Op-ed: Women need a voice in Myanmar’s vibrant start-up scene

This article was written by Moe Thet War, an English Literature student and tech journalist.

It’s no secret there’s a start-up boom going on in Myanmar right now. The recently published Forbes Asia’s 30 under 30 list featured eight young Burmese entrepreneurs, most of whom had provided some form of widely needed digital service in Myanmar. For a long time, few internet resources have been available to people in Myanmar, but thanks to some of these entrepreneurs, we now have sites like Wai Phyo Kyaw’s online car dealership CarsDB, and Ye Wint Ko and Htet Will’s Bindez, a Myanmar-language search machine. We’ve seen cool initiatives like Daily Mart for online grocery shopping, and Phandeeyar, an ICT hub that brings together the tech community with start-ups in different fields. It’s a fitting time, then, for the launch of Entrepreneur Myanmar, a new magazine aimed at — you guessed it — young entrepreneurs in Myanmar. The official magazine launch is on June 4 at the UMFCCI Main Hall, and the publication will also host a forum for young entrepreneurs, during which a number of accomplished individuals in various fields will share their knowledge and advice.

However, when the posters for the forum were first published, there was one glaring feature of the speaker line-up that stood out to me: it was all men. I got in touch with one of the co-founders of the magazine, Su Yee Win Aung, to ask why. She explained that she and her co-founder had reached out to potential speakers through their connections, and worked with those who responded. A couple of days later Su Yee and her colleague Ei Mon Kyaing were included as speakers in an updated poster for the magazine launch. When I did up a follow-up interview to ask why they had changed the line-up, Su Yee explained: “The original plan was to have one of the speakers be a facilitator, but that didn’t work out, and because we know everyone who’s speaking, we decided to be facilitators ourselves. We won’t be speaking that much, our main role is to facilitate the conversation.” She also admitted: “After we talked to you and you asked why there were no women, we discussed it amongst ourselves and added our names so that there’d be a few women on the panel.”

The original poster for the event featured only men. Photo: Entrepreneur Myanmar / Facebook

Underrepresentation of women in Myanmar’s public sphere is a longstanding problem and, from publicly enforced dress codes to general run-of-the-mill misogyny, Myanmar women face sexism daily. Last month, a café put up a sign refusing to serve women who were dressed “inappropriately” – apparently to prevent sex workers and “drunk women” from stirring commotion. In October, the Myanmar Times were forced to issue a public apology because they had printed the word “vagina”. The women involved in publishing the article were harassed and told that their reputations had been ruined forever. These are just two examples from a long list that remind Myanmar women that we are far more harshly and unfairly judged than men.

I recently spoke about the issue with Su Su Tin, whose achievements include her role as the head of Exotissimo Myanmar and co-ownership of restaurant Monsoon. As a woman, Su Su faced unique obstacles rising to the top of her field. Like many professional women, she had a hard time balancing work and family life. “I could not use my full potential as I still had to take a dual role as mother/wife versus business woman,” she said. “I could not give enough time for networking with government officials or business connections like my male counterparts.” She had to be more conscious about how she presented herself, saying, “I had to be careful not to be misjudged when I had to work closely with male business associates or government officials. I had to be mindful of appropriate dress codes and behavior to gain respect from my male counterparts.”

We need more events specifically aimed at women, such as last month’s Women in Business and Leadership Development Conference that included both male and female speakers who provided encouragement, inspiration, and advice to women leaders and entrepreneurs.

I applaud Entrepreneur Myanmar for attempting to include women in the discussion. But I hope the facilitators are not simply there to mediate a conversation between men. As a young woman myself, I would’ve loved to have listened to someone like Su Su share how she got to the top of her field, as an entrepreneur, but partly also as a woman. Entrepreneur Myanmar was founded by two women and the first issue includes a good number of women, so it’s disappointing that none of those featured will be speaking.

My mother is the head of a by far predominantly male office, which is a rare thing anywhere in the world, but especially in Myanmar. Once, a businessman who was interested in working with her company told her, “I didn’t think the head of the Myanmar branch would be a woman.” Because I grew up around my mom, I always knew that men aren’t just naturally more successful and capable than women. But I’m aware that not all young women grow up with strong female role models in their lives, and for them, an event like this forum would be a great opportunity to really show that Myanmar women can be, and are, in charge.

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