The Well Curve

Now that I have a London zip code, a UK bank account, a Giff Gaff number, and a national health insurance code, I am about 90% set on becoming a London resident.  I believe that this relocation process will be officially complete once my Apple App Store is switched to a UK account.

As a born and raised Yangonite, I will always carry a part of Yangon wherever I shall live in the next couple of years.  As much as I enjoy my new life in London, with its very British way of calm and collected energy, Yangon is always in the back of my mind.

And I started dreaming about being back at my family home since the very first week, which is NOT how homesickness normally works.  When you are homesick usually, you get really excited and high on the new place for the first few weeks or even months, and a sense of longing kicks in later.  In my case, I am having this parallel experience of thoughts about home, an excitement about London, and a hectic beginning of the orientation modules at school, all at the same time.  This has not given me much time to decompress.

What will become of this blog?  I normally use this blog to channel my reflection and extracurricular research outside of my area of professional focus.  This blog will become less about Yangon, Myanmar and more about social impact and business.  If that is cool, continue your readership.  If you want to keep up with Yangon, I am not your girl.  There are a few cool, new blogs on the block now, run by several accomplished women and folks behind the Oxford Tea Circle.

To start my Friday morning after a birthday bash last night, and before my 11:30AM Pilates class, I logged into Mixtape Yangon site, run by Karen (who organizes Mixtape events and plays with Spaceman band).  Look what I found!  There’s a playlist I gave her last year, titled The Well Curve.

“It’s called The Well Curve because it’s low on the middle and high at the extremes, which is how you feel when you go through a negative experience. These 5 songs are supposed to accompany your journey through The Well Curve.”

Enjoy your Well Curve journeys!

Here is the same playlist on YouTube.


The Well Curve

Applying for MBA from Yangon

You probably have been thinking about it for some time.  You might have even bought a few GMAT books in a fit of inspiration.  As with any good ole MBA application process, it begins with opening your least disliked GMAT book.  But what about other resources?  How could you best prepare for yourself with limited resources of Y-town?

First of all, do you  need to fly to Bangkok or Singapore to take a test?  Definitely not.  I took my GMAT at Hlaing Township in the MICT Park.  The Yangon-based GMAT Center is not only convenient and quiet, but the staff are also extremely friendly.  One female exam staffer even served me a cup of coffee during my bathroom break out of her sheer generosity and kindness.  The Burmese Way to GMAT test-taking!  Do it.  Highly recommended.

Myanmar Inspiration GMAT Center at 01 652 316
Building 7, Room 6
MICT Park, Hlaing Township
Yangon, Myanmar.

For preparation, there are a few teachers popular with local students.  You could enroll at MAY International Education Center (, but that school simply was not for me.  Because I am a poet, and not a quant, and because I have had an extremely strict work schedule even on weekends at the time, the school’s relaxed attitude with canceling classes last minute did not sit well with me.  I cancelled eventually and had them refund me for all the last minute class cancellations and delays (I paid my bill in August and could not take my first class until October!).  Do not do it.  Not worth your time.

Now, there are no Kaplan or Manhattan Centers with free tests or workshops you can go to like in big cities like New York or London, but there are a few websites that really helped me with this process.

Manhattan Prep guidebooks are really easy to follow and great for freshening up the basic concepts from high school.  You could also take Thursdays with Ron online courses, which give you a good insight to how the exam works.

There are also sites such as the Economist GMAT app, or the Veritas.  I also started a Facebook messenger group of GMAT study buddies, all of whom are better at math than I am.  We would work at our different pace, then meet up for coffee to discuss harder problems.  I actually had fun.

In the first few weeks, it helps to also start writing down your personal statements as you prepare for your GMAT.  Some acquaintances often come up to me and ask me to share my essay as a reference, and I have always politely declined such requests, mainly because personal statements are hugely personal.  It is supposed to explain your psyche, your post MBA plans, and what this particular school means to you.

Not to generalize, but most local candidates are far more competent quantitatively than me, so I devoted most of my time on GMAT math, and wrote my statements with a little help from my friends.  A colleague of mine did one official GMAT guide, took his exam within a month, and got something like 760.  If personal statements are your main point of weakness, start this process early, brainstorm your thoughts, write down notes in little post-its, and get feedback from friends and mentors, as well as people who understand how these things work.  Select advice smartly.

If you have an interview invite, cough up and take a plane!  Perhaps not to the U.S. or the U.K. but schedule something with an alum in the region.  I did my MBA interviews in the same day in two different cities back in March, and trust me, the sangria I drank that evening was by far the most delish.

The last bit, there is the livewire and the decision wire from Clear Admit.  Even after everything you have done, these things are such a crap shoot, so check out and see where people are at.  It certainly helped me.

The whole process took me five months (September-January) and I applied for Round II deadlines.  A few people did it from Myanmar last year.  There are two enrolled at MIT after a few years of work experience in Myanmar.  There is one going to Yale.  I am going to London Business School.  There’s one non-traditional profile who took her GMAT in Bangkok over Thingyan.  One person left Myanmar, moved to the Bay Area to prepare, and got into Berkeley Haas.  A friend prepared her applications in Yangon entirely, went to INSEAD and just had a huge signing bonus with Boston Consulting Group.

So lighten up!  You can do this!


Applying for MBA from Yangon

The Organization Woman in Yangon Offices

The Burmese repatriate story is becoming a cliché.

We have had enough of those headlines last year amidst the election hype of Myanmar.  After a few years of political and economic reforms, the repat story is no longer exciting.  The brain drain used to be such a severe issue that any sane, educated and capable person returning to Myanmar to do anything productive at all was once hailed newsworthy.

But not today.  So many long-time repatriates have trickled back into the country while households brands and companies have either returned to Myanmar after a long hiatus (e.g. Coca Cola or Nestle) or set up their offices in Yangon for good (e.g. KFC or any law office in town).

Several repatriated young Burmese have gone onto setting up their own businesses.  Forbes 30 Under 30 listed a few Burmese entrepreneurs, including Htet of RTH restaurants, Thet Mon Aye of Star Ticketing, and Ye Myat Min of Nex.  Myanmar consistently displays an entrepreneurial spirit, with people making it work despite the physical and financial infrastructure challenges, as one of the positive consequences of economic sanctions and isolation.  Any who’s who in Myanmar have founded their own businesses.  Business owners are highly regarded.  Working for a corporation?  Not so much.  The closest Burmese descriptions of a white-collar job, such as “ရံုးဝန္ထမ္း” or “လခစား” bring about an unhappy imagery of a paltry salary, a cramped apartment in a middle class neighborhood in Yangon and a lack of protein in Tiffin lunch boxes.  It is uncommon to hear in job interviews at companies that the candidates want to learn at work and eventually fulfill their aspirations to start their own businesses.

But that is who I am: a young professional currently working for someone else’s business in a changing Myanmar, never mind my future aspirations.


Now…working in a corporate environment in Myanmar today can be curiously nostalgic, if not outright backwards at times.

As business opportunities open up, companies go crazy with acquiring talent.  Salaries have hiked up dramatically in the last few years.  A US-educated marketing manager based in Yangon used to make USD 600 a month in 2010.  Just five years later, a marketing manager at an international brand making a basic salary of USD 1,750 looks around to make a jump for just an incremental increase, an unfortunate but uncommon practice among reckless young professionals of Yangon.

This causes a few uncomfortable years of cultural clash once these young guns with foreign degrees join an existing team made up of long-time, fiercely loyal local employees, whose values and perspectives cannot be more different.  This is nobody’s fault.  The organization simply needs a period of time for adjustment.  Emails written in haste already has a penchant for misunderstandings, but add the traditional emphasis on and respect for seniority to this digital lingo; a few seconds saved on omitting small talk and suffixes (such as ရွင္၊ ပါ၊ ခင္ဗ်ာ) can explain a lack of warmth next time you see your elderly colleague in the elevator.  The repatriates won’t have it when HR managers come knocking on the door with a rule book laying out the strict guidelines on clothing and hairdo.  Myint and Associates infamously reinforces strict protocol for its female employees to put hair up in a bun, or wear heels of a certain height.

In patriarchal organizations, loyalty is especially valued.  Belonging to the organization is important.  The entire families – father, son, daughter-in-law – may work for the same company at different departments.  The company is itself a big network of families and operates like a family business.  Hierarchy is respected.  Harmony and unity are essential values.  Most people have worked in the same organization – some within the same department – for 10, 15, 20 years.  These employees find the incoming young repatriates arrogant, disrespectful, and lacking the local nuances, while the repats find their colleagues indirect, suspecting, and sensitive.  This happens in any large company in Yangon that has recently recruited repatriates and expatriates and is in the process of expanding their businesses.

These issues are about cultural differences and an age gap.  But gender dynamics are also at play.

I would like to think that women are fairly more empowered here in Myanmar, compared to their counterparts in Southeast Asia.  Women handling money is not a new phenomenon.  Burmese women are traditionally expected to be a household treasurer (e.g. မယားက်င့္ဝတ္) and have proved themselves to be financial and commercially savvy.

The problem, to me, is felt more palpably only in a more organized power structure, such as in larger corporations or trade associations, where only very few and extremely senior women are allowed to speak.  If you look at the boards of the companies now listed on YSX, there is literally only one woman (Prof. Dr. Yi Yi Myint), who is an independent director.  You walk into any board meeting here in Myanmar and will see an all-male board, while the back row seats female accountants or assistants serving the male board members.

This gender bias affects expatriates, repatriates and locals alike.   A woman voicing her opinion from a power position generally makes people uncomfortable.  When I show up to meetings with my European intern, clients usually first direct their attention to the foreign male.  At a large internal forum at work one time, two senior executives of equal caliber and corporate authorities – one male and one female – seated themselves at the very front of the hall, close to the C-suite executives.  The male executive was excused and people did not see anything wrong with him taking his rightful place.  But the female executive was criticized for daring to do the same – by her junior colleagues, some of whom were educated abroad at the finest institutions.  These seemingly small everyday gestures and impressions make a huge impact on a female professional as she rises up the corporate ladder, or the jungle gym for that matter.

The corporate life in today’s Yangon painfully resembles – albeit with the Burmese twist and quirks – the stereotypes seen in Mad Men shows and in books like “The Organization Man” by William H. Whyte, a former editor at Fortune Magazine.  Occasionally questioned for its relevance in the modern world, the book offers a glimpse inside the corporate America in the fifties, where people also valued harmony over productivity, and loyalty to the organization over the individual creativity.

With intercultural adjustments, people eventually adapt and work well together, once different parties hone their communication styles and have found the sweet spot.  Organizations and personalities that can transcend cultures are more successful today, with stronger JVs with reputable international partners.  The concrete benefits are easier and faster to reap, and this creates an powerful incentive to work in harmony across cultural differences.

Gender biases, I am afraid, are here to stay for some time, until women themselves change first.  This problem is made harder to tackle because there are only a handful of women in the top echelons of the management hierarchy.  When this happens, it is easier to perceive the incoming, ascending female professional as a threat, rather than a source of support, and hence the negative feedback loop.  Let me find a study I read somewhere to back this up, but it’s definitely out there.  (Also check this delightful application of Ribbonfarm’s theory to Mean Girls to analyze power).

And finally, to continue the discussion on salaries, here is what I have learned in my young tenure in the professional world.

  1.  Meritocracy is an urban legend, especially in a large organizational structure.
  2.  Your monetary worth is decided by your value proposition, not productivity.
  3.  What you read in traditional business literature in international publications does not always apply to the Myanmar companies.  So take it with a grain of salt.

Ribbonfarm can agree as below.  Read the full article here.

My basic argument is this: the legibility that lets companies scale is at odds with the flexible way typical startups operate. I see two extremes, with flexibility and legibility on opposite sides — but transitions only happens in one direction. Small companies give up flexibility and illegibility in exchange for growth. Large companies with legible structure and inflexibility, on the other hand, are not typically interested in giving up size and profitability. Meritocracy, a rallying cry for the Silicon Valley startup mindset, only works when merit can be seen and rewarded by management. Merit can only be obvious to everyone when groups are small enough. Once Github passed Dunbar’s Number, there was going to be no way for people to work as one coherent culture — though they grew so fast they reached double that number before the VCs put in someone to bureaucratize and let them scale.

The Organization Woman in Yangon Offices