As two product managers from Adobe, we hadn’t expected to find ourselves here.
The night markets were about to close, and dim strings of light bulbs flickered off along a branch of the Mekong River. We were in Ben Tre, a small coconut trading town in Vietnam, and we found ourselves sitting on little red plastic stools on a sidewalk in the darkness.
But we had small glasses of fresh-pressed sugarcane juice in hand, and were sharing drinks, stories, and great conversation – with two friendly Vietnamese monks in flowing gray robes. They shared philosophy and wisdom that they’d gained, in between sharing photos with us on their smartphones, and they marveled at how connections – made possible by people and technology – help break down barriers for people.
It was a wonderful reminder of why we were there.
Vietnam is young, vibrant country — 25% of the population is between 10 and 24 years old, and it has the fastest growing middle class in Southeast Asia. If you can manage to cross a street in its capital without being crushed by the living sea of motorbikes (many somehow loaded with a family of six, or carrying a cage of chickens, or a refrigerator), you could make it to the Uber that you just hailed on your smartphone.
But at the same time, among children growing up in Vietnam’s hundreds of orphanages, less than 1% of will go on to college. Most, without families and support, will get little more job training than motorbike repair or sewing classes, leading to jobs that pay far less than a living wage. What if these children had the access and skills to leverage technology in a student-centered learning environment, and could learn subjects like coding, robotics, science, and digital literacy – expanding their learning, creativity, and career possibilities?
So earlier this year, Adobe partnered with Team4Tech and Orphan Impact, a nonprofit that’s been working to change the outlook for these children, helping prepare them for 21st century careers to break the cycle of poverty.
For over six years, Orphan Impact has built and grown an after-school edtech program that brings digital literacy, STEM, inquiry based learning, and creativity to over 600 children across over 20 orphanages across Vietnam. Though their efforts, these students are developing skills that open doors.
As more of the students are building skills and graduating from the orphanages, we were asked to help teach design thinking to help the nonprofit staff and volunteers even more effectively create and refine student-centered experiences around career planning and entrepreneurship. The two of us, Cathi and Tom, are principal product managers at Adobe, veterans from prototyping new experiences in Adobe Design and designing and creating the start of Adobe Spark, respectively. So we were thrilled to have the chance to help design a different kind of experience that matters.
We prepared for months in advance, working with the Team4Tech and Orphan Impact staff and a team of volunteers including folks at Facebook, Pearson Education, and their own business, selected to bring skills that could help. Now, from the beginning, it was clear: eight folks from the US wouldn’t know much resumes, interviews, and applying for jobs in Vietnam. But instead, what if we could arm trainers and teachers with skills to develop their own local solution?
So that’s what we did.
Over the course of three weeks, we worked in three cities across Southern Vietnam.
In Saigon, we ran workshop activities to teach design thinking to the local nonprofit staff and volunteers.
And in the small towns of Vung Tao and Ben Tre that hosted two local orphanages in the program, we worked with local teachers in small teams to apply the process to design, prototype, test, and iteratively refine the keystones for a new career planning curriculum.
Rather than going in assuming answers, working with the local team, we discovered underlying student needs, developed hypotheses, and rapidly prototyped them to learn more. Many days, that meant staying up late into the night working in a hotel room or lobby, iterating on classroom lesson plans and activities. And then getting up at 7am the next morning to drive to the local orphanage and translate and test the concepts and experiences. We’d observe each class to get feedback and insights – seeing what worked and what didn’t – before iterating on the curriculum together with the teachers to better fit student needs.
The days and nights were long, and sometimes it felt like a nonstop multi-week hackathon – albeit interspersed with amazing street food meals.
But it was incredible working so closely — as a single team — with the local Vietnamese staff and master trainers that lead Orphan Impact.
We were there to teach our design and development process to help develop scalable, people-centered solutions. But we ended up learning just as much from the Orphan Impact team, passionate teachers like Bang, Long, My, Anh, and Tien. We’ve been lucky enough to learn from fantastic teachers around the world, and these wonderful teachers were no different in their caring and drive.
They were incredibly aware and responsive to students’ needs, reflowing carefully laid plans to dynamically adapt to the needs of students – need-finding as they were executing. When an idea didn’t connect for students in one way, they might quickly improvise a skit to make it resonate through humor; or resourcefully find a story that made the idea stick through analogy; or use emotions – even vulnerability – to share a personal story that helped the students understand new perspectives more deeply. And they did it in minutes, in real-time.
It was the ultimate rapid prototyping, and the Orphan Impact team exemplified why focusing unceasingly on people's needs – both spoken and unspoken – is so important.
By the end of our service project, we helped Orphan Impact develop a full three part career planning curriculum, supporting a larger goal to empower the students to build careers that help them lead happy, fulfilling lives.
Drawing from what we learned prototyping lessons with the teachers and students, we realized it needed to start by helping students first understand themselves: their values, their skills, and their ability to cultivate a growth mindset — recognizing their own ability to learn new skills they didn’t yet have. The students would know themselves. Then they learned about what the world needs: Every good job is about getting paid to address someone's needs, so the students would learn to leverage resources and learn their options for how they might help other people. And finally, students would learn skills to communicate and persuade others and tell their story – in portfolios, resumes, conversations, interviews, and other media – to get the pathways and eventually jobs they wanted.
Know yourself, know what the world needs, and know how to tell your story.
We’re thrilled that after testing, iterating, and refining this curriculum in classrooms this summer, the Orphan Impact team will be using these lesson strategies and activities to help empower hundreds of students in over 20 orphanages across Vietnam this fall.
Even after returning to the US, it’s been incredible to see updates from our friends in Vietnam, sharing reflections and photos about their students loving learning and internalizing a growth mindset, identifying their values through peak moments, or using stories as tools of powerful reflection and persuasion.