Progress, Yes, but Not at Any Price

By Yin Myo Su 27 June 2014

Whenever I travel around Asia to attend forums and conferences, I hear people talking about my country as the region’s last frontier. This makes me proud—but also a bit scared. Why? Because it makes me realize how little we know of the outside world, and how much we must learn to catch up. We lack so much, in terms of knowledge, experience, laws, infrastructure, and so many other things. But as we open up to the rest of the world, we can’t just sit and wait for change to happen. We need to prepare ourselves and shape the future for generations to come.

When I look at big companies and the way they brand and market their goods and services, I envy them. I wouldn’t want to copy everything they do, but some things are certainly worth emulating. If we want to succeed, we are going to have to improve the way we brand and market ourselves.

But this doesn’t mean presenting a phony version of ourselves to the world. What we lack in experience and sophistication, we more than make up for in authenticity. If we trust and value our roots, and work as hard as the big companies do to make a name for ourselves, we are sure to make great strides in improving our lives and the lives of our children, and in bringing prosperity to Burma.

Yin Myo Su (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)
Yin Myo Su

It shouldn’t be that difficult to get the world’s attention. After all, we are the second largest country in Southeast Asia, with a population of 60 million hardworking people. There is plenty of room for all kinds of companies, both big and small. With the right kind of investment, particularly in small and medium enterprises (SMEs)—which could provide 60-70 percent of employment in the country—our people could pursue their passions, improve their quality of life, and raise the standards of their education and health care. By starting with small, affordable projects, Burma could rebuild itself as a financially, intellectually and emotionally independent nation.

Five years ago, I decided to start some small pilot projects of my own in my native Shan State. As an ethnic Intha person, I wanted to do something to protect Inle Lake, the ancestral home of my people. Beautiful but threatened by environmental degradation—caused by deforestation, shrinking water catchment areas, poor waste management, intensive agriculture, a growing population, and rapid development of the tourism industry—the lake is being pushed to its limits.

Although the needs of the lake are big and challenging, I felt a good place to begin was by offering an alternative to unsustainable practices that endanger not only the lake itself, but also the culture that has grown up around it. That’s why, in 2009, I founded the Inthar Heritage House (now the Inle Heritage Foundation) to bring business solutions and life skills to the local community.

Focused on both environmental awareness and the preservation and promotion of the local culture, the foundation seeks practical solutions to the problems facing Inle Lake and those who live around it. Last year, to further this aim, I set up the Inle Heritage Hospitality Vocational Training Center, which provides young adults in the Inle Lake community with the skills they need to participate in a healthy, sustainable local tourism industry. On May 30, with great encouragement from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, we held a graduation ceremony for the 42 students of the Class of 2014. A few days before that, we held a job fair at which all of our students found work for the coming season.

As part of their training, the students worked at the Inthar Heritage House Restaurant, our souvenir shop, and the Thahara Inle Heritage mockup hotel. As social businesses (that is, businesses that seek to achieve maximum social impact, rather than maximum profit), these projects strive to be self-sustaining and, in the long term, financially independent. At present, we host nearly 15,000 visitors a year, generating enough income to cover around 60 percent of the operating costs of our foundation and its projects.

While our way of doing business certainly has its challenges, we are also keenly aware of the danger of irresponsible development. It is difficult—both for the government and for our local communities—to preserve our precious heritage and achieve economic growth at the same time, but I am convinced it can be done.

Burma can be thought of as a beautiful young woman who is just coming out of a convent. She must have the right to make her own choices, even if it means she may make some mistakes. She can learn from those mistakes and move on. The only thing that truly matters is that she is able to follow a path of her own choosing.

The worst thing would be to worry so much that we do nothing to improve our lives. In business, we survive by taking chances, learning not only from our own mistakes, but also those of others. That way, when an opportunity presents itself, we have the confidence to take it. But beyond this, we must build trust in our communities and learn to cherish our heritage. Only then can our country hope to become a better place to live.

Yin Myo Su is the founder of Inthar Heritage House and Inle Heritage Hospitality Vocational Training Center on Inle Lake in Shan State. She is the winner of the 2013 Goldman Sachs & Fortune Global Women Leaders Award.