How Myanmar’s Geek Girls are making a difference

The underrepresentation of women in tech is a global issue. But in emerging markets, it can be especially acute. “If you have only one mobile phone at home, it’s for father and son – not for mother and daughter,” says Sandi Sein Thein, founder of Geek Girls Myanmar, whose mission is to inspire the country’s next generation of female tech professionals.

Encouraging women to get involved in tech can provide solutions for local businesses. Say, for example, that you’re a vegetable seller in Yangon, and you make a pretty good living delivering fresh produce to hotels, embassies, and restaurants. You want to scale up your business and run it more efficiently, but you have no website. Customers email their orders, which you write down by hand. It’s inefficient, but what can you do?

One approach is to get 117 tech-savvy people together in a room for 24 hours and challenge them to come up with solutions – for you and half a dozen other local businesses.

That’s what happened at the Business Solutions Hackathon in late 2014. One participant, a wireless technology engineer at Huawei named Honey Mya Win, was on a team that beat eight competitors to create the winning app, which allowed customers to order their vegetables online. The seller was sufficiently impressed that it bought the app, which it now uses it to coordinate deliveries.

“Myanmar’s 51.4m citizens are living through a connectivity revolution,” says David Madden, founder of the group Code of Change Myanmar, which organized the competition. “The country is going from almost no connectivity to almost universal connectivity.”

Offline to online overnight

Madden created his group to harness the potential of that revolution (he later changed the name of the organization to Phandeeyar – Burmese for “the place where creation happens”). A self-described innovation lab, Phandeeyar provides a 6,000 square foot space in downtown Yangon for emerging technology start-ups. 

One of the more frequent users of that space is Geek Girls Myanmar. Founder Sandi Sein Thein started the group on Facebook in 2014 with just 15 members. Today it has more than 1,000.

Many of them already work as software developers, engineers, and designers. So what does Geek Girls give them that they don’t have already?

First, confidence. To succeed as entrepreneurs, women need the ability to go out and sell their ideas, winning over skeptical audiences and potential investors. “Most girls are not confident enough,” Thein says. “We are taught to be obedient. We’ve been raised to be followers. As a woman in tech, I have to be very firm and very tough. With male colleagues and partners, I really have to make my argument bold.”

A second key to success is curiosity. Thein says women need to ask more questions. “We aren’t curious enough. We need to get better at self-learning. We should use the internet for TED Talks and Wikipedia – for educational purposes, rather than entertainment.” 

A third success factor is an appetite for risk. Innovation and entrepreneurship inevitably involve mistakes and failures. But there are successes as well – such as Honey Mya Win’s victory in the hackathon. That victory has helped Win launch her business, a software development house and tech solution provider called Technoholic. Win is the CEO, while her sister is the COO and main coder. The business is run from home at night and on weekends, but may soon get new office space in Phandeeyar.

Technoholic’s first customer is Fresco Myanmar – the vegetable company from the hackathon. While its first app created an online order platform, Fresco now wants help growing its vegetables more efficiently. For this new challenge, Technoholic has created a farm management platform called Vegy Ville. Also in the works: plans to start Ladycraft – a social business for selling handicrafts made by women in Myanmar.

“Myanmar’s tech sector has quite a few women,” observes David Madden, who notes that many women study computer science and work as developers in local tech companies. “But when you look at leadership positions – when you look at who are the speakers at events, who are the CEOs – they’re not as well represented.”

There are lots of reasons for this. But organizations like Geek Girls and Phandeeyar are doing what they can to help women expand their technical and business skills, and encourage them to be more visible.

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