Thuy Truong didn't know what it was yet, but something was wrong. Her back was suddenly hurting so much that she had to leave the set mid-production—she was taking a stab at making a film in Vietnam at the time, having been inspired by the documentary she'd been featured in. So she and a friend headed to the emergency room, half laughing about the fact that the pain was probably a cause of fatigue. Truong, an American-Vietnamese serial entrepreneur, chronically overworked her body. Then she got the cancer diagnosis.
This was in September, 2016. The pain was actually due to advanced lung cancer, so Truong immediately packed up to head back to her family—and health coverage—in the US. "They said, 'You're already in the last stage of lung cancer,'" she told me recently. "It was shocking at first, but luckily they found an effective drug. It was treatable."
It was the first real pause in Truong's career so far. Now 32, she's been involved with startups since 2008. Dubbed "Vietnam's start-up Queen" by the BBC, she has taken breaks (traveling and road trips, mainly), but this was nothing like that. This was cancer—full stop. It was hospitals and drugs and diagnoses—and yet all Truong could think about was how lucky she was to have any of it.
"Hundreds of thousands of cancer patients in Vietnam don't have an option at all," she said. So in December 2016, she launched the Salt Cancer Initiative, a US nonprofit that provides information and support to cancer patients and their caregivers in Vietnam. It relies upon hundreds of volunteers, and its many purposes include translating US booklets into Vietnamese and hosting activities like yoga or drawing for patients.
In October 2017, the initiative will also host a massive oncology conference that brings 20 US physicians and oncologists to Vietnam for three days, to meet with hundreds of Vietnamese doctors and patients. The whole point is to give patients the motivation to fight, Truong said. For example, if young patients have to miss out on having a normal childhood, the initiative will try to provide substitute programs. "If they cannot go to school, we want to bring school to them."
"Hundreds of thousands of cancer patients in Vietnam don't have an option at all."
When Truong herself graduated college—from the University of Southern California in 2009—she headed straight back to Vietnam, her home country, which her family left in 2003. She wanted to giver her parents a reason for returning, so she said she'd start a company there. In June, she and a friend created a frozen yogurt business (froyo was starting to boom in the US at the time). "We didn't know anything about investment and business back then, but we still raised $400,000."
Luckily, the store was a hit. Soon, they were opening up other locations and finding partners. They were scaling up really quickly, but didn't know how to handle it, financially—some of the stores started losing money, and the partners closed up shop in 2012. Meanwhile, one of Truong's friends had approached her to build an app with him. She went all-in with the app-development company, GreenGar, and brought it to Silicon Valley to pitch to investors in 2013. While some of its apps had millions of downloads, the company decided to shut down that year due to a lack of motivation.
"I took the team in a spinoff and created Tappy," Truong said. "Tappy is an app that turns any physical location into a virtual community. If you're at the University of Southern California (USC), you open your app and see who's at USC right now."
The company started in 2014, and was acquired for seven figures by 2015. In that same year, Truong moved back to Silicon Valley to work for the parent company, Weeby, and was named in Forbes Vietnam's '30 Under 30' List. After a year at Weeby, Truong left to embark on a cross-US roadtrip, she said. "I went back to Vietnam after my roadtrip and started working on a film."
Aside from the subsequent cancer diagnosis, one of the biggest problems Truong has experienced as an entrepreneur was the barrier women face in the tech industry. At the beginning, "I had doubts about myself. I'm a female … and a minority. I'm a first-time founder. I'm a triple minority," she explained.
But in the last four years, her perception has changed a lot, she added. "If I have a good business, people should invest in it. Good businesses are hard to find. When was the last time you saw another Google? When was the last time you saw another Facebook? People should pay attention to what you do because what you're doing is great."
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