Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao is a Vietnamese businesswoman whose fortune amounts to $2.6 billion as these lines are written (she’s one of the few billionaires whose fortune decreased due to the pandemic).
Coming from nothing, she became a millionaire at age 21 and subsequently kept on building businesses until now.
Read on to find out how coming from a communist country does not necessarily mean you can’t become wealthy.
From Zero to Millionaire
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao was born in 1970 in Hanoi, Vietnam. She is a member of the Nguyen Canh family, a respected clan whose history goes back 600 years.
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao has credited her peaceful childhood with loving relatives as the main reason for her financial success.
From an early age, she was taught the sense of sacrifice and care, being meticulous, graceful, and generous, giving without asking, thinking about others before herself, and being honest.
These values led her to focus on how she could contribute to society while striving to be her best self.
This attitude certainly helped her on her way to financial success.
Having expressed interest in becoming rich from an early age, 17-year-old Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao left her native Hanoi to go study a double bachelor in financial credit management and labor economics at the Plekhanov Russian University, one of the most prestigious universities in Moscow.
Sources report she became famous for her excellent academic track record and business acumen.
The late 80s wasn’t the most prestigious period for the Soviet Union.
When Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao arrived in Moscow, the country was struggling with bread lines, a never-ending war in Afghanistan, and a sluggish economy that made it hard to find pretty much…anything.
She directly saw the business opportunity. While in her second year at university, she began importing goods that lacked, such as fax machines, rubber, plastic, watches, agricultural products, and electronics she found in South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. Her relations also enabled her to import the same goods to Vietnam.
She explained that her days were crazy. She’d wake up at 5h00 to deal with her business before going to university at 8h00. She’d take care of more business during the afternoon then would study until 2h00 in the morning.
This period taught her the traits that would make her a billionaire. She understood that if she wanted to be rich, she had to expand her vision, take the lead, and take calculated risks.
Her business motto became “don’t go small, go for the big deals”. Three years later, at age 21, she became a millionaire (mind that a million dollars in 1991 is worth approximately $1,970,943 in 2021.)
That enabled her to begin importing bigger types of merchandise such as fertilizer, machinery, iron, and steel.
She then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in economic management from the D. Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology of Russia.
She met her husband during that time, an electromagnetic engineer with a Ph.D. in automatic control from the Russian Academy of Sciences.
From Millionaire to Vietjet
After her Ph.D., she went back to Vietnam and in 1993 and founded the holding Sovico Holdings (today called Sovico Group) with her husband. One of the first deals they made was a seed investment in Techcombank, the first private bank of Vietnam founded by Vietnamese intellectuals that had studied abroad (most of them in Europe and Russia).
In 1996, she was a founding investor in VIB, the second private bank of Vietnam.
She then diversified and invested in real estate like Dragon City, a skyscraper in Saigon. She also owns three beach resorts.
In the early 2000s, while working as a trader, she got the idea to create a 5-star airline. Sharing the idea with a family member, the latter answered “how many tons of rice will a ticket cost? Will I be able to buy a seat before I even die?”
The comment had a huge impact on Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao.
At the time, only around 1% of the Vietnamese population had the financial means to buy flight tickets.
Flying was expensive in Vietnam and the country knew no budget airline like Europe’s Ryanair, US’ Southwest, or Australia’s Tiger.
So, she changed her plan and decided to build a low-cost airline. The middle-class was booming in Vietnam, and she wanted to be the one to bring them cheap fairs.
She first studied thoroughly foreign budget airlines to find out their business model and once she felt confident, applied for a license.
In 2007, she received it but did not launch due to astronomical oil prices.
After the 2008 crisis and as prices had decreased, she began negotiations for the creation of Vietjet with AirAsia. Her idea was to build Vietjet as a joint venture between her holding Sovico and the Malaysian airline.
In 2010, their collaboration was halted due to a veto by the Vietnamese government which refused to have AirAsia as a shareholder in Vietjet.
In 2011, she launched Vietjet all by herself, backed up by Vietnamese investors.
Vietjet became the first privately-owned airline in Vietnam.
From Vietjet to Billionaire
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao did not launch her business quietly.
On the first day, she made the front page due to her ads showing air hostesses wearing bikinis to attract a maximum number of customers.
While she had to apologize, it worked.
The airline grew at light speed.
One year after its launch, the company was profitable. Nguyen explained she did not focus on money, but on growth and market shares.
In February 2013, Vietjet launched their first international flight to Singapore.
In February 2014, they ordered 60 A320 from airbus worth $6.4 billion.
In December 2014, the company hit its 10 millionth passenger. One year later, they celebrated their 25 millionth passenger.
In 2015, Vietjet ordered 36 more planes from Airbus.
One year later, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao ordered 200 Boeing 737 Max during Obama’s visit to her country.
By 2016, Vietjet owned 29% of the market while Vietnam Airlines was struggling.
Confident in her company, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao took Vietjet public in February 2017, making it the very first airline to be quoted on the Vietnamese stock exchange.
Vietjet’s market capitalization skyrocketed to $1.2 billion and Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao became a billionaire.
That same year, Viejet made the news yet again when Nguyen sent models in bikinis to the flight carrying Vietnam’s football team (she later apologized again).
In 2018, she bought 100 more planes from Boeing and 50 others from Airbus.
In 2019, Vietjet passed the 25 million passengers-per-year mark.
As of today, Vietjet serves more than 120 domestic and international destinations, operates more than 400 daily flights, and employs more than 6000 people.
The company operates more than 100 aircraft and has ordered at least 200 more.
The pandemic has hit Vietjet hard (Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao’s fortune was $3.1 billion in March 2018.)
So hard in fact that Vietjet now seeks to diversify at all costs.
In June 2021, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao applied to build an LNG gas production plant and proposed further alliances in petrol exploration and extraction with Petrovietnam.
She has also expressed her willingness to build an airport terminal, an aircraft repair hangar, and invest in air freight transportation services.
Finally, her last project is to build more tourism resorts.
None of these projects have been officially launched as these lines are written.
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao has yet to wait for the approval of the authorities.
Conclusion and Lessons
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao’s secrets to success aren’t secrets.
Be honest, work hard, come prepared, and go big. They don’t teach us anything new about business, entrepreneurship, or wealth creation.
I wrote in the introduction that Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao had started from “nothing”. Well, it is not exactly true.
Her family was known and powerful enough to give Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao the chance to learn Russian and study abroad.
Furthermore, Nguyen is smart – genius level type of smart.
Yet, these characteristics should not diminish her efforts and merits.
In an interview, she explained that markets aren’t for the weak, but only for the strong – and that if you don’t come prepared, you will be destroyed.
What I like the most about Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao is her capacity to see opportunities hiding in plain sight.
She went to Russia and saw everything was lacking there, so, she simply sold people what they needed.
When she found out very few Vietnamese could fly, she built an airline open to all.
This teaches us two lessons.
First, opportunities are simple to find.
Theoretically, the discovery of an opportunity goes like this.
Lack of goods or services → opportunity → provide that which lacks.
Goods were lacking in Russia, so she delivered goods.
Cheap flights were lacking in Vietnam, so she delivered cheap flights.
The most difficult thing when building a business is not to find the idea. It is to execute it.
It took Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao more time to fly her first passenger (4 years) than to fly the first 25 million (three years).
Many would have given up where Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao persisted and succeeded.
To quote billionaire Ben Horowitz, the only difference between heroes and cowards is that the formers are taking action.
And Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao takes a hell of a lot of it.
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