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Episode 166: Relaunching in Market Research, with Hang Tran

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Episode Description

Hang Tran returned to work as a market research and consumer insights professional in 2016 after staying at home full time to care for her children for seven years. She told us “My story has many twists and turns. When I started telling my friends that I wanted to go back to work, they often assumed that because I have an Oxford MBA and good experience, things should be easy for me. I had a very challenging time when I tried to find jobs in Miami, Florida. Spanish is widely spoken, and as someone whose Spanish was basic, I didn't even pass the first screening for many marketing jobs. So I started by volunteering 30 hours per week for six months at a local start-up and at a hospital, helping them with marketing and research. It helped give me more recent work-related stories to tell hiring managers, and boosted my confidence.” Hang tells us how learning Google Analytics and joining Toastmasters were important steps in her relaunch, and how she went from “feeling like a dinosaur” and not knowing what she wanted to do, to where she is today. She also moved across the country in the process!

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, a podcast where we discuss strategies and advice and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today we welcome Hang Tran. In 2017, Hang returned to work as a market research and consumer insights professional in Miami, Florida, after staying at home full-time to care for her children for seven years in 2016, she was jobless.

It took her over a year to find the job that she loved. And ultimately she was even nominated for the Employee of the Year and featured on the company website for her impact on customer experience and internal collaboration. Hang told us, "People often think that because I had an Oxford MBA and graduated as the top student from University of Arizona, things must have been very easy for me when I tried to go back to work. In reality, it was very challenging, especially when I was looking for a job in Miami where Spanish fluency is almost always a prerequisite for any marketing job. English is not my native language and I didn't speak Spanish well enough for work. So I started by volunteering thirty hours a week for six months at a local startup and a hospital, helping them with marketing and research."

"It helped give me more recent work-related stories to tell hiring managers, and it boosted my confidence as well. I'm grateful to my recruiters and the hiring managers who were willing to take a chance on me." We talked to Hang about how she went from, "feeling like a dinosaur," and not knowing what she wanted to do to where she is today.

Hang, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Hang Tran: Thanks Carol. For having me here today, I have been a fan of you and iRelaunch. Thank you so much for all your hard work and dedication to help many people go back to work.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you so much for having this conversation with us. And I want to start where we usually start when we're talking to relaunchers and that is to first talk about your early work experience.

Hang Tran: Yes, so I had my marketing degree from University of Arizona. After I graduated from college, I went back to Vietnam, my home country, and worked for Citibank as a management trainee, and then we moved to Singapore. I was moving to Singapore with my husband and I worked at Millward Brown, a market research agency as a market researcher. We then moved to Luxembourg and I was thinking maybe I could do my MBA, we didn't have children then, and I was still young. I went to the UK and did my MBA at University of Oxford in 2009. When I was in Japan doing a consulting project with my MBA classmates, I found out that I was pregnant with our first child.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. Okay, and then you were home for seven years. So I wanted to ask you about that, where you primarily focused on your family and caregiving during that time, or were you doing anything to stay current in your field?

Hang Tran: As I was a new mom, initially I thought I could just have my baby and stay home with him for a few months or maximum a year or so, and then go back to work.

But in reality, it didn't happen. We were living in Luxembourg at the time and far away from our family. My husband was traveling all the time. So I was the one who was taking care of him. One year turned into two years, then we had another baby. And just like that, six years went by like a freeze, how do I say that?

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, I know it's like a flash.

Hang Tran: Like in a flash. I knew that I would go back to work someday. But to be honest with you, Carol, I didn't know when, I didn't know how. I just knew that I would go back eventually. During my six years at home, seven years at home, my kids were still small, it was so hard to focus on anything else. I remember that it was even difficult to go to the bathroom. And I think that many moms can relate to this situation.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes, for sure.

Hang Tran: So I made a conscious decision that I would focus on my kids for the first few years. However, since I was a child, I had been always involved in volunteer and community service.

So I said to myself, "Maybe I can volunteer because volunteering doesn't require the same focus that you do when you study." And during this time, I was asked to be part of the leadership team at VietMBA. VietMBA is an online forum that helped Vietnamese professionals who wanted to go to the top MBA programs in the US and Europe, and all of us were volunteers. So I was doing a lot of mentoring for those young professionals. And thanks to VietMBA, a lot of Vietnamese students and Vietnamese professionals have an online channel to share experience and support each other. And many of them actually received MBA scholarships to go to school like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.

Also, during those seven years, I also volunteered to be the room parent. I was a room parent for three years, and I think Carol, I think you did this too. So you know how much work that was behind the scenes. I was organizing fundraising events and activities for the class. I was also very active in the local moms' group. We would organize events from moms and kids. Actually, I didn't plan to do those activities, it just happened that someone asked me, or I felt that it may be good for me to connect with other parents and find more friends for my kids. And that's how it happens.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. I certainly did that myself. You're absolutely right, and also your experience of thinking that you're only going to be on a career break for a year or two, and all of a sudden you wake up one day and six years have gone by, I completely relate to that. And that's what happens with a lot of career breaks. They're longer than people think they're going to be.

Hang Tran: Yes.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Great background, thank you for giving us a complete picture of those early years. So tell us about the market and consumer insight field. I'm guessing that this is a field that changes quickly and you were out for seven years. And how did you think about catching up and updating your skills?

Hang Tran: This is a great question. And at the time when I decided that I was ready to go back in 2016, I had no clue what I would do. I knew that I would go back to marketing, but I was doing public relations and I was also working in market research and I loved both these fields. So I wasn't sure what I would do, to be honest with you.

And I remember that in 2016, I was taking a class from Professor Aric Rindfleisch, this is a class in Marketing in a Digital World at University of Illinois in Urbana, Champaign. And it was so eye opening because this course was free from Coursera. And I really realized how much all the marketing mixed, the four P's: product, price, promotion, and place had changed completely. For example, we learned about the case of Threadless, where consumers could be part of making the product experience. Every week, anyone could submit their designs online, and then they will have a public vote to choose ten designs. Those ten designs would be printed on clothing and other products and sold worldwide.

So, it was a very phenomenal course and I realized that I needed to learn new digital tools such as Google Analytics. And that's how I became certified in Google Analytics first. It didn't help me get my first job, but it helped me get the first volunteer job at Miami Children's Hospital.

Carol Fishman Cohen: All right. So tell us a little bit more about that, how did that happen? And were you trying to look for paid work at first, and then you gave up and volunteered? Or were you using volunteering intentionally as an interim strategy?

Hang Tran: Yes. So at first I applied to many positions. I was thinking maybe over a hundred positions that I applied for and I got a few interviews. But when I went to the interviews, the hiring manager asked me, "Tell us about your experience, your work experience." And my experience was so long ago. It was seven years ago and I could feel that I didn't make it, I didn't make it. So it was very difficult for me and I didn't find anything. That's why I decided that I wanted some work experience so that I could tell the hiring manager, and I found this volunteer opportunity at Miami Children's Hospital and it asked for a 6 month commitment. I was volunteering for them two days a week, and it was a great environment, people were very supportive. I really had fun with them, but I felt that marketing, I was volunteering for the marketing department, and I felt that marketing for healthcare is a bit different from what I imagined or what I want to do. So, I decided that I want to do other volunteer work, and that's when I started volunteering for a startup in Miami.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And Hang, when you were taking that University of Illinois Urbana course, was that an online course? How were you accessing it?

Hang Tran: Yes, it was an online class and it was free. I believe that it is still free if you decide to audit, or you can pay a certain amount of money, but it's very minimal to get the certificate. So yes, it is still available. And another program that I highly recommend is the Digital Marketing Program from Udacity. Udacity was founded by someone who used to work for Google.

And what I love about this course is that it is really practical. It gives you a lot of hands-on practice. And by the end of it, you can have a portfolio to show the employers. And that's what I did. I took a few certificates, they call it “nano degree” but essentially it is a certificate program. It takes about two to three months and you get to do a lot of work, real work, which you can showcase to your employers.

And I took digital marketing from them. I also took business analytics and UX design and research from Udacity. And I have to say that those experiences really helped me get the job and the job after that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And so, do you think you spent about a year taking these courses or, over what period of time are you taking them?

Hang Tran: I actually didn't find out about Udacity until 2017. And so I started by taking Marketing in the Digital World from University of Illinois via Coursera. And then I did an internship, like free work for about six months, and then I took the Udacity class, and then I found my first job.

So after I found my first job, I was continuing to take online classes, one after another. It's really exciting because I had been a good student, but I didn't feel that passion for learning until that time. I just got so excited to learn new things because it was very practical.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes. And tell us a little bit more. I just want to wind back a little bit. So you're taking these courses and then what year, and how long did it take you to get a job? How long did you try to look for work?

Hang Tran: So I took the class, the online class, the Marketing in a Digital World first. Then, at that time, I didn't know about Udacity, so I applied and I got a lot of rejection emails. I felt pretty down. And I think that this is pretty common, after you stay at home for a while you become, your confidence really suffers, and it is normal. It is really normal. I really forgot that I had overcome a lot of obstacles in my earlier life.

I forgot that even though I came to the US without knowing a lot of English, I graduated from the marketing program from the business school as a top student. I also forgot that from someone who, when I first applied to college, I didn't get into an Ivy league school, I got into an unknown school with a scholarship and a few years later, I ended up getting admitted to the University of Oxford, which I never expected.

So, I think that it is important to know that your confidence will go down a little bit after you stay at home, it's normal--yes, it happened to you too, so I'm not alone-- and one way to get it back to where it was, or one way to increase it is to prepare. How I prepared was taking classes online, I was doing internships, and then after I did my internships, I got the offer from the startup that I volunteered for. I didn't go with them at the end because I was picky, even though I didn't have a lot of offers. I did have two offers at that time, after I finished my volunteer work with a startup, I had the offer from the startup and I had another offer from a bigger company. I decided to go with the big company, because I really liked the hiring team. I felt a great connection.

However, just two weeks before I was supposed to start, they called me, and they said that they had to take back the offer because the company was going through a merger at that time, and it was not a good time for them to hire a new person. I was so disappointed for a few hours. And after that I realized that it was actually a blessing in disguise.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So, hold on a second. So, you took these courses, you tried to apply for jobs, you got lots of rejections. So, then you started volunteering at the startup and at the hospital, and then you ended up after your volunteering, you ended up actually getting an offer from the startup and this other company you got an offer from. How did you get that offer from the other company? Like where did that come from?

Hang Tran: Well, I got the offer from the other company because I told them about my internship experience. And at the startup, I was working really hard, I was building relationships with everyone at the startup. We had about ten people. And I actually told them, “I like working here, and so when you have an opportunity, I would love to work for you.” I think that if I hadn’t shared that with them, maybe they wouldn't have made the offer. So I think it is important that we tell people what we want. And yes, so that's what I learned from my experience.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Was the offer at the big company, you had applied for it, or somehow, how did that offer happen, actually?

Hang Tran: I remember it was the recruiter who reached out to me and she actually emailed me first. No, she reached out first via LinkedIn, and I looked at the company and I thought, "Oh, this company is too far away." So, I didn't reply to her. She then a few days later emailed me and said, "I reached out to you via LinkedIn, I think this job would be perfect for you." And that's when I decided, okay let's give her a call. Then we talked to each other, and I decided to apply. When I met with the hiring team, I really liked them.

And the only problem was the company was about one hour and a half drive from my house. So it would take about three hours to commute every day if I were to take that job. And both of us, the hiring manager and I were talking about this. And because they really liked me, and I really liked them, we decided that we would make this work. At the end, due to the financial circumstances it didn't work. And that's why I said that it was a blessing in disguise because I don't think that it would be sustainable if I were to take that job.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wait, let me ask you, so you said a recruiter reached out to you through LinkedIn. Did you have these two volunteer roles on your LinkedIn profile as part of your experience? Is that why she might've reached out because you were doing market research or marketing related roles as a volunteer?

Hang Tran: Yes, I had it listed. I had both roles listed. I also had a recommendation from my boss at the hospital. I was working on my LinkedIn profile, and I think it was in 2017 when LinkedIn was already big, but now it's even more important to have an online presence. So I think definitely we should have LinkedIn and work on it. Have a good profile.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, I'm just impressed that you couldn't get the jobs, the paid offers that you wanted at first, so you pursued this volunteer work. You were doing these two unpaid roles, but they were real roles. And so you were able to put them on your LinkedIn profile and that experience, even though it was unpaid, prompted a recruiter to reach out to you to apply for a paid job. And I just think that's worth noting, that's pretty amazing. I want to call that out for our listeners.

So then, what happened after that offer got rescinded, did you have to start looking again and applying all over the place?

Hang Tran: Yes, so I had to start over again. And I remember at that time that I wasn't used to failure. Before staying at my house at home with my children I never experienced any failure. And I think when I started applying for jobs, that's when I first tested the biggest failure in my life, a lot of rejection emails. And I even remember, I went to an interview at Google and the lady was asking me, "Oh, so you went to University of Oxford and where is it?" And I was thinking, "She doesn't know that, I have a problem here."

Not only that, I did have a lot of experience, people may not know what school I went to, the significance of it, and I just had to continue my search and to stay humble and know that I had a mountain to climb. I had a lot to learn. And that was my attitude at that time. And I think it's served me.

Another thing I want to mention is the volunteer experience, it is also, I'm looking at this from hindsight, right? Because I have gone through two internships. I would advise that when you choose where you want to do an internship it's very important that you choose a small place. And the reason why I said that is because when you intern at a small place, you get to do so many things, you get power, as opposed to when you volunteer for a big company they are more likely to give you some job, but it's very narrow. So, maybe if you want to have a big brand name and make good connections, or you want to work for that company, then it is a good approach. But if you want to learn, then I think it's better to go with a small company.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So Hang, I remember when we were talking earlier, you said that when you were in Miami you didn't speak Spanish very well, and that was an issue. So how did you overcome that?

Hang Tran: Yes. As you may know, in Miami, we have a lot of people who speak Spanish as their native language. And I realized that it would be very challenging to get a job in marketing without knowing Spanish. Therefore, I enrolled myself in a local community college to learn Spanish. I went to class about three times a week, and I was able to speak some Spanish, but it wasn't good, it wasn't good enough for work.

At that time, I knew that I needed to try something else, so I contacted my friends to let them know that, "Hey, I'm looking for a job. Do you have anyone that you can recommend?" And actually, a few of them tried to connect me with their husbands and set up a few interviews for me, and I got one or two offers, but it wasn't what I wanted to do.

So, I turned down the offers and I kept looking. I got the call from the recruiter for the job. I think the first job was when I was working in a startup and that lady, she didn't mention Spanish. I was so glad that she didn't ask for Spanish. So I think that there are always opportunities out there. You just have to keep looking and keep learning. And try, I tried Spanish. It didn't work for me. but I kept trying other ways. I was learning new things every day.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And then how did you end up getting the job, the offer that you actually took?

Hang Tran: The offer that I took was the job that it was at a digital marketing agency. It wasn't market research, but I thought that if I worked in a digital marketing agency, I would learn a lot. I was a project manager. And it was true, I really learned a lot about managing different projects in a digital marketing agency. After three months, I was still content with my job, I really appreciated the chance to work again and to get paid.I didn't have any issues.

However, after I got that offer, I started my job. I started getting a lot of invitations from recruiters and there was one email from the recruiter talking about the opportunity to work as a market researcher at a telecom company. And that piqued my curiosity. I went for the interview and I realized, I said, "I want to go back to market research.That's really a field that I am passionate about." And that's when I decided to move to the telecom company to go back to market research.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And so let me just go back. When you got the offer of the job that you were in, the actual job that you took, even though you ended up then looking for another job afterward with the telecom company, but when you got the offer that you took, how did you get that offer? Did a recruiter, the same recruiter help you get that next offer or did something else happen? Did you just apply and somehow you got more of a response?

Hang Tran: I just applied. That job I didn't go through a recruiter. I applied directly and lucky for me, the hiring managers, both of them are mothers. And they actually told me that, "You are a mother. And, we know that from our experience, mothers deal very well with people as a project manager. That's what we expect you to do to handle different types of personalities and make things happen." So I was lucky in that sense that they understood the benefits my experience as a mom can bring to the agency.

Carol Fishman Cohen: But then, you ended up leaving that job and you ended up getting the job that you really loved, which was the market research job with the telecom company. Did you have to do more updating of your skills and market research to learn the latest thinking in the field? Or did you learn that on the job?

Hang Tran: Carol, it is a great question, and you nailed it. Actually, when I was taking the job at the digital marketing agency, I continued working on my online classes and I finished the digital marketing course from Udacity during that time, and actually that certificate helped me land the job at the telecom company. I showcased my portfolio during the interview and it happened that the telecom company was looking for someone who had the traditional market research experience, but also understood the digital world, digital marketing. And I had that combination.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I want any employer to listen to this because I think in marketing, relaunchers offer a very unusual combination that Hang is highlighting here, the classic marketing background plus the new layer of understanding the new marketing, the digital marketing, and people who are newer grads only know the digital marketing piece, but don't have that fundamental, classic marketing training. And I think it's a unique offering that relaunchers have that you might not find with any other talent pool.

Hang Tran: Yeah, absolutely. And another thing that relaunchers can bring to the table is the ability to build community, the ability to influence without authority, which I was able to do in my job at a telecom company.

Carol Fishman Cohen: The ability to influence without authority, an incredible thought. I'm so glad you're highlighting that. Hang, I also want to mention something that you and I had talked about before we were on this broadcast together, and you told me that you had joined Toastmasters at some point, which is for those who you don't know, the organization where people join to learn to become better public speakers.

And is a global organization, they have chapters everywhere and it's relatively inexpensive to join. I want to know if you can tell us a little bit about how you found out about Toastmasters, and what was your experience once you joined it?

Hang Tran: Yes, my relationship with Toastmasters is an off and on relationship. I first learned about Toastmasters when I was 19, and my host father, at that time I was an exchange student in Michigan. My host father was a university professor, and he took me to a Toastmasters club where I would meet a lot of professors. And as you know, professors are good speakers. So that was my first experience.

And even though they were super nice, I was intimidated because they were so good. And I didn't join the club right then, however, when we moved to Singapore, I remembered that, "Oh, maybe I can join a Toastmasters club to get to know the locals and improve my public speaking skills." I decided to join the club and I was a VP for PR for the club.

It was a great experience. However, after I became a mom I couldn't go to the meetings. And we had a Toastmaster club in Luxembourg, in Miami, in the places that we were living, I just didn't have the time to go. In 2016, my kids were in school. That's when I decided that I want to renew my relationship with Toastmasters.

I went to the club meeting in Coral Gables, which is part of Miami. And it just happened that I joined, I think it's the best club ever, because the club has members who are professional speakers, who have given TED talks like you, Carol. We have CEOs, I remember we had even CEOs of recruitment agencies.

So it's different kinds of leaders in the club and they are very articulate. In the club meeting, we always had a session called table topic session, where anyone can be called upon to give a speech from one to two minutes. It's like an impromptu speech that you don't really have time to prepare. And whenever I joined that session, I felt so nervous because everyone seemed like they knew so well what they were going to talk about. And when someone got called, they just delivered, as if they had planned it. And of course it took me, I just had to push myself to go to the meeting. And after a while I realized that interviews are very similar in a sense that you get asked questions and you don't really have time to prepare in advance.

And you just gave an answer from one to two minutes, that's how that table topic session is. And that really prepared me for the interviews indirectly.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That is such a good point! Listeners, I want to highlight what Hang is saying here in her Toastmasters experience, the exercise that they would go through on the table topics and having to give an impromptu one to two minute talk, unprepared about a random topic, she's saying was great preparation for interviews. And I love that idea of joining Toastmasters as part of interview prep. So, I hope everyone takes note of that. Hang, we are coming into the final part of our time together right now. And I wanted to end by asking you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests. And that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something we've already talked about today?

Hang Tran: Carol, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. I want to end this conversation by sharing three things that I have learned. First, when we look for a job after the long break, it is normal that we get a lot of rejection emails. That is part of the process. I applied to over a hundred positions and got only a few handfuls of interviews. And I didn't get the first good offer until a year later. So just be patient.

Secondly, for people who stay at home to care for family members, we have so much to give to the employer. And why I say that, because when you stay at home, it takes a lot of compassion, a lot of patience and humility to do this job.

And those are the great traits of a leader as we go back to work and bring those great traits with us. I am absolutely certain that we will create a lot of value for the company that we work with. Last but not least, we just have to keep on learning. I think that we go back during this time, it is a very good time because we have so many online resources available and very often for free or at a very minimal cost.

I could name Udemy, Coursera, edX, Udacity, YouTube, and we just have to keep on learning and never give up.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That is such excellent advice, three pieces of great advice. Hang, thank you so much for joining us today.

Hang Tran: Thank you, Carol.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, and to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to

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