Myanmar

Burmese female tech pioneer reshapes the future of education and women

Hla Hla Win

Yangon, Myanmar

“I was an ordinary person with a strong will and desire to do something good for my country, I worked hard and I made it through all the hurdles to succeed in my project. Because of my roots and where I am coming from, many people can relate to my story”

My mom was a teacher in a public school, my dad worked at the Ministry of Commerce as a low level manager which is a very low position in Myanmar. We were part of a low social class. I was an ordinary person with a strong will and desire to do something good for my country, I worked hard and I made it through all the hurdles to succeed in my project. Because of my roots and where I am coming from, many people can relate to my story.

I was quite an active person when I was younger so sitting at a desk a whole day copying and reciting was torture for me. I wasn’t happy throughout my school’s years. I thought I had a problem and so did my teachers. But my mom, she believed in me. I dropped out of high school but later I passed my exams. After that, I wanted to learn English because I really wanted to learn about the world, about what was beyond Burma (now called Myanmar). In that times, around 1998, Myanmar was still in a very dark age and so the only way to learn about the world was with the few tourists visiting the country. However, my dad didn’t approve it.

My family was not wealthy so they could only support one child, they supported my oldest sister. I gathered friends and got a teacher to come to my house to teach for us. That is how I learnt English. Then I got an award from the British Council to attend English classes for free for one year and a half. Then later I got a job at the IABC (international school) and worked as a teacher for three and a half year. This experience made me very happy because the children were enjoying learning. For me, when I was a kid, there was nothing joyful about going to school, it was a duty. But there I realized that some teachers could make learning fun.

Later on, I went in the USA to study. I got a full scholarship to complete my bachelor degree. I was in Iowa, in the middle of cornfields.

“Until 2010, politics was taboo, Burmese people wouldn’t talk about politics. The walls had ears, and people could get arrested and prosecuted for what they said”

I graduated in 2008, I was so pumped that I went right back to Myanmar hoping to make some changes for my country, especially in regards of education. Yet, in 2008, the situation in Myanmar was still not optimal. But in 2009, we had election. I was so thrilled. I didn’t trust the government, which was a military government, but I knew that to see changes occur it would take a while. In Myanmar, it was the first election for two decades so the majority of the population didn’t believe in it. Until 2010, politics was taboo, Burmese people wouldn’t talk about it. The walls had ears, and people could get arrested and prosecuted for what they said. I believed that politics would no longer be taboo and that the government would create bodies that represented our society fairly, so when we lost the election I was heartbroken but no matter how many time you fall you have to get up and try again and try harder.

In 2012, I, a person who is passionate about education and about politics now ended up in the technology and business sectors.

There are two types of luxury that Myanmar cannot afford: time and resources. For 50 years, during the military times, education was used to brainwash and manipulate the population to impose the absolute obedience to the authorities, starting from classrooms. The other luxury we cannot afford are resources. The textbooks that I used 20 years ago are the same nowadays from grade 7 to grade 10. Those textbooks are terrible. They are not relevant anymore. The question I ask myself is: how can we move from this resource economy to a knowledge economy that we must reach to be a more competitive and stable nation? There are two ways I believe we can make a huge impact. One is through the policies and the other is through technology.

“I went back to the Silicon Valley to further develop the idea and start the company there. In 2017, I went back to Myanmar to set up the company here. I am the CEO of the company. And I am also a mother”

I went to do a Master degree in Harvard two years ago and I also visited some classrooms in Cambridge known as intellectual hubs in the US. It was really fascinating; classrooms there are really 21st century learning classrooms. In Myanmar, they don’t see it as possible. They don’t believe in those classrooms where students can ask questions, discuss and debate with their teachers. I wish I could have brought Myanmar teachers with me so they could challenge their teaching methods. That was a crazy dream. So, when I saw this virtual reality technology in 2016 I was extremely interested. And I realized that this crazy dream that I had could come true with this new technology. The adventure began there.

I visited the Silicon Valley and got a grant from the Harvard Business School, I was incubating a school idea and I won an award for that: a grant to study in the Silicon Valley, later Google granted me a full scholarship to join Global Solution Program so I didn’t have to worry about the fees. I was really thrilled. I graduated from Harvard and went back home in Myanmar for three weeks. I realized that almost everyone owned a smart phone, even young adults. I saw there was an opportunity. My idea of leveraging smartphones and virtual reality technology for educating people was picked by the selection committee. I was invited again for three more months at the Silicon Valley to incubate the idea and to learn how to film and code.

With all this technology, we can help teachers to teach better and we can teach students to enjoy learning. Yet, technology is only a tool, it is not the only solution for the teaching problems. If we only teach student to remember things, to recite robotically, they have no chance to develop critical thinking skills. I went back to the Silicon Valley to further develop the idea. In 2017, I went back to Myanmar to set up the company here. I am the CEO of the company called 360ed Visioneering Learning. And I am also a mother.

“Women give up on education once they get married, women give up on career opportunities once they have children. And that is very sad”

There has never been a choice to make, or a sacrifice to make, between my marriage, my child and my career. My child was 6 months old when I went back to Harvard. I took her to class. Luckily, my husband joined me in the USA. It was not easy but we found a way to be both happy and to take the most of this wonderful opportunity that was given to us. I want my daughter and all the other children to become creators, to have their horizons broaden.

Being a successful businesswoman is not common, especially in Myanmar. Women give up on education once they get married, women give up on career opportunities once they have children. And that is very sad. I am lucky, I am married to a very supportive man. We found ways to make it all work.

I have taught around 30,000 students and they are still all very connected to me. They see me striving to find solutions to improve learning programs and being a successful businesswoman and I am sure that it is inspiring for them and in particular for young girls. They have someone they can relate with and they can look up to. I often give them advice and push them to ask more from life. They can be employees but they can also be entrepreneurs. I push them to overcome their limits and to believe in themselves.

 “Women usually don’t make it to the high positions in tech companies. It is important for me to show my face, to show that a woman can lead a successful tech company too”

Girls have higher marks than boys in Technology Institution and University. Girls are smarter. The enrollment rate is quite equal but there is a huge problem of glass ceiling here.

As for me, when I hire people, I pay a lot of attention in having a fair representation of men and women in my team. I also pay them the same salary for an equivalent position. Often women are discriminated in employment. If women are wearing a ring during an interview, the recruiter the woman may think that she is not a right fit for the company because she is married and will probably request maternity leave at some point in her career. I don’t want to discriminate them because they are married, I am married too.

I want women to have the courage to ask for more, especially in their jobs. Men are not shy, they don’t back down. They are not necessarily taking advantage, maybe women just forget to ask or don’t know how to ask. This is for that reason that I participate in numerous tech events because there are rarely any women represented. I am usually the only woman in the panel. Women usually don’t make it to the high positions in tech companies. It is important for me to show my face, to show that a woman can lead a successful tech company too.

There was time where I felt guilty when I started to build this company, in particular in regards to my daughter. I was far away and there was time where I would spend months apart from her. When she got sick or was hospitalized, I would feel very guilty. But my motto is “don’t let guilt eat you out”. I believe I am showing her what women can do, and she can get inspired by me to be an empowered woman who is not afraid to shake stereotypes up a bit to be well-rounded in her life.

“There were many meetings here in Myanmar with the Ministry of Education and the Investment Council where I would go with a male co-worker and I would always be taken for the secretary (…) I am the CEO. I don’t like it but sometimes I have to make it clear that I am the head of the business”

When I started this company, I had two male co-founders: one from Finland and one from France. I think that if I had gone alone on this journey people wouldn’t have taken me seriously because I am a woman. It was a strategical decision as well to have men in the team. There were many incidents. There were many meetings here in Myanmar with the Ministry of Education and the Investment Council where I would go with a male co-worker and I would always be taken for the secretary. Before the meetings would start, they would give me folders to copy and ask me to go make coffee. I was so furious. They were not used to women attending meetings and having a strong seat. Now of course there is a woman in power at the government, Aung San Suu Kyi, but she represents the only 1% that makes it to the top. Yet the game does not change automatically just because a woman leads the government. More needs to be done for real changes to happen.

In general, men are taken more seriously than women. Even now, when we go visit schools to set up partnerships they assume that my husband or any of my male co-workers, depending on who is accompanying me, is the CEO. I am the CEO. I don’t like it but sometimes I have to make it clear that I am the head of the business.

It is so easy to despair looking at all the challenges in Myanmar but there is still hope for change. We just have to be creative and persistent. There is a lot of negative noises, we only need to learn to shut them down and keep going, this is what I am doing. Because I am a woman, I have to prove myself and take the place I deserve.

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