Peter Cornish interviews Brian Cotter, a consultant for UNICEF and discusses the startup community in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Romain Garrigue.

What brought you to Vietnam and what have you done since being here?

I met a girl while studying in Wisconsin. We graduated and chose to try out Vietnam together. 11 years later, here I am and she is now my wife.

I bounced around for a while, taught English and worked in hospitality, but it wasn’t for me, I like my nights and evenings too much. I helped open a chain of convenience stores in Mui Ne, and started a business developing apps, but realised I didn’t like getting paid last. Late 2014 I joined UNICEF and have been a consultant with them for three years now.

You currently work with UNICEF Innovation Labs, what does your role entail and what is the role of the Innovation Labs in Vietnam?

I’m with UNICEF Vietnam but they have changed the name from Innovation Labs to Innovation Units. It’s semantics, but we partner with people who have space, rather than use our own. Conceptually, this helps UNICEF look at initiatives and technologies that may be uncertain in the market, and try to identify ways they could create value through innovation or mainstreaming.

My role is to help them identify, pilot and scale-up different technologies, or partnerships, or initiatives that achieve impact for youth in new ways.

So, in reality this looks like helping the organisation through partnership driven activities, such as UPSHIFT. This is entrepreneurship training for disadvantaged and marginalised youth in HCMC. They are often disabled.

In essence, this means taking start-up methodology and applying it in an innovation context. It’s often more technology based. The main work is identifying emerging technologies here for use worldwide.

The second front is helping apply existing techniques, specifically through a technology called rapidpro.io which helps interaction with beneficiaries, and to collect real time information.

Part of your role includes overseeing the programme of UPSHIFT. Can you tell us what this is, who it’s aimed at, and what are the benefits for participants?

My role is to help build the systems that enables UPSHIFT to exist and persist, to make it survive as a local programme for the future, where UNICEF is just one piece of the puzzle. This involves sourcing funding, finding partnerships for sustainability, creating instructional content.

It’s all open source. One of the reasons for this is that we want to create a guide that can be implemented without having to work with us. People can take it and improve.

UPSHIFT is an entrepreneurship programme that helps marginalised youth and adolescents gain access to opportunity and resources needed to become agents of change in their own communities.

We ask them to identify problems and create entrepreneurial solutions that will solve them. We want them to do this in a financially sustainable way, so projects need to become self-sustained through some sort of revenue generation.

We provide a variety of ‘21st century’ skill building activities where they learn through experience rather than theory. We are starting to work with the government to see how we can get these activities into other hubs throughout the city.

Basically, we want participants to have transferable skills. By participating, they get access to resources, finance, mentors, and experts to help make their ideas reality.  The programme attempts to remove barriers to entry for youth to start such a project.

How many of the ideas developed during the UPSHIFT programme turn into viable solutions to the problems they are intended to solve, and what are the barriers preventing participants from achieving this?

We did our first pilot in 2015 so this is still early stage. We learned a lot from this and some projects are now operating in different contexts, so the answer is ‘I don’t have one’. Feedback from participants is positive, they have grown to take on new challenges. So, while we don’t have case studies, we do have young people telling us the programme is helping them. Ask me again in a year.

The most obvious barrier is finance, but the reality is it doesn’t take that much money. In the case of participants with disabilities, there is a societal misunderstanding about their capabilities. Then there is the skills gap. Confidence is also an element, and the reality is that young people in general are often not confident.

What are your views on entrepreneurship in Vietnam, especially in the social sector?

I think the potential in Vietnam is very high for entrepreneurs to play a strong role, especially with the youth. The potential for young people to build businesses that address societal issues, and to do so in an economically viable way, is huge. There still needs to be greater understanding that social entrepreneurship is not charity and there’s a need to create a financially viable enterprise that can then impact society.

What challenges does Vietnam face in terms of developing social entrepreneurship, and what is being done to overcome them?

There needs to be greater understanding that a social enterprise in not a charity, it’s a business. Right now, there is a lot of the focus is on technology, which may well become very consumer focussed and we are seeing this directed at areas such as agri-tech.

The question is how do the public and private sectors include social enterprises in their investment portfolios, and understand them as a different business model, rather than just a different business. This is a worldwide issue, not just in Vietnam.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to start a social or community based enterprise?

Get to know your problem well and then just do it. It’s the same for any business, if you don’t understand the problem, you’re going to struggle to solve it.