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The Only Female Billionaire in Southeast Asia

April 02,2017

The Only Female Billionaire in Southeast Asia

Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao has just become South East Asia’s first self-made woman billionaire. And she has achieved it with one big rule: “I have always aimed big and done big deals.”

How has Nguyen built her wealth to over a billion in a country (Vietnam) which only has ever had one other billionaire in its history? Here’s the 3 step formula Nguyen has used for each of her 3 big wins over the last 30 years:

1) Make your best guess on the future, and then bet on it:

When she was a student in USSR in the 1980s, Nguyen bet on the USSR breaking up and international trade growing. So she started trading fax machines and latex rubber between USSR and Asia in between her economics classes, saying “When people were trading one container, I was already trading hundreds of containers.”

She began with no money, but scaled by growing her trust with suppliers: "I didn’t have much money. They gave me more and more products with longer credit terms."

Within 3 years she had made her first million by 21 years old.

2) Realise the best opportunities are always right in front of you:

Nguyen then took her earnings back to Vietnam with her, guessing that her country would soon follow the growth of China and India. Knowing that the early wealth in both those countries had come in banking and property, she decided to invest in both, despite having no experience of either.

She set up Sovico Holdings, named after her early Soviet success, and was the first to invest in Dragon City - an area of swamp land she guessed the government would turn into an economic hub. It did, and that bet is now worth $1 billion

3) Begin with a beginners mind, and learn from others

Her biggest bet then came when she realised that it was only a matter of time before the Vietnam government opened the market to competition against the state-run airline. Having no idea how to run an airline, she first tried to set up a joint venture with AirAsia. But when that failed, she decided to launch her own company, VietJet, 5 years ago.

Before launching, she studied other fast-growing airlines like Virgin and AirAsia in detail, saying “Some say that anything I put hands on will be profitable. But I don’t think it’s that simple. There’s no easy path to success. I studied and I did my research. It was a lot of hard work, and to be successful you need to be passionate about the business that you invest in.”

Seeing the power of stunts, Vietjet launched with all-female crews in bikinis as a stark contrast to the staid, state-run Vietnam Airlines. It worked. And while a lot of recent western media headlines have read “Hot Flight Attendants In Bikinis Made Vietnam Its First Female Billionaire” and “How Bikini Airline Helped to Create Vietnam's First Woman Billionaire”, the reality is today the crew only dress in bikinis as part of the promotional flights to new tropical destinations.

Nguyen’s response to the western media’s skewed view of her success: “We don’t mind people associating the airline with the bikini image. If that makes people happy, we are happy.”

Today Vietjet has 300 flights a day and has now set the ambition of being the “Emirates of Asia” - recently ordering more than 200 new planes worth $23 billion. Last month the company floated on the stock exchange, making Nguyen a billionaire.

Today, Nguyen is worth $1.7 billion. Asked what she thinks about her net worth, she says "I’ve never sat down and calculated my assets. I’m just focused on how to boost the company’s growth, how to increase the average salary for my employees, how to lead the airline to gain more market share and make it number one.”

Based on current growth, VietJet will overtake Vietnam Airlines this year after just 5 years in business.

Where will you be 5 years from today? And how can Nguyen’s journey be an inspiration towards your future flight plan?

“We all fly. Once you leave the ground, you fly. Some people fly longer than others.” ~ Michael Jordan

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