CEO PNJ Thong Le: “MBA is an ideology”

CEO PNJ – MSc. Le Tri Thong refers to a Master of Business Administration (MBA) as a path, in the sense of a religion. He affirms that pursuing an MBA has provided a solid foundational knowledge that allows for additional attachment and customization of the evolution of knowledge, thereby enabling the resolution of specific problems encountered in particular circumstances.

Le Tri Thong, along with his younger sister Le Diep Kieu Trang, are considered by the younger generation in Vietnam (8x, 9x) as role models for academic success. Thong became famous for being a top graduate from Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology (Bach Khoa) but shifted towards business through an academic route, pursuing a Master’s in Business Administration program. He currently holds the position of Vice Chairman of the Board, CEO of Phu Nhuan Jewelry Company – PNJ.

The turning point of the “outsider” Master of Business Administration

During the MBA For Success seminar organized by UEH-ISB, Le Tri Thong shared that the business spirit had been ingrained in him since childhood. Hence, despite having a scholarship for a PhD in the U.S. in the field of chemistry, he declined it to seek opportunities to obtain an MBA degree.

At 25 years old, with only two years of experience, Thong was indeed minuscule compared to his peers at Oxford University, a globally renowned academic institution. In reality, Oxford required students to meet a four-year work experience criterion for a 12-month MBA program. Therefore, among his classmates, known as the “baby MBA” at that time, some held two PhDs, and others were associate professors.

“I told the interviewers that if they only considered my two years of experience post-graduation, they were mistaken. Because since the age of 7 or 8, I accompanied my father (Le Van Tri, Deputy General Director of Casumina – NV) to meetings, observing the business activities of the company. Therefore, my experience should be calculated from those years,” Thong recounted.

“When it comes to the value of the Master of Business Administration program, Mr. Lê Trí Thông shares that the ‘Doctrine’ of the MBA will always accompany him throughout his life, helping him form a new perspective.”
Certainly, for a chemical engineer who had been “immersed in research” with professors from the second year of university, pursuing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) was undoubtedly a significant turning point. This turning point facilitated sustained advancement in his career.
“Even though I was an outstanding student in Vietnam, during the first month, my confidence was shattered when none of my assignments received an ‘A’,” Thong recounts. When he raised the issue with the professor, he realized: “I approached assignments merely as submissions, while I should have approached them from my perspective, using my academic viewpoint to achieve high grades.”
A different horizon emerged, at least in terms of learning methods and approaches, forcing the “baby MBA” to change. Thong recognized: “Around 30% of the theories learned from school apply to situations today. The remaining 70% of situations require a different theory.”
The most discomforting aspect for a natural sciences-oriented individual is the notion that in the MBA curriculum, there seems to be no room for a binary concept of right or wrong. A senior classmate advised him: “The world isn’t just 0 and 1; it’s not always clear-cut. Management deals with uncertain, ambiguous situations!”
Realizing these things wasn’t easy, especially for someone who inherently valued academic truths like Thong.

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is not just a foundation but also… “an ideology”

Throughout his story, MSc. Le Tri Thong refers to the Master of Business Administration (MBA) as a path, in the sense of a religion. He emphasizes that the MBA provides a solid foundational knowledge allowing for additional attachment and customization of the evolution of knowledge, rather than teaching specific problem-solving methods.

If TS. Ly Qui Trung likened “Bachelor’s is riding a bicycle, MBA is riding a motorcycle. When discussing a Master of Business Administration degree, Le Tri Thong shares his “enlightenment” journey with the MBA. According to him, the “path” of the MBA stays with us throughout life. It helps me continually perceive, observe, absorb, and critically evaluate the theories I’ve learned to form a new worldview. This ‘path’ helps us achieve success in our careers, exploring new territories, the realities of business and enterprises,” emphasized Thong.

Returning to the concept of right or wrong in the natural sciences realm, Thong believes that once one understands that an MBA is the science of management, the science of behavior, accepting the relative nature of right or wrong values is a step toward enlightenment, a “path of understanding” the MBA. “Sometimes the knowledge contradicts what I’ve learned, and it’s the ‘path’ of the MBA that helps me find the solution,” shared Thong.

Younger generations in Vietnam, the 80s and 90s cohorts, view Lê Trí Thông as a role model of academic success
One example Thong brought up was the Western management theory, which highly regards a company’s core competency as its value and brand for success, advising against diversified investments for companies. “However, in reality, companies like Apple, Facebook, Ford, Boeing, Microsoft, as well as VinGroup and Masan in Vietnam, are all diversified companies. If machines applied the theory, there certainly wouldn’t be multinational, diversified corporations as robust as these,” emphasized Thong.
It’s precisely from this “enlightenment” that Thong remarks that studying an MBA isn’t just about learning what’s in the curriculum. “Studying an MBA with what’s in books is the knowledge of humanity, but between the two black lines, there lies the white line, which represents your knowledge. By reasoning, by one’s own thoughts, pouring into the white line amidst the black lines in the book is the enlightenment one achieves,” Thong expressed.
Because, according to him, the lines one writes are the ones experienced and cross-referenced in reality. “I compare myself to reality, always observing reality to complement theory. Theory is the black lines, the powdered milk, but what creates value is both the black lines and the white lines, much like how milk’s value comes from water mixed with powder, not just the pure powder,” he elaborated.
The information in the article was shared by guest speaker – MSc. Le Tri Thong – at the event “MBA For Success” with the theme: “Discussion with MSc. Le Tri Thong and TS. Pham Anh Khoi.” MBA For Success is an online seminar series organized by ISB, aimed at connecting high-level leaders and managers, providing a comprehensive perspective and valuable knowledge for Master of Business Administration program students, and general audiences interested in the field.

Reference: ISB