Shane Dillon: Empowering International Graduate Community

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Shane Dillon has lived and worked in multiple countries for over 15 years since he left Australia. Being passionate about education, and with a vision to realize the full potential and unique value brought by returning international students, Shane founded the International Alumni Job Network (IAJN) – a professional network which connects international students and alumni with industries and potential employers. 

Launching IAJN in 2016 to empower international students, Shane developed a new service segment in the international education sector by providing education to employment services for international students and alumni and grown IAJN into an invaluable database, linking over 175,000 international graduates and alumni with job opportunities making a significant impact on the rapidly evolving employment landscape across Asia Pacific. 

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications Officer, Advance

How did you come to be living in HCMC?

I left Australia in 2003 to teach for one year in South Korea and this lead to other roles in education, international development and finance in mainland China, Hong Kong, Guatemala, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ukraine. My uncle had been in the first cohort of expats who entered Vietnam when they opened up in the early 90's and I had grown up hearing stories of how great the place was and the opportunities (and difficulties) that occurred when living there. 

I first arrived in HCMC as a tourist in 1997 and quickly fell in love with the place. After my next contract finished in Indonesia I applied for jobs in HCMC and was fortunate to get a role setting up a mathematics curriculum for a new international school. While working in that role I completed graduate school in finance and started working for a Singaporean investment firm office in Vietnam and then for one of their partner insurance groups. It was while working for the insurance group in a regional role that I started becoming aware of the international education sector.         

What made you choose Vietnam to launch IAJN?

We set up IAJN in Vietnam and it quickly spread throughout Asia Pacific in the first 6 months. My partners in the business were also based in Vietnam at the time so we made Vietnam the main operating office. IAJN has grown to a database of over 175,000+ international students and alumni in the first 24 months and it has been challenging to say the least to have demand across such a wide geographic region.  IAJN is now registered in Hong Kong and Australia too. 

What do you think is the biggest benefit international students can bring to their jobs when they return home?

International student alumni have historically been an overlooked asset and when we set up IAJN we were the vanguard in terms of an organisation focused on engaging and adding value to this quasi-diaspora. I believe there is incredible value that international students and alumni bring to organisations. Being bi-lingual and bi-cultural they are able to operate in the many businesses, government agencies and organisations doing cross border business or in foreign companies doing business in their local market. I have also witnessed the trend since 2008 of traditional expat roles being replaced with local candidates with international qualifications and experience. 

What's the biggest breakthrough in your start-up journey?

The start-up journey is well documented with trials and tribulations and moments of pride and accomplishment. In 2017 IAJN was shortlisted for an award in the UK that placed us in the top 3 companies globally for achievement and innovation in the international education sector. This was incredible validation of our idea from the sector and for a business only 1 year old at the time was very satisfying. The journey continues to have some great highs - IAJN was named in the TOP100 startups in Asia Pacific in 2018 - and the normal growing pains of cash flow, product service demand, resource allocation, fundraising and managing a company with a global footprint with a small (and dedicated and awesome) team. 

What surprised you most when you started IAJN?

The demand from the international students and alumni and the "head in the sand" approach from most universities to the issues of international student employment. We originally tested the concept in Vietnam with alumni from Australia under the brand Australian Alumni Job Network (AAJN) and this grew so quickly and had such demand from other alumni (from UK, US, Canada, New Zealand) and locations (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, China, India) that we had to re-brand in the first 3 months to the International Alumni Job Network (IAJN). IAJN now conducts research into this relationship between employment outcomes and satisfaction with international study and we believe this has shone a spotlight on the issue. IAJN is now getting more and more engagement from universities (particularly in the USA) and we continue to reach out to universities in Australia to support this critical part of the international student journey - the transition from education to employment. 

What has been your most rewarding experience living in HCMC?

This is my 11th year in HCMC and so many milestones in my life have occurred here. I started my first start up here (Beaten Path Software), made many great friends and started a family. The most rewarding would be raising tri-lingual children (when I only speak English) and being involved in startups that are being disruptive with a social conscious. 

Living as an expat I have had great fortune in meeting people from ambassadors, business leaders, sportsmen, musicians, academics to that time I ended up having dinner with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the experiences that you find yourself in as an expat are remarkable. 

How do you see IAJN growing in the future? And what challenges do you foresee and how would you overcome them?

IAJN is going global - and we have ambition to maintain our status as the largest international student and alumni network in the world and to continue to add value in this space. We are about to launch our 2nd platform (Talk Study) that aims to disrupt the international student recruitment / agent model by replacing agent advice with peer to peer advice leveraging the IAJN member database and our research into International Student Employment Outcomes and Satisfaction. 

Our ongoing challenge is the geographic scope of the demands we have from IAJN student alumni members; what we can deliver online and what requires in country support. IAJN is still in its infancy and we have a proven business model and looking for the right partners to help us scale. More support from Australian business, government and universities would be great.  

HCMC is a mecca for street-food. What do you recommend every visitor tries or any stand out stalls or streets you think are must sees?

Where to start?! Vietnamese food is cheap, delicious and readily accessible. If you are looking to pull up a plastic stool, here are 5 of my personal favourite foods that will give you a perfect introduction street eats in Vietnam:

1. Pho - What list of Vietnamese cuisine would be complete without pho? Pho is perhaps Vietnam's most famous dish. This delicious soup with fresh rice noodles, beef or chicken and fresh herbs can be found all over the city at any time of the day.

2. Banh mi - If Pho is the most famous, it'd be closely rivaled by the banh mi (or as it is more commonly known in Australia - a Vietnamese roll). Commonly filled with vegetables, pate, and meat such as delicious roast pork or shredded chicken the banh mi is ubiquitous in Vietnam.

3. Xoi - Savory sticky rice is less of an accompaniment to meals in Vietnam; it is more a meal itself. The glutinous staple comes with any number of mix-ins (from slivers of chicken or pork to fried or preserved eggs), but almost always with a scattering of dried shallots on top.

4. Banh xeo - Bánh xèo is a Vietnamese savory fried pancake made of rice flour, water and turmeric powder. A good banh xeo is a crispy crepe full of pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, plus the garnish of fresh herbs that are characteristic of most authentic Vietnamese dishes. To enjoy one like a local, tear it into small pieces, roll it up in rice paper or lettuce leaves and dunk it in nuoc mam (fish sauce).

5. Goi cuon - These light and fresh spring rolls are a wholesome choice when you've been indulging in too much of the fried food in Vietnam.