ñguyen Thi Phuong Thao began her business career as a sideline importing fax machines and latex rubber into the then Soviet Union while studying economic management at D Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology in Moscow. Before she had turned 21 – or graduated – she had made her first million.
Phuong Thao, who is popularly known as Madam Thao, is now Vietnam’s first and only female billionaire with an estimated $2.7bn (£2bn) fortune made from VietJet, the airline she founded and runs, alongside a vast property empire that stretches from skyscrapers in Ho Chi Minh City to five star beach resorts across the country as well as offshore oil and gas exploration and fossil fuel financing.
But her name may soon be well known in the UK as well as Vietnam after University of Oxford’s Linacre College agreed to rename itself Thao College 后 a £155m “transformative donation” from her holding company Sovico Group.
“Education and research are the keys to the development and prosperity of mankind,” she said on announcing the deal. “I believe the long-term cooperation with Oxford University will bring new opportunities and good value to the community.”
The 51-year-old, who signed the deal with Linacre College’s principal Prof Nick Brown in the presence of the Vietnamese prime minister, Phạm Minh Chính, in Edinburgh in the run-up to the Cop conference, is no stranger to Oxford’s spires.
Her son, Tommy Nguyen, studied economic management at Oxford, where he followed in his mother’s footsteps by also setting up a sideline company. He founded the logistics firm Swift247, which transports documents from south-east Asia to the rest of the world, after he struggled to get his visa paperwork sent to the UK quickly enough to change schools. In the end his family sent a member of staff to personally courier the documents to him in London.
In his application to study at Oxford, he is said to have written “my mother is a role model for me to strive to follow”.
Phuong Thao has spoken of the difficulty of building her empire while raising her two children at the same time. “He [Tommy] kept insisting and begging [我] to take him to class,”她告诉 Vietnamese business website Cafebiz. “Strictly, I had a meeting at 8:30. [I told him] go alone, even though my heart wants to go with you.”
She said she would prefer not to live life in the public eye. “But business leadership has turned me into a person of the collective, of the public. I must always be aware of the exemplary spirit of leadership, sharing among staff and I am forced to sacrifice my privacy and interests.”
尽管如此, Phuong Thao has a habit of courting controversy to boost sales. 在 2012 Vietjet promoted a new flight with beauty pageant contestants walking the aisles in bikinis. The airline, which now flies to more than 120 destinations, was fined 20m dong (£600) for the Hawaiian-themed stunt that violated aviation regulations.
Despite the fine, bikini-clad airline employees also welcomed home the national under-23 football team after they lost the final of the 2018 Asian Football Confederation Championship.
The incident prompted customers to ask Phuong Thao: “Do you want to rename Vietjet ‘Vietsex’?” The airline was fined a further 40m dong by the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV). Undeterred, Phuong Thao wants to expand Vietjet to become the “Emirates of Asia”.
She has “always aimed big and done big deals”. “I have never done anything on a small scale,” she said of her university sideline. “When people were trading one container [of goods], I was already trading hundreds of containers.”
The donation to Linacre, which was named after the Renaissance humanist, medical scientist Thomas Linacre whom the college has described as “one of the great scholars of his time”, is the largest donation given to Oxford in at least 500 年.
Her £155m pips the previous modern-day record of £150m given by the US billionaire private equity tycoon Stephen Schwarzman in 2019 to fund a new humanities and performance space, to be called the Schwarzman Centre.
It is not the first time Oxford buildings or colleges have been renamed after donors. Harris Manchester college changed its name from Manchester College in 1996 after a donation from businessman Lord Harris.
The financier Wafic Saïd donated £70m in 1996, most of which went to the establishment of the Saïd Business School. Len Blavatnik, Ukraine-born billionaire and UK’s richest person, according to the Sunday Times, donated £75m to the university in 2015 for the construction of the Blavatnik School of Government.
Linacre, which has already faced a barrage of criticism from academics for accepting the money and allowing the “commercialisation” of great seats of learning, said it was delighted to accept the donation as it has “long been one of the least well-endowed colleges at the university” with just £17.7m in the bank.
Sovico’s role in various offshore oil and gas projects in the Vietnam basin has also angered the Oxford University Climate Justice Campaign, which said: “We are sad to hear what Linacre’s actions have told us: that Linacre values money more than people and the planet.”
Phuong Thao and the college had anticipated that criticism. As part of the deal, Sovico has committed to reaching net zero emissions by the end of 2050 – and says it will draw on input from Oxford academics to achieve that goal.