Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, President and CEO of Vietnamese budget airline carrier VietJet. Photo: AFP/ Marwan Naamani
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, President and CEO of Vietnamese budget airline carrier VietJet. Photo: AFP/ Marwan Naamani

Nguyen Phuong Thao, Vietnam’s first woman US dollar billionaire, has risen to the top on a controversial corporate formula: bikini-wearing employees.

As chief executive officer of VietJet, the country’s fast rising budget airline, Thao has mixed aviation and sex appeal in a way that would make even the most casual Western low-cost carriers blush.

VietJet’s cabin crew don revealing swimwear on flights to various destinations, replete with pre-flight dances for passengers that have gone viral over social media, including nearly a million views at this YouTube link.

While Thao is widely viewed as a shining example of gender equality in Vietnam’s male-dominated workplace, others have wondered whether she is a front for a risqué marketing strategy that would be more easily criticized if spearheaded by a male executive.

Thao has repeatedly denied the swimsuit strategy is an exploitative public relations stunt, including at last week’s Forbes Vietnam “Women Bettering the World” conference, a forum focused on how Vietnam leads and lags the world on issues of gender equality.

“Our staff have the right to wear whatever they like, whatever makes them happy,” Thao said at the conference, held in Ho Chi Minh City, giving her regular scripted reply on the issue. “The spirit of VietJet is whatever brings happiness to our customers, that makes us happy.”

VietJet’s profits jumped 113% year on year in 2016, according to company figures. It’s cut-rate tickets are changing the complexion of Vietnam’s air industry by forcing competitors to lower their prices.

Last May, with then US president Barack Obama in attendance, VietJet announced the biggest airplane purchase in Vietnam’s history when it announced it would buy 100 Boeing planes for US$11 billion.

Doing deals: VietJet CEO Nguyen Phuong Thao (R) shakes hands with Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier (2nd L) after a signing ceremony in Hanoi on September 6, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool/Kham

Leading the firm’s growth, Thao symbolizes Vietnam’s chipped glass ceiling for women. Vietnam beats most countries in various rankings of the percentage of female executives and women’s participation in the workforce.

Last month, credit card company Mastercard estimated in a survey that women own 31.4% of all companies in Vietnam, the seventh highest such percentage in the world.

Some of Vietnam’s more progressive laws and policies, such as six months maternity leave and 30-minute breaks during menstruation, support women’s ability to work. In this secular, communist country, child care is within reach for many urban families who either can afford the low labor cost of domestic help or have live-in grandparents.

History is also telling. Just as American women entered the workforce en masse, ala Rosie the Riveter, during World War II, so too generations of female workers emerged from the crucible of the Vietnam War.

“Women’s struggle to be prominent, to be leaders, is similar to Vietnam’s struggle for independence for hundreds, even thousands of years,” Forbes Vietnam chairman Henry Nguyen said.

Tough tradition: A Vietnamese woman carrying munitions during the Vietnam War. Photo: AFP via Vietnam News Agency/Van Bang

In other words, whether they are feminists or foot soldiers, Vietnamese women are known for their fighting spirit – a useful attribute in Vietnam’s increasingly cut-throat private sector.

As Vietnam develops toward middle-income status, Thao sees a pivotal place for VietJet in the country’s upward trajectory. In recent years, communist central planners have put “international integration” at the center of their development strategies.

That means government priority will be placed on trade deals, studying abroad, cross-border joint ventures and foreign peacekeeping missions, to name a few. VietJet’s planned expansion overseas, with likely future routes to China, Indonesia, and Japan, will literally facilitate those connections.

Thao says while she wants her staff of nearly 20,000 employees to be global citizens, she also wants them to preserve Asian traditions. She summed up her gender equality workplace challenge as: “How to balance the god-given responsibility of being a mother, while doing our best as an entrepreneur and leader in our own company.”

Global strategy: Travelers at a VietJet ticket counter in Vietnam. Photo: Getty Images

Thao says she grew up in a “well-to-do” family that had few worries about money. Her own wealth was built quickly, as Thao got her start in business trading everything from watches to computers before moving into banking and real estate.

Family connections have helped. As half of a power couple, Thao is married to Nguyen Thanh Hung, a member of the Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC) Business Advisory Council, whose wealth derives from Sovico Holdings, a financial firm, and other related assets.

It might not be a problem for Thao, but the so-called “second shift” of child and home care remains a burden for many working women in Vietnam, especially when their husbands don’t share the burden.

Vietnamese women face other headwinds, too. In some industries female Vietnamese earn a mere 58% of male salaries (PDF). Just 64% of women have received some secondary education, versus 77% of men because families still give priority to their male offspring.

There are also supposedly 112 boys are born for every 100 girls, a lop-sided ratio caused by an official two-child policy. But Thao’s example shows Vietnam would benefit by more firmly closing its gender gap and shattering completely its still limiting corporate glass ceilings.