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Women breathing life into business dreams

Released at: 06:04, 24/03/2018 Women in Business

Women breathing life into business dreams

Photo: VET Magazine

Vietnam boasts a number of successful young female CEOs in both large companies and smaller concerns.

by Ngoc Lan & Hai Van

Ms. Tan Thi Shu, a 32-year-old ethnic H’mong woman and single mother, has been able to turn her dream of helping her people into reality. She founded and is now Director of the Sapa O’Chau Travel Social Enterprise, the first tourist company run by H’mong ethnic minority people in Lao Chai commune under the community tourism model, with a top priority of creating jobs and learning opportunities for local children. “I want to change the conception that it is useless for a H’mong girl to receive an education because she will marry at a very early age and work all day in the fields but still live in poverty,” Ms. Shu said. 

Sapa O’Chau was established in 2007, with O’Chau in the H’mong language meaning “thank you”. Nine years on, Sapa O’Chau has evolved from a charity tourism business into a business that trades beverages and brocade in the popular hill town of Sapa in northern Lao Cai province. The company is made up of four inter-connected parts: boarding facilities to help students who would otherwise not be able to complete their education due to financial or geographical limitations, a café, a H’mong handicraft store, and tours. 

There are many Vietnamese businesswomen leading enterprises to success, such as Ms. Mai Kieu Lien, General Director of Vinamilk, Ms. Nguyen Thi Nga, Chairwoman of SeABank and the BRG Group, and Ms. Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, General Director of Vietjet Air, among many others. There are also increasing numbers of young businesswomen finding success in leadership roles, confirming that Vietnamese women are asserting their role in the country’s business community.

Initial success

Many other young female leaders like Ms Shu have achieved a great deal in their business endeavors. 

Thirty-year-old Ms Nguyen Ha Linh, Co-founder and Business Development Director of the Koh Samui Hut restaurant chain, has become a symbol of young people getting startups off the ground. Her first business venture was in education. Starting with just $11, “which taught me a lot,” after eight years its single classroom had grown into an English center called IBEST, with enrolments averaging 200 a month. She then decided to turn her passion for Thai food into a promising endeavor, with the Koh Samui Hut chain. Ms. Linh and some of her friends got the business underway in November 2014. Within three months it won favor in Hanoi, but more than just a successful franchise, Koh Samui Hut is also an adventure. There are now four Koh Samui Hut restaurants in busy areas of the capital. 

Ms. Linh told VET that as a female CEO, she holds advantages in observation and insight. Her leadership style is not rigid, and she gives her employees a degree of flexibility. She is also keen to inspire other young people to reach for success. Koh Samui Hut is now a famous name in Hanoi, but in the early days it was tough, as two restaurants on Pham Ngoc Thach and Nha Chung Streets closed after just a month. “A brand must cope with fluctuations, and sometimes we must change or the brand will falter,” she said. “Young people should not be afraid of failure.”

It’s clear there are many unfavorable factors that female CEOs in Vietnam must overcome. Gradually, though, their efforts have been recognized and those who have found success have plans to continue doing so over the years to come.

In talking about future plans, Ms. Le Canh Bich Hanh, CEO of fashion company Vascara, said it will boost its brand advertising via key opinion leaders (KOLs) and specific campaigns. Vascara recently had success from sponsoring the famous film “Co Ba Sai Gon”, which led to sales increasing 55 per cent in November, when the film was in cinemas, which took it half-way towards completing a key performance indicator (KPI). 

It also works hard on continuing to improve its customer care activities, including its delivery policy, return policy, and information security policy, as well as promoting gift cards for birthdays, holidays, or other special occasions.

Ms. Shu also has specific plans for future, improving management, restructuring the organization, and boosting training quality. She also hopes to expand Sapa O’Chau to Bac Ha in neighboring Ha Giang province, which has become a promising tourism destination. She is dedicated to the company’s purpose, which is to give minorities in mountainous areas the opportunity to develop. “I want to be better at business so I can help more ethnic minority people go to school and provide them with employment so they can help their families,” she said.
Ms. Linh noted that Industry 4.0 has made it easier for her to reach customers. “I will continue to use apps such as Foody to advertise and promote Koh Samui Hut rather than traditional social media like Facebook and blogs,” she said. 

Overcoming limitations

As an ethnic minority woman, Ms. Shu has had to overcome the customs of her people, with most of her family members being unhappy she dived into business. “They think that women involved in business will not respect their husbands,” she said. 

She has struggled with that particular discrimination by properly balancing her work and family life. Being in a remote area is also challenge, as it can be difficult to access new technology. “I didn’t know much about technology, but this line of work benefits from applying the latest innovations,” she said. “I have taken online courses and then taught my employees.”

Ms. Linh has adopted and discarded business models that she now regrets not pursuing further. “Persistence is something I have learned and try to impart to my staff,” she said. Meanwhile, Ms. Hanh said that meeting all customer needs in the fashion business can be problematic. “The industry is also often influenced by customer ‘feelings’, in terms of shopping space, shop layout, and service quality and attitude,” she said. The is also pressure from cheap Chinese products, and there is serious competition among Vietnamese fashion brands. “We have had issues that stem from low workplace skills,” she explained. “It’s also been difficult to design all of our Vascara stores under the one concept.” 

According to a study by Deloitte released last June, 17.6 per cent of board members at 50 Vietnamese companies are women, which is more than double the Asian average of 7.8 per cent. “Women in Vietnam lead or own many SMEs and large enterprises, which provides positive, visible, and diverse role models for other women,” Mr. Ian Grundy of the Switzerland-based employment firm Adecco Group AG, the world’s largest provider of temporary workers, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying.

Asia leads the world in terms of the percentage of female CEOs and Vietnam has the highest proportion of female CEOs in the Asia-Pacific region, at approximately 25 per cent, compared to an average of 10 per cent globally. But it can’t be denied that Vietnamese women must still cope with a range of hurdles, including stereotypes about the role of women, expectations about the role of women, and balancing work and family life.

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