Most Vietnamese might assume that the country’s first female billionaire would be standoffish and difficult to know. But Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, who is one of 25 women on Forbes’ 2019 Asia’s Power Businesswomen’s list, is admired for her friendly manner and desire to support and inspire younger generations.
Born in Hanoi in 1970, Thao, CEO and president of Vietjet Air, is known in Southeast Asia as a powerful female leader with internationally renowned achievements in the aviation sector.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in finance and credit and a PhD in economics from universities in Russia, Thao began trading commodities in Eastern Europe and Asia.
While working as a trader, Thao predicted that demand for air travel would rise dramatically in Vietnam. In 2011, she launched the budget airline VietJet Air and took it public in February 2017. Since its launch, the airline has been a roaring success, and has helped put air travel within the reach of millions of Vietnamese.
As the only woman to have started and run her own commercial airline, Thao epitomises the values of the “Powerful Businesswoman” who defies stereotypes and breaks barriers.
Besides her renown in the aviation sector, Thao, with her knowledge and enthusiasm in finance and banking, has greatly contributed to improving HDBank, a private joint-stock commercial bank, where she is the permanent vice chairwoman of the board of directors.
As a key shareholder of the bank, she was instrumental in helping HDBank become one of the top 40 banks in Vietnam. Prior to her work with HDBank, she was one of the founders and leaders of Techcombank and VIB.
Her stunning achievements are no surprise to those who have known her since she was a student in Russia.
“Our young years are filled with memories about a lovely girl with a sweet Hanoi accent and an energetic singing voice that kept the cold away in Russia through the song ‘A Million Roses’,” a businessman recalls.
“At that time, we all could see that she had a talent in business, which would help her career in the future. Years later, we were not surprised to see that she began work at Techcombank and VIB, and then had great achievements at HDBank,” he adds.
For Thao, who was also on Forbes’ Asia’s Power Businesswomen 2016 list, “nothing is impossible”.
“I have always aimed big and done big deals. I have never done anything on a small scale. When people were trading one container of goods, I was already trading hundreds of containers,” she says.
Despite her great achievements and fortune, Thao is modest and easygoing, especially with young students and the poor. She often stops to chat with customers and spends a great deal of time and money on charity activities.
With a desire to create connections between owners of large enterprises and younger generations, Thao often meets and shares experiences with young people to send the message that they play a vital role in the bright future of Vietnam.
She also devotes time to many charity programmes such as “Wings of Love”, which each year offers scholarships to poor students and gives clothes to children living in remote areas.
For the past 10 years, Thao has been a sponsor of the HDBank International Chess Tournament where the world has been introduced to top Vietnamese players such as Quang Liem and Truong Son. She is also a sponsor of HDBank Chess Cup and the HDBankFutsal tournament, which promotes the physical fitness of Vietnamese youth.
Through her frequent meetings and visits with local and international students, she continues to support and nurture future generations of leaders. At meetings with Thao at HDBank and Vietjet, many international students at Imperial College London, Harvard Business School, and Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College have all expressed their admiration of Vietnam, calling it “an Asian dragon that has awakened”.
What international students admire most is Viet Nam’s culture and dynamic society, its creativity, and its breakthroughs in private businesses in an emerging Asian economy, Thao says.
With a staff of nearly 30,000 people at Vietjet, HDBank and HDSaison, Thao is viewed as a “captain” whose philosophy of business is trusted and admired by her employees.
Her lasting philosophy is to create jobs and employee happiness and advancement, as well as better serve customers, contribute to the State budget, and develop the economy to achieve a civilised and prosperous community.
Thao also takes seriously her corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, with her desire to contribute to charities and make a better community. She has organised, for example, a series of praying ceremonies and has built historical monuments that follow the motto “when you drink water, think of its source”, to pay tribute to the people who have sacrificed their lives for the homeland during wartime.— VNS