April 16, 2019

Lead(H)er: Tu Nguyen, VP, Head of Finance and Analytics at 1stdibs

When Tu Nguyen was 14 years old, she made a decision that would change her life forever: She applied for a scholarship to leave her home in Vietnam and study in Singapore, away from her parents and family. They were shocked but supportive, and two years in Singapore led to high school and university in England, which led to a career in the U.S.

“I learned from experience that I get the most out of taking the biggest risk and exploring the unknown,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen ended up in her current role a Vice President, Head of Finance at 1stdibs thanks to yet another calculated risk. In the summer between her first and second years of business school, Nguyen decided that she wanted to do something completely different—something she may never do again. A tech company sounded like just the thing.

“I knew how to pitch, and I knew how to put together a story,” Nguyen said. To learn those skills, she had spent several years at Deloitte Consulting in London, where she advised a wide range of businesses and took the time to consider her next move. What she didn’t know was the tech industry, and she decided to learn that, too.

Nguyen took a summer internship at 1stdibs, fully expecting to go back to London after she graduated from the Wharton School of Business, but has remained at the company and in New York ever since.

Nguyen now looks after everything related to the company’s finances, from investor relations to financial planning and fundraising. She’s been with the company since its Series B funding round, which she helped organize as an intern, and recently led its Series D round, marking a special milestone in her career.

The tech ecosystem in the U.S. is more developed than in Europe, according to Nguyen, and she’s enjoyed watching it evolve even more during her tenure. 1stdibs itself has grown from one of the few companies in New York to enjoy a large amount of venture funding to one of the many disrupting industries and getting financial attention.

“One of the reasons I wanted to join a smaller company was the ability to build and scale the business quickly,” Nguyen said. “Large companies spend a lot of time improving on what’s been done, whereas in smaller companies, these things have never even been done.”

In her day-to-day work, Nguyen spends a lot of time thinking about how her decisions will impact the future of 1stdibs. While some people might find that kind of responsibility daunting, Nguyen welcomes the chance to help build the company’s future through the choices she makes today. She enjoys being in a leadership position, she said, and will continue to seek out ways that she can use her skills to create change.

“I’ve always tried to learn as much as possible so that when opportunities arise, I’m prepared for them,” she said. “When an exciting opportunity arises, it doesn’t matter where it is, I need to have the core skills to take advantage of it.”

Tu Nguyen with coworkers

Quick Q(uestions)&A(dvice)

What do you like to do in your free time?

Living in New York can give you such a busy schedule, so every now and then if I have some downtime, I do like to have a lazy day. Sometimes it’s fun to do a lot of things with friends, but other times I just want to watch TV (mostly ESPN) and get myself ready for the work week! I don’t really have a border line between working life and fun—it’s all just part of life. We have a very good culture here where we do a lot of social things as a team, so I do spend a lot of time with my coworkers as well. It’s good to like the people you work with.

How do you typically manage stress?

A lot of my work is about managing competing priorities. What I’ve found is that work will always catch up with you, so I’ve trained myself to think about how everything has a solution. Whenever I feel stressed about something, I take a step back and remind myself that I will be able to handle it. That mind shift helps me calm down a lot. It also helps to have an action plan to make sure that I can follow through instead of stressing myself out. I tell my team that it’s mind over matter. There will always be a solution, you just have to put things in perspective.

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?

I learned drinking tea because of my days in England, so I don’t drink much coffee. I do have two cups of tea a day—one when I get to work and usually one in the afternoon.

What’s one of your favorite places in the NYC area?

That’s a difficult question! I feel like that changes every day, but for now, my favorite place is Washington Square Park. I used to pass by it twice a day, once in the early morning and then again on my way home from work. Even though it’s right in the center of the city, you have a lot of space for yourself in there. You never feel crowded, even though there’s always something going on, which is a difficult thing to do in New York. There are pets and people and performers, so there’s a lot of action.

What do you consider your proudest accomplishment so far?

It really has to be when I got myself to Singapore. I think that decision taught me that if you’re willing to take a risk, it will pay off in the end. It meant that not being afraid of the unknown and capitalizing on an opportunity even if you don’t have all the details could work. I was 14 at the time, so I didn’t necessarily know all of that—I just knew that I wanted to go to another country to study. I look back now and think about how scary a decision that probably was, but really glad I made it, because it really has informed how I’ve thought about and approached every opportunity since then.

How does this compare to where you saw yourself 10 years ago?

Ten years ago I was at a consulting firm in my first full-time job, and I probably just thought that I wanted to make partner at a consulting firm. I knew that I wanted to get into a leadership role, but I never would have guessed in a million years that I would be working at a tech company like this. I’m so glad I’m doing it now, though, and at the core of it I think I’ve been successful. It’s similar to what I wanted to do. I wanted to be creating impact, building teams and mentoring people, and that’s what I’m doing today.

What’s your advice for recent college graduates?

What was most rewarding for me was to make sure I could learn as much as possible. The one thing that you cannot control is what opportunities you’re going to get, but what you can do is position yourself for the job you want. When the opportunities are in front of you, you’ll be equipped to take it. I was always anxious about whether I was growing fast enough, doing enough, progressing fast enough. That doesn’t matter as much. Just find a company and a job that allows you to maximize your learning, because that will have the maximum payoff down the road.

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.