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Female Disruptors: Nhat Nguyen of Autonomous.ai On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nhat Nguyen.

Nhat Nguyen is Head of Global Projects at Autonomous.ai, a California-based technology company and global leader in integrated and collaborative office supplies, designed for the remote workforce. She recently graduated from the dual masters programs at Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan School of Management, where she worked with multiple tech start-ups.

Nhat is currently co-leading Autonomous.ai’s new Employee Purchase Program — an initiative that aims to tackle the now ubiquitous WFH issue; how to supply remote employees a high-quality and ergonomic workplace at scale.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

It was a series of interests that led me to this career. When I was working with an ed-tech start-up at MIT, I connected with an investor who then introduced me to a project regarding workforce upskilling. While working on it, his colleague connected me with his friend who knew Autonomous well. I love the mission of the company to unlock productivity for people by building innovative tools and the culture of continuous improvement and collaboration, so I joined the team in my last semester of graduate school.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We build technology to help businesses streamline their procurement process for their remote employees. We offer a marketplace with tools and equipment that support work from home employees holistically — from ergonomic chairs and adjustable standing desks to fitness equipment, and home office pods that can be built within a day. Anyone can add their orders, request approval from their managers, and get the products shipped to their home. Employers will just log in, pay, and Autonomous takes care of the rest. No reimbursement, no lengthy process, and cost-savings for businesses.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have been lucky to meet many great mentors along the way. One of them is Kevin at Harvard Kennedy School. We were in a class focused on organizing people to create change in communities. Most recently, I was invited to share my views on the future of work on a podcast. Truly, I was nervous to be on it, but Kevin encouraged me to go for it and expand beyond my comfort zone. Most importantly, he said, “I saw your talent in our class, and I know you can do it!” Imposter syndrome is real, and as I fight it myself, I am lucky to have nudges from mentors like him to make the jump.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Being disruptive is both positive and negative depending on the angle and the time horizon that we consider. For example, looking back through history when the first textile machine was invented, it was opposed and in some cases, violently fought against. Millions of weavers lost their jobs, which was a short-term but severe and real damage. It is easy for the winners to argue that productivity improved in the long run, so it is better for society overall, but it is not true overall for people who are on the other side of change. That being said, if businesses are not looking for new ways to disrupt the industry, they’ll fall behind and eventually fail. Job loss will be the result of this scenario as well.. You can see this in the case of the camera and film company, Kodak. Their scientists, while standing on the shoulders of the most reputable optics and photography company, and with over a hundred years of experience and credibility, discovered CCD digital cameras, embracing the new “computer era.” But management did not want to lose the intoxicatingly profitable business of selling traditional camera film, so they shut those scientists down. Eventually, they failed, walking a slow death to oblivion while hundreds of thousands of people in Rochester, NY lost their jobs. Innovative disruption is necessary for the world to move forward, to lift the living standard for everyone, eventually. But economic and political institutions should be mindful to be more inclusive, to bring everyone together and build a better future together.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. “If you work on improving yourself 1% every day, you are 36 times better by the end of the year.” This is advice I received from Dr. Rati Thanawala, a former senior partner at Bell Labs Consulting. I can be quite impatient, and I think that I should be much better faster — it creates a lot of self-doubt. The key is that I am putting in the effort to improve myself every day, 1% at a time, and not comparing myself to others, but to myself.
  2. “Just put in everything you can to pursue your dreams so that you won’t regret whatever the result is.” This helps me to get over the detours in my life. Sometimes I try so hard to steer the wheel of life in a certain direction, but it may not end up being where I wanted to be. As long as I did everything I could with the information I had, there is nothing to regret — just lessons learned both about myself and the world as I moved forward in the direction of my northstar.
  3. “Build your absorption capability” — Professor Don Sull at MIT Sloan School of Management in his last lecture to our MBA class. The absorption capacity is not only about saving to have the financial cushion during tough times but even more important, the trusted relationships we build and maintain with family, friends, and the different communities that we are in.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Impact has always been the northstar for me as I think about my work, and there are many problems out there to be solved in the future of work, education, finance, healthcare, etc. The current challenge I am tackling is about the future of work, and our solution is to provide products and services that help businesses support their remote employees better. It is a big problem to solve, and if we do a good job at it, hundreds of millions of people could work remotely, productively and have more time for themselves, with their families and friends. This is only just the beginning, so it is difficult to say what’s next, but I know it would be something that aligns with my northstar

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women disruptors have many unique challenges including lack of funding, advisor and mentor networks, and defying society expectations. In 2020, US startups raised a record of $143 billion, but merely 2.4% of it went to startups founded solely by female founders, and even worse, it was $1b less than in 2019. When building disruptive businesses, funding is a crucial factor, and the lack of funding really hinders many women disruptors from bringing their ideas into reality. One time, I was in a pitch competition with two other teammates for a healthcare start-up, and a woman advisor recommended to us that the man on our team would be the best presenter and the best chance of getting funding. It was a painful reality to experience. Secondly, the majority of unicorns are founded by men, and only 14.6% have at least one female founder — the network of female advisors and mentors who have gone through the rope with similar challenges is smaller. Third, defying society’s expectations, including the idea that women should prioritize family. Doing something disruptive requires a village, and sometimes women have to redefine their village as they work on executing their disruptive ideas.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

The book “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. It had a deep impact on my thinking. The focal point of the book explains why exclusive institutions fail and how inclusive institutions that encourage innovative disruption prevail through various historical events. This links back to my comment above about disruption, and especially giving opportunities to anyone regardless of background, gender, or ethnicity to disrupt the status quo with better solutions for the future. The book reminds me of how much we can learn from history, and as the writer and philosopher George Santayana said “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. Learning from history, living in the present, and working toward a better future for everyone is how I want to live my life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I believe that talent is equally distributed around the world but opportunities are not. That means billions of people with brilliant ideas and execution capability in different corners of the world are being hindered and never reach their potential because of a variety of factors — their social-economic background, gender, ethnicity, and religion or lack thereof. If I could inspire a movement, it would be about creating a safety net with equal access to food security, education, healthcare, and equal opportunities for everyone to unlock their potential.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“When one door closes, another opens.” by Alexander Graham Bell. There have been many doors closed in my life, and the first and biggest one in my adult life was when the door to pharmacy school closed for the second time when I took the national exam in Vietnam after high school. After that, I decided to go to the University of Economics instead, with the same idea of helping other people. While studying there, I learned more about study abroad opportunities and came to the U.S. three years later. This started my educational and professional career here. So many doors have closed in my journey since then, but every single time, it reminds me that other doors are open as I continue finding ways to leave the world a better place than when I was born.

How can our readers follow you online?

My linkedin is www.linkedin.com/in/nhattnguyen

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.