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Enterprising Alumnus: Don Vu (McIntire ’98), Chief Data Officer at Northwestern Mutual

With deep experience with analytics, strategy, and organizational transformation, Vu is helping the 165-year-old insurance and wealth management services leader to leverage data to drive impact.

Don Vu

Twenty-five years ago, Don Vu would have likely been impressed by where his career has led him today. His expertise has helped him carve out a path that’s given him an uncommon perspective—an invaluable one responsible for an innovative approach that has come to define his professional life.

The Chief Data Officer at Northwestern Mutual has refined his unique viewpoint of data, developed through deep experience with analytics, strategy, and organizational transformation, to create solutions and lead teams with conviction. From overseeing data and analytics for Major League Baseball’s Advanced Media while simultaneously innovating direct-to-consumer streaming through MLB’s formerly owned tech startup BAMTech, to 18 months as VP of Data and Analytics for coworking space pioneer WeWork during its hypergrowth phase, Vu has been immersed in data for decades. Since early 2020, he has been overseeing data and predictive analytics for Fortune 100 company Northwestern Mutual.

Joining the 165-year-old insurance and wealth management services leader, the 1998 Comm School grad found Northwestern Mutual’s mission resonated with him on multiple levels, but the executive position he took on provided precisely the kind of high-level challenges that Vu was looking to tackle.

He explains that while the company’s focus on securing the financial future for families is important to him and was an initial draw, supporting the mission of the company with $335 billion in total assets offers creative and engaging work that carries relevance for both the firm and its many clients across the country.

“I get to work with a lot of complexity here—both in depth and breadth,” says Vu. “But if I had to summarize it, the business scale of NM is truly remarkable, and it’s afforded me a tremendous amount of opportunity to help the company leverage data to drive impact.”

Tech Revolutions, Relationship Evolutions

For more than 13 years, Vu assumed various roles at MLB Advanced Media, Major League Baseball’s digital arm that owns the consolidated digital rights of all 30 baseball clubs; the time he spent there stands as the largest portion of his career thus far. By the time he left at the end of 2018, he was leading data and analytics as VP.

During the latter part of that extended stretch with the organization, MLB Advanced Media developed its wildly successful video platform to stream MLB’s season of more than 2,400 live games. That noteworthy endeavor, produced under the aforementioned BAMTech moniker, acted as a kind of startup within the larger MLB company that those involved referred to as a side hustle. But that project blew up in a big, big way.

“All of these other organizations that didn’t necessarily have the wherewithal to do live video streaming themselves came to MLB Advanced Media,” Vu says about the groundbreaking product. “We ran video streaming for Minor League Baseball; we did it for Major League Soccer when they first started, CSTV (College Sports TV). We also ended up doing all live video for ESPN.com and streamed the World Cup. Eventually, we went to other video providers, not just sports, and told them that we could do end-to-end direct-to-consumer video-streaming solutions. We built HBO Now, WWE Network, and others.”

That frenzied spate of requests led to some long workweeks for Vu. “I had to support the launch of ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘WrestleMania,’ and baseball’s ‘Opening Day’ on three consecutive weekends for two years,” he recalls.

High-pressure moments such as those that took place between 2016 and 2018 were instrumental in shaping how he has come to see an even greater relevancy of data across organizations.

“One of my biggest takeaways is that data is critically important to so many functional areas of business. It’s so horizontal in nature throughout any business—sports, media, real estate—and obviously, at Northwestern Mutual, it impacts insurance and financial wealth management,” explains Vu. “Whether it’s marketing or digital product development, this notion of engagement is also something that’s top of mind for everyone. Every single business is competing for eyeballs and time spent. Whether you’re Netflix, Major League Baseball, or Northwestern Mutual, it means trying to maximize engagement with products, optimized with machine learning, and many other methods. But ultimately, data is at the foundation of so many things.”

Those years also provided continued exposure to a philosophical and universal shift that oriented toward customers and their needs—regardless of the business or the sector—and the ways that data could be applied to meet those requirements.

“In a prior time, a lot of companies were most focused on B2B [business to business]; they would work primarily with retailers. But as time has gone on, pretty much every company wants to have a more direct relationship and understanding of their clients—and a more holistic one. That means when you’re optimizing engagement, it’s done with a client-centric lens,” he says, explaining that the approach encompasses digital channels in tandem with human touchpoints and the challenges in making them function in the most effective way possible.

“That’s been a major focus for us at Northwestern Mutual. Our product is exclusively sold through our financial adviser network with 9,900-plus amazing professionals throughout the country. But like most modern financial companies, we also have great digital apps. How do we holistically get those two amazing assets to work synergistically together?”

Vu believes the issues involved in taking multiple touchpoints to create a seamless customer experience are quite similar to what he strove to solve at MLB and with WeWork. As such, he says looking for better ways to foster and protect the customer lifetime relationships is likewise important in his current role.

“With NM, you can buy risk [management] products (insurance), engage with our wealth management services—as well as other tangential services that meet our clients’ needs. All of those fall within a framework that optimizes the many touchpoints that span those products and services, and customer lifetime value optimization is that framework,” Vu says, stressing that every nudge and interaction affects the long-term relationship between the business and the client.

A Mutually Beneficial Fit

Before coming to Northwestern Mutual from WeWork, Vu found himself at a crossroads, attempting to decide on his next move. He debated taking a role growing an enticing startup, returning to sports, or heading back into the world of video streaming.

“I literally talked to over 50 potential opportunities, and what drew me towards Northwestern Mutual was certainly the mission, but also about the high-level complexity of the situation,” the Brooklyn-based executive says.

Vu points to the fact that different enterprise data leaders often have different scope, with some focused on “defensive data strategy,” like regulatory considerations, while other data leaders pursue its offensive aspects such as increasing revenue and more proactive customer-centric initiatives. For Vu, it’s both.

“I make sure that our clients’ data is protected and governed in a privacy-compliant way. I have to deal with laws like HIPAA [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act], but we also drive engagement and use AI and machine learning to enhance the business. One thing I like about the Chief Data Officer role at NM is that I can do all of those things,” he says.

As innovation also falls in his purview, he also leads the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute, a $40 million partnership linking the company with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette University. In order to advance data science innovation and positively impact the region, Vu says the members pool funds to support faculty positions and research germane to the datasphere. But, he says, “more than anything, it’s creating an ecosystem and community around data and data science, which made it very appealing to me to come on board—again adding to the breadth of my role.”

But entrepreneurial aspirations haven’t fallen by the wayside for Vu, as he notes that Northwestern Mutual has an internal venture arm. “We’re investing in startups and exploring innovation in health tech and wearables, and serving on the investment committee for our venture arm has been really rewarding as well.”

Meaningful Change

Beyond his leadership directing teams and innovating in analytics, Vu has also applied his experiences to champion important national efforts to enact positive societal change. Concerned with safety, equity, and justice, Vu became a founding member of Stand with Asian Americans, an organization driven by Asian American business leaders and their allies.

“Like many folks, even preceding that watershed moment of the Atlanta shootings in 2021, I witnessed the rise in anti-Asian sentiment associated with COVID-19 in New York, and I wanted to do something,” Vu recalls.

When asked in March 2021 if he’d be interested in signing a petition to be published in The Wall Street Journal by Justin Zhu, the then-CEO of San Francisco-based startup Iterable, Vu didn’t hesitate. Zhu then asked if he would be willing to help with the organization itself, and he was more than willing to be a part of advancing its cause.

“Since then, we’ve had over 8,000 signatures, including many prominent CEOs and executives from places like Facebook, Google, Zoom, and many others. Support has been “really remarkable,” he says, noting that the organization raised close to $2 million for nonprofits that were distributed in multiple areas. “We’ve also held events and discussions around major national watershed moments, and so it’s been incredibly rewarding to roll up my sleeves and get involved. We understand that this is something that’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”

For Vu, a child of Vietnam War refugees who fled Saigon two days before its fall in 1975, the cause is crucial, and one that is particularly important when he thinks about the future of his children in the U.S.

In his own formative years, he says that, like many immigrant parents, their concerns were practical ones, such as making sure that the future he would find would be supported with a stable occupation.

“They wanted me to be a doctor. I did pre-med, it didn’t really work out at UVA, and so I needed to pivot and pick another major,” admits Vu.

As many of his friends had begun to take prerequisite courses for the Commerce School, he followed suit, playing catch-up between his first and second year so that he could apply to McIntire. While the decision was unexpected for a student who came to Grounds with aspirations in the medical field and a strong background in computer programming dating back to middle school, the professional results speak for themselves.

“I would say that I kind of fell into it. Life works out that way sometimes,” he says.

Formative and Foundational

The lessons that he learned at the Comm School have stuck with him. When asked if any in particular still inform his understanding or approach to what he does today, Vu doesn’t hold back: “A ton. There is not there is not a day that goes by in my work when I don’t reflect on how McIntire has been so important to my career and any success that I may have had.”

Vu’s stock and trade is data, machine learning, AI, and engineering big data at a massive scale, but when he came to McIntire, he hoped to go into finance for a time. “But I also took management information systems. And as much as I wanted to get into finance, I wasn’t particularly good at it, and I was far better at information systems.” Grateful for the skills he developed at the School, when he graduated in 1998, the job market aligned with the ascent of the first internet boom, so he found himself fortunate that there was a wealth of job opportunities.

“The things that I learned in McIntire with respect to business context, working with people, and collaborating are so foundational to my every day. The School’s education spans a lot of functional areas: marketing, finance, accounting, organizational behavior, information systems. It provides such a great foundation by which you can understand business holistically, connect empathetically, and understand your peers in other cross-functional areas and then work together to deliver awesome things. And working with your block, working on a business problem across multiple functional areas, is literally what you do throughout your professional career—no matter what business you’re in,” says Vu.

And as Vu says that as far as that education concerns data and its wide-ranging impact across business areas, his McIntire experience gave him the ability to be fluent in a multitude of different contexts while helping his colleagues to understand that the power of data can be used to solve their individual business challenges.

He credits Professor George Overstreet for his rigor and care, seeing to it that Vu didn’t slack during his fourth year after he had already accepted a position. “A lot of my professors were awesome, but I really appreciated how Professor Overstreet maintained a high bar for me and my performance. Seeing him on graduation day and getting a hearty handshake and pat on the back from him was super rewarding.”

No less important, some of Vu’s best friends stem from relationships that were formed at the Comm School.

“When I think about my favorite memories, two of my friends—who I literally WhatsApp with every day—were both from my same year at McIntire. Sachin Joshi (McIntire ’98) and Jay Lee (McIntire ‘98) were and still are my peer role models, and I saw that they were doing interesting things, so I took that turn,” he says, noting that he was the best man at the wedding of Lee, who returned the favor for Vu.

“It all started from McIntire. I truly believe I was put on a better path by having gone there,” he says.

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