Hang Nguyen

Interview with Hang Nguyen

When I first met Hang during our Spring workshop of 2018, I could sense that she was uncomfortable.  She seem uncertain as how to act around the other facilitators. What script should she follow, what role was she to play?  So she did not have much to say initially but once she started to shed away the outer layer, you knew she was quirky (I mean, take a look at her headshot - I absolutely love it).  Now most people would not want to be described as quirky because it sounds like they are weird. But actually, it is a compliment because it is very endearing. Well most of the times.  I don’t know if you’ve met people who do and say shocking things to bring attention to themselves but once you start talking with them, you realize that they are uninteresting or devoid of any personality.  Well, Hang is just the opposite. She tries to seem normal but she really isn’t.  

She has insecurities like all of us but she tries to hide them in all the wrong ways.  You get bits and pieces of it until well, she just gives up. Let’s be honest, it is really exhausting to be someone you’re not.  Let me give you an example. Clearly, Hang was not interested in the hikes we took in the afternoons but she did not offer her opinion.  I had offered the facilitators the option of visiting model homes, one of my own hobbies alongside hiking. But no one wanted to waste their time looking at model homes.  Only when most of the facilitators had left did Hang suggest that we look at the homes. Mind you, she took over 50 pictures of the homes compared to the 1-2 photos she took of the mountains. She liked model homes; she did not care for the mountains.  Yes, she came all the way to Colorado from southern California to check out the homes. Not your typical tourist. But it’s not her interest in the model homes that make her quirky but the way in which she tries to mask her interests. It is not deceitful or manipulative but anxiously repressive until she was about to explode and show her true self.  If only you can spend a day with her, you would know exactly what I meant. I find her wonderfully interesting.  

So it was such a joy to get the opportunity to speak with her for the interview.  I didn’t realize the depth of her passion to serving others. I was so busy trying to figure out her quirks that I did not have the opportunity to explore why she was in nonprofit.  I know … I should be more invested in understanding the facilitators’ passion for social justice. But she has such an intriguing personality. How could I not be; she can be quirkier than me!  Well, that is a lie. I am idiosyncratic, unabashedly and unapologetically. 

What did I learn?  She really believes in serving her community.  But she is not caught up in the ideals or fantasy of serving others, but is actually invested in figuring out practical, effective programs that can transform the AAPI communities first and foremost in southern California and then nationally.  I’ve known way too many people who like the idea of helping others but really do nothing about it. This passion has motivated her to become the Executive Director. Of course, I asked her why cause it is a major headache to be responsible for an organization.  Her answer pleasantly surprised me. She wanted the position to be in the middle of it all; she wanted to be seen and heard, not for herself but for her programs. And I have to take some credit here. She said she was greatly impacted by her role as a facilitator at Platform.  I thought she was going to say that I was the reason for her change but it was the chemistry, the conversations, and energy from everyone, the participants, facilitators, volunteers, board member, and also me. She realized that she can and should be more present, even more aggressive, in her organization.  She became more confident. That acknowledgment made all the hours and energy I put into Platform worthwhile. 

Yet Platform did not make her; it just tapped into her potential.  She was meant to lead her organization but she needed to believe that she could.  You see, people do not embrace an opportunity unless they are wanting, somewhat ready to listen to that inner voice.  Hang had the ideas, the skills, and more importantly, the passion to make a difference. She just needed a little push, a little inspiration.  It is a cliche perhaps but the best kind. To see a person unfold as she steps out of her comfort zone, to embrace the inevitable should motivate all of us to do the same - HINT, y’all.  Yes, it’s scary but what the hell! How long do we live and how long will it take us to be present in our true calling. She transgressed her own boundaries of what she thought was possible.  I respect that step; I respect Hang for taking it.

Hope you enjoy the interview.  You just get a taste of her edited response but I get the live, uncut time with Hang.  You’re probably jealous and well, you should be. It is one of the very few joys of being an unpaid director of Platform - to see the person, raw and beautiful in the making.  I cherish such moments.

Sam: Who or what inspired you to enter into nonprofit work? 

Hang: My former supervisor/mentor from the Garden Grove Police Department Community Liaison Division, Cindy Nagamatsu. She taught me about volunteering, outreach, and how to serve alongside the community.

Sam: What is the best part of being an executive director?  

Hang: It is the perfect fit for my personality, experience, skills and education. I like the variety and have/continue to gain a vast array of knowledge while working here.  It is my way of trying to save a teeny-weeny part of the world and the work is exhilarating. I feel lucky beyond measure. It could be a big victory (passing a smoke free ordinance) or something smaller (a thank you note from a client).

Sam: What is the worst part? 

Hang: Being responsible for everything and anything - literally every decision feels like it matters so much.  It is difficult to make the right decision (or to make any decision, for that matter) when it means that dozens of people will be impacted. In the nonprofit sector, it feels like there is absolutely no margin for error. There is a lot of validity in the concept of “fake it ‘til you make it!”

Sam: What is the one skill that makes you an effective ED? 

Hang: Delegating! Leaders who try to take on too many tasks by themselves will struggle to get anything done. These leaders often fear that delegating tasks is a sign of weakness, when in fact it is a sign of a strong leader. Therefore, you need to identify the skills of each of your employees, and assign duties to each employee based on his or her skill set. By delegating tasks to staff members, you can focus on other important tasks. I was responsible for creating and setting budgets, being the janitor, organizing fundraisers, negotiating contracts, navigating complex staff personalities, understanding every charity regulation or law, completing payroll, paying bills, creating policies, navigating renovations…and the list goes on. Coming so close to burning out and giving up entirely helped me understand my own limits while also strengthening my resolve to succeed.

Sam: For people who don’t know you, what is the one thing you want them to know about you? 

Hang: The one thing I want people to know about me is that I suffer from anxiety. Fortunately, I’ve gotten my anxiety almost completely under control, but there are still days when I feel pretty anxious- sometimes for no good reason.

Sam: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

Hang: I still want to the Executive Director with BPSOS or maybe even COO/ CEO of the whole organization nationally.  Also, I would like to be on a few other nonprofit boards who shares my passion. It is my goal to have at least 30 to 40 programs/projects running by then.

Hang Nguyen is the Executive Director for BPSOS Center for Community Advancement, Inc. (BPSOS-CCA) in Westminster, California. BPSOS is the largest national Vietnamese nonprofit community-based organization in the U.S. with a 39-years track record of serving the Vietnamese community. BPSOS-CCA mission is “to empower, organize and equip Vietnamese individuals and communities in their pursuit of liberty and dignity.”  Ms. Nguyen earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Cal State Long Beach and graduated Cum Laude for her Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice. Ms. Nguyen is trilingual as she is fluent in English, Vietnamese and Spanish. She joined BPSOS-CCA as a branch manager in 2015. Since then, she had expanded its operation and infrastructure.

BPSOS-CCA now serves about 3,000 clients per year in the forms of immigration services, adult education, public health, policy advocacy, non-emergency transportation, social services, and healthcare navigation. She has built an expansive network of community partners for BPSOS-CCA which consist of over 50 local and national organizations in Orange County. As of date, she has been instrumental to BPSOS-CCA and has brought in about $4 million in funding to the Vietnamese community of Orange County. Ms. Nguyen is passionate about criminal justice, social reform, and promotion of youth programs.

Samantha Joo