Among the “100 Most Powerful Women in the World”, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao revolutionized the air travel industry in Vietnam.
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao is Chairwoman of Sovico Group, Standing Vice Chairwoman of HD Bank, Founder and CEO of VietJet Air. She made history in a traditional male-dominated business, becoming the only Vietnamese woman to have started and run a low-cost airline.
VietJet – selling flights for under $ 50 – is the reason why millions of Vietnamese have boarded a plane for the first time in the past decade, forever revolutionizing the aviation industry in Vietnam. With this success, she became Vietnam's first billionaire and Southeast Asia's richest self-made woman. Forbes sets her wealth at $ 2.5 billion, which originates from real estate, beach resorts, energy projects and other Sovico holdings, in addition to the banking sector.
Thao was born in 1970 in Hanoi into a wealthy family. She grew up in the Cold War social context of the Vietnamese who moved to the old Soviet bloc, where she earned three degrees. With her distinctive rimless glasses and short bangs, Thao is defined by colleagues as a workaholic who often works until late at night. Mother of three, Madame Thao runs a business empire with her husband, always maintaining a busy schedule.
Her airline, launched in 2011, is now larger than the national airline Vietnam Airlines in terms of passengers carried. It grew up in part through a bold service: bikini-clad flight attendants for flights to beach vacation destinations. A risky stunt that resulted in a fine from the government but got VietJet free advertising all over the world and, more importantly, sold tickets.
From a handful of domestic routes at launch, VietJet has expanded to cover more than 120 destinations. Positioned from the beginning as a regional and international carrier, Thao has outlined a very precise strategy: the expansion into all ASEAN markets within a radius of 2,500 kilometres, so that it can create worldwide bases that cover half of the world population. The company would already be in talks with partners across the region to expand outside of Vietnam. Thao's goal is to make history a second time by transforming VietJet into Vietnam's first global airline. “If we establish an airline in Europe, we can fly to any country. With our aircraft, costs, handling capabilities, and providing new services, I am totally confident that we can compete in other markets, in Europe or the US,” said Thao.
In 2017, VietJet debuted on the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange with a market capitalization of $ 1.4 billion. In 2018 it carried 23 million passengers, accounting for 46% of Vietnam's passenger market. Although this number represents about half of the passengers AirAsia – Asia's leading budget carrier – carried in 2018, Vietjet has grown the fastest. The company's shares have more than doubled since its 2017 IPO, reaching a market value of $ 3 billion, the second biggest in Southeast Asia, after Singapore Airlines.
In recent weeks, a donation – 155 million pounds – from the Thao holding to a college at the University of Oxford has provoked mixed reactions. After this grant, Linacre College, which specializes in postgraduate courses, will become Thao College. The MOU between the two institutions was signed during Thao's visit to the UK to coincide with the UN's COP26 climate summit. VietJet, which has an ambition to expand into Europe, also signed a $ 400 million jet engine deal with Rolls-Royce on the sidelines of the summit.
On and off social media, some Vietnamese have appreciated the charity initiative. Others have questioned the reason for donating to a country that has 14 times the average income of Vietnam, doubting on sending such a sum out of the country, which has strict capital controls. A post on the government website claimed that £ 7.5 million of the donation will fund scholarships for Vietnamese and others in the region. Voices from academia have also expressed concerns about the renaming of an entire college within the federated Oxford system, as this action could suggest what might be for sale at Oxford. Linacre College said it received little funding compared to other Oxford institutions, defining the donation - agreed as part of a memorandum of understanding with Sovico - "transformative".
Thao is well known for her various philanthropic initiatives over the years and believes in a corporate culture with strong social responsibility for sustainable development. Strongly impressed with the academic environment of the University of Oxford, Madame Thao said Oxford is the right place to make her contribution to humanity through education, training, and research. This partnership will also serve to pursue one of VietJet's most important objectives, the reduction of carbon emissions. The Sovico Group, a founding partner of VietJet, is committed to ensuring that all its subsidiaries reach net zero carbon by the end of 2050 with the support of leading Oxford academics.