Uber’s Hanoian general manager talks helicopter rides, the future of Vietnamese transportation and quitting Harvard to work for the “unicorn of the tech start-up world”. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos by Vinh Dao.

You dropped out of Harvard Business School to work for Uber. What made you decide to do this?
My first year at Harvard provided me with fresh perspectives and got me intrigued with the idea of running a start-up. Uber is the unicorn of the tech start-up world. Everything we have achieved in the past five years has been amazing, but it is only a very early start. There are many ideas traditionally thought unimaginable; Uber can bring them to life. I am excited about the opportunity to bring the very best of the first world to every Vietnamese – that prospect prompted me to join Uber.

According to the company’s website, Uber has now launched in 54 countries worldwide. What made Vietnam a good place to introduce the service?
Vietnam is a spotlight emerging market that Uber definitely wants to be in: with a young population receptive to new technology, high penetration of mobile phone and 3G services, high growth of credit card usage and alternative payment methods and a transportation industry with much room for growth and improvement. The start-up community in Vietnam is vibrant and the digital economy is still in a nascent stage. We’d love to contribute our share to make it even more awesome.

How are things going for Uber Vietnam so far? The company has had a few ups and downs here over the past several months; how do you see the service developing over the next year?
Phenomenal. Ho Chi Minh City had been, for a long period, the fastest-growing city in the world for Uber! Hanoi, launched two months ago, has already shown great momentum. Ho Chi Minh riders are consistently taking more trips per week than riders in any other city in the world. We are extremely grateful for our riders who have embraced our services, our partners who have put in the effort to build the business with us, our partner drivers who have worked tirelessly to deliver an exceptional ‘everyone’s private driver’ experience, our Uber friends who have shown unwavering support and the government for having embraced new technology benefitting local communities.

What is a typical day like for you?
There is no typical day at Uber. Our business is evolving so fast it makes yesterday feel like a distant past. We’ve got so many mind-blowing ideas to execute in Vietnam, choosing which ones to work on is a tough choice. Think flying around Saigon in a helicopter for the cost of a bowl of pho. We did it in many countries and Vietnam could be the next!

I also love to spend time with our driver-partners to learn about their personal stories. One driver served in the army for almost 30 years driving tanks and the like. He came back to Ho Chi Minh City after his service, felt estranged in his own city, worked on many grueling jobs to support his family but it was difficult to make ends meet. Now he drives as a partner with Uber, making really good money and having fun interacting with interesting riders every day. I feel humbled by all the hard work our driver-partners put in to ensure everyone is provided a five-star experience and a safe, reliable ride home.

Over the last few years, Uber has brought to light a new challenge both in Vietnam and abroad, as its business model does not yet exist in many countries. What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered in blazing this new trail? What are the benefits?

Uber as a concept and business is really new so misunderstandings about our business models are common. The great thing, though, is that riders and drivers love Uber, which plays a vital role in helping governments better understand the benefits of Uber to local communities. It is really important to understand that we are not a taxi or transportation company but a technology company at the forefront of the sharing economy. Our mobile app simply provides a platform to connect riders and drivers.

Some say riding in an Uber car is not safe and the ride is not insured – in fact, all Uber rides are insured. Our process and technology make Uber rides far more reliable and safer than existing alternatives. We facilitated more than 140 million trips last year globally with only a few hiccoughs.

Some say we negatively impact economic growth. It is not the case. We empower entrepreneurship that is the foundation of economic growth. In the status quo, most drivers are employees. They make a meagre salary and the company takes a larger share of the profit. Now imagine with better income from Uber, they can finance a car to become their own boss, earning more money for their families. More drivers borrow money from banks to buy cars, banks’ lending business picks up, which in turn channels deposits to loans more effectively and fluidly. More drivers buy cars, car sales go up and drive more growth in the automotive sector. And the positive effects to other industries and sectors snowballs.

Uber has said that it wants to help develop the transportation industry in Vietnam. How does the company plan to do this?
No business can survive in the long run without contributing to the community it lives and breathes in. It happens that our business model could help make the transportation industry more efficient and productive as well as enrich the cities we live in.

The first thing we could help is to optimize the number of cars on the road. More than often, this means taking cars off the road. How so? Many cars are roaming the road with no one but the driver! Uber technology facilitates supply to meet demand perfectly. A ridesharing program could increase the average number of passengers in a vehicle. Fewer cars on the roads means less congestion, less pollution and a greener environment for everyone. It makes the city more livable.

The second thing is affordability and accessibility of transportation. We are not a rich country but basic and recurring needs like getting from point A to point B are still expensive. A one-kilometre ride in a taxi would cost a Singaporean less than 15 minutes of their average hourly earnings whereas it would cost a Vietnamese 3.5 hours of work; that’s 14 times more expensive, relatively speaking. Uber wants to make transportation affordable for everyone.

Lastly, most cities have not had access to granular data describing the flows and trends of private traffic. The data provided by Uber will help policymakers and city planners develop a more detailed understanding of where people in the city need to go and how to improve traffic flows and congestion to get them there, with data-driven decisions about traffic planning, congestion reduction, flow of residents across the city and public transport planning. With data, cities are better informed to identify where the best places are to add additional metro stops. Or take a more down-to-earth example: there are thousands of potholes in Hanoi to be filled but which one you are going to fill first with limited manpower? Data can help improve city infrastructure and create safer streets.

How do you get around the city?
Uber, of course. Not because I don’t like driving. It’s simply because, instead of driving, navigating the traffic and looking for parking I can spend that time catching up on work, listening to music, letting my thoughts wander or just napping.