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Business mogul and ‘bikini airline’ VietJet founder Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, 46, is Vietnam and Southeast Asian’s only female billionaire, one of only two billionaires in Vietnam. Last month, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao was among the 50 named in Forbes’ World’s Self-Made Women Billionaires list. In the same week, the privately-owned VietJet’s market capitalization surpassed state-owned Vietnam Airlines ­– just a week after it was listed.

Nguyen first ventured into business in 1988 as a second year student studying finance and economics in Moscow. Nguyen, whose mother was a teacher and father a pharmacist, started off as a trade distributor with little money. By acquiring clothing, office equipment and consumer goods from suppliers in Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea on credit, she then sold the goods in Russia a few years before the fall of the Soviet Union. Three years later, at age 21, Nguyen earned her first million by trading fax machines and latex rubber. Then she transitioned to trading steel, machinery, fertilizer and other commodities.

After returning to Vietnam, Nguyen invested in two lenders, Techcombank, also known as Vietnam Technological and Commercial Joint-Stock Bank, and Vietnam International Commercial Joint Stock Bank. Then she turned to real estate projects in Ho Chi Minh City and resorts in Central Vietnam. She later submitted an application to run an airline following the nation’s adoption of a market economy in 1986, in hopes that the communist government would open up the industry for competition with Vietnam Airlines.

Today, Nguyen is a major shareholder in Sovico Holdings, which owns the commercial HD Bank and VietJet Air, both of which she heads. In 2014, HD Bank merged with Dai A Bank and is now one of the biggest joint-stock commercial banks in Vietnam, with total assets of nearly $5 billion.

Vietnam’s first budget airline VietJet Air launched in 2011 and flies nationwide as well as to more than 30 regional destinations including Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, China, Japan, Hong Kong and Myanmar. Nguyen aspires to make VietJet the “Emirates of Asia,” and the goal is realistic with the company’s recent purchase of more than 200 aircraft worth an estimated 23 billion from Airbus and Boeing.

Sovico also has major stakes in Dragon City, a $1 billion multi-use project bordering Ho Chi Minh City. She bought it more than a decade ago and it is located in what used to be a swampy area within Vietnam’s economic hub. Finally, Nguyen has majority stakes in three Vietnam resorts, the Furama Resort Danang, the Evasion Ana Mandara Nha Trang, and the An Lam Ninh Van Bay Villas.

Self-Made Women Billionaires

  • 21 in China (37.5% of the list)
  • 17 in the United States (30%)
  • 5 in Hong Kong
  • 3 in the United Kingdom
  • Countries with one a piece include AustraliaBrazilGermanyIndiaItalyJapanNigeria, RussiaSwitzerland and Vietnam.

Top Asian Businesswomen

  • Zhou Qunfei, richest self-made woman in the world, smartphone screens, Hong Kong.
  • Chan Laiwa and family, real estate, China.
  • Pollyanna Chu, financial services, Hong Kong.
  • Wu Yajun and family, real estate, China.
  • Lam Wai Ying, smartphone screens, Hong Kong.
  • Zhang Xin and family, real estate, China.
  • Zhang Xiaojuan, logistics, China.
  • Rita Tong Liu, real estate, Hong Kong.
Courtesy of Forbes: forbes.com