She grew up one of nine children in a blue-collar family.
Higher education was hardly discussed in her Bullitt County home, though certainly the values of hard work and making one’s own breaks in life were instilled. The father retired as a machinist from Reynolds Metal Company, while Mom stayed home to raise eight girls and one boy, born only 15 years apart.
They lived on a 13-acre farm, where a garden sustained all their needs, ate every meal together at the family table, played “house” in the barn and made too many mud pies to count. Every Sunday found the entire family in church, the eight girls marching down the aisle in nice dresses.
After graduating with honors from Bullitt East High School, Diane French (now Nguyen) headed to Eastern Kentucky University, where, like many freshmen away from home for the first time, she put her social life ahead of her studies.
It was her lone brother, who had gone on to veterinary school at Auburn University, and a prophetic EKU professor who changed the direction of the impressionable young college student. Oh, and Ronald McDonald helped a little along the way, too.
“I remember (my brother) reinforcing the importance of education to me,” she said. “His words and tone are forever seared into my memory when I brought home a GPA lower than my capabilities my second semester of my freshman year. He knew I could do better, and he was right.”
She began as an undeclared student and didn’t take her first elective in human resources management until the end of her sophomore year. Soon she would meet EKU management professor Dr. Mike Roberson.
“He called me his star student, told me I had so much potential to be great,” Nguyen recalled. “And while I didn’t believe it then, I knew I liked what I heard. It opened up my aspirations and belief in me about my abilities. I just decided to work hard and do what it took to make it.”
And make it she did. Today, Nguyen is a vice president and director of human resources for global production with Brown-Forman, with responsibility (speaking of large families) for approximately 2,000 employees globally. She was back on the Richmond campus April 4 to receive this year’s Distinguished Alumnus award from the Department of Management, Marketing and International Business.
“My technical knowledge came from my classes, and the projects were real life,” Nguyen noted. “We worked in teams, and this is the way business works today. Also, my HR internship was invaluable, and I believe without the connection from Dr. Roberson or the school, this would never have happened for me. These are the foundations that allowed me to build my success, and I am forever thankful.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in management (with a specialty in human resources) from Eastern in 1992, she went on to earn her MBA from the University of Louisville while working full-time in the HR field, most notably for 10 years with Colgate-Palmolive. She joined Brown-Forman, a Louisville-based wine and spirits company, six years ago.
Nguyen got her first taste of the working world (away from the farm, at least) at McDonald’s, where she began working at age 15 and continued through the summers of her college years. While her paychecks helped her finance her college education, she was determined not to live her life under the Golden Arches.
“I didn’t have money to finish my school after my financial aid ran out my sophomore year. I did not want to go back home and work at McDonald’s. I was determined to finish – no clue how – and I enrolled in school anyway with no way to pay for it. My mom and my sister scrambled together enough money to pay my tuition and I continued. I paid them back when I graduated.”
Now, as Nguyen looks to hire the best employees for Brown-Forman, she looks for prospects with the same qualities that her brother and Roberson saw in her some 25 years ago.
“I look for people with potential to grow and the willingness to learn,” she said. “What you learn and do and how you work with others will ultimately determine your success. School is a training ground that shows you have the fortitude and discipline to accomplish a goal. Every obstacle I have faced has been overcome by hard work, relationships I have built with others who are willing to help me, and optimistic thinking where I search for the win or learning in everything I have done.
“Sometimes you just have to stay focused and keep going, but you will make it to the other side.”
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