Helping Burma’s Women Entrepreneurs to Take Risks

By Nyein Nyein 14 July 2014

RANGOON — A small group of Burmese women who want to start businesses of their own is being helped by Project-W, part of a so-called start-up incubator in Rangoon. Eleven women were chosen for their business ideas, which range from starting an online shop selling longyis, to a travel agency. The women are currently involved in the six-month project, in which they are being taught business skills and market knowledge, and being advised by local mentors.

The Irrawaddy’s reporter Nyein Nyein talked to Allison Morris—the co-founder of Project Hub Yangon, which is running Project-W—about the program, its successes and its challenges.

Question: What is Project-W?

Answer: Project-W is a start-up incubator for women entrepreneurs, run by the Project Hub Yangon. After competitive selection, we provide resources and space for them for six months. Once a week they come in for a workshop. We have network of local business leaders that meet with our entrepreneurs once a month to also provide advice and guidance. We also provide exposure, try to promote their businesses on our Facebook and get media coverage. During the program, they cannot just come to the workshop and sit back and learn. They have to come to the workshop and actually start a business. By November, they should have either launched a business entirely or started to test their products in the market.

The way we work is everything that she does is at very little cost. All the resources we are providing her are free. The only cost right now is her time, starting the business. Our idea is that starting the business with as little money as possible, we don’t go first and find office, rent office, or hire employee. You start very small; you try to get one customer, and you learn and get another customer and learn and you grow. We are really pushing them to start small and with very little capital.

We expect by the end of program, the woman will have customers for her business. We will introduce them to funders and investors with the ideas by them. They would have tested the products, analyzed the business model and practiced the business a bit. By the time they present to the funders, they will have a very strong presentation and very strong pitch. Hopefully some of them will get investment.

Q: Who benefits from Project-W?

A: Many of them are very new to the business sector. Some of them are currently employed in another sector. One woman is working with an INGO, she wants to now start a social business. Although she has a strong background as an employee, she does not have a business background yet. Basically, we are helping them to make a shift. We help them to reduce risk; many are very concerned about the risk of starting a business. We make sure they are comfortable with the potential risks.

Q: How are the new women entrepreneurs different from those in your program last year, which did not focus on women?

A: In this year’s group, a lot of women are very tentative. They want to see their business model and their plan entirely, and say, “This looks good, I am going to make money and I will do it.” That’s fine, but they need to act a bit, not just planning. I see many differences between last year’s and this year’s groups. The main difference is risk. Women are very cautious; they don’t want to start something if it is going to fail.

The men we worked with last year, they were a bit more ready to try something out. They worked here for all day. They had this mindset, that the entrepreneurs’ skills are acceptable for them. In last year’s program, we did not have a focus [on gender]. Men or women could apply. We had only three women who applied out of 45 applications. So mostly men and only one woman were [in last year’s program] in the end, which went really well.

What we did not anticipate is the group became their own support network, became group of entrepreneurs that still meet and support each other with business advises. It happens naturally. But for the woman in last year’s program, she was obviously friendly with everyone. But she was not as in the group as she cannot go out for beers with six guys. At the end of program, there is a great group supporting each other but the woman in last year’s program did not really get that benefit.

I have been in Myanmar for two years working in the start-up scene. When I go to the events such as Bar Camp, Tech Incubator, they are all guys. We were thinking: ‘Let’s do a program that focuses on bringing out the women, supporting them to do business.’ I know that there are many women with great ideas. Women here have a lot of opportunities, but I feel like it’s much more difficult for women, younger women especially, to start a business because she does not have a network, it is harder to make network than a guy. When we invite women to come to our event, they usually will only come if they have friends to come. We wanted to create an environment where women feel supported to do business, comfortable to speak out and ask questions. We create little network of women entrepreneurs that will go on and support each other over the next few years.

Q: How are the women coping with the program? I understand one woman has a young child.

A: They are very sharp and motivated women, working very hard in their jobs. They kind of recognize they are capable to do something more, so they applied to our program. They are really hard working, usually doing a million things: got their jobs full-time, doing our program, which is quite demanding, sometimes at school, or teaching on the weekends. We have one woman with a child.

Q: What are the successes of your start-up incubator program? And the challenges?

A: We are running the project for almost two years, but providing space and the first incubator program started only last year. We are quite happy with the response from the entrepreneurs that our program is very tailored to their needs. Last year, two out of the five businesses that we launched got foreign investment, which I think really impressive. We hope that this year’s women-led businesses also can also get funded. In term of challenges, it has been tough; growing our team, finding appropriate people who can teach entrepreneurs skills, and everything is expensive. Office rental and getting Internet are expensive. So, we have all the challenges as of everyone else starting the business.

Q: What are the two businesses that got foreign investment?

A: One is the Myanmar online search engine Bindez, which got some investment, and PR Company called Blink agency, which does social media management in Myanmar. The third agency is the distribution of top-up cards, but it joined with the PR company.