Vietnam’s resilient women entrepreneurs are capturing the nation’s attention

Vietnam’s women entrepreneurs, several of whom belong to the generation born during the war with America from 1965-75, now form about a quarter of all entrepreneurs in the nation that remains overwhelmingly male-dominated.

Women leaders of large corporations such as the Vietnam Dairy Products (Vinamilk), the biggest local company by market capitalization, property giant Vingroup, golf course developer BRG Group, private carrier VietJet and HDBank are well known. While these instances are in the industrial and financial sectors, several women are now rising in the fast-growing tech industry.

A study by Grant Thornton in 2013 suggested 30 per cent of board of director roles in Vietnam are held by women, higher than the global average of 19 per cent. A Bloomberg index of companies currently led by female CEOs showed that the number of senior women executives had tripled since 2009.

“Female entrepreneurs are at every corner of the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Vietnam and have been playing a critical role. They include Giang Dang at VIC Impact, Ngoc Vu at Hatch, operators at Up coworking space, Le Huynh Kim Ngan who run accelerators in Ho Chi Minh City and Minh Nguyen at KisStartup, among many others,” said Tran Tri Dung, country partner for Tigers@Mekong, a US initiative to support Mekong region’s startups.

Most of such leaders have overcome extraordinary hardship to get there. During the Vietnam war, about 3 million Vietnamese died, many of whom were male soldiers who left behind wives and young children. Women soldiers also fought in the war, but their numbers were much lower. After the war ended, more hardship followed due to the government’s failed collectivisation policies. Single mothers often supported their families through hidden household businesses, and their daughters imbibed that spirit of resourcefulness. Today some of them are successful entrepreneurs, although their numbers are still small at the top.

Vietnam, a nation of 90 million with an area the size of Germany, has had soaring growth in the last few years. The number of multimillionaires jumped 150 per cent between 2009 and 2013.

“Almost half of Vietnam’s population is female so limiting leadership roles overwhelmingly to men means that the country is unnecessarily restricting itself to a smaller leadership talent pool. Opening leadership more to women can enhance Vietnam’s leadership in support of its development,” commented the World Bank’s country representative in Vietnam, Victoria Kwakwa, in a paper.

Vinamilk’s former chairwoman Mai Kieu Lien and Vingroup’s trio Le Thi Thu Thuy, Duong Thi Mai Hoa and Mai Huong Noi, who accompany the company’s billionaire chairman Pham Nhat Vuong, are among the most inspiring of women entrepreneurs in Vietnam. Lien was featured in the Forbes list of Asia’s Power Businesswomen for several years before she stepped down from the company last year.

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Tran Thi Phuong Thao, CEO of private budget airline VietJet, made her first million at 21 trading fax machines and latex rubber. Today, she is poised to become the first woman billionaire in the nation, with majority of her wealth derived from her stake in VietJet and shares in Dragon City, a 65-hectare real estate project in Ho Chi Minh City. VietJet, which currently has 40 per cent market share, might become Vietnam’s biggest domestic carrier this year, overtaking national carrier Vietnam Airlines, according to projections by the CAPA Centre for Aviation.

Such women leaders have been successful despite a key handicap: starting their companies with 50 per cent less capital than male entrepreneurs, according to a report on women-owned businesses in the US.

“Women are powerful because they are more likely to run careful and detailed planning than the male counterparts, ushering in better risk management,” Dung said.

The effectiveness of women leadership is clear in the private sector, where only 5 per cent of 640 listed companies are run by female CEOs, yet the market cap of these women-led companies accounted for around 20 per cent of the total market capitalization last year.

Organizations are also starting to create unique programs to support entrepreneurialism and feminism, most recently with the SoGal Vietnam Summit, which was hosted in June and helped the country winner to attend the Silicon Valley’s ‘Her Startup Competition’. Book-reading app Check It won the competition.

Several companies controlled by women leaders have secured large funding from high-profile international and domestic institutional investors, including Warburg Pincus, veteran Mark Mobius’ funds, VinaCapital and Mekong Capital, which has recently named the first two women partners on its board.

Recent funding rounds include Cyberagent Ventures’ seed funding for e-learning website Kyna.vnGobi Partners’ $500,000 into customized tour provider, 500 Startups’ and FPT Ventures’ financing for English learning platform Yola, Weeby’s acquisition of “Startup Queen” Truong Thanh Thuy’s social app Tappy, and Vingroup’s acquisition of Le Hoang Uyen Vy’s e-commerce venture. Vy is currently heading the VinEcom team for Vingroup.

Accelerators or bootcamps dedicated for women entrepreneurs in Vietnam are still few. SoGal Vietnam is starting a series of events and leadership training programs that will seek to empower women in business.

Dung said that a key strength area of women is that they are detail-oriented. “All startup founders want to move fast – they are correct. But that should not be an excuse for leaving big holes in your management. Sometimes a detail-oriented women leader becomes a tough manager, leading to better management of the company.”

Still, equity financing remains the biggest challenge for women in starting and growing their businesses. Women entrepreneurs in Vietnam are hoping that their strengths are recognized, which will let supporters help them with more access to resources to become entrepreneurs and play a more significant part in the economy.

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