In this series, we’re highlighting Idealist staff members who’ve made their ideas happen. Today’s spotlight is on Sandy Cheiten, a consultant who’s helping us develop a new project in New York. Sandy has lots of amazing stories; here’s one about how she helped turn a broad intention into a specific success.
In 1992, I was working in multimedia education at ABC News in New York. One day, I got a call from a friend who said he knew someone interested in starting an educational project and asked if I’d talk to her.
When I first met the woman with the idea, the journalist Barbara Stewart, she came to my formal, corporate office wearing a sweatshirt, sneakers, and jeans. She said she wanted to start an educational project of some sort in Vietnam, but she didn’t know what.
“Just come to Hanoi with me and we’ll meet with some people and figure something out!” she said.
Sandy, top left, and Barbara in Vietnam with some colleagues in the mid-1990s.
I was quite intrigued, as I had concentrated on southeast Asian studies in college and graduate school and had been a peace activist during the Vietnam War. Though it seemed a little crazy—I knew nothing about Barbara and we had no plan—I couldn’t turn down a free ticket to Hanoi. I had been to Vietnam during the war, but had never made it to Hanoi, and was so curious to see how the country had changed in the almost 20 years since the war ended.
As soon as we landed, we went straight to the Ministry of Education and introduced ourselves, then posed this question: if we could raise money for anything they needed, what would it be? They said they wanted English language textbooks for their schools. They knew that Vietnam was on the cusp of change in many ways, and among other goals, they wanted their children to learn English well so that they’d be ready to engage with other world economies whenever the U.S. trade embargo ended.
When we came back to the U.S., we established BAVE, the Business Alliance for Vietnamese Education, applied for 501(c)(3) status, and hired a fundraiser. Through a number of trips over the next two years, we worked out a plan with the Ministry of Ed to produce the books; everything was decided in complete collaboration. I have no idea why they trusted us; maybe they actually didn’t. We were just so unusual, these two American women landing there unannounced, wanting to help.
For our fundraising strategy, we decided we’d form an exclusive club wherein our members—all corporations—had to donate at least one million dollars each. That might sound far-fetched, but it worked. Our fundraiser pitched to a bunch of companies that having their names on all these textbooks would introduce them to Vietnamese consumers, so that when the embargo was lifted (which turned out to be in 1994), they’d already be familiar and trusted brands. It really was a win-win.
The first order of business after we got our initial million-dollar gift was training a group of Vietnamese educators; we brought them to the U.S. for curriculum development and teacher training. When that was over, we raised more money and sent them back to Hanoi to draft and design the textbooks, and we rented a house for them all to live in while they did it.
The value of patience
It took a number of years to write and illustrate the books, which wound up being the country’s first color textbooks. We traveled with the Ministry of Ed to many regions in the country to pilot and evaluate the books in each setting. We eventually sent them to Hong Kong to be edited.
Finally, in the late ’90s, our first books were widely produced and distributed. We had a big launch event at the Hanoi Opera House. We were all over all the news. Everyone thought it was terrific because it showed the coming of a new age: the war was over, and our two countries could now work on a mutually beneficial project together.
Soon we realized that adults were using the books, too. And, with some additional funding, we worked with Vietnam Television (VTV) to produce an animated series that mirrored them.
My involvement started to taper off in the early 2000s, when the TV series was beginning. I had started a different job, and we had handed the reigns of the project off to VTV; it seemed like the right time to step away. But I had and still have a great sense of accomplishment about it, and am happy to say the books and shows continue to be produced today.
Watch this adorable BAVE video.
There were constant challenges, of course.
I love Barbara and we’re still friends to this day, but we’re very different and there were many times when we both had strong opinions—about how to work with the Ministry, for example, or what language to use in a certain place in the textbook—and we really argued.
Solution: No matter how much we quarreled over certain points, we always came to a final agreement and got back to business because, at heart, we had the same goal and intention—to see this project through and be of some help. That commitment never wavered, and it carried the day.
2. Logistics of working overseas
It would be very hot and we’d have no air conditioning, or there would be a monsoon rain or no heat in the winter, so you’d get soaked or freeze. And the language barrier, the time difference, and, back then, the absence of email… We faxed a lot of things, but that was difficult because of the money and technology restraints there. Also, sometimes people just wouldn’t show up for meetings, and it would be so frustrating because we were always working on a tight schedule when we were there.
Solution: We crossed each bridge as we came to it: hiring translators, scheduling calls at odd hours, buying people things like fax machines. Those expenditures became part of our budget. Just take obstacles one at a time, be patient and persistent, and allow that some idiosyncratic expenses might work their way into your plan.
3. Shifting cultural context
Sometimes it was just disorienting adjusting to a place where old and new were intersecting so dynamically. The country was changing before our eyes.
Solution: We just tried to appreciate it all. We got to see and make a very small contribution to these enormous changes that were bringing a country we were not long ago at war with to being an active trading partner on the world stage. It was exhilarating to witness the progress. They had a vision for their country, and you could see it taking shape everywhere.
Are you as blown away by Sandy’s story as we are? She welcomes your questions and comments below, or feel free to send her a message through Idealist.