Innovative artisan embraces role as leader and program coordinator of Artistri Sud’s 2019 program in Vietnam

Phin Tan Thi, graduate of ASSET Vietnam 2018

Meet Phin Tan Thi

When Phin Tan Thi showed up for her admission interview last September, no one thought she’d end up taking on the many roles that she did over the course of the year.  “She seemed to be a bit of an outsider,” says Dr. Jennifer Lonergan, Artistri Sud Executive Director who led the needs assessment and data collection in northern Vietnam.  “She was the only Red Dao participant in a group of over 40 ethnic Hmong women,” says Lonergan, “she was a bit of a lone wolf.” 


But Tan Thi displayed the qualities Artistri Sud looks for in its leadership cadre–she had good literacy and language skills (she speaks English, Hmong, Vietnamese and her native Dao), was sufficiently tech-savvy to liaise with Artistri Sud coaches and submit homework via Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger during the one-year coaching program, and was motivated to change her life.  “My dream is to own my own home,” says Tan Thi. So when she was offered the opportunity to become a team Leader, which involves an intensive two-day workshop (on top of the five-day entrepreneurship bootcamp that all participants attend) and a year-long commitment to supporting the development of her peers, she cautiously accepted. “In SaPa, where I live, we need strong leaders who can organise a team, find new customers and develop products.  But that leader does not always need to be a formal leader, but sometimes a friend and equal member of a group.” 


Strengthened revenue streams

Before attending Artistri Sud’s Social Entrepreneurship Training (ASSET), Phin tried different things so she could earn sufficient revenue to provide for her family’s basic needs. The 25-year-old woman lives in SaPa with her son and husband. Together, the couple earn approximately 5000 USD a year, putting them just above the poverty line. When she signed up for the entrepreneurship training, her main objective was to improve revenues she was earning from her handmade textile products like skirts and bags. In the months since graduating, she has easily achieved that objective–by creating new products, doing market research, and introducing new styles that appeal to customers, she has managed to increase her income and reduce uncertainty.  Dreaming big, she also tried to open a sales account on Amazon, though with less success–“it’s harder than I thought,” she admits shyly. “I’ll need some help.”  


She has also vigorously applied what she learned to other revenue streams, diving into a re-boot of a business offering guided tours.  She added several additional services (including booking overnight stays and multi-day tours) and she overhauled her Facebook page, Phin’s Fabulous SaPa Tours where most guests currently find her.  You will quickly notice by visiting the page that Phin’s tours are unique–she guides groups around the breathtaking landscapes of SaPa, sharing her local knowledge and offering a rare glimpse into local village life. Her charisma and care emanate through the pictures she posts of her beaming clients and the rave reviews they leave.          


Finally, she is currently exploring how to monetize her photography.  “She’s got a great eye,” says her Artistri Sud coach, Kristina Babic. “And she can get behind-the-scenes, so she can photograph things that others wouldn’t be able to.  There’s potential there.” 


Becoming a leader

In the months since completing her training in December, 2018, Phin has realized how important teamwork is and now expresses a keen interest in a future where the women work together and rely on each other for support–both at work and personally.  She lights up most when talking about her desire to collaborate with other women entrepreneurs. “I’d like us to set up a cooperative together,” she explains. “I think we can do a lot more together than alone,” she says. “But we are all a little bit afraid.  What if we can’t do it?” The precarious economic position of these women means that a failed investment is too great a risk to take on. Phin admits that she lacks confidence in her abilities and is fearful of taking any risks; also that her income is still not steady enough to allow for consistent savings.  Still, she is optimistic about the future, and continues to explore ways to generate more income. 


Program Coordinator

In June, planning for Phase II of its program in Vietnam, Artistri Sud sought to recruiting a local, Hmong-speaking program coordinator on location in SaPa to support a needs assessment in the region, organize focus group discussions, collect baseline data from prospective participants, and recruit for the fall 2019 program.  Although her coach, Kristina, had suggested she apply for the 3 month contract, Phin was hesitant. “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she smiles. “I didn’t really know what it was.” Only after Artistri Sud director Jennifer Lonergan reached out to her directly in a voice mail on Messenger encouraging her to apply did Phin decide to give it a try.  “She’s a strong leader,” Lonergan says, “but the only selling point she could think of in her application was that she speaks 4 languages. I mean, that’s a great benefit, but it’s hardly her only selling feature. The program coordinator role is a developmental opportunity, so it’s understood that they don’t know how to do the job. But we need someone reliable, and mostly they need to be willing to learn. That means, willing to make mistakes, to be out of your comfort zone.  That’s what’s hard.”


Since then, working with Kristina and another graduate, Phin has conducted interviews and focus group discussions with over 50 craftswomen, shopkeepers, and hospitality business owners.  She’s also helped recruit nearly 70 participants for our forthcoming entrepreneurship program in Vietnam. “Besides all the organizing skills she’s building, she has to submit weekly work summaries and expense reports with receipts,” says Kristina, whom she reports to directly. “She’s learning a lot about how to work in different contexts and to be accountable for what she does.  It’s a special opportunity for her, and she says it’s helped her in her own business, too. But the most important is that she is far more confident now–she explores different opportunities, she is less afraid, she eagerly takes on things she knows nothing about, like collecting data for Artistri Sud’s baseline study–she would never have done that before.”


Work team Supervisor

In the midst of this program coordination work, Phin was asked to take on another developmental project–one of coordinating and filling an order for an unknown customer. In a unique initiative, Montreal-based skin care company, Etymologie partnered with Artistri Sud to create a special holiday promotion: they ordered 25 custom-made batik cosmetic bags and matching hemp facecloths. Phin took charge of getting the items produced and shipped, dividing up the order among several local artisans so they would each have the opportunity to earn some income.  



Phin will be attending ASSET this fall as a trainee in the Train-the-Trainer program–assuming she can figure out how her son will be taken care of. She normally picks him up from school every day, which her husband can’t do because of his work schedule. She is still unsure of how she will manage childcare while she is away for seven days, but she has started to teach her son how to get to get to school on his own–crossing the roads carefully–so he can do it alone.  

Phin remains committed.  She has been successful in having other women sign up to do the program by speaking about her experiences. She describes ASSET as “an important opportunity for 5 days of learning”. She recognizes how positively this program has affected her life, and is eager for women in her community to get the same opportunities she has had.