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Smallwoods Give Back to Vietnam
December 2009. Dan Emerson. Twin Cities Metro Magazine

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Caught up in her own crucial teen years in Maple Grove, Marianne Smallwood—like many kids—didn’t know a lot about her parents’ own childhoods. That changed a few years ago when she visited her father Paul’s native Vietnam and the fishing village in the Phillipines where her mother, Anita, grew up.

Seeing the poverty and developing prosperity of Southeast Asia was an eye-opening experience for Smallwood, one that has led her to dedicate her professional life to making existence better in developing nations. Earlier this year, Smallwood finished a Fulbright Scholarship in Hanoi, where she spent 10 months interviewing impoverished street-vendors and compiling an anecdotal study on their lives, relevant causes and suggestions for government policy-makers.

 

To Vietnam, with Love

Smallwood, a 27-year-old Osseo High School grad, got her first glimpse of the developing world when she visited the Republic of the Philippines with her parents, two brothers and extended family eight years ago.

She spent much of 2003 as a University of Minnesota student in Hong Kong. After graduating, she returned to Vietnam with fiancé Tyler McKinley, spending time there off-and-on since June 2006 and culminating in her street vendor study last year. (One tidbit from her research: 93 percent of Hanoi’s street vendors are women.)

“My brothers and I were very fortunate to be raised in the U.S.,” she says. “We didn’t know much about where our parents came from. We had never experienced firsthand the poverty of a third-world country. But, when I was speaking to [the study subjects], it all started coming together.”

Soon after graduating from the U of M, Smallwood took a job with General Mills as a business management associate. Eventually, the “pull” of her third-world dream led her to resign after two years to return to school. She started looking for opportunities to work and study in Vietnam. Through the Princeton (University) in Asia program, she found a one-year position as a systems development officer with ChildFund, a non-government organization (NGO).

In September 2007, she applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to continue working within an NGO and was accepted in April 2008. Hanoi has an estimated 15,000 mobile street vendors, which represents “not just 15,000 individuals, but 15,000 families,” Smallwood points out. “They have to be separated from their families for months at a time.” Smallwood was saddened by the realization that “the vendors’ lives seem pretty cyclical, and it doesn’t seem like anything will change; they are so used to a particular lifestyle.” The socialist government has implemented policies to “phase out” vendors and limit where they can work, making their lives even more difficult. Smallwood hopes her report can be a tool for positive change.

Smallwood recently began a two-year graduate program in international development at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts. Her goal is to find a position that combines private sector work and humanitarian aid, either in Southeast Asia or West Africa.

Her Father’s Footsteps

Marianne’s father, Paul, also has a vision to help spur economic development in Vietnam, where he was born 49 years ago. Paul, founder and president of Maple Grove-based Flowsense Building Services, was born near Ho Chi Minh City, South Vietnam. After his birth father was killed in the war, his mother married a retired U.S. Army sergeant who brought Paul and his mother out of South Vietnam in 1974 before the country fell to North Vietnamese forces.

From 1980 to 1984, Paul served in the U.S. Air Force, where he met his wife, Anita. During his senior year at the University of Illinois, Westinghouse Corp. recruited him to join its elite engineering program. The Smallwood family moved to the Twin Cities from Orlando, Fla., in 1996, so Anita could be closer to her family, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

After working in sales and marketing for Honeywell and Plymouth-based McQuay International, Smallwood launched Flowsense Building Services in 2001. The firm, which provides construction management and facility services to public-sector clients worldwide, has won awards for its social responsibility and environmentally friendly solutions. After the United States lifted its Vietnamese trade embargo in 1994, Paul returned to his homeland to conduct a market feasibility study for Westinghouse. Noting the strong, steady winds blowing in from the South China Sea, he also started thinking about wind turbines as a potential driver of economic growth. Paul laid the groundwork for his wind project when he returned to Vietnam in 2004 as part of a state of Minnesota trade mission, developing friendships with local politicians.

Back in Minnesota, Paul’s looking for investors to help him put together a consortium to build, operate and then transfer ownership of the turbines to the Vietnamese government. “Solar and wind energy are right for Vietnam,” he says. “It would be a win-win situation: the people of Vietnam would get sustainable, renewable energy; we’d get a chance to help save the environment.” --Dan Emerson

In addition to Marianne, the Smallwoods have two other children: Alex is an architecture major at the University of Minnesota; Paul Jr. is a senior at Maple Grove High School and a safety on the football team.

 

 

 

 

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