Geek Girls Myanmar amplifies women’s voices in a rising tech community

Sandi Sein Thein speaks at a tech event in Yangon. Image via Geek Girls Myanmar's website.

Sandi Sein Thein speaks at a tech event in Yangon. Image via Geek Girls Myanmar’s website.

WHEN Sandi Sein Thein founded Geek Girls Myanmar in September 2014, she expected no more than a handful of women to join the female-focused tech community. But more than 50 people showed up to the group’s first meet-up, and interest has been steady ever since. Geek Girls Myanmar events regularly draw between 30-50 Yangon-area women, and nearly 3,000 people have liked the group’s Facebook page. The organization plays an increasingly important role in the Yangon tech industry.

Geek Girls Myanmar celebrated its first anniversary this September, and it has become a hub of networking, professional development, and support for women in Burma’s nascent tech community. Modeled after Geek Girls groups in Singapore and Indonesia, Geek Girls Myanmar aims to “encourage and inspire women who are working in technology.”

“The members are already good at tech,” Sandi Sein Thein said during a phone interview. “What we need is to give them entrepreneurial skills.”

Sandi Sein Thein is also the co-founder and COO at Digital Kaway, a marketing agency in Yangon.  She spent several years working in Singapore before returning to her native Burma and diving into the tech scene there.

Since Burma, also known as Myanmar, opened its doors to foreign investment after years of hermetic government oppression, the country’s tech community has developed steadily. International telecoms Ooredoo and Telenor are establishing widespread mobile networks and much-needed Internet access. Ooredoo regularly partners with entrepreneurs and organizations such as Phandeeyar, a Yangon ICT hub, to host hackathons and promote tech initiatives. In fact, Sandi Sein Thein was working with Ooredoo’s ideabox incubator when she was inspired to start Geek Girls Myanmar.

Geek Girls Myanmar 1st Year Anniversary #tech #startup #myanmar

A photo posted by Patarachet Soodsanguan (@patarachet) on

The organization holds workshops on programming languages such as Ruby on Rails, seminars on empowering rural women through tech, and professional development sessions on public speaking and crafting one’s online image. Cho Zin Wint, a mentor with the group, said Geek Girls Myanmar provides accelerated job training and affords members access to the wealth of “valuable experience and insights of the experienced Geeks.”

Cho Zin Wint, 30, joined the organization when it was first started and is the managing director of Myanmar High Society, an ICT company.

“All the board members have diverse tech experiences and are women tech leaders in their areas, which fosters a friendly environment for innovation and collaboration for Geek Girls Members,” she said.

In a culture that encourages men’s ambitions and expects women to prioritize home life over career, Sandi Sein Thein saw a need for a women’s space in the tech scene. Women in Burma are often well-represented in computer science degree programs, representing more than half of STEM graduates in the country. But there is a significant drop-off after graduation, and they often go into teaching or administrative fields rather than take on tech leadership roles.

Their families expect them to give up their careers if they conflict with domestic responsibilities, and it can be challenging to advance professionally even before those pressures kick in, she said. It’s considered inappropriate for women to be out late, let alone pull all-nighters working with a startup team.

“I’m 27 years old, and I still have to face this kind of curfew,” she said. She called the drop-off in women’s ambitions “a waste” and sees Geek Girls Myanmar as a way for women to chart a new path in a traditional society.

“Our culture gives priority to men, and women get left behind,” she said. “They really want to be leaders, but they don’t dare.”

Image via Geek Girls Myanmar's website.

Image via Geek Girls Myanmar’s website.

Honey Mya Win, a 24-year-old Radio Area Network (RAN) Engineer at Huawei, joined the community after meeting Sandi Sein Thein at a Business Solutions Hackathon in 2014. Honey Mya Win was a member of the winning team at the event and plans to launch a startup with her sister and one of her hackathon team members. She said the biggest benefit of being part of Geek Girls Myanmar is the networking opportunities.

Being a part of this community, we get chances to meet with some awesome women doing tech things, [we’re] able to communicate and get advice about [the] difficulties and struggles of working among guys in tech fields,” Honey Mya Win said in an email. GG is supporting Myanmar women in tech and if you are one of them, this is where you shine.”

Sandi Sein Thein said she faced negative backlash from male peers when she initially started Geek Girls Myanmar. “They thought I was doing this for popularity,” she recalled. “They really judged me.” But since the group’s launch, they’ve come to respect the initiative, she said.

“I think they see now where we’re going,” she said. “It’s not easy to organize this kind of workshop and put in your own money.”

Despite the initial criticism of her venture, Sandi Sein Thein said most of the men in Burma’s tech community want their female peers to be involved with the industry’s rise. “They think girls should be in there at the same level with them,” she said.

Sandi Sein Thein said she and her fellow Geek Girls Myanmar leaders look to women in larger tech markets as examples of how to organize and amplify their voices. She cites the Geek Girls Singapore, Indonesia, and Mexico communities as particular models for Burma, and counts Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg among her personal heroes.

She hopes to expand Geek Girls Myanmar’s reach outside of Yangon to areas such as Mandalay and Shan State. She said more female founders will inspire young women to pursue tech careers and develop their entrepreneurial aspirations.

“We encourage them to be more brave and more visible,” she said. “I want them to be like, ‘I can do anything.’”