Women in Burma find support for tech careers despite cultural barriers

Image via Project W's Facebook page.

Image via Project W’s Facebook page.

Rosy, a Burmese woman, was always drawn to the colorful fabrics and patterns favored by the Chin people. Even as a young girl discovering fashion alongside her friends, the handwoven garments crafted by the ethnic minority group, one of Burma’s many, held a special allure. She soon realized she wasn’t alone in her appreciation of the cultural fabrics and decided to build a business around Chin goods.

Rosy created an e-commerce boutique for selling Chin clothing. In a country where about 10 percent of people have regular Internet access, Rosy is banking on the coming connectivity revolution to bring Chin fashion to her country and the world. She sells via Facebook, and has big plans for the future of her company.

“These fabrics come from places where women earn their livings by weaving,” she said. “The women benefit by the increased demand [for] these Chin fabrics in the country. I like the growing e-commerce system in [Burma].”

Rosy’s ambitions received a boost this year through Project W, a women-only entrepreneurship incubator based in Yangon. She and nine other women were selected for the six-month program aimed at empowering women in Burma to turn their start-up visions into reality.

As Burma’s tech scene grows with increased Internet infrastructure from telecoms Ooredoo and Telenor, opportunities for tech-savvy entrepreneurs are ripe. While many women in Burma study computer science and are skilled programmers, cultural boundaries prevent them from going all-in on their start-up ideas.

Project W wants to change that.

Women in Burma are “very risk averse,” said Allison Morris, co-founder of Project Hub Yangon, which runs Project W. “They have this idea that they can’t start the business unless they’re starting the full business. We’re encouraging them to adopt this lean start-up mentality.”

Women often take on strong roles in their communities, but cultural expectations prevent them from going after funding or launching a start-up the way men might — or might be encouraged to. Expectations that women will run the home and raise children make it harder for them to find the time or support to start a business.

Rosy, a Project W participant, sells fabrics handwoven by Chin women. Photo courtesy Rosy

Rosy, a Project W participant, sells fabrics handwoven by Chin women. Photo courtesy Rosy

Societal standards for what’s appropriate in a male-female interaction hinder women entrepreneurs from securing funding and partnerships.

A “cultural twist is [that because] it’s still considered inappropriate by society for a woman to be alone with a man (of authority) in a room, men seem to have an upper hand in situations where the male decision maker wants to engage directly with a supplier or a vendor and talk face-to-face,” said Thaung Su Nyein,CEO and managing director of Information Matrix and vice president of the Myanmar Young Entrepreneurs Association.  Women can get around this bias by bringing a female colleague to the meeting, but it’s one extra hoop that reinforces preferential treatment toward men in business.

Thaung Su Nyein noted that the attitude toward women in tech is symptomatic of the broader culture. Only six percent of the country’s parliament is made up of women, one of them being Aung San Suu Kyi. “With government and other authoritative positions held by men, it is of course challenging for women to engage in direct business negotiations,” he said.

Sexist attitudes toward women in what are seen as “male” positions are also a factor, he added.

“A woman tech entrepreneur will have to continue proving her tech bonafides in order to lead a typical software/tech company,” he said. “The age-old perception that men are more tech-savvy than women still exists in some circles in [Burma].”

“Being able to build your network is more difficult here,” Morris acknowledged. “Even just reaching out to a foreign investor who is a man, it doesn’t look good.”

She observed this directly during Project Hub Yangon’s 2012 incubator session. All but one of the participants was a man, and the lone woman clearly did not enjoy the networking and support benefits her male peers did.

“The guys melded into a peer group, but the woman in the group didn’t become part of that cohort,” Morris said.

Project W was created to give women a program all their own, where they could give one another candid feedback and “access resources in a way they feel comfortable” with, Morris said.

There is strong sentiment across several sectors, including NGO and humanitarian groups, that women will play a driving role in shaping Burma’s future. Many programs exist to empower women as community leaders and educators. Project W gives them a platform to influence a traditionally male-dominated field.

“Women are very strong here in Burma,” said Erin Biel, programs manager at Partnership for Change, which is also involved with Project W. “They naturally have the sense of strength that can serve as a great catalyst for entrepreneurship.”

Project W provides regular training sessions in various aspects of running a business. Successful entrepreneurs from Burma and abroad speak at meetings, and participants give regular presentations on their business’ progress. This helps them gain confidence in pitching their ideas.

For someone like Rosy, who is passionate about her product but feels her pitch skills are lacking, that practice is essential.

Rosy’s fellow Project W participant Su Wah says that for her, the consultation sessions and mentoring make all the difference.

“Because of the network the mentors provide, I find it a lot easier to understand what I need to do in the preparation phase, what the challenges are and how to overcome [them],” Su Wah said. She is opening a “social business” book cafe in Yangon, with the aim of encouraging literacy in a country that is woefully behind in education standards. Her vision is for a space that offers locals, expats and tourists access to high-speed Internet, a free library, and an environment conducive to learning and contemplation.

Su Wah says she is “obsessive” about the shop. “It is really hard to get away from [the] idea, as I so much want it to be successful and perfect,” she says.

It’s not a lack of skill that prevents women from taking on visible tech roles. Many women graduate with computer science and engineering degrees but take non-technical jobs after school.

Thaung Su Nyein saw this firsthand, when he was interviewing candidates for an ICT position at the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce. Twelve of 18 candidates were women, but only two believed they could use their computer science backgrounds for the job. The rest felt they weren’t qualified enough and requested clerical positions.

Many women become lecturers in computer science and engineering, a position that suits their background and society’s perception of teaching as a female profession.

“Part of the reason I believe that is happening is that they don’t have any role models,” said Rita Nguyen, founder of Squar, Burma’s first social media network. “They’re not represented at the top of the chain. There aren’t enough women in tech leadership roles here, so there are no role models and there are no women deciding what apps and technologies need to be built … so the content isn’t built for women either.”

That creates a vicious cycle, in which women may be less interested in tech careers and may feel the culture still prohibits them from leading.

“We simply need more women to join the entrepreneurship ranks,” Thaung Su Nyein said.

Nguyen likened the situation to the West, where women were long underrepresented in gaming leadership roles. Gaming was seen as a guys-only domain because there were no women influencing game creation at the top. When more women were hired in influential positions, there were more varieties in games created and women were more widely accepted as gamers. The same goes for women in Burma’s tech world. “There is an enormous amount of girls interested and there’s an enormous amount in tech,” Nguyen said. Now they just need to step up as leaders.

Programs like Project W and local tech events will help spur that change. At a recent business hackathon in Yangon, women were well-represented on two of the winning teams. Hackathons give women coders a chance to work alongside their male peers to solve social and economic problems for local organizations. The first place team at the hackathon developed an app for a company that partners with farmers in Shan State to bring their produce to hotels and restaurants in Yangon.

The energy at these hackathons and among the tech community is palpable. Burma is a country in flux and modern infrastructure will allow the country to advance rapidly in terms of app development and tech innovation. Women bring important perspectives on content, design and user experience that will allow entrepreneurs to reach their audiences in thoughtful and progressive ways.