Ngoc Anh – Helene (27) was on her way to a promising career in the Czech Republic, but her adventurous soul and goals in life led her to move to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. She now works in a field that didn’t even exist only a few short years ago: influencer marketing. I’ve been watching the path she has blazed for some time, and we were finally able to meet at the beginning of November over a weekend in Dubai. We spoke about her life as a Vietnamese woman in an Arab country, marketing, and a hard-won career.
Tell us something about yourself; how you got started…
I was born in Hanoi, Vietnam. I moved to the northern part of the Czech Republic when I was about seven years old and then at the age of 13, I moved to Prague on my own. My parents were against it at first, but I had a cousin there, so in the end they allowed it.
I went to a Czech-English secondary school to learn to speak English. I always knew I wanted to leave. I was planning my “escape.” I knew I had to go to Prague first and then move on. I had artistic ambitions and started with photography at the age of 15. I taught myself how to edit images and I made collages.
I occasionally shot commercials when I was in high school. I used the money I made to buy my first SLR camera to push my ambition further. I started to shoot commercial stuff, editorial fashion. My hobby became a paying job. I started as an airbrusher during secondary school and made pretty good money.
Then I studied under Professor Baňka at the Department of Photography at the Faculty of Art and Design, Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem and continued to plan my departure. In my first year, I started working in product postproduction at Slevomat. It was a full-time job and I was also working at a casting agency as well. Professor Baňka wasn’t too pleased that I was constantly at my computer working, but I needed to save money and move on.
Wait, why did you want to escape from the Czech Republic?
Because I didn’t feel right there. I’m grateful for the opportunity to grow up there, but my lifestyle always pulled me toward a metropolis.
I was afraid I wouldn’t find work. I worked hard, and it didn’t seem like the compensation was sufficient. I had three jobs to financially support my family. That was what I did for two years and at the same time I planned my departure. I took advantage of my school’s opportunities abroad, so I applied to Germany. It was supposed to be another stop along the way. I was accepted to Düsseldorf on a student scholarship and started studying product design and jewelry. I didn’t know anyone when I move to Germany, while I already had a god reputation in the Czech Republic, even working for the National Theatre at the age of 22.
I thought I could work in a studio, but I didn’t find anything because I was a student that didn’t speak German. So I started working in a restaurant owned by a friend, chopping vegetables. I just told myself that work ennobles a person, spending my weekends chopping vegetables to maintain my standard of living. Then I started to work as a server, while also studying. I also won a jewelry design award, and I would occasionally go teach the handicapped about design after school.
However, I knew I didn’t have a chance on the German labor market, so I started to look for an internship abroad. I planned my departure for six months, saving and applying to Singapore and Dubai. In the meantime, I met a Slovak Vietnamese woman that was moving to Dubai for an internship. She inspired me even though we only spoke together for five minutes.
In the end, I was accepted to a visual communication internship at a fashion company in Dubai. I moved there and took care of some luxury brands thanks to my previous experience at Slevomat. Since then, my life has been different.
After the internship, I returned to Germany to finish school, but I started to think I was losing it. Should I live in Europe and have a stable life, or take a risk and go to Dubai despite not having a job there?
But you decided for a more adventurous life…
Yes. I found my best friend in Dubai. It helped having support here. At first, I looked for work on LinkedIn and I flew in for interviews, but I didn’t know if it would work out. I lived with a friend for the first few days. After 10 days, I was lucky to start work as a content manager at a firm where I moved on to become a project manager dealing with influencers.
Before we talk about your work, you have both Czech and Vietnamese citizenship. Do you feel yourself more Czech or Vietnamese?
I don’t know. I’m geographically confused. Sometimes I think I’ve become Czechified and Europeanized, but then certain things aren’t right either. I like the Vietnamese style, even though it bothers me sometimes: that sort of “lam chuyen” (cheap talk, BS; translator’s note), we’re very conservative and we all know each other. The Vietnamese in Germany are different, and even more so in the U.S. We didn’t integrate as much in the Czech Republic; we halted ourselves. People are more modern even in Vietnam now.
OK, so what is life like for a young Czech-Vietnamese Woman in an Arab country?
I live well here. When I arrived, I thought I would have to cover up and that it would be more difficult for me as a woman, but in the end I had culture shock at just how open and crazy things are here. Dubai is an energetic city, very much for young people. Everyone here is around 30. It’s like a long holiday, but at the same time it changes you here because you have a comfortable life. We live in a bubble. I go elsewhere on holiday to realize what reality is really like and it puts my feet back on the ground. People come here to work and then leave. They make good money and there are so many options for how to enjoy life. But you have to be very good at your job; people work hard. Up to 2,000 people apply for better positions and the trial period is six months. You have to prove your worth every day. It’s a beautiful and luxurious life here, but it takes work.
The population of Dubai is 13% locals. There is a large population of Asians that usually do unqualified work. A great deal depends on what passport you have. For example, people from Norway make more money than those from India. That’s why everyone asks where you are from and where you live. It’s categorized, which I don’t like too much.
There is a wide range of nationalities and cultures that live here. Everyone grew up differently. You go out a lot and meet people. It’s a selection of the best that made it somewhere. Every day you meet new people, but you may not get along with every one of them.
Is it hard to find friends here? Do you talk to your co-workers about your personal life?
That’s individual. It depends on the culture, and each company and individual approaches it differently. It’s hard to find people that become close. Everyone has their own life and lives in a different part of the city. The friends I met four years ago have already moved away. It’s hard to have a serious relationship here. Tinder is popular, but people don’t want to tie themselves down. We know we’re here temporarily. I also have friends here, but I don’t know if I’m going to stay. Everyone is out for themselves and you meet quite a few women in high-ranking positions. There are brave people here who went to an Arab country all on their own. They have to be brave and tenacious. It’s a mix of people from all around the world and they are tough. Occasionally I get stressed out, but the lifestyle is worth it.
Do you meet more Czechs or Vietnamese in Dubai?
There are almost no Vietnamese here. I only met a single Vietnamese, and she was a flight attendant on the plane. There are a few Czechs, but many come here on vacation. Overall, Dubai is very open to tourists and there are direct flights. I used to think it was a super-posh honeymoon city. When I saw picture of Dubai 10 years ago, I didn’t know if it was real. We are starting to work with influencers from around the world as part of the tourism industry.
Let me stop you there. How do you do influencer marketing in a country like the UAE?
It’s a newer field that is developing. I started about 18 months ago and now the field is completely somewhere else. Here in the Emirates and in the Arab world in general, foreign brands put significant emphasis on influencers. It’s a new, digital field and everyone wants to try it out. Technologies are very popular here. The market in Arab countries is very different than in the U.S. or in Europe. There is huge demand for cooperation.
My biggest clients include P&G, Samsung, Fujifilm, and Clarins. Brands here are willing to pay well for cooperation, which is why there are high demand. In Europe, influencers are on YouTube or have a strong Instagram feed. Content here is not as creative. Saudi Arabia, for example, is completely different. Comedic content does well, as do beauty products, and the brands themselves are also very important: It has to be beautiful and branded! Influencer marketing is growing and developing, but you also have to educate clients because they don’t know how it works. It’s not just about strategy, selecting the right girls, or budgeting.
And how are you doing?
I take care of maxi-influencers that have more than 1 million followers. It’s a lot of hard work. They’re a bit more professional in Europe. Here, you have to take them by the hand and it’s a bit more complicated. Influencer marketing is so advanced here that there are castings and shows to find influencers. Some 15 people compete, with judges giving one task per week after which they eliminate one contestant, something like America’s Next Top Model.
So this field and lifestyle is something for you?
Yes. I encounter new cultures every day, even though it can be confusing sometimes. But I love big cities with their own energy and young people. We motivate each other here and it fascinates me.
With your schedule, are you able to travel to the Czech Republic or Vietnam?
I try to go to Vietnam once a year with my family, mostly because of my grandparents. We go in November, but I won’t be able to this year because of work. But I would like to come for Tết (The new lunar year, the most important celebration in eastern Asia; author’s note). Thankfully, Dubai is in the middle. It’s a six-hour flight to Vietnam, and the same to the Czech Republic.
Finally, any insider tips you want to give out?
Mostly, don’t be afraid to come here. Girls can wear a tank top if they want, but more modest attire is welcomed. Always take a taxi from the airport, not Uber, which is the most expensive. Overall use taxis, because you can’t walk everywhere.