I met Vi on the streets of the city in a chance encounter one Sunday afternoon.
He was walking along an alley, shoe-shine kit in hand, as I walked in the other direction. I could see the anticipation in his eyes as he plucked up the courage to practice on me the only words he knew in English: “Hello, shoe shine?”
It was 2003, and I had been in Vietnam for less than a year. I was teaching English to Economics students at a university and in my spare time had started running classes for street kids.
Some of my university students, as well as a handful of foreign friends, pitched in and on the weekends we had classes and soccer games that Hanoi’s shoe shine boys could join for free.
At that time, there was no “Blue Dragon” – we didn’t even have an idea to start a charity. We were all volunteers, doing something good for the kids.
Vi was typical of the city’s street kids at that time. Aged 15, he quit school and left his home in the countryside to come and earn money for the family. His mother worked in Hanoi as well, selling fruit or collecting scrap for recycling. Everything they earned was keeping Vi’s siblings in school.
What started as a chance encounter turned into a much longer story. Vi just wanted to shine my shoes but instead I invited him to join an English class.
Six months later, the idea for starting a charity called Blue Dragon had formed and we were getting ready to open our first shelter. Vi was one of the original six residents, and we employed his mother to look after all the kids.
Not wanting to return to the classroom, Vi joined various training programs, starting with IT and English. Then an opportunity came up to work in one of Hanoi’s finest restaurants, and Vi’s career as a barman began.
He could have had a long career in hospitality but after 6 years Vi came back to work at Blue Dragon. We needed someone to work on the streets at night looking for homeless kids, and Vi was eager to help. But with one caveat: just for 6 months, he told me.
More than 12 years later, Vi is still with Blue Dragon. He’s built up a team of social workers who go out on the streets every day and night of the year to find children who are sleeping rough. He’s moved into a senior management role, leading a team of almost 40 professionals caring for children who have been abused, trafficked, or neglected.
And now, he’s about to take on a whole new challenge.
Blue Dragon is a little unusual in that we have two CEOs, as a way of handling the complexity of our work. For the past two years, Skye Maconachie and I have been the co-CEOs leading our organisation through the turbulence of COVID.
We have an incredible team of 115 staff and as an organisation we directly assist over 10,000 people a year, all around Vietnam. I am immensely proud of our impact, of the team and its many leaders.
Now I’m ready for a change. I am not leaving Blue Dragon; simply stepping into a new, more focused role of Founder and Strategic Director. And in making that move, an opportunity for a new co-CEO has opened up.
Among a field of excellent candidates for the job, Vi stood out. He has the skills, the passion, and the vision to be our next co-CEO along with Skye.
Everything about Vi’s story is inspiring. He’s overcome incredible hardships in life and every step of the way has sought to help others. During his first interview for the co-CEO role, our first question was: “Why do you want this job?”
His answer: “So I can help more people. As a CEO I know I can have more impact.”
Vi’s journey from a street kid to a CEO reminds me how much potential there is in every child. That chance encounter on the street almost 20 years ago has led to countless lives changed for the better.
His vision for Blue Dragon? In his own words: “I want to inspire and empower passionate leaders within our organisation and society. We need to create a safe, agile environment and a culture of staff sharing, caring, and standing up for what’s right. And we need to connect with the world, sharing our mission so that we will inspire the world to act.”
Alongside Skye, Vi is going to be an inspiring and visionary leader. Most exciting of all: I know that Vi is already looking out for the child who is homeless or in slavery today but might be taking over from him in the years to come.
Vi will formally be appointed as a co-CEO on March 1, 2022. Want to send a message of congratulations? Comment here or stop by our Facebook page to share some encouragement.