Entrepreneurship Abroad

Two Weeks in Asia: Entrepreneurship Abroad

Hi, I’m Lacey. I work in public relations and I’m an introvert. Ok, maybe ambivert is a better word. Ambivert is defined as “a person whose personality has a balance of extrovert and introvert features.” Another way of saying it is “a person of extremes.” Both reserved and bold, given the situation. Sometimes overprepared, sometimes pulling rabbits out of hats.

It’s taken performing in a marching band, more than a few costume parties and nearly 10 years of networking and community engagement to find my extroverted groove. I’m a rule-follower, craving process and structure. But, somewhere in all that lies a curious impulse, ready to throw all caution to the wind.

Public Relations is similar. We create brand strategies and content based on data and research, hours of brainstorming, being mindful of potential risk and worst-case scenario planning. But, we also act at a moment’s notice with no time to prepare. And often, we find that the situations that stretch us the most, are the best life lessons.

Imagine my mixed reaction to learn I’d been selected to travel to Myanmar (formerly Burma) for two weeks as part of an entrepreneurial exchange program: scared and excited.

The program, or fellowship, is a partnership between the OU Center for Creation of Economic Wealth and the U.S. State Department. Last fall, a Burmese entrepreneur named Htut shadowed me in the Resolute office for three weeks through the same program. The opportunity to travel, as the exchange fellow and not the host, was really happening.

I had a month to expedite my passport renewal, apply for a travel visa, get shots and preventative medication, prepare for my absence at work and calm any nerves I had about being a 12-hour airplane ride away, in a country where I didn’t speak the language. But, I’m in PR and used to chaos. I can handle this right? To quote the musical Rent, “a tiger in a cage, can never see the sun.” So, off I went to find my place under the Asian sun.

Though I could write a book about my experience, I wanted to share a few insights from my travels abroad.

Entrepreneurship is a universal language
Most of the entrepreneurs we met in Myanmar were women, to my surprise. I’m not sure why I was surprised. I think because there is such a movement of women leaders and entrepreneurship in America, I was almost naïve in thinking I’d see that in a developing country. I didn’t expect to see entrepreneurship at all, given the political history and current challenges Myanmar faces. We saw two different types of businesses:
• Microfinancing in rural, poverty-stricken areas
• Social enterprises

Microfinancing in rural areas is fascinating. On Day 1, we visited Brac International, which gives small loans to families, who pay them off every two weeks. The credit officers – all women – monitor the loans and collect the payments in a sort of ceremonial, yet social, setting at one woman’s home. Community groups of 10-15 women hold each other accountable and gather as a group to count their earnings and pay the credit officer. Here’s the fascinating part: all loan payments are cash transactions, and there is a less than 1% default rate. Microfinancing loans in rural areas help support farmers, artisans and families who raise and sell livestock. We met one woman who weaves 20 baskets per day by hand, selling them for $2 USD which is equivalent to approximately 2,663 Myanmar kyats – quite a perspective on the value of a dollar.

Social enterprises are generally defined as a revenue-generating business with social impact goals or outcomes. In Myanmar, we met with Amazing Grace Yangon and Pomelo, both shops that employ disabled or refugee women who make the jewelry and accessories for sale. In a tea culture, our group was thrilled to find locally brewed coffee at Yangon Bakehouse, a café that aims to empower their women employees through life and business skills training in an apprenticeship-style program. Though Tulsans and Burmese in Myanmar are literally and culturally worlds apart, it’s inspiring to see that entrepreneurship is a commonality that gives both our countries hope for the future.

Facebook is the internet
It’s been 10 years since Apple launched the App Store – can you believe it? How did we ever manage to grocery shop without our voice-activated list or talk to our pets while at work before apps? In the same rural township I mentioned before, we met families living in shacks, on dirt floors, without running water and borrowing loans to support their livestock businesses. Amidst those circumstances, several people had phones and the Facebook app. Since the country opened up 5 years ago, technology has flocked into cities and rural townships. In the modern world, we use a variety of tools to market businesses including websites, landing pages, social media, email and content marketing campaigns – the list goes on. In Myanmar, Facebook is the internet. For most of the population, websites are truly a foreign concept. Social enterprises use Facebook to connect with bordering countries as a growth strategy. We met with Thwin, owner of KOKO Soy Candles who told us a majority of her candle orders come from Thailand due to her Facebook marketing efforts.

Public Relations beyond borders
One of my favorite things about working in public relations is the opportunity to be an ambassador every day. At Resolute, we fully invest in our clients.

A highlight of the trip was meeting with Chad, a diplomat working at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar. It’s easy to make cultural assumptions or judgments about what’s going on in other countries from across the pond. Chad chose to learn, understand and challenge his own perspective with the result of a mutually beneficial relationship. He was a true ambassador not only for the United States, but also for Myanmar and anyone willing to immerse themselves in another culture.

I wasn’t just a tourist in Myanmar. I represented Resolute, my clients, Tulsa, Oklahoma, women entrepreneurs, the list goes on. The point is, I had a chance to represent the human race in an attempt to learn and understand, rather than judge. Both Htut and I brought back a sense of pride for our home back from the exchange – a motivation to continue infusing social impact into our work. I didn’t hang up my PR hat when for this trip. I wore it proudly.

The day The Minions saved me
Spending two weeks immersed in another culture is truly a test. The first question everyone asked me as soon as I got home was, “Did you have SO much fun?” The truth is, I had fun, but I also had a few tough moments that challenged me physically, mentally and emotionally.

By Day 9, the grueling schedule, a bout of motion sickness and a bad reaction to malaria prevention medicine took a toll. We were on our way to an afternoon meeting and suddenly, I burst into tears in the van. Homesickness kicked in and I was defenseless – it was a tidal wave of emotion. I was convinced I needed to get on a plane and go home early. One of my wonderful tripmates rode with me back to the hotel, suggested I take a nap and cry it all out. She hugged me and assured me this happens to everyone. It was 3 a.m. in Oklahoma, so I couldn’t call anyone. After a good cry and a nap, I decided laughter was the best medicine and turned to Netflix for comfort. It was the Minions that saved me that day. True story! Like a child missing home, I needed those banana-loving servants to bring my 32-year-old self back to Earth. Thanks to Kevin, Stuart and Bob, I realized all I needed was a little help from my friends. The movie means so much to me now, a symbol of light on a very dark day. That night, I ordered it on Amazon so that it’d be waiting in my mailbox when I got home.

This wasn’t an all-exclusive, island getaway on a yacht with endless piña coladas. And, I’m so glad it wasn’t. I didn’t come home with sand in a bottle, I came home with true grit. I came home with worldly perspective and an appreciation for the commonalities that exist between cultures despite significant differences. As for my work at Resolute, I’d be doing a disservice to my Burmese colleagues if I didn’t infuse their work ethic, hope for the future and commitment to social impact into my work every day.

In conclusion, my two weeks in Asia expanded my love of being an ambassador for Tulsa and for Resolute. I can’t wait for my next “PR beyond borders” journey.

Special thanks and acknowledgments:

Nicole Morgan, the entire Resolute team and my clients for fully supporting this trip and trusting me to leave work for two weeks!

Our trip leader Jeff Moore, and my tripmates Meg Salyer, Lauren Branch and Jon Hunnell. I am forever grateful for your support, friendship and teaching me all about international travel. Next on my list? Kenya! Thanks, Meg!

Much gratitude to our host fellows in Myanmar! Thank you for your warm welcome, hospitality, serving as our drivers, translators and for the wonderful food and conversation.

A very special thanks to Htut, our exchange fellow whom I had the opportunity to visit while in Myanmar. Without her, my trip wouldn’t have been possible. Thank you, Htut, for showing me the true meaning of friendship without borders.