In the sultry heat of Yangon’s afternoon, I walked down windy streets flanked with food stalls, garbage collection carts, and leafy palms. I was on my way to meet Annie. She’s been key to several social businesses such as Helping Hands Yangon and the first local artisan-goods shop, Pomelo. I walk through the wide open gates into a mansion with a portico, pool, and well-kept garden palms and flowers. The lanky boys in t-shirts too big for them are busy kicking around a football. The carpenter is sprawled over the table he is finishing and young lads here and there march purposefully through the lawn. I invite myself into the cool shade of the wide-open entrance. The women working on the sewing machines look up, smile politely and go back to work, relaxed and without any pressure to please.
I can hear a full voice echoing through from a back room – it’s Annie, with a deluge of enthusiastic words with the person hidden by the doorway. Annie turned this spacious building into the homey headquarters of 3 NGO’s / businesses that work with society’s cast-offs: street kids, ex-addicts, single mothers, and mentally handicapped individuals. She greets me, asks if I want a drink, and apologises for being a few more minutes with a few matters.
By the time I’ve browsed through her collection of books in the dining room, she hands me a cup of coffee and suggests we go upstairs to have our chat.
After we settle in to the rattan chairs, Annie recounts her experiences in Yangon on the veranda overlooking the driveway and garden. My intended hour-long interview spills into the evening. Her initially planned 2-year stay is reaching its 7th year, and in that time she’s learned that the locals are as sick of the abundant teak as foreigners are crazy about it. This, and many other discoveries, became small personal projects that mushroom into entire organisations.
This wasn’t quite the intention. Annie’s original approach was solving one problem at a time. That included researching finishing that goes well on teak and whether it is possible to source it in Myanmar. As she worked with the craftsmen who could fix the furniture, she looked into setting up a business and eventually, the business needed a place to operate. This teak refurbishing business was borne out of an initial desire to purchase decent furniture. One person’s problem is usually someone else’s challenge too. Annie’s personal project grew into a partnership and business as demand for furniture grew.
At the same time demand for Helping Hands textiles made by Burmese artisan communities also grew. Annie and a business partner opened Pomelo as a store to help travellers and local foreigners find the goods made by Burmese artisan groups. As a social business, the store operates on a model where the artisans, rather than the shop, keep majority of the profits from the sales.
Every one of these self-sustaining NGOs / social enterprises started with a personal encounter, an individual’s curiosity, and tenacious persistence in finding a solution. As the teams of carpenters, seamstresses, and artisans grew, Annie came to better understand their family and social situations (read, challenges). In a lengthy, yet personalised, process she has come up with creative solutions such as free housing for a single mother who could not afford to pay rent and raise 5 kids. The agreement is that the single mother leaves two spare rooms for other street kids that are employed by these social businesses. This is only one of many individual, unique, cases where Annie took a risk and went with an unorthodox solution with real impact – and built trust. None of the single mothers whom have stayed in that flat have caused problems, and instead it became their stepping stone to employment and building a family livelihood.
Coming from a background in impact investing, one of the things I always think about is scale. Is an organisation structured to scale? Is there market potential for expansion? How can the impact be even more tightly woven with profits for long-term sustainability? You cannot scale giving keys to an apartment – the personal due diligence is too high. However, on that afternoon as I questioned Annie about why each tailored, solution worked in that context, I couldn’t help but admire the organic, but solid, foundations upon which she built her relationships amongst locals as equals.
In the startup world, we often we often take for granted that some stranger is willing to try our new app because there is already an infrastructure (such as the law) that help facilitate trust, even in the strangers behind the website. Yes, it may be frustrating that an entrepreneur in Myanmar cannot rush ahead as they do in Silicon Valley and expect people to jump on the band wagon for an idea. Yet, on the other hand, isn’t it also a reminder to ask ourselves questions like ‘How am I helping solve this person’s immediate problems by asking them to work with me? Do I understand and appreciate their priorities? How can I guarantee I can help them meet those needs? How can give them confidence and earn their trust with my actions?’
Walking into the house that afternoon, it was clear no-one was keeping a hawk’s eye of who was doing what amongst the 50 or so people around. But on the other hand, they didn’t have to.