Having been on the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2021, Huy Duc Pham is the co-founder of Classavo – a US-based company providing an affordable all-in-one platform to optimise the teaching and learning experience. In a recent interview with WARO, Huy shared his personal learning experience in Vietnam and the US, his motivation to start a career in Educational Technology from his Film and Media background, and the importance of mental health awareness in Education and the ability to re-design life.
Q: Why did you choose the US to study abroad?
Initially, the idea didn’t come from me. Back at the time, precisely ten years ago, I wasn’t that decisive and most of my important decisions in life weren’t done from my judgment. I didn’t do it by myself. My parents wanted me to go to the US, especially my father. He dreamed of going abroad and studying, but he never could make it into reality. So, I was supposed to be the one who made that dream come true (for him). There was a lot of trouble later with me myself. I was so unprepared that everything seemed a lot harder.
But looking back, I would say I partly made the decision as well. I was a high school student who wasn’t very good in class. I only studied what I wanted to study. When my parents presented me with an opportunity to go to (probably) the most powerful country on Earth, I felt inappropriate because I wasn’t as brilliant as my other friends. I didn’t know if I had the ability or if I was qualified to even do that. So, to me, it was pretty much like a decision between taking a leap of faith and trying to capitalise and hold on to that out-of-no-where opportunity to win it or just letting it go and making nothing out of it.
That was one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I chose to take it. I did not know what I could do with it. I had no idea, and I still had no progress even a few years after making that decision. But I talked to myself: If I hadn’t taken the opportunity, nothing would have come; if I had taken it, I might have made some changes.
Q: Was it like a “bet” that you chose at that time?
Yes, it was a bet for me. In Vietnam, there is a straight-up and well-defined path for students (and even for an average Vietnamese person) regarding what they should study and what role they may play in life after that. So for me, back at that time, I always wanted to know if there were any other alternative paths. I just happened to love Music Production and Filmmaking a lot, so I took a chance to see if the opportunity to study in the US could open any new doors for me or not.
Q: What are the difficulties you encountered in your student life in the US? How did you overcome them?
I had to adapt to many changes at the same time. The first one was about lifestyle. In Vietnam, I lived with my parents, who provided me with food and shelter, but then I had to manage to live alone in the US. Renting an apartment or getting food wasn’t that hard because I got it done in the first few weeks after arriving there. But there’s so much more about living in a completely new place besides food and survival ability.
Many people talked about culture shock before my trip. I listened to their advice, but I didn’t take any. I went to the US with a super high spirit and high hope that my life finally turned into a happy chapter, but then I experienced a culture shock which lasted for three years and a half. So it was a minimal amount of culture shock that dragged me down.
I also realised an ugly truth throughout my upbringing that universities have been created centuries ago to accommodate research and especially the workforce. Going to a university has been a well-defined path in which promising job opportunities and networking advances are undeniable parts of it. So I went to the university, but the idea of getting into the workforce someday was still foreign to me. I wasn’t mentally prepared to even get to the university. I went to the US and hoped to find something different, but the story was the same. Although the coursework was really good, it still felt like a pre-made path.
I’ve never vocalised it before, but I secretly felt disappointed. Later, I learned that I should be the one who has to open a new door for myself instead of waiting for any random doors to be opened for me.
Q: What motivated you to choose your current career path in Educational Technology?
It wasn’t an obvious path because it took me a long time to get there. But looking back, it was almost obvious and very natural.
Despite my limited exposure to the industry, Hollywood films influenced my choice. And I wanted to be successful like the people I admired. I was so into the influential “Inception” (2010) by Christopher Nolan because I learned that he controlled many things in the film-making process, and he especially could pay attention to details. So I started dreaming of making cool movies like that – the ones that are commercially successful and have profound values thanks to the author’s effort.
However, when I attended a career fair, I found that I didn’t fit into any roles in the industry. They couldn’t support me to make quality products that I valued so much. Besides, there was a Professor in my school who admitted that he was still paying his student loan from our school. And I was like: “Oh, sh*t! This isn’t fun!” I felt like most people in the school experienced a sense of insecurity or were just in denial about their future. So, eventually, I realised that I didn’t belong on this path anymore.
I thought I must have taken the wrong path. Maybe I should have listened to my friends and chosen something among Business, Computer Science, or Statistics and then got a regular job. I was in denial for a long time which led me to a sort of depression. I didn’t let anybody know about it, and I gave up. It was not until a friend told me about taking a gap year that I decided to take a break.
I went back to Vietnam for a gap year. I started to accept that no matter how much I love making films (and music), it wasn’t something I needed to do to survive in the world. There could have been so many paths to proceed, but I likely missed all of those opportunities because I thought I couldn’t choose any. So I tried a random path: door-to-door sales, which differs from the indoor nature of film-making and music production. I pushed myself to walk outside, talk to strangers, give them flyers, et cetera. After that time, I learned many helpful skills and realised there are so many paths a person can follow to survive. I taught myself to be more open to failure in the way I constructed and tested how to achieve my dream as well.
Then, I discovered that a part of me has always wanted to contribute to humanity. When I was so much younger, I was exposed to and inspired by biographies of famous scientists worldwide. Throughout my school years, I was not an obedient student. I got bad grades in science-related courses and slowly got convinced that my dream of becoming a scientist was no longer viable. Choosing Film and learning how to make sci-fi films was the closest thing to satisfying my unmet yearnings.
When I returned to the US, I had a new mentality and new experiences, which motivated me to finish the course with flying colours (I had never performed that well from the start). At the same time, I decided to do something with my dream. I wanted to try something harder. So I went to a networking event in Business and Technology and met Rohan – my co-founder. We started building Classavo since then.
I realised that making a good film and running a good startup are way more similar. Both paths require perseverance and creativity at the same time. I experienced the same kind of joy when people listened to my music or watched my films and when people used my product. That’s how I found the right way to fulfil my dream. Now I am creatively satisfied and have a chance to pay attention to details, which is amazing.
Q: In your opinion, do parents’ expectations result in stress? How to cope with stress in Education?
There are many challenges in which students can involve themselves to grow, and each may contain a lot of stress. However, with the right kind of education and upbringing, I don’t think any challenges will be hard. Students can get advice from their parents and still fail to achieve something, but they still attempt to do it without feeling pressured. I’ve seen some cases like that, so I think the amount of stress students may have depends on family culture and the relationship between the students and their parents.
Expectations are something else outside of the challenges but are still considered a cause of stress. The students may internalise their parents’ expectations and feel the pressure to study to pay back the investment to their parents. If they fail to do that, they will be disappointed with themselves. I experienced this kind of pressure before, and although I’ve learned many things from it, I will not recommend it.
I think we need to do more research on how to raise a child carefully and effectively. That’s also one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing today. Besides, the things that rescued me from disappointment were re-education and self-education. As long as there’s education after any failure, failure means something. Companionship is also necessary. I had to surround myself with less judgemental people so that they didn’t put any further disappointment in me.
Q: What has Classavo been doing to improve the teaching and learning process in a competitive and distracting world?
We interact with students and talk to them about not only our product but also their personal lives. This helps Classavo design a product to foster a good classroom learning environment.
When we are designing Classavo, there are many paths that we can take to tackle this issue and others. However, our main focus is to create a product to which students feel they belong so that they can study easily and get information effectively. We also want our product to help both teachers and students communicate in class more efficiently, make sure that the students understand the content, and let the teachers know if any students lag behind. These needs have never been met before since Rohan, and I struggled for years with many different classroom tools that weren’t helpful when we studied in university.
Personally, my advice to current students is to be proactive and try to design their own life. Keep re-designing life when needed. It’s more important than ever to learn how to do that nowadays because it’s the key to knowing exactly why they enjoy what they are doing in the first place.
Follow Huy Duc Pham here: https://huy.today/
Follow Huy on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/huydpham/
Writer, and creative.