After a decade of finance experience within the public and nonprofit sectors, Sam Dang felt ready for a change. He enjoyed his work, but felt he had more to offer — he wanted to contribute in his fullest capacity to take his impact career to the next level.
This led Sam to to the MovingWorlds Institute, where he found a tribe on the same quest to bring social impact to the forefront of their work. Read his interview below to see how joining this cohort of professionals gave him the perspective and experience he needed to reposition his career.
What inspired you to “take the leap” and go experteering?
There were two main motivations behind my decision to take the leap. The first is that I was feeling disillusioned by the direction my career was heading, and was looking for guidance to help me to rethink, clarify and validate my career objectives. I still wanted to work within the social impact sector for an organisation that benefits society, but wanted to find opportunities that made fuller use of my skills and expertise, and were also personally fulfilling. The second is that I was already planning to move to Vietnam, and wanted to make the most of my time there by contributing my skills for social good. I was excited to discover the MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellowship because it combined both the career guidance and hands-on learning aspects that I was looking for to make the transition.
What were you doing before going experteering?
I had just quit my job as a finance manager for a large NGO based in London, UK. As I mentioned, I knew that I wanted to stay in the social impact sector, but wanted to get closer to the ultimate impact of the work.
What did you do on your experteering trip?
I was matched with an organization based in Hanoi called HOCMAI Education. HOCMAI Education is the leading online learning platform in Vietnam, offering online courses for Grades 1-12 that include adaptive testing systems, discussion forums, practice exams, and tutoring to supplement the national curriculum.
The HOCMAI team was seeking support measuring its social impact in order to guide its future business strategy and promote future investment. Soon after I arrived in Vietnam, I collaborated with the HOCMAI team virtually to gain additional context into the local education sector, which I supplemented with my own background research and by reaching out to some of my old monitoring and evaluation colleagues in my NGO network. With a solid foundational understanding of the context, we worked together to scope the details of the project.
We worked together to build a framework for collecting the data we needed. Using a combination of staff interviews and additional research into Sustainable Development Goal 4 (ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all), we developed a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure our results against. At this stage, we were focused on answering questions like: What is the profile of the typical HOCMAI student? What does accessibility include? What does quality look like? How is HOCMAI supporting the education development agenda in Vietnam?
Next, we created a survey to send to all HOCMAI students based on those indicators. Given the volume, we allowed a three week response window to ensure we received as many replies as possible. While the survey responses were rolling in, we supplemented our data set with teacher and student interviews to humanize the final investment marketing report.
A summary of the results of our social impact assessment are:
- The Vietnamese education system covers most of the country, and students generally score highly in global attainment rankings. However, the national curriculum is widely acknowledged to be overly theoretical (with not enough emphasis on skills development for employability) and access to high-quality education for rural and ethnic minority students remains low.
- The online education sector can bridge these accessibility and quality gaps by giving students to opportunity to engage with high-quality teachers virtually. With internet access rapidly increasing across the country, students can engage more easily, affordably, and flexibly compared to face-to-face supplementary classes.
- From the surveys conducted, students from all different backgrounds (e.g. across all geographical regions, irrespective of gender and family income) engage with the HOCMAI platform, which goes a long way in addressing the accessibility gap. However, increasing access to ethnic minority students who may be facing additional barriers remains a challenge.
- Students reported that studying through HOCMAI helps them to achieve their learning aims (e.g. passing the high school graduation exam) and that the teachers are engaging and helpful. Students also expressed an interest in additional interactive features, so the next stage of development will be to incorporate future product features like live streaming of lessons and interactive discussion forums with teachers.
What was the highlight of your experteering trip?
As part of my introduction to HOCMAI, I had the opportunity to join local team members on an excursion to Thanh Hoa, which is a rural province south of Hanoi. We spent two days there, where I observed the free in-school lectures on study techniques that HOCMAI carries out to meet and engage new students. Even though I didn’t understand everything (with my very basic Vietnamese), I could see that the lectures were delivered very well, and Mr. Nam (the teacher) clearly built a good rapport with the students, who felt comfortable and were engaged. It was really good to see and experience rural life in Vietnam as a local rather than as a tourist. It also created a great opportunity to bond with the HOCMAI team and see the impact of its work first-hand.
What advice do you have for people thinking about experteering?
Be open and take things one day at a time. I’ve noticed that many professionals from Western cultures (myself included) tend to overthink and overanalyze things, sometimes to the point of decision paralysis. Having a well thought-out plan is important, but the flexibility to adapt to local conditions that may not have been part of the plan is equally important.
How are you going to build on what you learned to create more of an impact in the future?
My experience experteering has given me a new perspective on my work. My background is in finance, and the focus has typically been on resources required up-front for a project. Working with the HOCMAI team to do the social impact assessment has made me think more about the ultimate impact and outcomes of a project. Moving forward, I’ll be asking myself different questions when starting a new project: about the ultimate impact of the work, what change I want to affect, and how I can structure the work to meet those goals.
How did your fellowship cohort help you reach your goals?
Being part of a like-minded group of professionals on the same journey towards more impact was invaluable. My background was at a typical donor-funded NGO, and the Fellowship helped me realize that there are other ways to generate sustainable social impact; I gained exposure to different social impact models, an understanding of how different types of organizations are structured, and about other industries and backgrounds directly.
The cohort was also really helpful in terms of pointing me towards tools, resources, and further reading to help me develop the indicator framework for my project with HOCMAI. Even once we were in our individual placements around the world, the cohort encouraged and supported each other through weekly catch ups to troubleshoot issues in-the-field and share progress. In terms of my future career trajectory, the cohort has been a great sounding board for finding my direction, validating purpose statements, and testing hypotheses.
How would you describe the Fellowship to a friend or colleague?
You’re joining a network of like-minded professionals who want to put social impact at the forefront of their careers. Together you learn the theory about what it takes to implement different social impact models and tools, then live it out directly through your experteering project. This collaborative approach is a win-win for you as a professional, the organization hosting you, and the rest of your cohort — it makes it a fun and supportive environment to help you transition your career where you want to go.
We’re grateful to Sam for sharing his story with us, and to partners like HOCMAI Education for the opportunity to build the experteering movement. Whether you’re pivoting the direction of your career, like Sam, or changing careers entirely, the Global Fellowship can help you navigate the transition. Apply to our next cohort of Global Fellows for the support you need to reach your goals!