By  on June 1, 2007

On Tuesday, Darlene Daggett, who recently retired from the executive ranks of QVC, took her first piano lesson in decades.

However, if her postretirement project goes as planned, she likely won't have much time to tickle the ivories.

Daggett, who stepped down from her post as president of U.S. Commerce for QVC on April 20, plans to spend retirement, a term she uses loosely, on a philanthropic mission inspired by her adopted Vietnamese children.

"I'm going to build a community that provides an alternative to institutional orphanages in Vietnam," where there are generally 30 to 40 babies housed in a large infant room, Daggett told WWD, one week after returning from Southeast Asia.

Two of her children were born in such a facility in Ho Chi Minh City. Daggett, 52, and her husband have a family of six children, including Amelia; Annie; Jamieson; their biological son, Mackenzie, and two young women, Han and Chi, who the Daggetts took in six years ago. Both of them will graduate from Drexel University next week.

Daggett's solution to Vietnam's institutional orphanages requires a sustainable community approach.

"I am going to build a community of small homes with two house parents in each," she explained, adding that children — from infants to teenagers — will be assigned to each home. "This way, they can live in a home environment, where they get to know what it's like to have a conversation around the dinner table and sleep a few doors down from [guardians] who care about them." Plans call for the community to include a school, a library, a medical facility and a vocational workshop. Her efforts also will involve a scholarship program.

She acknowledged the concept seems reminiscent — to some extent — of a foster-care approach. The aim is for the younger children to become adopted, and for the older children to return to the community as educators, host parents or with a trade, such as engineering, said Daggett.

She has already personally invested an undisclosed sum to set up a foundation, appropriately called The Daggett Family Foundation. To navigate through the tiers of Vietnam's socialist government, she may link arms with a larger organization with roots in the country, such as the East Meets West Foundation. For the community project, she anticipates having to work with at least four ministries: the Ministry of Education, Justice, Health and Child Welfare."It's a complicated system, but I'm going to have to figure out how to work most effectively with its different levels."

She added that, because she is working within the confines of socialist structure, she has not mapped out a finite timeline for the completion of the first community. She plans to start small, but is confident that she has the resources to expand the concept to multiple provinces, such as Mekong Delta, which is about a five-hour drive south of Ho Chi Minh City and where unemployment hovers at around 40 percent.

Money, fortunately, goes a long way in Vietnam, said Daggett, commenting that $300 is enough to send a student to college and $15,000 covers the cost of a fully stocked computer library.

Daggett plans to have the business plan for the effort in place before her next visit to Vietnam, which is slated for October.

She credits her business acumen as the directional force behind her philanthropic drive. Prior to her retirement, Daggett spent nearly 18 years at QVC, beginning her career there in 1989 as director of fashion merchandising and taking on roles of increasing responsibility before being named to her most recent position in 2002. Prior to QVC, she held sales and retail management positions for Liz Claiborne Inc., Eagles Eye and Howland-Steinbach Stores. At 29 years old, she raised $1 million in start-up capital and founded Acappella Ltd., a sportswear company.

Her ambitions in Vietnam require her to mine that entrepreneurial spirit.

Recalling that a Bangkok-based philanthropist recently called her plan "social entrepreneurialism," she said, "The term really resonated with me because the skills that make you reasonably good in business are the same ones you need to succeed in a philanthropic space."

In her view, those transferable skills are passion, an eye for who to serve, innovation and creativity and the ability to forge relationships.

"I'm the planner in the family, and yet the next project is filled with blank spaces. But I'm crystal clear about what I'm supposed to be doing."

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