Optimism expressed over opportunities for women in business in Myanmar

17 May 2016
Optimism expressed over opportunities for women in business in Myanmar
Ms Verity Lomax, CEO of the Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce

In an interview with Mizzima, Ms Verity Lomax, CEO of the Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce, discusses Australian company interest in Myanmar, responsible investment, and women in business.
The Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce (A-MCC), in partnership with the Myanmar Women’s Entrepreneurs Association (MWEA) held the Women in Business & Leadership Development Conference in Yangon May 13-14. The event brought together leading business women and men from Australia and Myanmar to share knowledge, expertise, and personal stories that inspire and empower aspiring women entrepreneurs and leaders.
“At this critical stage in Myanmar’s transformation, women can be on the forefront of positive change and contribute significantly to long-term economic development. Supporting and empowering women in business globally makes good economic sense. As the fastest growing economy in the world, opportunities for women in business in Myanmar are expanding rapidly,” said Ms Lomax.
“Women's participation and voice in Myanmar's transition can not only fuel economic growth, but accelerate momentum of development in every sector which enables the nation to attain its goals faster,” she added.
Here Mizzima’s Business Reporter Aung Thura talks to Ms Lomax about A-MCC's overall vision and mission here in Myanmar.
Australia is the very first country to lift the sanctions on Myanmar what is your overall vision for Myanmar?
I think Australian businesses have a very strong relationship with Myanmar because of the fact that sanctions were dropped so there is already a great foundation for that relationship. Also we are a regional partner in ASEAN so we have that as a common connection and certainly there has been more interest from the Australian business community at least while I have been with the chamber and after the election. Part of my job is to go back to Australia and we have events around Australia to encourage responsible investment in Myanmar and talking to Australian businesses around what the opportunities are, what the growing sectors are, and again responsible investment. So through those forums I’ve certainly seen quite an increase in interest in recent times and I think there is a bright future for Australian Myanmar businesses.
Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce loves to do responsible business what is your specific view on responsible business in Myanmar. I think women in business empowerment is crucial concerning Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce so please tell me about you initiatives in empowering women in business in Myanmar?
To start with we launched a responsible investment working group at the end of last year so we have eighteen members both Australian and Myanmar businesses who have come together for a six month process to talk about creating models and best practice examples for responsible investment in Myanmar. We are using the UN Global Compact as a structure for the responsible investment working group which we know Myanmar is very passionate about and has the highest number of UN Global Compact signatories in the region. So the areas it focusses on are anti-corruption, labour rights, human rights, and the environment and we are using this as our terms of reference for the working group. Within responsible investment we have gender as well.
What are your specific supporting categories regarding responsible investment?
Well certainly gender falls within responsible investment and I think it is a vital part of any business to consider diversity in the role of women in business and this conference is an opportunity to create awareness around the importance of women in business. But also to connect people including largely Myanmar women through experts and professionals to inspire them to grow themselves and their businesses in Myanmar so we believe it is an economic opportunity as well as a moral opportunity both equal opportunities between men and women. But also very much about how do we grow our economy as well. We need women.
You have had a conference about doing business in Myanmar what was the focus?
The conference comes in three parts first is around inspiration so we have heard from a number of very successful Myanmar businesswomen this morning and an Australian businesswoman as well who have been successful and who have become leaders in their industry. This is an opportunity for people to understand the challenges and opportunities that these people have had in their lives and oftentimes it can be inspirational because you see these people who are so senior and they tell you their life story and they too have gone through challenges, so the first part was inspirational. The second part which is about to occur, is business breakout sessions. So this is very much a business centric conference about practical information for aspirational business women and men to learn about how to set up a business so we have four topics –SME start up, how to grow something from nothing, Corporate Social Responsibility and philanthropy discover the difference, Human Resources, people, purpose, and passion how to attract talent, and marketing success storieshow to manage your personal social media. So these are experts from across Myanmar providing really technical practical advice to these women and hopefully to inspire them. And the third section is around leadership.
In Myanmar we need more skilled workers especially in rural areas, so what are the training programmes to assist in providing skills for women?
At the Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce we focus on women and men in terms of capacity building. Today there is obviously a big focus on women and it is one day and it is an inaugural event and hopefully we will have it every year so this is, I guess, a form of training because it is learning from experts. But the other thing we do is capacity building in other areas of business. The Chamber of Commerce does good corporate governance seminars in different industries in Myanmar and we partner with Myanmar businesses to run them so for example in June we will be having a good corporate governance mining seminar in Nay Pyi Taw with the MFMA and with the ministries because Australians do have experience in that sector and so we are bringing together experts to do a whole day seminar with miners in Myanmar around what is good corporate governance.  So this is one thing I guess the Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce is doing to try and share knowledge and capability and capacity between Myanmar and Australia.

How do you view the economy and women’s participation?
I think globally I think we are certainly seeing a lot of institutions quantify the role of women in business. And just recently the McKinsey Report was released which said that by 2025, if our women’s equality is advanced, we can add 12 Trillion dollars to the global GDP, which is more than China’s GDP. So we know that the economic case for women in business is there, there is irrefutable evidence. And this is a story that is certainly common to all countries. I think it is an important thing to discuss at forums like this, and then to create pipelines for women to then go into the workforce and be trained.
What would you say are the important points to bear in mind regarding women’s empowerment in business in Myanmar? What are the challenges?
I am not in such a strong position to comment on that as an Australian woman in Myanmar and I haven’t been here for so long. But I have heard from some of our speakers who are the experts on this topic. Today we had Khin Kyaw Saw from KBZ bank and she talked about some of the barriers for women getting access to finance. So if you are looking to start up a business and you are looking to access finance, and you need collateral to get that account that can be a difficulty. So access to finance is my understanding of one of the invisible barriers for women starting business.
I think the other thing to say, and this is common in every country, are the cultural norms. What do different countries think about the role of women, in rural communities, in city communities, and the role of women managing family and work, all those pressures, this is a conversation that countries are having around the world, how can we manage family and work at the same time. And this also leads into governments having discussions around flexible work arrangements and maternity leave and paternity leave. And I see Myanmar has introduced some great maternity leave provisions not so long ago, which will very much, I imagine, help those practical working arrangements, I think, that are very important to allow women to be able to work.
Are you optimistic about the potential of success for women in business in the future?
Of course! Very optimistic.
Well I think last night we had 220 people at the gala dinner. Today, we have sold out, and we had 400 people today, and we have more people on the waiting list. If we could have had more people, we would have, but we had no more room. So I think this shows there is a great interest in this. People are desiring to learn more about this, to talk more about this, and that for me is a great sign of the future.
You also see there are so many amazing role models in Myanmar. Some of these speakers, the women are incredibly experienced, so strong, articulate and successful. So I think for women – and men – it is so important to have role models to look up to, to see the pathway they have forged before, and to be inspired, so for sure Myanmar has a very bright future, especially from seeing all these wonderful ladies today.
In terms of women who live in rural areas – 70 percent of the population live in rural areas – the women in those areas struggle and suffer. How do you view the challenge in rural areas?
There is definitely a big difference between Yangon and rural Myanmar and I only have a little experience but I do volunteer work with the organization CARE, and they work with rural marginalized women in parts of Myanmar, so I got to go to some communities outside of Lashio, and spent some time and interviewed some women about their lives. So I only have a little snippet but sure there is a dichotomy or big gap between Yangon and the other parts of Myanmar. And this is also the case in Australia. In our big country we have a divide geographically for these reasons.
But of course women in these communities have many more barriers, including access to education, access to health care, access to transport. And these are all sometimes multiplied being a woman when you are going through pregnancy and you don’t have those services at your fingertips. So there are for sure more barriers. But I think last night we heard from Brad Jones, the CEO of Wave Money, and this is I think going to revolutionize the situation.
Australia still has many struggles itself. We are certainly not at the top of the statistics with regard to equality.
Please let us know about success stories in other ASEAN countries?
Other ASEAN countries? The Philippines. The Philippines, from my understanding, is number one, in my understanding, in terms of women in leadership and business, but I could get you more information on that. But Australia still has its challenges and I think this is something that connects Australia and Myanmar. Although we are so different, we still have these challenges. We can talk about them and work on them together.
What role do you play in liaising with Australian companies seeking to invest in Myanmar?
So there are few ways that we work with Australian businesses. I brief all of the investors in Australia, so I go to and have events and talk to them about the Myanmar economic investment environment, the opportunities, and the practicalities about how to do business. We also have an Australian government funded programme which is a skill swap opportunity. Myanmar people get placed in Australian companies, and they get to do a six-week experience, which is basically a six-week experience in a corporation in Australia, and this helps creating a relationships between Australian and Myanmar companies. This is another way to facilitate discussions.
And the final thing is delegations, so working with the government with delegations on specific industries, from Australia to Myanmar and Myanmar to Australia, getting our business people to mix and meet and understand one another and understand the opportunities that exist in Myanmar.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Just to encourage people to come next year. We are going to do the event every year, and we’d love the more the merrier, and men are very welcome and we would love them to be part of the conversation, including on the panel, so we would love to see more people enjoy and attend next year.