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Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E15: Conversation with Hong Le, Grab

Vietnam is rapidly embracing digital, e-commerce services and products. From Web3 to Metaverse, companies and talent are now on the hunt for the next big thing to better bring products to market.

In today’s digital environment, how can companies of all sizes quickly adapt, overcome challenges and find the right talent? How can professionals better position themselves on the latest trends? What can we do to keep our edge in the competitive digital/e-commerce market?

Hong Le, Head of GrabMart, Merchant & Strategy at Grab, shares more on bringing brands online in this episode of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters in South East Asia. Don’t miss Hong’s advice as well on growing a career through diverse but complementary experience.

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights into the world of work. Watch the videocast of this episode here.

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Emmanuel L'Henoret: Hi, I'm Emmanuel L'Henoret, Senior Consultant at Robert Walters Vietnam, and I am your host today for our Powering Potential with Robert Walters. So, this Powering Potential is our leadership series where we interview business leaders, recruitment experts, and career growth specialists on their careers, leadership lessons and the latest talent trends.

So today, I have the pleasure to welcome Hong Le, who is the Head of GrabMart for Merchant and Strategy at Grab. And I'm very happy to welcome her in this podcast. So, thank you very much for making the time for us today.

Hong Le: Thank you for having me, Emmanuel. I can call you Manu, right?

Emmanuel: Yes, Manu is good. As we discussed, you have a wide experience in marketing and e-commerce. You have been working for several companies in this field in the past. You started your career in Nestle and then you moved to Unilever, Reckitt Benckiser and Lazada.

I saw also that you launched your own business related to organic food. And I will be glad to hear more about this project later as an entrepreneur. And then a couple of years ago, you joined GrabMart in Vietnam. So, I'm looking forward to hearing from you about your insight about the change and the evolution of the digital and e-commerce ecosystem for the past few years, because you have been able to observe that in different companies, different industries, and as an employee but also as a business owner. So, I think I really look forward to speaking to you about that.

Hong: Yeah. So, thank you for your questions. I have to say that in the last couple of years, the industry has changed a lot. So, you see, lots of companies, moving from traditional models into a more fast-paced moving digital industry. And so, I think that I'm very lucky to be able to join some of the very big companies - and all the companies, they have a very driven business agenda to grow.

And I think, that is also where I see businesses are going right now. So, nothing is definite; there's no business model that would be fixed forever. So, everything's changing so fast. And the companies, as well as the people in the industry, have to change very fast accordingly as well.

So, in short, I think the industry will evolve more and more models in the future. What we see today doesn't mean that it will define us tomorrow. So, we've been hearing a lot of, let's say, in the last couple of months, we hear a lot of Web3 and Metaverse right. So, those things can be also some very new industries coming up as well.

Emmanuel: Interesting. As I mentioned previously, you have for the past 10 years worked in different industries, and you have been able to observe the digital transformation in e-commerce growing in Vietnam. So, during those 10 years, between 10 years ago and now, how do you see brands and companies launching their products online? And what's the difference between 10 years ago and now, in terms of how they approach e-commerce?

Hong: Yeah. So, there are a lot of changes recently on how companies launched their products. First is speed-to-market. Before, when you launch a product, there was a lot of steps involved, and different stakeholders need to make decision. And in every stage, you need to wait. So now, with the speed of digital, everything is much, much faster. Companies can stay ahead of the game. Digital can help them quickly adjust the plan at this stage, and help the company to make changes when necessary, so they can test and learn, and redo immediately. That's the first thing. The second thing is the route-to-market. Right now, there are a lot of chances to implement the omnichannel strategy, especially after COVID. So, with the digital transformation, it can help the company to understand the cost of sales better.

And they can use data analytics to develop optimal sales channels, and decide which one is the best for them. So, it's also good for their return on investment as well. So, with this, I can see that the gap between the big and small companies are getting smaller. More chances for the companies who can optimise and adapt better - they can win better.

Emmanuel: Interesting. So, I guess, as you mentioned, there has been a lot of evolution due to COVID. Maybe, can you give me an example of what you used to see with brands before COVID, and what's the difference you can see now after COVID, in terms of, as you say, speed-to-market and agility, in terms of using e-commerce?

Hong: I think the biggest thing is the mindset. Before COVID, a lot of companies, they were still very sceptical about e-commerce. They don't know if this is just a phase, a temporary phase, or it's something long term. And especially with the small companies, they will see that, should I just diversify myself from the traditional sales channel? But it's very interesting - yesterday, I was talking to one of my friends, he's working at e-commerce as well, and he said that a lot of brands will come to him voluntarily and ask, "What can I do, how can I be on your platform?” We also see a lot of people interested in learning about new channels. So, this is something very interesting.

Also, before, with my previous startup, I also had a chance to work with a lot of farmers. And farmers is one of the people that don't really care so much about digital or that you’re selling online. But now, they were just really interested in how they can participate in this. So, I think the biggest change is the attitude. Yeah, I think that is a very good sign.

Emmanuel: Exactly. I was also discussing with people in Education Tech, and they were sharing with me that even at the beginning of COVID, like the parents, they didn't want to pay the school fee because they say it's like Study at Home; the students are not in the class, so we will not pay. And now, I think the game changed, and parents are very open to pay online classes for their children.

Hong: Yeah.

Emmanuel: And it happened the same before with Travel Tech, and now it happens in other industries.

Hong: I think it’s evolving in every industry - yeah, it is a big shift.

Emmanuel: Exactly. So, in general, what are the challenges that you think companies are facing in the digital space? And are there any factors that some companies may miss at the beginning when they launch their e-commerce or digital business?

Hong: Yeah, I think the biggest challenge is people.

It's not only in digital but it's in every kind of business. But specifically, right now, because the industry is growing so fast, so there's a big shortage of talent, especially in the high growth industries, like e-commerce, tech, or recently Web3. There's a lot of new demand. But the skill sets are not ready yet, and the current curriculum are not really up-to-date to that need as well. So, it's very necessary that companies, they keep preparing for a talent pipeline, especially in the digital workforce to meet this talent challenge. So, I think besides the new hires, companies can upskill training for the existing employees.

And I know interestingly some companies, they even have a specific OKR to digitalise certain percentage of their employees as part of their digital transformation. So, I think always placing people with the right mindset is very important.

And secondly, is the technology. So, when people talk about technology, people might think, "Oh, I need to do lots of heavy investment", but it's not necessary and it's not always the case. So, for example, companies with a heavy traditional or indirect sales aspect, it will be hard for them to put lots of investment and see the payout right away. So, what they can do is that they can gradually work with other third-party, with other partners, to test and learn, and see the results, and analyse that. And they can see every activity they're doing, as long as they keep it as the top of mind, as an integral part of their daily business, I think that will view results.

So I think, again, technology and with the mindset of how to apply technology in everyday business is very important.

Emmanuel: Exactly. And I think we see a lot of companies trying to approach this e-commerce industry because as you mentioned, they are the brands and sometimes they are the marketplace. And then, there is a gap in between in terms of technology because the brands, they are not born digital. So, they sometimes need to have either a service company or technology to support them to implement on the e-commerce side. And I think we have seen the growth of e-commerce enablers in Vietnam and in the whole of Southeast Asia. And apparently, there's also e-commerce enablers who first started to work more on the service side, so already working with the marketplace to help the brand to launch a marketplace. And then those company, they are now also launching technology - software-as-a-service to facilitate the brands when it comes to integration and launching their own e-commerce.

Hong: Yeah, exactly. And I think that trying to leverage those tools and those partners will give you better results than always having to invest by yourself.

Emmanuel: Correct. So, we've seen also, I mean different industry but also in FinTech, where some banks are trying to launch their own digital banking, but it requires a lot of financial effort, and the results are not guaranteed. So, of course, as you mentioned, it's test and learn. And some do make some mistake, and there is no right or wrong.

Hong: Yeah, exactly.

Emmanuel: So, what do you think is the next big thing, or trend in e-commerce or digital marketing? And how do you position yourself as a talent to be ready for this?

Hong: I think since B2C e-commerce is becoming a priority in a lot of companies, there will be a challenge that lots of company won't depend on third-party platforms. You said that there’re third-party platform enablers et cetera - there are tools but as we see it's getting more and more crowded.

So obviously, there would be more choices for shoppers, more companies joining in the market, hence, it's getting more competitive. So, I think in the short term, services that offer better convenience, better interactions, better personalisation, would get more attention of the shoppers, and certain footmark of e-commerce will continue to grow. In the past, we have web e-commerce and now we have quick commerce, and then we have social commerce. So, there are different formats. As long as we put our shoppers as a top of mind to serve them, I think that would be the key point here.

So, for instance, one example in America, we see WalMart, they're offering a new service in home grocery delivery to serve the busy workers. So, when they get home, they can see their groceries already home in their fridges already. I love this service. So, something like that. You put your users, your shoppers, at your top of mind to see how you can serve them differently and at the best. I think that would be something the market will evolve to.

And I think in the long term, we also need to watch out for the new trends. So, we see the immersion of Metaverse - I think this is very interesting as well. How it will impact the way shoppers shop in a hyper-personalisation way. So, this is something very futuristic. But we also think that is something very interesting to watch as well.

Emmanuel: Correct. And I think Vietnam is one of the countries ahead of the curve when it comes to blockchain, metaverse. I think, as a recruiter, we are seeing a lot of local companies or international companies who want to invest in Vietnam. And I think the main reason is because of the tech talent are in Vietnam.

So, I think it's an advantage because at the end, we have IT and developers who are developing skills in this ecosystem - Blockchain, Web3, Metaverse. And then I think at some point, as you mentioned, maybe some e-commerce company may develop this kind of technology, and I think Vietnam will be on the top of the curve. So, I think it's great. And also, as I was saying, we see the development. We don't know where this is going to lead but I think it's interesting to see that.

So, maybe for my final question, when I introduced you, I mentioned that you have been working for major brands, as you mentioned like Nestle, Unilever, Lazada, and Grab. Looking back at your career, what would be the piece of career advice you would like to share with our audience, who are managers and potential future directors, and who want to grow their career in this field?

Hong: I think one biggest advice is never stop learning and growing yourself. Especially in the face of change in this workplace - it is very drastic, right? What you know today, won't work tomorrow. And we are going to see the fundamental change in the workforce in the next 10 years. In the last 10 years, we see a lot of changes and it keeps changing.

So personally, I think for me, I also remind myself that you always need to learn regardless of your age. So, even like you learn from the younger people who have different skillsets, and you're complementary to each other, so you always watch out and look for the new things in the industry.

You can also practice doing this by intentional learning in everyday life, through courses, taking new projects, and meet ups with experts in the field. In certain areas, there's no specific curriculum yet. So, you have to really go out there and explore by yourself. But I think the attitude is very important to maintain and to be able to be successful.

Emmanuel: Interesting. I would like to ask you another question about your career because as you mentioned, you have been working for corporate, and then you launched your own business, and then you returned to corporate, and we have a lot of candidates, who after launching their own business, become a bit less confident to come back to the job market because they think, "Oh, companies don't value my skills, and my CV doesn't look as good as before". So, maybe you can share with us briefly your experience with that, and how you leverage your business, your startup later in your career?

Hong: I think the most important thing is you need to listen to your heart. I know it sounds very cheesy, but you really need to know what you like and what you're passionate about.

And then that will be the decisive factors if you're going to be successful in the next role or not. Obviously, you need experience, you need skillsets to really achieve that. So, I think, actually my past experience is very complementary to what I'm doing right now. So, with my current position, the role requires me to be able to deal with big corporates, to be working in the process role. But also, as the company is growing and expanding, I need to have that kind of entrepreneur mindset to really set up the team. And also, the industry itself is the industry that I'm really passionate about - it's about e-grocery.

So, I think this is the complementary. You don't think "A is A", "B is B", and "C is C" because now, nothing is really that separate. So, everything is complementary as long as you know your core values, what you're passionate about, and how you can grow or add value to the business, that is the most important thing. And then I think you should show that ability.

Emmanuel: Exactly. And actually, recently I talked to a few startups in the region, who want to launch in Vietnam. And when we ask them about looking for Country Manager, and when we ask them about the requirements, always they tell us, "We don't want someone who has been working only for corporate. We want someone who has been working for startups before because the mindset and the dynamics are different." So, I think companies who are now entering Vietnam and want to launch their part of the business in Vietnam from Singapore, Indonesia, they're looking for people who have entrepreneur mindset, who have entrepreneur experience, and it's a requirement. So, it's great to hear.

Emmanuel: Great. So, we come to the end of this session. So, thank you very much Hong for your time. It was very great to hear from your insights and personal advice. I'm sure our audience appreciates the learning about your experience in the digital and e-commerce sector, and how it's pushing you to always grow and develop in this industry.

Hong: Yeah. Thank you so much Manu for having me. Hopefully, I can see this podcast soon on live.

Emmanuel: Thank you. To our listeners and viewers, don't forget to stay tuned for our next episode. Take care and goodbye!. Bye-bye.

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