Partners in life and business: Khai Ngo and Lel Brassel Ngo

27 February 2017

Khai and Lel, with their furry pal ChewieFor these two UTS Business graduates, university was more than just classes and hanging out in the Kuring-gai cafeteria – it gave them confidence to pursue their passion for bringing people together and creating positive change. Meet the enterprising duo who are working to reshape Australia-Vietnam relations, with their party hats at the ready.

Lesley (Lel) Brassel was eating lunch in the cafeteria at UTS’s Kuring-gai campus when fellow student, Van Khai Ngo (Khai), the class clown from her events management tutorials, came over to say hi. It was 2006 and Lel was studying a Bachelor of Management in Tourism and Khai a Bachelor of Management in Leisure at UTS’s then northern campus. They shared a few classes and according to Lel, Khai would often come to tutorials unprepared and would seek out Lel for answers to the homework. Khai doesn’t remember this at all.  However, when they both got High Distinctions on a public policy exam after studying together, it was clear that they made a dynamite team.

After dating for four years Khai, who had been working with the Police Citizens Youth Clubs (PCYC) since high school, was sponsored by the club to attend the 2011 One Young World Summit in Switzerland – an annual international conference for young people from various corporations, NGOs and education organisations who come together to work with world leaders and find solutions for pressing world problems. 

Khai’s interest in fostering forums for people to come together in positive, productive ways was, to some extent, informed by his personal experiences of family fracture and reunion. Khai’s mother had left Vietnam in 1987 and Khai was born in a Thai refugee camp in 1988. They immigrated to Australia when he was two years old, and at age six Khai found out he had an older brother who was brought to Australia with their grandparents, and reunited with the family. 

"For the first time, I experienced the value of education for myself"
- Van Khai Ngo, Co-Founder, Australia Vietnam Young Leaders Dialogue

The One Young World Summit experience was not only life changing on a professional front – after the Summit, the newly graduated Khai and Lel travelled through Europe together, and it was during a walk in Barcelona’s Park Guell in the searing Spanish sun that Khai proposed. After protesting that he could have picked a moment when she wasn’t perspiring so much, Lel joyfully accepted.

They married, and Khai took Lel to Vietnam for their honeymoon, retracing the steps of his heritage. Returning to Australia, they worked for a while and then in 2014 they sold everything to move to Berkeley, California, and immersed themselves in the entrepreneurial start up scene for half a year.

Fast forward to 2017 and now Lel, 29, runs The Party Kit Company, their online boutique party supplies store, while Khai, 28, is the Co-Founder of the inaugural Australia Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue (AVYLD), a new initiative to bring young leaders from the two countries together, kicking off in March.

Both attribute honing their self-starting business skills to their UTS degrees. Lel says, “I feel like I’m finally doing the things I was meant to be doing and the UTS degree specifically – managing people, accounting, economics, event management – gave me so many applicable skills to start my own business. I’m now getting the chance to use every part of the degree because of the wide range of subjects.”

For Khai, who was not academic in high school and didn’t think that university was for him, the UTS course was a lucky find and a perfect fit. “In my last year of school I had been running hip hop events and community activities for the PCYC. I realised I can do this, I’m good at managing people, I’m good at getting sponsorship and I like creating events for people to enjoy. Then UTS gave us both the skills and competencies to start our own businesses and deliver on projects like AVYLD.”

AVYLD is an independent non-profit initiative established to nurture relationships, promote engagement and incubate collaboration between Australian and Vietnamese leaders from a broad spectrum of society. Since launching the initiative late last year, Khai and the AVYLD team have been busy working, to bring  twenty Australian and Vietnamese young leaders together in Sydney to collaborate with industry partners from the business, education, policy, startups, not-for-profit and arts sectors, including UTS Insearch and the Australia ASEAN Council. 

Khai’s vision for AVYLD is to facilitate deeper understanding and collaboration between Australian and Vietnamese young leaders, and to enhance the economic, social and cultural prosperity of Australia and Vietnam, and he is looking forward to the officially announcing the inaugural participants at a cocktail reception in Hanoi hosted by the Australian Ambassador to Vietnam in March .

Khai’s passion for entrepreneurship and the non-profit space stems from a deeper motivation that he shares with Lel. “We both see and believe that we will make a difference in people’s lives,” he says.

For both, this passion started with events and seeing the happy impact of giving people a fun and meaningful experience:  “It’s about using your hands and your brain to have a positive impact on the community.”

Lel thrives on the joy that comes from making their Party Kit clients happy, alleviating their stress and helping families to celebrate their children’s birthdays. “Kids can go through life and if they don’t have a point of reference, if they don’t have celebrations and don’t have these milestones, then their childhood just disappears and it’s harder to recall memories. It’s good to take a step back, enjoy your family, enjoy your celebration and create significant memories that are embedded deeply in the mind”.

While Lel is focussed on pushing their start up to the next level, Khai is immersed in putting together the final touches for AVYLD.  They both get a rush from the pressure their businesses bring them and right now, the pressure is high.

It’s over a decade since Lel and Khai were star-crossed students in their events management classes at Kuring-gai together, and they still rely on each other for support , perspective and laughs. They share fond memories of their time at UTS Kuring-gai and for Khai in particular, it was a life changing experience. “When I first went to UTS, my results weren’t very impressive. I didn’t know how to apply myself or focus. But then over the period of my undergraduate degree I developed skills, and drive, self-management, adaptability and focus. For the first time, I experienced the value of education for myself.”

Story by Jacqueline Robson