From academia to the business world: How a CSO takes on her unconventional career path

See how former academic Hanh Nguyen, PhD., Chief Sustainability Officer at OCI N.V. first made her foray into the business world and took on changes

Since she started university in the US, Hanh Nguyen has been on the move. Not only did she move between countries and continents, but Hanh has also been active in transiting between her career paths. She started as an academic, getting her P.h.D. in Biology before moving into the business world as a consultant, then a post overseeing M&As, managing a business unit employing 100+ people, followed by a director position at Unilever that drove sustainability initiatives, and is now Global VP Sustainability and CSO at OCI N.V.. Hanh’s interesting story encouraged us to invite her for a quick chat, where we jolted down her story.   

If you are looking to make a foray into the business world as an academic, take another step towards changing your career, or move to a new environment, let Viet Make It and Hanh’s story help you. 

Hi Hanh, thanks for joining us today. Can you briefly introduce yourself to the audience? 

Hi, thanks for having me today! My name is Hanh Nguyen. I’m currently VP of Sustainability at OCI N.V., a global operating fertilizers and chemicals company. I grew up in Ho ChiI Minh City and moved to the US for my bachelor’s in Biology and Agriculture at Truman State University. 

Back then, I was entirely intrigued by the field and decided to follow a further academic path, with a Ph.D. degree in Plant Biology at Cornell. After my Ph.D., I moved to Switzerland to discover Europe. It was a life-turning point for me. I didn’t expect to stay here for long. But then I realized that my calling was not that of an academic in the field of biology. An opportunity then arose, and I joined McKinsey after learning about the role from a connection. 

Meet Hanh Nguyen, Chief Sustainability Officer at OCI N.V.

Although I (and many of my peers back then) had little experience in consulting or business, I could pick up the pace thanks to my exposure to additional business classes while at Cornell. To follow the business path was something that had always been in the back of my mind. So I attended these classes and got a basic understanding of entrepreneurship, business development, accounting, etc. 

The exciting learning curve shaped the tremendously enjoyable time at McKinsey for me. I got my hand on new knowledge in strategy, commercial, and operations in the chemicals, biotech, and agriculture industries. I got to make the best out of my previous education and curiosity, serving clients in the agriculture and biotech sectors. I also got to lead the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) first circular economy initiative. I learned a lot about sustainability and learning to work in a multi-stakeholder environment.  

As a consultant, however, I felt that I never really got to own the implementation until the end, which means almost no accountability for delivering results. So I left for Dummen Orange, a private equity portfolio company in flower breeding and propagation. My husband and I moved to the Netherlands for our new jobs. I started by overseeing M&As and ended up becoming the managing director of a whole business unit, supervising an end-to-end business process from R&D, production, and sales. It was an exciting experience to me—to really have that hands-on and full accountability of something, exactly what I looked for when eying my move away from consulting. 

It was an exciting experience to me—to really have that hands-on and full accountability of something, exactly what I looked for when eying my move away from consulting

Three years later, I got contacted by Unilever for a completely different job, this time a role in sustainability. I thought that maybe it was time for me to look for a new challenge, and went on to lead the global climate, water stewardship and oversee the €1bn Climate and Nature Fund. 

More than a year working at Unilever allowed me to grasp a new industry and contribute to an impactful agenda, albeit it was all virtual due to COVID. But eventually, I realized that I missed working in the chemicals and agriculture sector, so when OCI reached out about starting its new Sustainability department, I took the offer. I’m extremely excited to be driving an impactful decarbonization program for one of the hardest-to-abate sectors and providing solutions to decarbonize agriculture and the energy transition we desperately need.  

When I saw your background, I’m both impressed and, at the same time, curious about your moves. Your career shifts are quite nonlineal; what was the rationale for your move? How did you manage to accommodate your career transitions? 

I consider myself a very ambitious person, especially in my career growth and ability to make positive impacts. And when it comes to development, compensation turns out to be the least important to me. It’s more about the ability to learn and grow myself both personally and professionally. Every once in a while, I would reflect and evaluate my happiness and the growth possibility in my contemporary environment. I would ask myself: “Can the organization give me the opportunity to grow myself, and does it provide me the opportunity to get more connections, to meet new peers that can help me strengthen my career?”  

When you go for a new job or get into any new environment, it is always good to build on a strong anchor point and grow from there. The anchor point can be your technical knowledge of the field (i.e., your hard skills) or your ability to manage projects, people, etc. (i.e., your soft skills). 

Hanh Nguyen sharing her take on how to boost career prospects by standing out

Another trait that has helped me so far is that I’ve always been a curious person, so it was easy for me to pick up all the different pieces and combine them. My consulting training was also quite helpful, I got used to various projects, clients, and industries, so I learned to read the situation rapidly. It always helps to talk and listen to your colleagues and quickly dive into something tangible, which is often the best way to learn. 

Can you share with the audience some of the most valuable experiences or lessons you have accumulated during all these changes throughout your whole career? 

There’s one thing I usually do when assuming a new role, and I believe that this will be helpful in many cases: Try to build new connections and maintain relationships. In my case, I am a people person. I enjoy getting to know people and learning from them. I’m still talking to my old professors or former co-workers. And there’s always a chance these acquaintances will spark new opportunities for you. And then my curious nature allowed me to build rapport quickly without much formality. So I would say that you should invest in these 1:1 meetings, and the returns won’t disappoint you. 

Two people exchanging ideas in a 1 to 1 meeting

Another lesson is that don’t miss out on the opportunity to make yourself unique. Build something that only you can do. You don’t specifically have to do that all your life. But in essence this helps you stand out with your supervisors when they are looking for people to promote. So, becoming an expert in a specific field will help you tremendously, especially if you are a junior. 

Last but not least, cultural diversity can be of great usefulness. With many companies now promoting D&I, you can use the occasion to expand your network and connect with new peers and mentors with similar backgrounds or those who want to support minorities. They can teach you valuable lessons and facilitate your career progression. 

Put professional aspects aside, what are the benefits or challenges you experienced during your transitions as a student to the US and then as a US academic to the business landscape in Europe? 

As mentioned before, I am a strong believer in having a solid anchor to help you branch out in a new environment. Whenever I move to a new place, I try to seek out people with some similarities to my background, be it other Vietnamese or other expats. When I was a student, there were student associations, and nowadays, there are social media. When I moved to Switzerland, there weren’t a lot of Vietnamese there. So I also sought out expats and managed to make some good friends. 

Two friends greeting each other in a cafe

In general, I think every time we move, we uproot a bit; it is just how it is. But I also believe we will be able to make some new friends if we move again, this time with other parents. But there’s the fact that I need to reckon that: The older you get, the more difficult it is to adapt to a new environment.

Do you think that we, especially Asians, are treated differently when moving to a Western environment, like there may be occurrences that people look down on us because they think we are different? Do you also feel the barriers like language, for example, may prevent you from getting to know them and bonding with them?

In every country, there are considerate people, and there are people with prejudices, which a lot of time stems from lack of exposure to other cultures. I try not to get too bogged down by these unpleasant situations and look on the bright side, like being thankful for the great relationships that I have. 

As for the Dutch environment, if we do live here for much longer, I think it would be good to become more proficient. People respond very well when you make an effort to speak. Sometimes you have to try to sympathize with people and imagine how it is for anyone living in foreign environments. It’s hard to be the only person in a social setting that doesn’t speak the same language as everyone else. 

Alright, that should lead us to our final question today. Apart from the advice you gave us earlier, is there any other advice you would like to provide to our audience?

My first advice is that if you are looking for a job, always pay attention to the people. Of course, you have to like what you do. But it’s of the same importance to learn about the people you would be working with. Don’t be scared to jump if you don’t think the place is a good fit for you. The support of the people you work with means a lot, and it makes a massive difference in your happiness at work and your eventual success.

My other advice is primarily for people following an academic path but are mulling over changing their course into an industrial environment. If you don’t know how to switch from a Ph.D. path into a business career, a project management path, especially that of a consultancy firm, can be a good starting point for you. You will be trained with all the general competencies of the business world. I have a friend who recently moved into the business world. She was also a Ph.D. and came from the US for her postdoc. She took a project management course and is now a Project Manager for DSM. 

If you don’t know how to switch from a Ph.D. path into a business career, a project management path, especially that of a consultancy firm, can be a good starting point for you.

And of course, to get the job offer, you will need to pass the interviews. So, do your homework, make yourself acquainted with the skills that weren’t provided during your study but required for the job. However, don’t forget to use your common sense. Business is all about common sense. So, don’t let all the technical aspects overshadow your common sense.

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