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An increasing number of women are taking the helm at some of Vietnam’s largest companies. But according to two high-ranking Vietnamese businesswomen, their MBA was not the secret to their success in the communist-led country.

The women

Both women studied on MBA programmes that included a semester in the US and both are working in Ho Chi Minh City.

Le Thi Thu Thuy, chief executive of Vingroup, Vietnam’s biggest property development group, began her MBA in 1998 at the age of 22, at the International University of Japan. One of the semesters in the two-year course was done in the US, at University of Rochester’s Simon Business School.

Nguyen Thi Minh Ly, a senior analyst in the property department of Dragon Capital, an asset manager, gained her MBA from Washington State University, sponsored by her then employer, the International Finance Corporation. She began her studies at the age of 28. The programme included one semester in the US and three at Vietnam’s National Economics University.

Verdict on MBAs in general

Ms Thuy says she expected the programme to land her a job. It did not, directly, but it provided other benefits equipping her for many aspects of professional life.

“The MBA did not help me to get my job today but did help me to get expert knowledge and to meet people,” says Ms Thuy. “I was young, came from Vietnam and was not much exposed to western culture. The time I spent in the US gave me a lot of confidence,” she adds.

Studying for an MBA, particularly in the US, can open doors, she admits.

Her professional life has included a job at Lehman Brothers where she was vice-president covering Asian markets, focusing on investment and commercial property. After the collapse of Lehman in 2008, she was recruited by Vingroup as chief finance officer, later becoming chief executive in 2012.

While an MBA “helps organise you and gives a picture of what business is about, it is not the key to success,” points out Ms Thuy.

MBAs vs specialist qualifications

Ms Thuy is ambivalent about the overall benefit she gained from the MBA experience, believing practical experience and a more niche professional degree can often carry more weight. She also gained a Chartered Financial Analyst qualification separately from her MBA. While business education is increasingly recognised and valued in Vietnam, she points out that “my CFA title got more attention than my MBA”. With a CFA, “people recognise the hard work involved and respect it”, she adds.

The view that this type of niche professional qualification counts more than a broader one is partly shared by Ms Ly. “[An MBA] was the best option for me at the time. I thought an MBA would help me get a better job and gain more knowledge and experience. I didn’t think I could do a CFA as it was too challenging and many of my IFC [International Finance Corporation] colleagues had failed it,” says the 40-year-old analyst. But she says the chartered surveying qualification (MRICS, Member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors) she gained in 2013, has helped her more because it is relevant to the needs of her role at Dragon Capital where she evaluates real estate for investment potential.

Both businesswomen say their MBAs have been useful. But if it came down to a choice between doing an MBA or a more specialised course relevant to their job sector, they would both opt for the latter.

What benefits did the MBA bring?

Ms Thuy says the MBA built up her networking strength. Exposure to “things outside the classroom” was particularly useful, and she values the contacts she made. “I can always go to alumni to get insight.”

The networking might have been partly responsible for raising her profile. In 2013 she was invited to join the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders in recognition of her management of Vingroup during the global financial crisis.

Ms Ly says the MBA helped to give “a big picture on operations, managing my work and decision making”.

Advice for other Vietnamese women

Vietnam is waking up to the value of business education for women, particularly if it is gained abroad, says Ms Thuy. She believes women who studied and/or worked abroad are more likely to get the best jobs on returning home.

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