In summary

  • Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation alum Huong Dang is the founder of the first social enterprise in Vietnam that helps women who are experiencing domestic violence
  • Huong overcame a childhood of extreme poverty to achieve her lifelong dream of studying at university
  • Her many achievements include founding two social enterprises in Vietnam and being awarded a four-month leadership residency at Yale University

Growing up in extreme poverty in rural Vietnam, Huong Dang had a single dream: to go to university.

“Mum was a single mum and the breadwinner of the family. She always tried to make sure there was enough food, but it was really hard to keep three kids in school,” says Huong. 

At just 13-years-old, Huong decided to leave and move to the capital city of Hanoi to give her siblings a better chance at staying in school – and avoid the cultural norm for older teenage girls to stay in the countryside and start a family.

“I decided that wouldn’t be my life,” she says. 

She started work as a babysitter, earning just $10 a month – most of which was sent back to her family. 

She eventually started night school but had to maintain a gruelling work schedule to make it possible.  

She lived on the streets, sold sticky rice in the early morning, did cleaning during the day and went to school at night. 

“Every day I managed about two hours’ sleep. But I knew that I had to keep studying if I was going to go to university.”   

A life-changing interaction 

Things started to change for Huong when a concerned classmate told her about KOTO – a social enterprise for disadvantaged youth that offers a holistic training program in hospitality, life skills and English language.  

Huong completed the two years of training and got a job in the intercontinental hotel group.

“But my dream to go to university had never gone away,” she says.  

After encouragement from the KOTO founder, she applied for and received a scholarship to study in Australia.

Discovering a passion  

While completing undergraduate studies in Australia Huong attended a social entrepreneurship conference which helped her realise what she wanted to do. 

“One of my teachers at the time told me that if I wanted to study entrepreneurship, I should go to Swinburne,” says Huong. 

She enrolled in the Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which she paid for with the cash prize she received for being Victoria’s International Student of the Year in 2013. 

Huong says her time at Swinburne has set her up for everything she has done since.  

“It gave me the exposure to learn how to set up a company, how to evaluate an idea, and the practical skills in finance and marketing needed to run a business.” 

Hope and healing for women  

It was during her time at Swinburne that Huong had the idea for what would become the first social enterprise in Vietnam to help women experiencing violence.

Born out of Huong’s own experiences helping her sister, a victim of domestic violence, she wanted to create something that would help give women financial stability, confidence and a means to escape their situation.   

Together with her sister, Huong started HopeBox which provides a six-month training course in baking, alongside trauma healing and life skills programs, a stipend and safe accommodation. 

“After a month of starting it we failed,” says Huong.  

“The initial idea was to sell lunch boxes to office workers. I did not want to create another problem of plastic waste from delivery, so we packed the lunch box in a glass box and it was more expensive, inconvenient, hard to deliver and the volume was not viable.”

One year later, they changed the model to baking cookies and other snacks that could be kept for a long time. 

“Then our customers really told us what to do. They just kept ordering.”

Today, HopeBox sells a range of products to organisations, all of which are created by the 30 women in the program.  

Together with her sister, Huong started HopeBox which provides a six-month training course in baking, alongside trauma healing and life skills programs, a stipend and safe accommodation. 

It takes courage and purpose 

Huong says the process of setting up a social enterprise takes “courage, guts, tears and sweat.” 

“In those first few months of HopeBox I would say ‘let’s shut it down’,” she says. 

“But we had courage to find solutions, change the business model and find a way to make it work.”

With no funding at the beginning, Huong worked full-time to pay for the rent and found various grants that allowed them to do things like hiring designers to create professional branding. 

She says social impact is like any other business. “You need people who have different skills…and build a network around you who you can rely on.” 

Finding your purpose is also important, says Huong. 

“For me, I was always focused on education, employment, women and youth.” 

Proudest achievements 

Alongside HopeBox, Huong also recently co-founded WExchange, an educational social enterprise that provides experiential study programs in Vietnam for overseas students, with plans to use profits to build a library for underprivileged communities in Vietnam. 

In 2022, she was chosen as one of 16 global leaders to participate in the prestigious Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program at Yale University – a four-month residential leadership program to help expand leaders’ vision and grow personally and professionally. 

In September 2023, Huong was selected as one of 12 emerging leaders worldwide to join the Obama Foundation Scholars Program, a prestigious program that gives Huong the opportunity to pursue an academic year of study at Columbia University in New York City.

Despite her many achievements, Huong is most proud of how she has been able to give back to KOTO, the organisation that helped turn her life around, and also support her family.

“I am proud that I was able to help my mum and my sister and become a role model for my nieces, to help them break the cycle and see they’re more than life in the countryside.”

Huong Dang was the keynote speaker at Swinburne’s Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship Learning from Entrepreneurs event in May which can be watched online.  

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