The Building Blocks to a Successful Early Career: My Tam Nguyen
According to My Tam Nguyen (B.A., 2006), recipient of this year’s Early Career Award, “you know you’re in a good career when what you’re meant to do aligns with what you say you do. I give 150% every day because I am working in an industry that I love.”
Nguyen is the Vice President of Business Development at Blokable Inc., a modular housing technology company made in Washington state. The company’s primary focus is on making housing affordable and accessible for everyone.
“I have lived in Seattle for 26 years, but this is the first time I have worked in the private sector,” Nguyen explains. “Recently, I have had to learn to be more assertive and direct when communicating. It’s very similar to what you experience on the East Coast. It’s also become even more important for me to know my audience in order to get everyone on my projects on the same page. There are different ways of speaking when dealing with clients, vendors, or city officials.”
At the company since the beginning of 2017, Nguyen has found many opportunities to combine her communications training with her personal passion for architecture. “Working for a startup is a very similar experience to being on a political campaign. The fast pace, the transformational mission to serve, and the potential scale of the impact of your work,” she says. “My greatest challenge has been trying to pause some of the time; to take that step back and be thoughtful while remaining responsive.” Nguyen adds that working for a socially-minded company like Blokable is exhilarating. “It’s probably one of the hardest things you can tackle, this 200-year-old system that needs fixing. When I was an undergraduate student, I was able to travel to Rome through the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity. That experience was particularly meaningful to me because I find that cities and built environments are a testament to humanity’s ability to construct lasting monuments and create those shared spaces that are critical for community development.”
Prior to Blokable, Nguyen was the deputy campaign manager for the 7th Congressional District race in 2016, the first social media manager for Governor Jay Inslee, and the public engagement lead for the City of Seattle planning team for many years.
“In many ways, the relationship between politics and communications has become more divisive, even as technology has created opportunities for a more diverse collection of people to have ‘a seat at the table,’” Nguyen states. “Effective communication is 90% listening, which you can lose when using technology. It’s very easy to create the narrative of ‘the other’ and label them enemies. However, I’ve always felt that my story is a part of everyone else’s story while I am in this world, so I’ve tried my best to see the humanity in everyone,” she adds.
“One of the reasons why I went to graduate school in another state is that there is a tendency in Seattle to recycle our ideology; there is an attempt to ‘be nice’ rather than pushing ourselves to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. However, that’s what people should be willing to do when addressing issues that stretch across the state from Seattle to Spokane. I think it’s important for communicators to bridge groups that initially won’t even consider talking to each other because of divergent political views. It’s easy to retaliate, to dismiss something you don’t like as ‘insane,’ but it takes courage to confront the underlying issues and engage in difficult discussions. Bridging the urban-rural political divide is something that I care a lot about right now.”
Nguyen has a B.A. from the University of Washington with a major in journalism and a minor in international studies, and a Master in Urban Planning from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She is also a graduate of Leadership Tomorrow, the Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation’s Community Leadership Program, and the Institute for a Democratic Future.
“My time at the University of Washington gave me a storytelling skillset that I’ve used throughout my career, even as the industry itself has undergone seismic change. Students should never put boundaries around what they’re capable of. I advise them to have an ‘infinite life’ rather than a five-year plan,” Nguyen insists. “I do not know what is next in my own life because there are infinite opportunities. However, I have remained agile and adaptive to change and am very grateful to those professors, mentors, and employers who have seen my potential and opened up paths for me.”
Nguyen is also currently a fellow with the Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project’s Young American Leaders Program, working on the region’s workforce development with a cohort of 10 cross-sector colleagues. She is also currently a political partner for the Truman National Security Project; the leading think tank supporting progressive national security solutions that unite veteran, political, and policy leaders in developing principled solutions to global challenges.
“As a woman of color, it is something that I have always tried to do: notice the people who are not in the room and work to get them there so that they can participate,” Nguyen says. “My goal is to be with others where we can actually solve problems, not just throw money at them or bury them in political rhetoric. We have to use our incredible rate of innovation to bridge the huge inequalities that exist in this country.”
Nguyen lives, cooks and gardens in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and spends her free time speaking publicly and providing food tours of Little Saigon/International District to nurture the importance of equitable food systems and the power of food to build civic engagement and community.
“Food is my love language,” Nguyen states. “Breaking bread is a really powerful way to bring people together. One of my earliest memories is of my Vietnamese Auntie’s cooking, and I think everyone, including major CEOs, have a similar story. Sharing a meal together gives everyone a chance to connect and be vulnerable; to share their history, their lessons, and especially their beliefs. After all, it’s around the dinner table where most people first pick up on their family’s political stances. Plus,” she adds with a wide grin, “You can’t punch each other when you’re eating really amazing food.”