Nguyễn Thị Phương Thảo
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, President and CEO of Vietnamese airline carrier Vietjet, speaks during press conference in Dubai on November 10, 2015. Vietjet signed a deal with Airbus at the Dubai Airshow on Tuesday to buy 30 single-aisle A321 planes worth a total of $3.6 billion. AFP PHOTO / MARWAN NAAMANI (Photo by MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP)

A graduate college at Oxford University could be renamed after Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, 51, a Vietnamese billionaire whose budget airline staffed its inaugural flights with bikini-clad air hostesses.

Linacre College said this week it would change its name to Thao College, after a “transformative donation” of 155 million pounds (US$211 million) from the SOVICO group, headed by Thao.

Thao’s donation will fund a new graduate centre and scholarships, as well as support the day-to-day running of the college, which was founded in 1962. “After receiving the first donation of 50 million pounds, we will approach the Privy Council to ask for permission to change our name from Linacre College to Thao College in recognition of this landmark gift,” it said Monday.

But who is Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao and why is she called Vietnam’s richest woman?

Nguyễn Thị Phương Thảo

President and CEO of VietJet aviation join stock company Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao (R) and President and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes Kevin McAllister (L) shake hands after a signing ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on February 27, 2019, ahead of the second US-North Korea summit. Source: Long Thai Long/Pool/AFP 

Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao: International student turned millionaire

Born in Hanoi, Thao made her riches as an international student in Russia. In Moscow, she had reportedly become a millionaire by distributing fax machines, plastic and rubber from Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea in the then Soviet Union.

Her full list of qualifications include:

  • a bachelor’s degree in Labour Economic Management from Moscow National Economics College;
  • a bachelor’s degree in Finance, Credit and Banking from Moscow Commerce Institute; and
  • PhD in Economic Cybernetics from Mendeleev Institute

The making of a self-made billionaire

In 2011, Thao launched VietJet with a big splash, featuring bikini-clad flight attendants in racy marketing campaigns. In 2017, she took the budget airline public and became the country’s first self-made woman billionaire.

Thao has a net worth of US$2.7 billion, according to Forbes magazine, and also has interests in banking and leisure.

Thao’s Oxford connections

Linacre College was named after Thomas Linacre, a 15th-century humanist and former physician to king Henry VIII, and is currently home to some 500 students.

It is one of the 39 financially independent and self-governing colleges that make up Oxford University, whose history dates back to the 11th century.

For Thao, Oxford is the alma mater of her son, Tommy Nguyen, who previously studied at its economic management department.

The Daily Telegraph quoted Thao as saying she believed Oxford was “the right place” to fulfill her “long-term desire to contribute to humanity through education, training and research”.

“By donating to Linacre College, we hope to make significant contributions to enrich Oxford’s traditions and reputation,” she added.

Additional reporting by AFP