For every budding impact entrepreneur, there is a spark of inspiration.
In the case Mai Nguyen, who hails from Saigon, it was an uneasy realization.
While studying abroad, Mai attended many events where other international students would gather to showcase their national heritage. But when it came to be her turn, Mai found herself at a loss: “I realized that I didn’t know much at all. The current generation of Vietnamese students grows up with a rather superficial knowledge of our cultural traditions. I had been given some beautiful woodcut prints from Đông Hồ by my mother, but even so I had no idea how they were made or why they were special. Meanwhile there were students from other countries who had travelled to cultural sites all over Vietnam—and who seemed to know much more than I did!”
It was then that Mai knew what she wanted: to create a new approach to cultural preservation in Vietnam; one that would make its rich traditions in arts and crafts accessible to future generations while helping to sustain the people still practicing these ancient techniques. An engineer by training, Mai’s first instinct was to draw up a database: “I wanted to compile a collection of everything that was out there, so that people could find out about it and know where to travel if they wanted to.” It was with this venture idea that she applied to the DO School’s Sustainable Cup Challenge.
But then she realized she would have to narrow her focus. Once she got to New York City for the Challenge she further refined her idea with the help of coaches, mentors and other aspiring entrepreneurs. Mai’s venture is now dedicated to promoting one particular example of a traditional craft and to build an educational program for primary school children around it: traditional woodcut prints from Đông Hồ, just like the ones she had been given by her mother to take abroad. “This tradition has existed in Northern Vietnam for 500 years, and back in the day there were 120 households contributing to it,” explains Mai. “Now, there are only 2 households left who make these beautiful prints. It’s a historical art that is fast disappearing—like many other traditional Vietnamese crafts. And hardly any are properly documented and taught in schools.”
With her mind set on changing this, Mai has been able to rally up support for her endeavor beyond her DO School mentors and peers—she recently received a generous grant from the Prince Claus Fund. Nonetheless, there have been challenges on her way ahead. Firstly, she had to convince the artisans that they, too, would profit from INGO, Mai’s venture. “These traditions have been closely tied to families, so there has been some skepticism in letting others in,” says Mai. “Still, I would like to be able to prove that together we can preserve their art and help them make a living with a sustainable business—that way, we could eventually replicate this model with other villages and their crafts.”
The other challenge for Mai’s business is due to her focus on one central value: sustainability. Traditional woodcut printing requires high-quality wood; Đông Hồ‘s artisans find their supplies in forests or gardens and then continue to use their stamps for 30-40 years. Although sourcing the right kind of wood is hard in the quantities required for teaching primary children all over the country, Mai has been adamant about not cutting corners. She refuses to import non-sustainably sourced wood from abroad. “It’s important to me to have a locally made product where all the parts come from Vietnam. That helps create authenticity and environmental sustainability, which is something else that future generations should learn about,“ she adds.
Of course, her grant money stands her in good stead to work out solutions for this and other problems. For example, she is looking to bring in a chemical specialist to help her create an ink that can be stored—traditional printmakers only mix up their inks right before painting since it spoils rapidly, within about 2 to 3 days. But despite all the challenges, Mai remains focused on her dream: to have every child in Vietnamese primary schools exposed to this art and to keep it alive and thriving. The DO School, she claims, has been instrumental in making her dream a reality. Says Mai, “it’s great to be part of a group of young people who aspire to do something great. The coaching from the DO School is really valuable. There are people who watch over you and share their ideas with you—that’s a great motivator to keep pushing.“