11/07/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Chance to Meet Vietnam's Future Leaders: Adventures with the U.S. State Department in Hanoi

Tam Lee, a U.S. State Department officer based in Hanoi, picked me up at noon so we could visit local schools. Our first stop was Dinh Tien Hoang High school, a school specialized for children that have a lot energy -- an area of education that I have been interested in for decades. When we walked into the courtyard, the students were cheering. I couldn't help but feel euphoric and emotional.

I waved back; I was so happy to see them.


The students at Dinh Tien Hoang High School.

First, we met with Dr. Lam Nguyen, the school's principal, a thirty five-year education veteran. Through Tam's solid interpreting, we bonded over a mutual love of education and young people despite the language barrier.


My new friend Dr. Lam Nguyen.

In the classroom, I was amazed to find a hundred students! Tam interpreted my lecture as I tried to impart the six most essential aspects of small business to my new students:

1. The power of learning your story and defending it.

2. The power of finding your competitive advantage and never competing directly.

3. The power of writing down your goals and achieving them.

4. The power of always treating other people well.

5. The importance of having a business plan that solves other people's problems.

6. The value of maintaining an entrepreneurial mindset.

The students were engaged and cheerful and full of energy. I went around the room and asked them what they wanted to do. Two wanted to be tour guides, one wanted to be a doctor, and another wanted to open up a spa. I knew that many great entrepreneurs and professionals would come out of that class.

Their aspirations and desires were the same as children everywhere, and I felt a great kinship with them. I told them if they and their families could get to our offices at 120 Wall Street, in New York, they would be given space for business meetings, and that anyone that I knew, they could meet. I told them a little bit about the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), and then turned the floor over to Rodney Walker, one of the top young entrepreneurs in America, who came with me as my photo journalist.

Rodney, now a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, studying both religion and business, is famous for his work in helping low-income children overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. A moving documentary film, Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon, featuring Rodney and other NFTE graduates, Tam had actually seen. It was gratifying to both Rodney and me that Tam knew about NFTE and our community through the website. Rodney was treated like a celebrity and many of the students wanted their pictures taken with him. He told his life story, which was about overcoming pain and anxiety. After he spoke, he was mobbed by the students, and I was very proud.

I gave the principal advice on how to start a very simple program since Vietnam does not have a NFTE program office. We talked about the World Series of Innovation and I encouraged his students to participate. (This is an international competition that solicits teams of students to submit innovations to common challenges in today's marketing and business worlds. More info here) Also, there was a young teacher present who had majored in physics, had his own business, and was a sales rep in Hanoi for foreign companies. I knew that he could be a great entrepreneurship business educator.

But the best was to come.

We jumped in a cab and took a slow-motion tour in the Hanoi traffic. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at our next appointment, in the heart of the city. After walking up three flights of stairs, we entered a room where about forty 14-to-21-year-olds were waiting for us. I was as excited as they were. Seeing the intelligence in their faces, sending the energy. I thought, "What a future Vietnam is going to have."


The whole group with Rodney and me.

They enjoyed hearing my six essential tips for small business. Afterwards, we went around the room to hear everyone's business ideas -- which included a café, and numerous technology and educational companies.

We had inspiring conversations about small business issues. One of the young women asked me, "You should always be kind and good to people, but does that mean you have to do what they want you to do?"

It was a stunningly simple question.

I responded, "Although you always need to be courteous and polite, your number one obligation is to live your own life and to achieve your personal goals." I repeated the advice that Steve Jobs had given me when I was a young man at the Association for Collegiate Entrepreneurs conference (ACE) in 1986:

"Don't live someone else's life. Live your own life."

Tam pointed out how important it was that the students start off small in their business endeavors. I gave a brief explanation of how to find wholesalers online, in order to buy simple items to sell at a profit. My suggested benchmark was that by the time they reached high school, they should be making one sales call a day -- the products could be shirts, watches, or simple foods. The key was to develop habits of business thought, which would be how to solve problems by meeting the needs of others.


Discussing business ideas with the students.

I was excited to talk about franchising because I could see that young people in Hanoi had a golden opportunity to reach out to large franchise companies, which they could find online in the Franchise 500 list, published by Entrepreneur Magazine and the Association of American Franchisers ( I told them the story of my good friend, Doris Christopher, who was chairman and founder of Pampered Chef, one of the most successful entrepreneurial ventures of all time, which she and her husband started from scratch.


Discussing franchise opportunities.

But that wasn't all. Living in Hanoi was a comparative advantage of the kind that Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek would have called a "unique knowledge of time and place." These young people could become the representatives of companies trying to open branch offices in their country. I encouraged them to learn intellectual property and franchise issues, both of which can be done online.

Three high school students came up to me and told me about their business plan competition, and an entrepreneurial organization that they had founded. NFTE had been their beacon of light and I was so touched that I had to turn away because I was choking up. I considered them real heroes and promised to send them copies of the NFTE textbook. I handed the classroom over to Rodney who was again star of the show.

I feel certain that Vietnam will soon become one of the most enterprising and freest places to live in the world. And we should all feel confident with students and teachers like these at the helm.

Special thanks to Rodney Walker Productions for photographing this incredible experience.