Published author, entrepreneur, consultant, fundraiser—Mai Le ’00’s journey after Bowdoin was one of many hats. From traveling the world with the World Bank in her twenties to developing medical technologies, her career illustrates how the process of crafting a meaningful life can take several avenues.
At the beginning of her Bowdoin career, Le strove for what she initially defined as “success” rather than allowing herself to explore her academic interests. Coming from a refugee family, she sought to study the subjects that came most easily to her and could provide her with future job security.
“We went through life thinking that writing and creative thoughts will not help us build a roof or have a roof over our head—feed our family—and for us, just being able to make it in America was the most important thing,” Le said.
Thinking she would become a doctor, Le focused on taking math and science classes, where she knew she could excel. But later on, she discovered her passion for the humanities, declaring a double major in international relations and French with a minor in economics.
“One of the reasons why I ended up navigating to the government and focusing on international relations is [that] I’m a refugee [from Vietnam], and UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and a lot of different Catholic charities helped me get from my refugee camp in Thailand and Indonesia to America,” Le said.
However, unlike math and science, Le found her writing courses to be extremely difficult.
“I was given the opportunity to sort of fall in love with those subjects and really enjoyed them, though I struggled through them,” Le said. “And it was really hard—I literally had to pull all-nighters just to make it to the same level as my classmates.”
In addition to initially struggling in her writing classes, she also struggled to navigate the new social atmosphere that she found at Bowdoin.
“I wasn’t that different from others where I grew up in an inner city because everyone was like me, and now I was really different, feeling on the periphery of a campus bubble, and knowing how to navigate it and fit in was the hardest thing I experienced at Bowdoin,” Le said.
Through a study abroad program in Paris, Le first learned how to be comfortable in herself around a group of people all very different from her.
“I ended up finding myself in Paris and through that opportunity to figure out who I was at that moment, who I wanted to become … I just needed to feel comfortable with myself there. And that allowed me to fall in love with Paris,” Le said.
Following her time in Paris, Le was admitted to a public policy international affairs fellowship program for the summer at Princeton University. This program opened the door for Le to receive a full ride for a graduate degree for public policy, where she was one of the youngest students in her program. The opportunities afforded to her at Princeton brought her back to Thailand through an internship with the United Nations Development Programme, which eventually positioned her to work for the World Bank.
“The World Bank was an amazing opportunity to quote–unquote ‘save the world,’” Le said. “As a 25-year-old, to be able to fly around the world, being this pro working with these programs and interacting with individuals from so many different countries—from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Yemen, Jordan—was just really exhilarating.”
Although she was successful in her work at the World Bank, she became dissatisfied after several years.
“I ended up writing hundreds of pages of reports, despite leaving college struggling to write. Those skills allowed me to really propel myself in that field, but I realized all these papers and reports are just sitting on the shelf. Who are they helping?” Le said.
When she got pregnant, Le found herself rethinking her priorities and what she wanted to gain from her career. Leaving a career in which she accomplished so much was a difficult, but rewarding, decision for her.
“I think women will wrestle with this. You work so hard, you study to achieve a certain goal, and then you give it all up for family or love. And you go through those mental struggles of, ‘Did I do the right thing? ‘Why did it work so hard for all of this?’” Le said. “And it all worked out because it gave me an opportunity to look at other ways of fulfilling my own passion.”
At the same time as she left the World Bank, her husband left his investment banking job, forcing her to move back into her parents’ home to raise her young children. Le reluctantly took a consulting job but soon realized that she could not sacrifice her happiness for a paycheck. During the 2008 financial crisis, Le joined her husband’s startup Wall Street Prep to help the business stay afloat and found a new outlet for her passions.
“I decided I wanted to build my own stuff and run with my own ideas, and I had a million ideas and decided to start building different technologies,” Le said.
Her experience clipping coupons during the recession inspired her to collaborate in building software to scan barcodes using optical character recognition. She later used this technology to optimize how restaurants like Eataly in Boston obtained farm-to-table shipments.
“You take a picture of your paycheck, and it goes to your bank,” Le said. “This technology has advanced so much, but I worked on it like in the early days when no one knew what it was. I started to learn that I really love building and I love tinkering with ideas and taking those ideas to a product and hopefully market.”
However, she realized that she had taken on more than she could handle with the business and wanted to prioritize spending time with her family after giving birth to her third child. Unable to sit still, her break did not last long. When her neighbor approached her with the opportunity to kickstart a neurotechnology startup, she could not refuse the chance to explore her passion for science once again, despite having no background in the subject. The patented medical device captures real-time electrophysiological data from neurons and muscle using a single needle.
Outside of her startup work, Le works with local schools and charities in the Boston area to organize drives for African refugees and facilitate their transition to life in America. Le also wrote a book dedicated to her daughter during the pandemic entitled “Worlds Apart: My Personal Life Journey through Transcultural Poverty, Privilege, and Passion.” From publishing poems to an upcoming screenplay, her creative endeavors are just beginning.
Le’s path has been far from linear, and she hopes that students will keep that in mind when embarking on their own careers.
“Enjoy your experience in that moment because your four years at Bowdoin are the most transformative,” Le said. “It may not be the best years of your life, and it won’t be the worst years of your life, but it will be the most transformative, and what you absorb and what you learn will allow you or give you the power to pretty much do anything and everything you want.”