Entrepreneur Alumnus Shares Stories and Advice with Heller MBA Students

November 02, 2021

Neal Bermas
Neal Bermas, PhD'81

By Bethany Romano, MBA'17

Neal Bermas, PhD’81, greeted Carole Carlson’s social entrepreneurship and innovation class via Zoom from his home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. At the time – September 2021 – the city was under a military-enforced lockdown to contain a worsening outbreak of COVID-19. He had only left his home twice in the last three months, both times to get vaccine shots.

MBA Program Director Carole Carlson introduced Bermas and gave the class a brief overview of his work as founder and chair of STREETS International, a Vietnam-based organization that trains at-risk youth to work in the country’s growing culinary and hospitality industry. Carlson’s class in social entrepreneurship and innovation looks at different models for achieving social impact using an entrepreneurial approach. According to Carlson, STREETS is a great example of a largely self-sustaining enterprise that is creating opportunities for young people in Vietnam who have few other options to gain skills that help them land quality jobs.

Bermas, who is a New York native and current member of Heller’s Board of Advisors, had a successful career as a management consultant in the hospitality sector after completing his PhD at Heller. He also taught hospitality and management courses at NYU and the New York Institute of Culinary Education. In 1999 during a visit to Vietnam, he was deeply affected at the sight of young children begging for food on the street—so affected, in fact, that he decided to take action.

Bermas’ background in hospitality management and education primed him to see an opportunity: despite the severe poverty he observed, the rapidly-growing hotel and restaurant sectors in Vietnam needed trained workers who could benefit from careers in this industry. In 2007 he founded STREETS International, which provides a 15-month job training program for Vietnamese youth at no cost. The organization focuses on enrolling young people who are out of school, trafficked, orphaned, or otherwise disadvantaged.

“This is a classic entrepreneurial story of opportunity matching, where there is a social need that is identified by a social entrepreneur who is ready to use their skills to create a venture that helps to fill it,” Carlson said to the class.

It’s also the story of a hybrid business model, a social enterprise: Though STREETS is registered as a U.S.-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, their Vietnam-based operations are for-profit. The organization generates revenue through a restaurant, cooking classes and tours for tourists, providing significant financial sustainability while also offering real-life apprenticing opportunities for STREETS students to practice their skills.

“My background is primarily in business, so I was intrigued with the notion of being self-supporting and sustaining as an organization. “What’s the difference between the for-profit and not-for-profit business model, and what can we take from both?” says Bermas of the decision to pursue a hybrid social enterprise. “There were practical reasons, too. Nonprofits face significantly more scrutiny than for-profit businesses in Vietnam, given the country’s long history of evangelical organizations and other nonprofits failing to complete projects due to unstable funding.”

Bermas closed his remarks to the class with five key lessons for future social entrepreneurs. The first had to do with idea generation. “I think entrepreneurs should let their gut feelings impact their idea generation,” he says. “I’d argue that not all of our thinking happens in our brains. There’s a physicality to thinking, too. Moving around helps us think more clearly.” 

Second, he says: Have a mantra. “Have an inspiration, something you know you can hold onto, because you’ll need it. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely at times, and frustrating.”

“Third, don’t wait for the right moment – because it never comes. You’ll never fully envision what you want to create in a way that’s completely satisfying.”

“Fourth, sometimes a fast second is better than being the first to do something. We’re not the first business of our kind, but we benefitted from observing those who came before us, and from being a bit more thoughtful and prepared.”

“Fifth, and finally, ‘stick to your knitting’ – stick to what you know how to do well,” says Bermas. “You’ll have plenty of opportunities to go left or right or to diversify your organization. But in my experience, sticking to what we know how to do best has been one key to our success at STREETS.”