Sidebars

Huong Nguyen: Uncompromising Authenticity

May 24, 2021 Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP Season 1 Episode 5
Sidebars
Huong Nguyen: Uncompromising Authenticity
Show Notes Transcript

Huong Nguyen is currently Vice President, General Counsel, of Fosun Pharma USA Inc. She has spent the majority of her nearly two-decade law practice actively working in the pharmaceutical industry as both an in-house counsel and a private practitioner, with deep and wide-ranging experiences in litigation, IP, compliance, M&A, BD and commercial transactions, and employment. Throughout this time, she has partnered with a wide variety of cross-functional groups, and has directly counseled senior management and Boards of Directors in her areas of expertise. Huong received her BA at the University of California, Los Angeles and her JD at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Arriving in the U.S. as a child refugee from Vietnam, after her family was separated in the aftermath of Saigon falling to the North Vietnamese and her father being sent to a re-education camp, Huong had to learn a new language, reintegrate with her family, and find a new identity in her adopted country. In this episode, Huong shares her story of never giving up, devising solutions to whatever situation she found herself in, and creating a path that is truly her own. She is a gay Asian-American woman who’s achieved success in traditionally inhospitable terrains, such as the patent bar while staying true to her authentic self. Her grit, determination, and grace under extreme circumstances are truly inspiring. 

Highlights include:

  • How Huong’s family fared after the fall of Saigon (2:03) 
  • The fraught journey to America (4:20)
  • How to speak to kids about challenging topics (12:30)
  • The melting pot and how diverse a single family can be (14:20) 
  • The long-lasting effects of trauma (18:00)
  • The principles that shaped Huong’s worldview (19:45)
  • Starting to succeed by flourishing academically (21:09)
  • Building self-respect and community through sports (27:51)
  • The military comes calling, and Huong answers the call (31:16)
  • The military in 1992: you can be gay, but we’ll kick you out for gay conduct (35:00)
  • Choosing authenticity (36:40)
  • A surprising pivot to philosophy, then law school (42:03)
  • The importance of diversity in outside counsel pitch teams (48:27)
  • Paying it forward – giving your kids a better life (53:36)
  • Walking into a room with senior management and feeling like you belong, authentically (60:51)

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**The opinions expressed are those of the attorneys and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm or its clients. This podcast is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.**

Huong Nguyen:

Why not have diversity? Well, why have diverse people? It's because it is the engine to your creativity. Just think about it . If you have a bunch of homogenous people, you're going to have a bunch of homogenous ideas.

April Abele Isaacson:

Welcome to Sidebars, Kilpatrick Townsend's limited podcast series focused on women in patent law. I'm April Isaacson , a patent litigator and partner in the San Francisco office.

Kimberlynn Davis:

And I'm Kim Davis, a patent prosecutor and partner in the Atlanta office. We're here to discuss the gender gap in the patent bar and have candid conversations with female patent practitioners on their career paths .

April Abele Isaacson:

Welcome back to Sidebars. I'm April Isaacson . In this episode, Kim and I are interviewing Huong Nguyen. Huong has her BA in philosophy from UCLA where she was a self-described lab rat who spent numerous hours working in the lab and taking advanced courses in biological sciences. She has her law degree from UC Hastings and is a member of the Patent Bar. Huong is currently General Counsel and Compliance Officer at Fosun Pharma USA. She has been an attorney for 20 years and has more than a decade of experience as in-house counsel at pharmaceutical companies. As you will hear throughout this episode, Huong has an amazing journey and Huong is many things. I am proud that I get to call Huong, my friend. Huong Nguyen , welcome to Sidebars.

Huong Nguyen:

Thank you so much, April. Thank you so much, Kimberlynn, for inviting me.

April Abele Isaacson:

Normally we start out about asking how someone would pivot from science to law, but I know in your case that that's a very long answer and that your path was circuitous. So why don't we get started with your journey and how you came to the United States as an eight year old? I saw in 1975, the fall of Saigon on TV, but you weren't able to be part of the airlift of helicopters in April of 1975. Can you talk about your journey to this country?

Huong Nguyen:

So my dad wanted the whole family to be air lifted and somehow that didn't happen. And so, he waited and we didn't as a family leave at that time. He, along with many other people in south Vietnam at that time, because they were on the losing side of the war, a lot of intellectuals, a lot of the Southern, those who supported the American forces, mostly in the Southern part of Vietnam were placing in what's called re-education camps, basically trying to get them to rethink their thoughts about Communism, which I don't think worked, but I think it's a form of punishment for those people who supported the American forces. In any event, my dad was put in a camp for a number of years and was released - I don't know when - but when he was released , he made sure that we did not live there anymore because he did not support the ideology or, you know, anything relating to do with Communism. So, we tried to escape like a host of other people, hundreds and thousands of people really leaving, you know, leaving Vietnam because they did not support Communism. And we were, we were in that sort of stream of refugees leaving Vietnam. And one of the ways in which you can, I think the majority way that you can leave Vietnam at that point, it's just sort of just to get a boat and float into International Waters and hopefully pray that you get picked up by vessels that are from the United States or from Germany or from France or wherever. And they take pity on you and they drop you off at a refugee camp. And that's the hope for a lot of these refugees from Vietnam. And, my dad, at that time owned a fishing boat and he, and a bunch of other people, including my two older sisters , hopped on a boat. And in 1977, something like that, a couple of years after the fall of Vietnam, and they left , Vietnam. And my brother, my younger brother, me and my mom somehow did not make it on that boat. So, they floated out into International Waters and was picked up by a French vessel and then dropped off at a refugee camp. And at that point they were sponsored by a church , a Catholic church in Green Bay, Wisconsin. And , he left the refugee camp with my sisters and went to Green Bay, Wisconsin where the church was located. My mom, my brother and I tried to escape a couple more times and was unsuccessful. We were placed in refugee camps and then repatriated back to Vietnam. But the third time , we ran out of money and , and also, you know, the adults at that time thought that they would help my mom out by, you know, taking one of the kids away. Because at that point she did not have a husband and she had two kids, two young kids to take care of and they wanted to relieve her of that responsibility. And since I was the older child at that time, I believe I was five and my brother was two at the time. So instead of him, they picked me. And so I went home with my two aunts and cousin on the third time, which was successful. We floated out into International Waters, but before, we got to a refugee camp . We were boarded by pirates from Thailand. And at that time, when people leave Vietnam, they would bring all of their possessions in terms of jewelry and money. And, so if you have a boat full of people with jewelry and money in a climate, such as that people are gonna go out there and try to take it. And so we had a lot of robbers on the sea , which , you know, robbers on the seas are pirates. So they would board , these boats and, and they w ould rob them. And sometimes, you know, they would rape the women and throw t hem overboard. N ow, luckily we were robbed before we were picked up by another vessel, but we were robbed. And an interesting story came out of it. I remember sort of hearing all this commotion and suddenly my aunt taking her diamond ring and sticking it into my mouth. And I just sat there and didn't really know what was going on. And I just remember hearing all this commotion coming closer to me. And then at one point I saw my other aunt, her Jade bracelets on both sides of her arms a re broken and taken. And I just froze. And then, you know, and then they left. I don't remember exactly everything that happened, but I remember after when they l eft, you know, my aunt, the ring was in my mouth and took it out. And that ring allowed us in the next refugee camp that we went to. It allowed us to buy a month's worth of food there. So i t was in a way l ucky that s he did that. But I think it was kind of frightening f or somebody who is, y ou k now, five years old a nd had a ring in their mouth and p irates coming a nd taking, trying to take those types of things away. So, we landed a refugee camp and we contacted, my dad and my dad was able to sponsor us and we left and I came to Green bay, Wisconsin, and my mom and my brother came eight years later. Well, actually my mom came, yeah, my mom, m y brother came eight years later. And at that time, when we all left, my mom remarried for economic reasons. I think she was wife number five or six or whatever just so she can support her child. And then she had my half-brother and you know, her life is pretty interesting ca use s he, you can see she's giving up her kids in different parts of her life. So when she came, my half-brother's dad did not want him to come. So he didn't come until much later, six or seven years after that. So my whole family came in for "shipments," quote, shipments. And, w e didn't get your reunited until much longer until I, I was in college actually, because I remember my first wife and I trying to file the paperwork to get my half-brother over here. So yeah, that's how I came to th e U nited States.

April Abele Isaacson:

So Huong you were what was referred to as the Vietnamese boat people?

Huong Nguyen:

Yes.

April Abele Isaacson:

Talk to us about your journey in terms of coming to the United States and having your family separated as you were discussing earlier.

Huong Nguyen:

It was interesting. I think a lot of my memories of what happened is somewhat informed by, you know, what people have told me later on because when it was happening, nobody really sat down -I mean, no adult really sat down and had a conversation with me about what was going on. I mean, I think the idea was just, you know, you're five or six years old and what's there to talk about, or we don't want to talk about anything scary, you know, we don't want to say, okay, we're going to bring you out in the water and you might be boarded by, you know , our ship might be boarded by pirates. I think those types of discussions might, you know, might have scared some of the adults away from actually talking about it to little kids. But I think now that I look back at it and it would have been good for them to have told me something that was age appropriate because I really, you know, I was very confused and very, but never said anything 'cause it was like my parents and they, I thought they had my best i nterests in mind. So, I didn't question anything, but it was very confusing. And I remember thinking why i sn't that I couldn't talk to my mom after I came to G reen B ay, Wisconsin. I remember thinking about that, but never had a real conversation with my dad. And what I learned later on was that my dad was in contact with my mom at that time and that why they didn't feel the need to have me talk to my mom or even write to her was kind of odd. You know, I don't, whatever they decided they decided, but I didn't really get a chance to talk to my mom. I think in my mind, she passed away the first time metaphorically in my mind, like she's, she's, she's gone. That person was gone when I was five years old when she gave me to my aunt t o take me to the United States. And that person came back into my life when I was 14 years old. And that time I spoke very little English. I mean, very little Vietnamese. She spoke no English, and we didn't talk about it. And this person who showed up was supposedly my mom, but not really my mom. And so it's an odd type of relationship where you, you know, in your head, that's your mom, but you don't feel anything really toward her ca use y o u y ou're missing big chunks of that, that bonding time when yo u're y oung. So that was, that was difficult to re-establish that relationship. My mom and dad had passed already, but I don't think I ever re-established my relationship with my mom ever because of , you know, as, as a teenager, yo u k ind of in your own world and we had a huge language barrier at that point. So I didn't initiate, you know, getting to know her, but she didn't do the same thing with me either. So it was just sort of like, oh yes, you're my mom. Okay. Let's try to get back as a family. And remember that time, my mom was married to somebody else too. So it was kind of an odd situation, you know, where she came to th e U nited States and somehow we're a family again and nothing was discussed with the kids, you know. I'm sure they had long conversations with each other, but yeah, that was, that was difficult trying to re -establish t hose relationships.

April Abele Isaacson:

Well, and she was your biological mother, but in a way, a stranger

Huong Nguyen:

Absolutely.

Kimberlynn Davis:

Huong, you raise such a good point about communicating with children and letting them know , at a level that's appropriate for them what's going on. And in particular, I wonder about your approach and if you wouldn't mind chiming in on that , I know your children are older, but the current climate within the AAPI community even; are you very open is your position that we should let our children know exactly what's going on at a level that they can understand. Would that better serve them?

Huong Nguyen:

I think Kimberlynn, you, you raise a really good point. I mean , you, you, as a black woman in the black community, you've had to face those kinds of questions when there are shootings, right , in your community and you have kids too. And you question like how much is appropriate to talk to kids about. And I, our family has always been open. A hundred percent open about what's going on. And it's just a level of conversation that we want to provide for our kids. You kind of have to kind of gauge your kid's level of understanding and how sensitive they are to certain types of facts that you provide to them. I know that one of my kids is very cerebral, so we can have policy conversations. We had long conversations about, you know, Black Lives Matter and police violence and all that stuff. And my other one who's , you know, two and a half years younger, he's so sensitive. He's so, he's so like he has such a big heart that we talk about in such general terms. We don't have deep conversations. But you know, both of them, we have to talk about this issues because that's their lives. So with respect to, you know , the Anti-Asian hate going on, it's interesting with them because they're , we , my first wife and I , we decided to have biological kids. So we went through a sperm bank and the donor is half Mexican and half Chinese. And my first wife is Swedish. And so they're half Swedish, a quarter Mexican and a quarter Chinese. If you look at them, they look more white than anything else. So it's interesting them growing up to see what sort of identity they own, the two most prevalent identities, white and Asian, right? Because we don't have any sort of Mexican heritage to provide to them because I give them, you know, the Asian part and My first wife gives them the Swedish part and each one of them deals with identity of race slightly differently. So, and it changes as they age, you know, are they more Asian? I know when I was with, cause right now we're separated by the coast. So I live in east coast and they live in the west coast and I've been here a year and we haven't been seeing them as much because of COVID. But I know that when I was with them in the west coast, they spend part of the day with me part of the week with me. And part of the week with my wife, they still very much identify as Asian, right when I was there. And now that they live in a fully Swedish household for a long time, they might, they might identify more as white. But I know that we've had conversations, gay rights conversations, right. When they were born. I remember prop, was it prop...

April Abele Isaacson:

Maybe seven? Was that the one you were thinking about or yeah , eight - Proposition 8 - is what you were thinking about.

Huong Nguyen:

Both, both propositions, right. But mostly Proposition 8. You know, my first wife was very involved in that and she helped organize the faith community. And he, you know, my first son at that time was, I don't know, eight, nine, 10 years old. And he was well aware of what was going on. And we had to have these conversations with him, why certain parts of California didn't want his family to have equal rights. And so we had those conversations. So it kind of then just, you serve so conversations about BLM and police brutality and stuff just sort of is a natural discussion for our family.

April Abele Isaacson:

And for those listeners that aren't aware Proposition 187 was back in 1994. And it was about rights for children of what would be considered undocumented immigrants to California. And then Prop 8 was about same-sex marriage in California. No, it's interesting hung that you say that because as you know, and I know as Kim knows my brother, he's my biological brother. So he's white. His wife has a father from Mexico and her mother was Chinese American. So my nieces have the same issues with identity, whether they identify as Latina or Chinese American or white, and you're right. The nuances of that change over time as they grow up. So it's a really interesting point. Can you talk about, I know you've mentioned a little bit about things related to your family and you and I have spent a lot of time - we work together as in-house counsel for few years - and spent a lot of time talking to each other about family situations. I know that you would, I think consider your family to be dysfunctional as I do mine. Can you talk about how that's affected you as a person and some of the things that you've done to overcome what I would consider adversities you've faced?

Huong Nguyen:

So my dad, when I say, you know, my family's dysfunctional is not a sort of like a blame it's sort of objective. I mean, they've gone through a lot of trauma and because of that, they've reacted in certain ways and acted in certain ways. And, I've, over the years, come to sort of, not accept it, but just sort of, "Well, that's just the way it is." Not, excuse it, not judge it as much because judging requires a lot of energy on my part and you can't change any of that. So, you know, why judge that? So I was living in Green Bay, Wisconsin, my dad was a single parent at that time. And he was looking in his mid-30s with three daughters under the age of, you know, 10 or 12 that he had to take care of. And he was not proficient in the [English] language. And yet really no skills to offer, you know. He had skills, but not without any language to that. And so, I think he was really frustrated and I'm sure, you know, he experienced all that trauma coming over here. So all of that really caused him to become an alcoholic and relied on, you know, alcohol to sort of escape some of what he was feeling. But because of that, he really didn't take care of us. You know, he would be physically violent to us toward the kids. He'd really, didn't really other than provide, you know , shelter rarely was there enough food and all the stuff. So we really had to take care of our own by ourselves or were latchkey kids. And we had to really fend for ourselves. And my two sisters were much older than me. And so they were much more, you know, they hung out together more and I was just left mostly alone. So my upbringing really affected, you know, me and high function. I just feel like I always never want to be reliant on anybody for economic needs because that will give them too much control over me. For me, you know, if I w anted to do something I needed to make that happen. My parents w eren't gonna help me. Nobody else was g onna help me. So if I needed, if I wanted something to happen, it would have to come from me. You know? And if things didn't happen well, I didn't do it. You know, I didn't make that happen. So those two things are really huge. The third thing that is huge, and I think a lot of people feel this way is that they feel they have a second lease in life. T hey're given this opportunity, whether you believe in a higher power and what the higher power looks like, I mean I truly believe [that] I had a second opportunity to live when I came here in the United States. And I didn't w ant, I didn't want to squander that opportunity b ecause there are many, many other people that could have been in my shoes. And so with that, I feel like life is, you know, life is just amazing here in the U nited States, even though we h ave some issues that we h ave to deal with, this i s a fantastic opportunity. I don't want to waste it.

April Abele Isaacson:

Can you talk about what it was like as a child to come to the United States with English as your second language and then go to school here?

Huong Nguyen:

Well, so in Green Bay, Wisconsin, at that time there was no ESL program. So, what they did with me is they just put me in the slow learner classes for the longest time. And I thought to myself, Hey, I'm not a slow learner necessarily. I just don't know English. So that kind of affected me. But then I, you know, looked around and realized, you know, if I wanted to be respected in school, I needed to do well. So when I started learning English and got a better hold of English, I think in [the] third or fourth grade, probably fourth grade, I remember thinking to myself like, I'm going to get good grades cause I need to, I need to be respected. And, you would only get respected as student if you got good grades. So that's what I thought. I mean, of course, you know, you're respected, you should be respected cause you're, you're a person, but that's what I thought. And also because I didn't know English that well, even after fourth grade, I really never really thought humanities or law or anything like that would be something that would be in my future. Because if you rely on like engineer or being a doctor or the sciences, you don't need English that much. So I think a lot of immigrants come over here and they're like, okay, here's what you can choose from: you can be an engineer, you can be a doctor or you can be a scientist. Yeah . And those types of things don't require a lot of English, you know, for you to succeed in . And so I just never thought anything in the humanities or law would be something in my future.

Kimberlynn Davis:

So Huong, can you tell us a little bit more about the classroom setting? I'm very intrigued by what you said in terms of being treated better because of your grades. I think that that still holds true today that we see. And I also believe that a lot of it has to do with certain variables in a child's life. We have a , I have a very, very diverse school that I send my sons to and I've just noticed certain dynamics. And as they vary based on certain based on the populations, we'll , we'll leave it at that. So, so what's your advice to the students and even to our listeners who involve themselves in the education space, when they are advocating for children who, as you did, had so much trauma in your formative years, how do you successfully help such a child to succeed? Even despite everything that they faced at that Point?

Huong Nguyen:

Well, my second wife who's my current wife is an educator. She's been a classroom teacher for 20 years, and now she works at a gaming company and educational gaming company. And I've what I've learned a lot is you alluded to it in terms of the composition of the students in a school, but really at the end of the day, it's the composition of the teachers. The majority of the teachers are white women. They don't get paid a lot and they spent a God awful amount of time doing it and they spend their own money trying to support the classroom. But the problem is you have a homogenous group of people teaching, who don't necessarily have the right training in trauma or the training in cultural sensitivities to these populations that are different right from their own upbringing. I'm sure they do perfectly fine with kids who have similar upbringings as, as them . But so they're not given trauma training, right? Or they're not giving cultural training. So I remember, and then this is, this is quite benign, but I remember my kids will be treated even my kids went to or is in private school. And I remember telling the teacher put some rules. If you need to yell at him, yell at him, this is what we do at home. And it's no problem. I don't see this behavior at home. But they were so sensitive because that's not how they were brought up. They're brought up to talk to kids or they were trained to talk to kids in a, in a just deliberate and calm manner and which is great. But sometimes a kid just needs to, "Nope." That's cultural training, right? When an Asian parent comes to you and says, you need to talk sometimes like that to the , your , to the kids in order for them to comply. That's what you do. Right? And as a teacher, you should change; you should change the way you approach it. And also number one is God, this kids from inner city, these kids coming in from the boats, they have so much trauma. And so you just have to learn with how, you know, sometimes they I'll make it. I will tell you, Kimberlynn, I must have been terrible as a child, you know , because I can't imagine in school, I can't imagine going through all of that and not acting out in any way. I think I did. I'm sure I did. I was beat up for being Asian because I was, you know, the only Asian around. And then when I got enough, wherewithal, I was like, you're not beating me up, I'm kicking your ass; so I became sort of a bully in that process.

April Abele Isaacson:

Well, I have to add in there , those of you who do not know Huong, she is five feet tall. And when I first had her in my car in the front seat, the airbag sensor went off because they thought I had a child in the front seat. So she's a small little thing, but she is a force of nature.

Huong Nguyen:

Because I learned as a child, nobody's going to stand up for me. And there's certain things that kids won't cross, right. If they feel like they're going to bully you and they're going to get something back, they're not going to bully you. So at some point as a kid, I know as a parent, you wouldn't never say, okay , beat them up. But you know, sometimes in the playground you have playground rules. Um, and you just have to draw that line. But in any event, you know, going back to your question, Kimberlynn, it's not just the makeup of the students. It's really the makeup of the educator that really counts. And I think we have a crisis right now in teaching. We don't pay people enough money. And because of that, they don't have enough time, enough training and all this stuff. And so it's a , it's just a bigger issue .

April Abele Isaacson:

Well, going back to your playground time of kind of asserting yourself, I know you, and I've talked in the past about athletics and how it got you out of the house. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Huong Nguyen:

The first time I can join teams? I did. I played volleyball, basketball and softball all throughout my whole time. And not because I was really, really interested in all of that. It's because I need to get out of the house, like my house is just miserable. I mean, that's just objective, right? I'm not complaining about it, but it was just a miserable place to be. And I'd rather be with other friends, other coaches, I, you know, April, I know you mentioned that the people who raised you were really your coaches and your, your friends' parents, and teachers, and the , you know, it takes like a village to raise kids who don't have that support at home.

April Abele Isaacson:

Absolutely.

Huong Nguyen:

And so it was the same, it was the same with me. And , and I relied a lot on academics to sort of be respected, but also relied on athletics just to get out of the house. Not because I think at five feet, I'm going to be this amazing of her, you know, athlete when I grow up because I did stop growing in middle score or something like that. So I never had thoughts, grand thoughts of being an athlete, but that was always something that I relied on. And now that as an adult, I think that I also relied on athletics to help me with a lot of the trauma symptoms that I was feeling. Because I think that having being tired and having endorphins and all this stuff, it really helped calm my system in such a chaotic place. So I felt that so , so athletics to me was really key to keeping sanity and keeping me through that, that those stages of my life,

April Abele Isaacson:

And also helping you find your tribe. So to speak in terms of the support that you mentioned.

Huong Nguyen:

A hundred percent, like I had three teams, if you wanted to beat me up, you're going to have to beat up all my three teams. You know what I'm saying? It's like, nobody bothered me. Nobody bothers you if you have a team and a group of people who are going to be have your back all the time. So I remember going through school, I was one of those, you know, scholarly athletes like and left alone. I was left alone because I wanted to be alone because I always felt different in different ways than we can talk about later. But, you know, after getting beaten up as a child , as a young one, and then joining, you know, athletics, those people protected me. So I never, I never felt picked on at all, growing up because of athletics,

April Abele Isaacson:

Huong, I know you and I are both veterans. And I'd like you to talk about your experience in the military because I know it was a very unique situation.

Huong Nguyen:

Yeah, so all throughout school, I just, you know, elementary, middle, and high school, I just never felt like this was my life or this was my family. And things that were happening to me, I just, I knew they were wrong, you know, a lot of them. So I never really sort of pointed that kind of stress back at me. Like, like, what's wrong with me? Why am , why, why is this happening to me? You know, why am I getting beat up or whatever? Like, it was like, no, this is wrong. This shouldn't happen and when I have the opportunity to, I'm going to take off, which is when I, when you graduate from high school, you can take off at 18. So that was my goal. My goal was basically to bide my time, do whatever I can do to help myself jump to the next stage and just not be where I was going to be. And so I just remember this one day, a couple months prior to graduation, a recruiter came, a military recruiter came to my high school and they, and he wanted to talk with all the athletes because of course, you know, it's a good group kids to sort of, talk to, to join the military. And his pitch was pretty amazing to me at that time: "Hey, come join the military. We'll pay for your education and you can go almost anywhere in the world you want." And so I thought, "oh, that was, that's a great pitch." You know, I'm ready to go and join, so I joined. And right after graduation, I went to bootcamp in Fort Leonard Wood. And at that time we call it "Fort Lost in the Woods," because it's like 40 miles from St. Louis. And if you wanted to like leave, you couldn't cause there's so much woods. You can't just leave. So I got shipped there and really, I don't know if you April, but I really loved the military because it provided such stability.

April Abele Isaacson:

Absolutely.

Huong Nguyen:

Exactly.

April Abele Isaacson:

And structure and camaraderie.

Huong Nguyen:

Exactly. All of those things that have been missing in my life. I was like, "Oh my God." And the rules. I mean, if these are the rules, if you didn't follow it, here's what would happen. If you follow it, here's what happens. There's no chaos.

April Abele Isaacson:

Yeah, exactly; and I will say Huong and I are always early because of our experience.

Huong Nguyen:

That's right. So it was such serenity; like it was so peaceful. People are like, oh , the military, that's so terrible. I'm like, oh my God, it's so peaceful. I know exactly what to do, how to succeed. And it's my choice, you know, and what the steps I need to do to succeed, it was just all laid out. So I loved it.

April Abele Isaacson:

Well, and part of it is too you and I didn't have structure growing up because of our family situation. And now you're in this opportunity where you're functioning as a unit and you have this structure that you and I really thrived for.

Huong Nguyen:

Yeah. And both of us, you know, coming out of chaos and and joining the military that was one of the best things for me at that time, because I just felt like, oh , this is a place that I want to be for the long-term . And so, so I had this like 20-year plan when I was, you know , 18 years old. [My] 20-year plan is like, you know, I would join the military, have them pay for my schooling, have them pay for my medical school and then just be a medical doctor in the Medical Corps of the army for 20 years, get my pension leave and then open a clinic for disadvantaged people. And that was my 20-year plan at 18 years old.

April Abele Isaacson:

But that was derailed.

Huong Nguyen:

That was derailed.

April Abele Isaacson:

Can you talk about that?

Huong Nguyen:

Yeah. So I, you know, growing up, I always felt different. I know - I just, I just couldn't put my finger on how, how, I just never felt like I fit in any group or I just, you know , never felt really close, super close to anybody growing up because I never felt like I fit in. And , and then I became, what's called an RA, a resident assitant in the dorms, and was exposed to gay culture. And I was like, oh yeah, I'm gay. Yeah. It took like this much, it's very quick. It's like, oh, I get it. I get it now. All right. And then it was quick for me personally, to come out. But at that time, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was in place. And basically, you know, I struggled with being gay with the policy at that time. When I joined in 1992, policy actually was wasn't the don't ask , don't tell it was, if you're gay, we're going to kick you out. What I found out later was that that would have been found unconstitutional. And so what happened was supposed to be a "compromise," but it was really deceitful. So the compromise was you can be gay, but you're gay conduct is what's gonna get you booted from the military. So basically you can be celibate. We won't kick you out because of your status, but we'll kick you out because your conduct and your conduct is what's causing the low morale and the chaos in the military. We don't like your conduct.

April Abele Isaacson:

Well, and , and, you know, I was in during that time of don't ask, don't tell, and it was, and I had to give legal advice to people. And , and basically on a high level, it was, yes, the status of being gay, you had to keep it to yourself. Everyone had to be closeted. And if you were caught in the act, which could be someone seeing you at dinner with someone of the same gender then you might be reported. And then there would be potential disciplinary action, which I know ended up being the case for you. But you really took the reins here in terms of how you wanted to live your authentic life. If you can talk about that.

Huong Nguyen:

Yeah. So I, I thought, oh, I just left this chaos. And I'm at a place where I have control. And then now, because I realized that I'm gay, I have no longer any control over my personal and professional life because of this policy. And so I kind of knew the consequences, but I just felt like I just couldn't live under a policy that at any moment could, you know, my career could be taken away from me. You know, it's very deceitful. It's not that you can't tell, but like, somebody can tell on you, you can keep quiet, but somebody can tell on you. And then there goes your problem. And I've heard stories, just terrible stories where people are in it for 19 years and they're waiting for their last year. And somebody, you know , tells on them because they, you know, they want revenge or something and they lose their pension. Imagine that after 19 years it's gone.

April Abele Isaacson:

That happened to someone at my command who was a senior chief, which means a very senior enlisted person who was one year from his pension. And then he was outed by someone. And that's exactly what happened to him, which was absolutely heartbreaking to see. Yeah. Wow. Huong, it's just amazing to hear your story. And can you talk about how that changed your path at UCLA?

Huong Nguyen:

So at UCLA, at that time, all the colleges h ave had this debate because they have this non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and they also supported ROTC on campus. They supported them with offices and money and stuff like that. And so how c an, so the question was, how can you be a university that supports this non-discrimination policy, but still support an organization like the military that explicitly discriminates against gay people? And so there was a huge debate at that time going on on campus. And my case when I came u p really caused a whirlwind. And t hen we believe that it caused the p ro u m, the enactment of what's called the Solomon Amendment, which says that if you kick ROTC off campus, the military can take all the money back from its contracts. So for instance, for a university like UCLA, that's a lot of federal contracts money that will be taken away from you if you kick R OTC u p off campus. So they're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place with me. But so what happened when I got kicked out is I spent a quarter not knowing how am I going to sort of support myself and get back to school. And what they did was they had a policy that said that if there was any cadet, that was like me, that was going through the process, they would g et enough money together and help me and help me out. And that's what they did was to, u m, was to give me some grant money to get back into school. And I, so I finished school, five years later, not later, but five years. And then I went off to law school, but that was i n a really interesting time because I just, I think that was sort of my first adult decision that I made. Like, I will not compromise me because I've worked too hard to get to this point and I can't live in a compromised way. And so that was my first adult decision to say, I'm taking matters b ack into my own hands, despite what's going o n, on around me.

April Abele Isaacson:

And now we pivot to how you went from science to law. Can you talk a bit , can you talk about how that happened at UCLA? Because I know like Kim and me, you had originally wanted to be a doctor, but obviously you're a lawyer. Now talk about that path.

Huong Nguyen:

That's related to getting booted from the military because going back to my 20-year plan that wasn't going to happen. And, you know, I think that when people go through these big life changes, at least for me and I, and it's happened a few times in my life and I've looked back and this is what happens. Chaos, chaos is going around you and you look down and like, everything is moving under you. So you have sort of an earthquake under you and you have your hurricane a round you. I become very Zen about it. 'Cause I'm like, I'm not going to, you know, I'm not g oing t o put my foot down o n t he, the earth that had that shake me and I'm not g oing t o like have the w ind s hake me. So I'm just going to be Zen about t hat for a moment. I'm g oing t o take advantage of this chaos that's happening around me. And I think at that point I took the chaos and I thought, Hey, is it really okay? I m ean, do I really w ant t o be a doctor still? Do I still want to pursue this? Even if I don't have the support in the military. And I thought to myself, "No, I don't want to" because I'm really not good with patients. You know, I don't have good bedside manners. I really hate to be around people who are suffering b ecause I'm very sensitive. And so I just feel like, I don't think being a doctor would be a good l ong-term thing for me. And I thought, "okay, so i f I 'm, if I don't want to be a doctor, maybe I could be a scientist." But I had been a lab rat for like four years and really did not like that life because for some people it's great life. You go into the office a t six in the morning, you do your experiments. You know, you have one or two other people around, and you listen to, you know, talk r adio and country music all day long. And then you leave at the end of the day. And then maybe your result from the day before was good. And if it was bad. You just toss it. And you did this y ear. And a s a scientist, I applaud every scientist who m ade an amazing contribution to science. Because I think about all the days that they had to spend imagine Mendel and his f ricking peas how many peas did he have to write down? There was no computer. You have to write down all those peas. I 'll d o different colors o f a mix, this and all the nights. Good thing, he was k ind o f monkish in that way, but like all that w ork. So it wasn't me. I needed to like talk to people at least. And so I t hought, oh, how about law? And I thought, that's a terrible idea. I don't really know how to speak English. And I don't write that well, but then I talked to some of my family members. They're like l aw makes perfect sense. You argue with us all the time growing up? Like, you argue on everything? Why not? U h, yeah. Why not? And the only really only thing holding me back at that point was me. Why not? Because if I put in the hours to learn English better and to write better. Why not? Right. So that's what I did. I switched to Philosophy, which was crazy at that point, because I had been i n a l ab r at for three years and only was writing lab reports. And now I had to write philosophy papers about, I mean, seriously, we spent a whole, quarter on like a page of Descartes. The first day I thought, "what the hell is this? What classes [did] I choose?" "I think, therefore I am." How much can you talk about, I think, therefore I am.

April Abele Isaacson:

Bonhoeffer and Buber as well?

Huong Nguyen:

But I pulled, I said , okay, I have to do it. I have to go through those process because I, I didn't do it for the first three years. And I need this in order to get into law school and do well. And so I read a ton of books. I'm telling you that that year, I just said, okay, I need to read. So I wrote a bunch of sci- fi, like a bunch of science fiction, because I was like, at least I'm interested in that topic. And then it had to be good writers, right ? Because it's not like all science fiction writers are good writers. So my first wife really is a science fiction fanatic. And so she like turned me on to a bunch of stuff. And I just remember that the series, the "Red Mars" [trilogy], "Green Mars," "Blue Mars." It's the terraforming of Mars. It's amazing, it's a great book. I just read a lot of sc- ifi and that year and that few years there. And so that's, that's my pivot actually was like getting booted from the military and really at that point, thinking, what do I want to do at this point?

Kimberlynn Davis:

Huong, I love that philosophy - the "why not" philosophy. How do you live that philosophy in the workplace today as General Counsel?

Huong Nguyen:

I think that has given me more creativity in the ways that I try to counsel my clients because a lot of times people, and this is, this is my pet peeve when lawyers and the other sides - this is what we've done. This is what we'd done in the past. And we're going to do this, not thinking why you're doing this. I got to say, just like, just yesterday, I was talking to my business development person and she's, you know, she for another company, not at Fosun [it's] for another company that I represent. And we were looking at a term sheet and there was all this like, indemnification in a non-binding term, this huge indemnification, why is this on the non-binding term sheet? Why? Because this should be in the definitive. And she said, "oh, that's how we did it." And I'm like, I don't care. That's not a reason. I know that's how you did it, but that's not the reason to do it in a non-binding term sheet . Why it's not binding the only two things that are binding in this non-binding term sheet is the confidentiality and the governing law. Why are we spending so much time right now, going back on this. So I think that the "why not" really helps me to say, and to every decision I make, like, "is this reasonable?" Just, is this reasonable and not rely on what happened in the past? Because if you rely on what happened in the past. You can't ask why not? Why? Why not? Why, why can't we do something different? Why can't we do something that makes sense for us? You know? And so I think when I bring that into my practice as general counsel, when I asked why not, why not do that?

April Abele Isaacson:

Yeah. And I know from working with you, we always talked about having a practical approach to things. But one of the other things we talked about a lot and put into practice is the importance of diversity in the legal teams. Can you talk about your philosophy in that regard?

Huong Nguyen:

Yeah. Again, it's kind of related to what Kimberlynn is saying. Why not? Why not have diversity? Well, why have diverse people? It's because it is the engine to your creativity. Just think about it - if you have a bunch of homogenous people, you're going to have a bunch of homogenous ideas . It's going to be like over and over again. And then it's like, nobody sticks up and says, well, why we continuing to do this? Because nobody has a different idea. So diversity to me, it's not just a moral or ethical issue. Putting that aside. It's a , it's a business issue because we, as lawyers are problem solvers. And so in order to bring something to the table, we need to bring really good problem solving skills and ideas, different ideas that can work at that time. And so diversity to me feeds into the creativity and problem solving of a company.

April Abele Isaacson:

Can you explain to those folks that have never been in house, how important it is, the pitch teams, and then seeing that through in terms of the diversity?

Huong Nguyen:

Well , think about it. You're , we always say the first impression is everlasting, right? I mean, think about, you're bringing in a team to represent your company. If you bring in a team that is all very homogenous, is that representative of your company. Right? And is that what you want to say about how creative your team is? Right? And so when you bring in a pitch team, you should have diverse people. Not just diversity in terms of race or sexual orientation or gender, but like ability, you know, like, like all kinds of things you should take into consider all kinds of diversity because gosh, a person who is differently abled, oh my God, they see the world so, so much more different than we do. And so they can have creative solutions to our issues that we don't even think about. And so when I, when I say diversity, I know the first thing you guys, I know the first thing generally people think about is, you know, gender, sexual orientation, race. But it's beyond that. It should be beyond that. But you should think about those things. And when you bring them in, don't let them just sit there. If you bring them in [and you] let them sit there. And they don't participate in your conversation. That's terrible. It's worse than not bringing them in at all. Right. Because then people are like, oh, you just bringing them in because you know , you're trying to trick us. So they have to be not only talking in the pitch, they also have to be part of the team that you're trying to get the work. So yes, Jeanie is going to be talking in the pitch about what she's going to be doing for your case, for your matter. So that, so all of that is important. And that is all to say, you know what, if you don't do it, at least in my book, you might not have the edge at the end of the day. There's so many good law firms out there who can meet your budget, who has the skill, who can fit what you're looking for. And so if you have a handful of companies who can do that, what , uh , what , how are you going to distinguish yourself? So the one way for me, at least for me to distinguish yourself is yes, we can do all of that, like the other firm , but we'll be very creative. We'll be very creative because we have a creative, a diverse team. And I use that as a tiebreaker

April Abele Isaacson:

And , and Kim and I have talked about the tokenism, right. As some people think, yeah, you just put someone on there and they check the box, but the in-house counsel look at the bills and they knew who's doing the work.

Huong Nguyen:

Yeah. Like, yeah, I'm for, in house consequent, don't work in the area. I mean, you can kind of like, you know, you can kind of, I don't want to use the word play, but you can kind of shade. I mean, if you are like , April and I, when we were in house and we're overseeing litigation, you can't pull anything on us. We look at the bill and we say, oh, you spent 40 hours on an answer. No, like , no, we're not paying you 40 hours for the answer. Unless you have to do research on it. And there isn't so too bad, no 40 hours for you. So, yeah. I mean, we , we really, for those of us who have practiced before in that area, you can't really what you want, what you want to do as outside counsels to make your in-house counsel's life much easier. That's, that's your main goal, really. And to do that, you want to offer practical business solutions to whatever issue you're working on.

Kimberlynn Davis:

Huong, for outside counsel, just another tip from you. What else can we do for our in-house counsel to make your life easier or better? What about promotion? So to speak, is that helpful in any way, the same way, it would be helpful for law firm attorneys to be promoted by their clients. Can we be like that way?

Huong Nguyen:

You mean, like the opposite?

Kimberlynn Davis:

Yes, is there some kind of reciprocal relationship there?

Huong Nguyen:

Not really because you're , we're paying you, right? Of course you're gonna sing our praises. And so that's on the artificial, right . But it does work the opposite. We're paying you and we think you do really good work. And then we say something that works, I think, much better. So the way that I help out with that is that for younger associates and younger partners, whenever there's a review, I would try to put in a good word for that partner, our younger associate becauseI know that will help them out in their career. And I've done that a couple of times and that really helped out. And so I tried to do my best to sort of help with the promotion part, you know, on the other end, because I know how it works on the other end,

April Abele Isaacson:

Huong, I know how important your family is to you and your kids. Can you talk about that with us a little bit?

Huong Nguyen:

Yeah. My kids are my pain in the ass Yeah . But you know, I say that jokingly and , and realistically they are a pain in the ass, but I love them so much. They're really the reason why I, like I wake up and I work every day is because I know that I'm supporting them through school or through life or whatever . I want to be able to be there for them. I want to be, I don't want them that you don't have to go through what I had to go through. And so I always, you know, I tell them, you know, I'll be there. Even if you go to prison and visit you, you know, like just to say that to them, because then they'll know, okay, there's nothing I can do that can lose that love from my parent. And I , I I'm , and I also tell them, you know , like if you do something bad, I'm going to call the cops , but I'll visit you in jail .

April Abele Isaacson:

She is no nonsense. I will tell our listeners that don't know her. This is Huong.

Kimberlynn Davis:

I will visit you in prison every single day and send you care packages, but do not. And if I know about it, you're going to suffer the consequences for it. But I love my kids. And that's how you know, I, I don't know. I just, I think it's because the way I was brought up, like, I really didn't have a lot of guidance from my parents for whatever reason. I just, I just want to be their guide. I , at this point, I'm not really like their day-to-day parent anymore. And in some ways that's a good thing because they're like flying the coop right now. And I won't be suffering as much because my role will be almost the same right now for the rest of their lives. I'll call them up and I'll talk to them and they'll visit me sometimes. So it's pretty much kind of what, you know, what's my relationship with them is not going to change right now. You know , my first wife, they live with my first wife. So she's going to have to go through that hump of like, "I'm going to lose my children right now." They're lovely, but they they've had, they've been very high maintenance in terms of education. They have had a lot of learning differences that we've had to scaffold tremendously. I just tell you this, you know, how, how people say, like, however you're going to interact and react during kindergarten may affect the rest of your education. Well, my, my first child, who's 18 right now in his kindergarten year who went to four years of Montessori preschool. And so we had no idea what all was going on. Cause they , Montessori is where you get to do whatever you want, anytime that you want. And so he went to traditional kindergarten and in traditional kindergarten, he just, couldn't just couldn't deal with the format of it. So he basically checked out and rebelled. And were like paying all this money for him to half the year sit with the head. We're like, oh my God, we're going to be kicked out of this school. They're not going to invite us back. And the other half of the year, we kind of like try to bring him back into the classroom. And all he did was like, Nope, I'm just going to sit here and draw robots with white paper and a pencil. If you give me anything else, I'm going to rebel and go back to the Principal's office. Like he would have lunch with the Principal I'm like, so that was sort of what happened the beginning of his , his education. And we, we just threw whatever we can and we're lawyer . So like , I can't have, do we fix this educational therapist , occupational therapist , you know , all kinds of tutors, all kinds of, you know, people that can help him. Because as lawyers we're like, there is no way our child will hate school. That is the number one thing we cannot happen. They cannot hate learning. We both love learning. And if they hate learning, then this is a huge problem throughout their whole school. So we didn't care about the grades. We didn't care about friends. We didn't care about anything. We're like, please do not hate school. Please do not hate learning. And so that was our mantra. And amazingly, he took off , um, the 18-year old took off in the, in the, and the 16 year old is, is , uh, hopefully taking off soon, but they just got accepted to , um, to USC and , um, the gaming department there, which is supposedly the best gaming department in the country and not, and I'm so proud, not because he got into USC and we didn't really pull any strings. Right?

April Abele Isaacson:

For those of you not in California and you don't know UCLA and USC - that's a huge rivalry.

Huong Nguyen:

I had to bite my tongue quite a bit. You know, when he's like, I want to go to USC. I'm like, why? But because he has so much grit, this is not conceptual, but I told him , I said, I know you identify right now, mostly as white. And you're really privileged because we've talked about this. This is not, you know , this is not me being harsh. We talked about how privileged he is, despite the fact that he has all this learning differences. We're able to get him help, you know. And he he's going to a private high school and, you know, and so he knows he's privileged in that way. And I said, but man , I'm so proud of you. You have so much grit. I said, I have double your grit, but man, I wasn't even expecting this much from you because you, because you grew up so privileged, but I'm so proud of you because you have so much grit. And that's, I think that's the biggest compliment that somebody could give other people. I was like, I recognize your effort. You know, like so much work, you know, in so much fight and determination. That's more than more than what it is that you've accomplished. It's like, you really fought for it, man. And he could have fought for a program somewhere else, you know? And if he fought for it, I would have said the same thing. My kids are, they're my badge of honor.

Kimberlynn Davis:

I love it. Huong, that, that whole growth mindset and instilling that in them at such a young age, I had to change the praise that I would give to my boys. Like, oh, you're so smart. You got an A versus, oh my goodness, Stevie, you worked so hard on that project. It paid off. I am so proud of you. You turned in your best work product that you could. And , and I think it , it definitely is helping. My mom has told me this for years, but it takes me listening to the expert in the field to actually implement it. But , um , no, I am right there with you Huong Huong. This has been such a pleasure having this great conversation with you before we let you go, though. I just need to ask on behalf of our listeners who may find themselves as the first or the only you've been in that situation countless times, what advice do you give to that person?

Huong Nguyen:

I don't think about first and only. I think about walking into room and doing my best, and also believing that I belong in that room. Right. I belong in that room. I remember thinking when I was at Impax, April, you can, you can relate. So all the senior management at that point, and this is before April came, all the senior management at that point were men. And they were dressed very conservatively, a lot of white men, a lot of them, white men, except for the CEO. I remember walking in with my hair sticking straight up. I dunno , how , how was cut at that point? And basically union Silicon Valley garb, walking in and having full on conversation with them about a litigation that was like a big deal. Right? And I remember having this conversation and I just took one moment, looked around and I was like, wow, I'm sitting in this room. This is great. You know, I look the way I look, I'm totally out and open and I can dress how I want, and I can talk the way I want. I think what, the only advice that I could give people is just not think of yourself as the first and only to put any pressure on you. Think of that as like, Hey, I belong there. I'm there do your, do your best. And you belong there because you wouldn't be there. If you didn't belong there, you belong there. So just think that way. And then the first and only is only afterwards, right? Oh, I was the first and only. Cool. I should have been, I shouldn't have been, but okay. Whatever, move on. You know, like, I don't really take a lot of stock in like, or pat myself on the back for being first and only. It's only like, what, why was I? This is not hard.

April Abele Isaacson:

No, exactly. And the thing is, I will say as someone who I said, it's five feet tall, you really made it your point to be able to take up space in that room as well. Yeah. And your story of how you came to be where you are right now. So inspiring to me personally, and I'm sure to our listeners and I really can't thank you enough for sharing your story, being your authentic self, and just being really telling your truth to our listeners. So thank you so much, Huong it's, like I said, at the beginning, it's really my privilege to be your friend. And thank you.

Huong Nguyen:

Thank you guys. My pleasure to come and , and have this conversation with you.

April Abele Isaacson:

Thank you for joining us today. If you enjoyed Sidebars, we invite you to check out the Kilpatrick Townsend's Medicine and Molecules blog on kilpatricktownsend.com to read, watch, and listen to other related insight on patent law. We'll also put that information in the show notes. The opinions expressed on this podcast are own and are not those of Kilpatrick Townsend.

Kimberlynn Davis:

Also we would love it if you would rate us or leave a review, it helps others find the show, see you next time.