The Great Big Story about a Vietnamese-American woman

By Trong Giap   August 14, 2018 | 05:25 pm PT
You know where to go to for a Great Big Story.

And if you don’t, you soon will, joining millions around the globe who have watched videos of a man losing his sense of taste, met the voice-over actor of Mario, Nintendo’s most beloved video game character, and the Mysterious Homes of Firefly Forest.

With between 11 million and 17 million views each, these are some of the most watched videos among thousands published on YouTube by the global media company specializing in telling cinematic stories. GBS (Great Big Story) also publishes on Facebook, Vimeo, Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Prime Video and has mobile apps for iOS and Android.

But there is a great big story about Great Big Story that has not been told yet; about a woman, the daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant family, who is now the New York-based general manager of the company.

This is Uyen Tieu’s story.

Uyen Tieu, General Manager of Great Big Story. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Uyen Tieu, General Manager of Great Big Story. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Immigrants family

Uyen’s parents are from southern Vietnam.

In 1979, they took her and her older sister as they went on a plane, flying half way around the world to the U.S. west coast, where it touched down on the Moffet Airfield right in the center of Silicon Valley, California. Sponsored by Catholic missionaries in Wichita, Kansas, they moved to the city, spending several months living in the church basement.

Without any knowledge of English or a higher education, they struggled with various manual jobs to feed three children, from dish washing in restaurants to working as housemaids. Their hard work paid off. After several years, they managed to move back to San Jose, California, where Uyen’s mother opened a Vietnamese restaurant while her father opened a machinist company. The parents did everything possible for their daughters. For them, nothing was more important than the family.

When Uyen’s father passed away five years ago, he requested that his gravestone be carved with the message: “The love of family gives life meaning.”

Ivy League education

Uyen got a bachelor’s degree at Yale and an MBA at Columbia Business School.

The first place in the U.S. that her parents set foot on was Silicon Valley, and it was also where Uyen started her career in technology. “I am grateful to the U.S. for welcoming me and giving my family opportunities,” she told VnExpress.

Before she took over as General Manager for the Great Big Story, Uyen had occupied several leading positions in both start-ups and giant tech firms. She was co-founder and chief revenue officer of Rumble News Ltd, a mobile-first platform for publishers, after serving as the Global Head of Ad Sales Strategy at Microsoft and Vice President of Marketing Partnerships of Viacom, which owns the MTV Network.

Early tech exposure

Growing up in Silicon Valley, Uyen was exposed to technology from an early age.

She got a scholarship to join a computer programming course before it had become a popular trend.
Uyen said she was lucky to have started her media career at ViaCom, which has been known for many powerful female leaders, like the then CEO Judy Mcgrath and Carolyn Everson, now head of Facebook ad sales.

As she developed in her career, Uyen did not really see male dominance in the technology community as an issue, she looked at many women who had succeeded.

One day in 2016, Uyen’s heart was captured when she saw the first video of the Great Big Story: Behold the Human Towers of Catalonia.

The Spanish game is one of humanity's strangest and most spectacular contests. The video featured hundreds of castellers or tower builders in colorful costumes forming human structures up to 10 tiers and rising nearly 15 meters high.

“The video was so surprising, it gave me a sense of wonder,” Uyen said. It was so well done that she told everyone about it. And she kept being surprised on watching the second and third videos on the site.

“I think it’s very difficult in the media right now to be so consistent and be able to still deliver a sense of surprise and wonder while maintaining high quality. That was when I got very interested...”

She accepted the position of general manager in 2017 after finding that she shared the same vision as Chris Berend, co-founder of the company.

Since its establishment in 2015, the startup has received $70 million in investment from CNN. Managing 80 core employees in New York and London, she has been working with leaders from different departments like Editorial Production, Art, Audience Intelligence, Social Publishing and Business Development.

Uyen envisions Great Big Story as a tool to change how people view the world. She finds that a lot of content on the internet is “sometimes either very dark or very silly.” Therefore, there is a great space out there for quality, uplifting storytelling. She’s passionate about making Great Big Story a “cultural iconic brand” in the future.

“I have all these producers that come in every single day, finding the wonder within the world and producing amazing stories about that. That potential really excites me about running Great Big Story.”

Under Uyen’s leadership, Great Big Story has developed explosively, with around 400 million views a month, and 10 million dedicated fans.

“Every day, people spend five million minutes watching our videos. This is extraordinary because in the current media market, when there are so many options, people are deciding to spend time watching our content. It is a big win,” Uyen said.

Besides, each video has attracted a large number of comments and shares, 90 percent of them positive.

Owning identities

Apart from being a well-established business woman, Uyen is also a strong social activist.

In 2016, surprised at the low percentage of Asian American millennials (people born 1980-1998) going to vote (36 percent), Uyen initiated a national campaign called: “I’m Asian American.”

The campaign aimed to encourage Asian American millennials to actively participate in the election process. Using her media contacts well, she successfully organized free concerts in four cities where there are a large number of Asian Americans -- New York, Washington D.C, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Speaking in front of around 2,000 people in Los Angeles, she showed a picture of her mother holding her sister at a refugee camp in 1978, next to her own picture holding her son in Main, 2016.

Looking at the picture with teary eyes, Uyen said: “For them, it was about survival, it was about stability, and it was about setting us up to be this generation of change.

“Don’t be that nine and ten Asian American millennials that shut up, that let others speak for them. It is time for us to be proud. It’s time for us to be seen. It’s time for us to be heard. Because our voice matters, and our votes count,” Uyen said to applause.

Seamless blend

Uyen said she takes pride in the ability to blend two very strong identities together - of being both Vietnamese and American.

“As I enter different life stages of student, wife and mother, I have been fortunate to be able to be very comfortable in having the two cultures blend seamlessly together and continue Vietnamese traditions, albeit with an American twist,” said the mother of two young children.

In her younger days, she was a president of her high school Vietnamese Student Union and would emcee the student variety show and choreograph conical hat (non la) dances.

At the same time, she was also a wing commander of Air Force Junior ROTC, a high school military program, and was the varsity cross country co-captain.

Now, as a mother of two young kids, together with her Jewish-American husband, they have been able to build a family life that represents both backgrounds. Uyen follows a lot of Vietnamese traditions, from engagement to her son’s first month ceremony, full-moon festival and Tet, the Lunar New Year.

“When we got engaged, we did it the very traditional way, meeting parents on both sides to bless the engagement. It was particularly meaningful to my husband and me, because this Vietnamese tradition reinforced our shared value of family and the importance of our parents as we build our own family.”

She also follows the very Vietnamese tradition of laying out a meal for her father who has passed away and has the entire family fly back home for his memorial every year, to clean his grave and have a remembrance ceremony.

Uyen has been back to Vietnam several times and a trip later this year will be a special one, as her children will visit the country for the very first time.

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