Canadian geek in Myanmar

Category: Random

The high cost of negativity

After my last, fairly depressing post, I was going to work on a fun, upbeat post next but I have to say, it’s been a little difficult given the various conversations I’ve been having over the past few months.  For some reason, I’ve been surrounded by negativity lately, both personally and professionally.  Investors are moaning that there’s not enough deal flow, entrepreneurs are having a hard time with raising funds. On a more personal front, many of my friends have been in Myanmar for 2-3 years and the rose tinted glasses are certainly starting to dim. Everyone’s just a little too frustrated with life and work here these days.  It’s a good thing the holiday is upon us so everyone can go take a damn big breath and cool down.

While I’ve never been accused of being Susie Sunshine, I also try not to complain and either make the best of a situation or change it.  Living in Yangon, there also seems to be a really strange, twisted kind of insular view of how things are “crazy” here.  For instance, I recently rented a car and have started driving myself around town.  Nine out of ten people are shocked by this and always say, how do you deal with the traffic???  Um….seriously?!?  Yeah, there’s definitely some infrastructure problems here but I don’t see it much worse than most cities of equal size. Would Yangon benefit from a metro system? Sure! But have these people been to other large Asian cities like Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh during rush hour? Forget Asia, I’ve been known to idle for over 1.5 hours in stupid Vancouver traffic to travel the same distance that I would in Yangon in half the time…and Vancouver isn’t even known as a problematic traffic city.  Added to that, the city has half the population of Yangon with a skytrain and extensive public transit system.  So, yeah I get stuck in traffic sometimes in Yangon but I am wondering where all these expats have come from that in a city of 4-5 million, there are no traffic jams and all the drivers on the road are perfect and would never dream of speeding or passing on the right hand lane. Food for thought – according to Time.com, here is the list of the worst cities for traffic jams. See? Someone has it worse.

But this post isn’t meant to be about me ranting but rather to remind everyone that being surrounded by negativity can have major impacts to your life, work and health.  As an entrepreneur, I have to keep not only myself but also my team motivated at all times.  It’s hard enough to do that on a day to day basis but almost impossible when you have people who drag you down.  I have two very distinct situations at early points in both of my startups when I was talking about my idea, bearing in mind they were early stage and with people I trusted. The feedback was so negative that in both instances I almost stopped, which would have been tragic.  Luckily, I also has some really incredible, smart people around to prop me up too.  I wrote more about the first example here.

It is so important to find positive and reinforcing friends and advisors and to surround yourself with the right support system, something I talk about a lot. That’s not to say that you should look for people who are just going to tell you what you want to hear, which is counter-intuitive.  Here’s the best distinction I have read about this: “…there is a difference between complaining and having someone bring your attention to an important matter which needs to be addressed.” This comes from this awesome article that tells you why you become dumber and less healthy just by simply listening to people complain…kind of like the harmful effects of second hand smoke. Time to be more aware of the cost of negativity in both yourself and those around you.

I’ve recently started something called 100 Days of Happiness. It’s basically posting one picture a day of something that makes me happy. It is a simple exercise that is mostly about being mindful. So instead of focusing on the negative, or allowing the people around you to drag you down, try something that forces you to think about things that make you happy every day. I’m surprised at how difficult this can be some days but I’m still really glad I’m directing my energy on thinking about what makes me happy rather than pissed.  Try it, even if you only do 10 days. What’s the harm?

Leaning in with Sandberg

I had mentioned in a previous blog that I had written a very long, in-depth blog about my views on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and then promptly lost it to the fickle Draft Gods.  And now that it’s been over two months since I read the book, I don’t really remember a lot of the nuances of the book any longer.  Still, this book, and it’s messages have come up in a lot of conversations recently and has prompted me to write this blog even though I don’t recall all the points I had originally wanted to talk about.

First off it should be noted that I had no desire to read this book as I was firmly in the haters camp, figuring that a billionaire wasn’t going to “get it”.  I got through the first few chapters of the book with a lot of scoffing and eye rolling. I was always one of those people who thought that if you wanted to play the game then you put on your big girl panties and played by the rules…no whining, no asking for a time out or pressing the pause button.  Sandberg talks about that scene in the movie A League of Their Own where Tom Hanks says “there’s no crying in baseball!” and that’s exactly how I felt about the career thing.  What I didn’t really understand, or care about is that the rules were what was wrong in the first place.  As a woman who really didn’t have any burning desire for a family or kids, it really didn’t occur to me to care about the feminist movement or take up the sword for a cause that I didn’t care about.

Having discussed this book so many times over the past few months, I came to realize that all the women who I talked to took different messages from the book.  One poor girl even decided that if she didn’t forsake everything in her life, she’d never be a manager….though God knows how she may have gotten that since it’s counter to absolutely everything Sandberg says in her book.  In any case, here’s where it got interesting for me…it took me about half the book to finally get to the part that resonated for me, and it was even in the title!  “The Will to Lead”.  As one of the very few female CEO’s of a tech startup in Asia, my indifference to encouraging girls to want leadership roles or tech careers was not acceptable.  She’s absolutely right when she notes that our generation is failing those before us by falling into complacency.  Feminism is not a dirty word and this book finally taught me to embrace it and understand that this does not make me less of a professional or leader.

Like Sheryl, I’ve been called a diva, bossy, bitchy and many other things throughout my career simply for doing my job – oftentimes better than the men around me.   And unbelievably, it’s usually the women who are doing the name calling.  I have a little 2 and a half year old niece who is feisty, opinionated and frankly, awesome.  I head someone call her bossy the other day and promptly corrected them…she’s a leader and delegator.  I no longer use the word bossy as Sandberg rightly points out that only little girls are called bossy because the behaviours that lead to that word are expected and accepted of little boys.

For those who haven’t read the book, I highly encourage you to do so – and make your partners.  It’s not long – 240 pages – and very easy to read.  At the very least, watch Sandberg’s TED talk – it’s 15 minutes of your time.  Watch it and I hope that you too come out realizing that “Women can not be half the population and a special interest group at the same time”.  That quote is from Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in this awesome TED talk.

Lessons from my Dad: Vietnam War veteran, refugee, awesome human being

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my father’s death so of course he’s been on my mind all day.  My dad was an incredible man – he grew up poor in Vietnam then our family came into some wealth before losing everything in the Vietnam War.  On the surface, our story is like so many others who survived the war and fled the ensuing punishments after the fall of Saigon and while I could write a whole novel about our escape and early days in Canada, that’s not what I’m thinking of right now.

Today I’ve been missing my dad and reflecting on what an incredible man he was and everything that he taught me.  This is a man who for all intents and purposes lost everything but picked up the pieces and kept going.  Not only did he make a new life in a country that was half way around the world where he did not speak the language nor understand the customs, he did it with a wife, three young children under the age of 5 and three siblings all in their teen years.  He raised five children who by any standard are successful. We are all educated, financially secure and (mostly) sane. Not one criminal record in sight.

But the part that I’m most grateful for is that my dad absolutely insisted upon his girls being educated and career-oriented.  Let’s be clear here, he was an Asian man of a certain generation so this was seriously bucking the trend. Throughout my life I heard people tell my parents that they shouldn’t allow me to read so much, be so educated, be so career focused, etc because no man was going to want me.  Not only did my dad ignore all that foolishness, he staunchly stood in the way of match-making efforts or anything else that would have distracted me from my ambitions and for that I will be eternally grateful.  I don’t know if I would be the same person I am today if my dad were different but I do know that the road I chose would have been astronomically more difficult.

My dad continues to be my role model when it comes to overcoming obstacles and adversity and coming through the other side as a happy, kind and generous human being.  He set a great example for me as I go through the startup madness. Yes, I can build something from nothing. Yes, I should stop listening to the negative voices around me who tell me to follow the crowd. Yes, I can pick myself up again and keep going when I hit a bump – or when someone knocks me down. Most of all, he taught me that just plain old hard work can overcome a hell of a lot of barriers.

Thank you Dad. I love you and I miss you.

Women in tech in Myanmar

So recently I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In…actually, I wrote a fairly extensive blog post on it, which was lost and instead of rewriting it, I’ve decided to write this one first.  I will still write one on my thoughts of Lean In but suffice it to say, it’s been fairly motivating, which was surprising to me.

One of the things I’ve always been fairly passionate about is girls in tech, especially in developing markets like Vietnam and Myanmar.  Study after study shows that connecting women to the Internet has profound benefits to their lives, that of their families and even provides a significant boost to the national income.  And yet it’s estimated that women in developing worlds are between 25-40% less connected then men.  I believe that there are two major reasons for this:

1. There are not enough women working in technology therefore not enough representation of a female’s viewpoint

2. One fallout of the above is that there is not enough digital content catered to women

Myanmar presents such a unique opportunity in that it is a nation that is coming online all at once and if we can ensure the voice of the women are heard just as loudly, there’s a good chance that Myanmar connectivity is balanced fairly evenly between genders as it comes online.  What’s even more interesting is that in Myanmar, it’s estimated that 95% of the teachers in post-secondary STEM classes are female and over half of the students are girls.  

Even though more girls graduate with Computer Science degrees than boys in Myanmar, the fledgling tech scene in Myanmar is still dominated by men, especially at the higher levels of the organization. Even at the budding entrepreneur level, I have only ever met one girl but countless boys who are in various stages of launching a tech start up. I think one of the biggest factors that is causing the high drop off rate of girls with STEM educations versus women in tech leadership is that the girls are simply not aware of the career choices available to them with their degree – I noticed a similar trend in Vietnam.  Basically, girls graduate with a CompSci degree and think that they either need to become a software programmer or network engineer. Entrepreneurship isn’t as culturally accepted as it is in more developed nations, especially for young women who would be expected to be settling down with a family in a few years.  Meaning, it would be much easier to tell mom and dad they work at a big company (even as an admin) than to try to explain that they are building something that fewer than 10% of the nation could even use, let alone want to try. So these girls abandon a possible career in technology very early on, which is a real tragedy.

Here’s a story that Thaung Su Nyein from Information Matrix recently shared with me…

The ICT committee at the UMFCCI (basically Myanmar’s chamber of commerce) was hiring and received 12 candidates – 11 females and only 1 male.  Of those 12 candidates, only 3 (the male and two females) were interested in an actual tech role, the remaining 9 wanted to apply for secretarial / clerical jobs.  This hurts my head and of course motivates me to try to change the tide here before these behaviours become too ingrained like in other developing countries.

Back to the book Lean In, there many parts of that book, especially early on where I rolled my eyes…and yet as I completed it, I realized that the real message that I got is that the few women leaders out there need to start speaking up and helping to create a new generation of female leaders.  Until there’s more representation at the top, we will continue to struggle with the gender divide.  Oh..the other message I got loud and clear is that “feminist” isn’t a dirty word 🙂  In any case, I realized after reading that book that I needed to step up.  Not only am I a female CEO for a tech company, I am also in a market where the gender divide is even greater than what Sandberg deals with.  So, over the next few months, I hope to gather women in technology leadership roles in Myanmar together to help. These young girls need role models and mentors. They need to see a viable career in technology, one that can be highly rewarding for men and women.  More to come as we start to roll out some of our programs…

What I miss about Christmas in Vancouver

There are so many things about Christmas at home that I miss. As it gets closer to my fourth Christmas outside of Vancouver, I was sad to be missing the eggnog lattes at Starbucks, lights at Van Dusen Gardens and Christmas concerts. But the thing I miss most is the goodwill around this time of year. Amongst all the commercialism of the season, there’s always a big push for charities and thinking beyond what the jolly elf is going to leave under the tree.

I was watching this video today and thinking how sad it is that 27 years later, we haven’t made a dent in the issue of world hunger. Living in a developing nation, it’s even more close to home for me.

I know the past few years have been tough on everyone but let’s not forget that there are millions of people in the world who don’t care about the Greek crisis, Occupy movement or even that one of the world’s strongest dictators has died. They are worried about how to feed their children and elderly. Where to find clean water and a little bit of shelter. How they will simply survive tomorrow.

Every bit counts. Have you done your part?
http://www.redcross.org
http://www.salvationarmy.com
http://www.unicef.org