Named one of the wealthiest people in 2021 by Forbes, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao is one of Vietnam’s most celebrated success stories. Nguyen is the country’s first self-made woman billionaire — now worth of $2.8 billion — after she founded the low-cost carrier VietJet in 2011.
Before making a fortune in the aviation industry, Nguyen was into importing fax machines and latex rubber into Russia. Even then, she was already going for big deals. She made her first million before she turned 21.
“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,” said Nguyen in an interview with Forbes.
True to her word, Nguyen didn’t settle for anything small even with her philanthropic works. She recently made international headlines after she donated £155 million ($211 million) to Linacre College, one of University of Oxford’s graduate colleges.
“We are very pleased to be able to announce that we have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with SOVICO Group, represented by their chairwoman Madam Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, to receive a philanthropy donation of a total of £155 million. This gift will have a transformative impact on College and we are immensely grateful for their generosity,” the college announced on its website.
The 51-year-old billionaire signed the deal with Linacre College’s principal Professor Nick Brown in Edinburgh on October 31. Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, who was in the UK for the COP26, witnessed the event.
The “transformative” donation will help create a new graduate center for the students and endow graduate access scholarships. A significant part of the donation will be for the general endowment fund, the college said, to support its daily operations.
As recognition of Nguyen's generosity, Linacre College agreed to rename itself as Thao College. Nguyen’s donation is the largest donation given to Oxford in the past 500 years.
But while Oxford celebrates Nguyen’s landmark gift, the college’s decision to rename the school drew flak.
In an interview with The Telegraph, French literature lecturer Dr. Maria Kawthar Daouda, said college names should not be altered based on who has given the most generous donation. “Thankfulness from Madam Thao’s money could be expressed in ways that do not erase what the donation is meant to protect.”
On social media, people also commented that Nguyen should have donated the money to a university in her home country, where it is much needed.
“I live in Vietnam, this person is obviously well-known here. It's a shame she didn't donate to her own country, as a very poor nation they could've done so much with this money,” said Facebook user Chris James.
Other comments were centered around Nguyen’s airline business, which is part of an industry that accounts for roughly 3% of global CO2 emissions.
“Linacre boasts of being the first ‘carbon neutral’ college in Oxford, yet has decided to rename itself in honor of a billionaire who made her fortune from plastics, rubber, petroleum, and budget air travel?!,” wrote Twitter user @geoffacakes78.
Linacre clarified that Nguyen’s SOVICO Group has committed to all their subsidiaries reaching net zero carbon by the end of 2050 with the input from leading Oxford academies.
Some people, however, thought Nguyen’s move was strategic and charitable, and is, in one way or another, beneficial to the Vietnamese.
“Oxford does offer a number of scholarships to fund LMIC (lower-middle income countries) students. Many of our Vietnamese students are supported through these streams,” wrote @drleighannjones on Twitter.
“I'm torn about this. It's an awesome act of generosity that will help many. But imagine if that went to VN education? If 'just' 5% of that gift was to keep ethnic minority students in school and uni, it would slash extreme poverty and be a major step to end human trafficking,” said Michael Brosowski, founder of Vietnamese charity Blue Dragon.
This is not the first time Nguyen stirred controversy. In 2012, as VietJet was promoting its brand, flight attendants were seen wearing Hawaiian-themed bikinis as they walked down the narrow aircraft aisle. The airline was fined 20 million VND for violating aviation regulations.
To “entertain” the Vietnamese U23 football team on their way home after a sensational performance at the Asian Football Cup in 2018, VietJet once again brought their bikini-wearing employees. It was fined 44 million VND. In 2019, the airline released Vietjet Bikini Calendar, a calendar that features a woman in bikinis for every month of the year.
These stunts went viral, further propelling VietJet’s prominence — and most definitely its sales. VietJet defended the airline’s marketing effort by saying people have the right to wear whatever they like, bikini or traditional ao dai.