It’s 8am and the view from the 27th floor of the Schneider headquarters in Boston is obscured by thick fog. Sitting at her desk, drinking a cup of coffee is Mai Lan Nguyen, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Schneider Electric North America. Mai was born and raised in France. She is half French, half Vietnamese, and describes herself as a ‘global nomad.’ Nguyen started at Schneider Electric in Paris in September 2004 as an intern. She never left the company but has left to live and work on three other continents.
Natalia Pachón: How has your career evolved since the day you joined the company?
Mai Lan Nguyen: One of the reasons that I was attracted to Schneider was the possibility to build a career internationally. Having the chance to work in a different country was a very high aspiration on my list of things to do.
I’ve always worked within the HR function and I’ve taken roles that allow me to grow as a leader but to also grow laterally. I spent three years in Shanghai, China working in internal management for Global Supply Chain and that started the whole international journey of my career. [Then], the company asked me if I wanted to move to South America. I didn’t speak either Portuguese or Spanish, so it was a big stretch, but I took it.
I joined the team in Brazil by being in charge of HR for the Supply Chain and after a couple of years my role was extended, and I became the HR for the whole region. It was a very interesting journey because I arrived in that region when Brazil was going through a very tough political and economic crisis. I stayed almost five years and probably, it was one of the biggest learning [experiences] personally and professionally.
The third move I was really interested in because the multi-hub was being created with our three headquarters: Boston, Paris and Hong Kong, and at the time, I was invited to consider taking on a global role in talent acquisition. I really thought that being based in the US would help me learn both internally and externally given the maturity of the US market in the field of recruitment.
After six or seven months, I was invited to take the role of SVP HR for North America [and] I’ve been in this position for almost a year and a half. Looking at the career, I think is a mix of ambition, a bit of luck, being at the right time in the right place, and seizing the opportunity.
NP: Four countries in three continents so far. Do you have a favorite?
MLN: No, I love them all. It is very difficult to compare a city like Shanghai in China to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Now, I’m in Boston, so comparing it to Paris, it doesn’t seem fair. I really do keep very vivid memories of each place. I feel like I’ve taken a bit on myself of all the countries I’ve lived in.
NP: What are some of your favorite moments of your career?
MLN: When I look at China, probably coming from France myself, I grew up in a country that was very mature. When you arrive in a country like China you get very disrupted, so it was a very high growth environment. Things were going so fast, people are hungry to learn, hungry to do things, that’s the dynamics and I was not very used to it.
I really loved my time in Brazil. I, personally, was in a part of my life, my early 30s, where you also build your own personal life. My child is half Brazilian. It is something you can’t basically assume. A lot of the happiness I had was on the work side but also in being able to build my life.
And I think the United States is the best moment for me because it was a big dream to work in the US environment. I’ve always been attracted by the culture, how they work, their discipline, their passion. So, I’ve been enjoying a lot the role.
So, it is difficult to give you my best moments, I have so many. And of course, France always will be dear to my heart. When I go to France sometimes, I feel a bit [like a] foreigner. It is my country, but I have been away for more than 10 years now.
“When you arrive in a country like China you get very disrupted…Things were going so fast, people are hungry to learn, hungry to do things…”
NP: What are some of your fondest memories of growing up?
MLN: I am from two cultures: my mom is French, and my dad is Vietnamese. So, one of my fondest memories is that I keep the fact that I’ve always been raised in a very European and Asian way. And probably, food. I keep memories from most of the moments around the table, like having dinner with the family.
NP: What does home mean to you?
MLN: Home for me means the people I love. And knowing that the people I love are okay, no matter where they are. What I’ve tried [to achieve] in the different countries is to really adapt to the local culture. Learning Portuguese when I was in Brazil. Trying to speak Mandarin as much as I could when I was in China. English, of course in the US, embracing the language is something that really helps you understand better your environment.
Home is also wherever you want it to be. I don’t see home as just one place. It is your roots but is also wherever you want it to be as long as you do it with the people you care. Today, for me, home is the US, home is Boston. It may be another country later on. So home is a legacy. I always say to people I see myself as a global nomad, I don’t know I have a specific place in the world I belong to. I really believe I’m a citizen of the world.
NP: At the end of the day, do you have a special space that makes you feel more at home?
MLN: I like to go to familiar places in the cities I have lived in. For instance, as a family, we always meet in Paris once a year and we go to a Vietnamese restaurant and eat our favorite food.
NP: What is the first thing that you do when you move into a new home?
MLN: I have lived in more than five apartments and houses in the last ten years, and every time the first thing I do is to check if it is equipped with Schneider products. I do the same when I stay in a hotel. If it is not, I make sure the landlord knows who we are.
NP: Comfort and safety, how do you conciliate both at home?
MLN: I love the concept of connected living and being able to manage the house remotely from my phone as well as receiving data on how me and my family use the space. This is very helpful to feel safe and good.
NP: How will you celebrate thanksgiving this year?
MLN: Last year I was invited by some colleagues and friends to have their traditional Thanksgiving dinner and it was a very nice experience. This year, because we are an international family, we decided to go back to Brazil to celebrate it so it will be a family moment as well. Basically, we have that in common with Thanksgiving but we’ll go back to see the family of my husband and celebrate there under the sun instead of the snow.
“Home is also wherever you want it to be. I don’t see home as just one place. It is your roots but is also wherever you want it to be as long as you do it with the people you care.”
NP: What are you thankful for?
MLN: I’m thankful for my son. Probably having my boy has been one of the highlights of my career. It was not obvious for me that I was ever be able to become a parent because I was moving country to country, and I was very focused on work. So personal choices are difficult. I’m mostly grateful for having a healthy, lovely, kind, little boy.
When I look at the last year and a half, I’m grateful for being surrounded by a team of people that I really learned from. I’m grateful for very little things that make big impact.I’m grateful for working in a company that I believe has a great culture, we have a real human and people touch and I do really see it every day. And as an HR you can be working for companies that just have culture spread on their walls, but nothing is really happening inside.
NP: If you had to choose three words to define what it is like to work at Schneider, what words would you choose and why?
MLN: Meaningful, empowered and inclusive. I really believe the three words are our Employee Value Proposition. From the bottom of my heart I do believe we walk the talk in these three dimensions.
NP: Do you have any cravings from back home? Any guilty pleasures?
MLN: Sure, I do! I’m always on the look-out for Bubble Tea, because that’s what I loved in Shanghai. Boston has a very big Brazilian community, so I always want to go for a good Churrasco, Pão de queijo, or one good Brigadeiro, a Brazilian sweet.
My guilty pleasure as you see is mostly around food. From France I always like a good cheese.
“I’m grateful for working in a company that I believe has a great culture, we have a real human and people touch and I do really see it every day. And as an HR you can be working for companies that just have culture spread on their walls, but nothing is really happening inside.”
This blog post is part of the series ‘What Does ‘Home’ Mean to You?’ created to understand the concept of home and its meaning by discovering the unique stories of expatriate employees located in China, France and the United States. They all have left their native countries to start a life in foreign lands and to build a home outside their own. To know more about the series, visit the other entries below: