“Sometimes, A Can-Do Attitude is Simply Not Enough.”
Interview with Asia 21 Young Leader Jessica Aung
Asia 21 Young Leader Jessica Aung has been an advocate for youth empowerment and the creation of opportunities for young professionals since the very beginning of her career. For our Gen A program, we interviewed her about navigating between the East and the West within an international business context, her career and the importance of cultural literacy.
Jessica, thank you for agreeing to this interview! You are not only an impact investor for DEG (German Investment and Development Company), one of the world’s largest investment development finance institutions, you are also a founder yourself. With WYNEE, you built a platform for Myanmar youth empowerment not much unlike our Gen A program. In both fields, you get involved at an early stage, be it a company or a career. What draws you to beginnings?
The beginning of my own career was a stroke of luck, perhaps triggered by a single choice. I spent my formative years in Singapore, where I benefitted from their rigorous education as well as broader perspectives on the world. That did not come without sacrifices. My parents could only afford to send one of their four children to middle school abroad. I was the chosen one. I was living without my family from the age of 13. I returned to Myanmar only in 2014.
My motivation came from there: Growing up in a rather closed society like Myanmar, you come to believe that you have no control over your life. With WYNEE, I wanted to “correct” that self-limiting belief for one, but also show that sometimes, a can-do attitude is simply not enough: Talent is universal, but opportunities are not. Sometimes opportunities are there, but people are unaware of the resources available to them.
People can get disheartened when they read the bio of successful people, thinking they cannot achieve it themselves. But, the thing is: people always put their highest achievements on their bio, when in fact, there were many factors, struggles and setbacks that lead to their success. Of course, I have worked hard for my success, but sometimes it’s about timing, having opportunities, or knowing the right people. I was lucky to have had these opportunities. I hope to create, and catalyze my professional and personal life to create opportunities, particularly decent jobs. I am convinced that one’s sense of dignity and self-worth is largely tied to the work they do, and the value they add to society.
You are working for a German company – how do you go about your work and how do see your role as an impact investor? And what are the most striking differences between European and Asian business cultures?
The first thing we need to do working in an intercultural context – if not always – is to really understand that the perspective of what we perceive as normal is fundamentally shaped by our social conditioning. We need to seek to understand to be understood. With that in mind, I think that the differences can be put in three categories:
Firstly, there is a stark difference in management style due to the work environment: The European work environment it is very structured and stable, so the management can be institutionalized with clearly defined roles. However, in Asia it is not like this – Asia is very dynamic, there are hardly any standard operating procedures. Moreover, business is mostly family-led, which means that people may be emotionally attached. There is a legacy issue. Let’s say there is the chairman who founded his company 30 years ago. Usually, he would not retire or be replaced until his death. And the Vice-Chairman might be someone from the outside, but it might also be his wife or another relative running the business. The chairman will most certainly not be using LinkedIn, and even if he does, he will not check it on a regular basis. So, if you want to do business with his organization, knowing whom to contact becomes a strategic decision. You need to know how the company is structured, so your business analysis needs to respect the human context it operates in.
The next point I want to highlight is the communication style. In the European business world, every detail has to be written out – everything has to be crystal clear, whereas this is not necessarily the case in Asia. For example, a recent experience I have been involved in was the transaction for a long-term loan in Myanmar. Our loan agreement was around seventy pages long. In comparison, the loan agreement of our co-lender, a local bank in Myanmar, was only three pages long in total. The point is that the European communication style is very explicit, whereas the communication style is more delicate in Asia. There are many unspoken agreements, and you need to read between the lines.
How are you going to navigate between these different work styles? Personally, I believe in practical solutions. For instance, instead of making the clients write things down, I usually write the discussion notes for them and I ask them to re-confirm their understanding. That way, I can meet the needs of both my Asian business partners and my European colleagues. In an international work environment, you cannot try to fix the round hole into the square. You need to understand the people around you and figure out how to become the adapter.
The last point would be project management. In Europe, everything is well planned-out. We usually enter partnerships or set up projects that last for a minimum of five years. We need to think of different scenarios and do financial models that may represent how the future looks like. Of course, that is also the nature of the financial sector, but even then, the European style is a lot more theoretical. What I appreciate about this is that everything is very transparent. On the other hand, the project management is very dynamic in Asia, and people play by the ear. What I personally like is that it is simple, because the reality on the ground is so dynamic.
To give you an example, because of the trade war between China and the U.S., many Chinese companies are moving to Vietnam and as a result, the energy sector there is booming. Sometimes, policies will be released after an entrepreneur has started a project, which means they will need to run the project even before they have a certainty about the details of the policies affecting them. They might have an idea of what the policy will look like, but nothing finalized.
Where do you see the potential for improved collaboration in the future?
There are many areas where we can improve, but I believe there are two ways that would result in better mutual understanding and collaboration in a business context: For one, I believe there should be more people who serve as a cultural conduit – as I was mentioning earlier, to become the adaptor between the round hole and the square. Once you understand a country and its people within its cultural context and know the working difficulties and -environment, you can properly address the concerns of your clients. And that is when you can translate cultural understanding into business. Another thing is learning the language. And I am not talking about “hello” and “thank you”, but about learning a language from the system of writing, within its historical and cultural context. The idea is to be sensitive and sensible. For example, in German, you address a woman as “Frau” and a man as “Herr “. Addressing people the right way in their language will already make a difference. Language can help you smooth out a relationship. Ultimately, you can run as many analyses as you want, but it comes down to trust and the question of whether you will be able to build a long-lasting relationship with your business partner or not.
Since we have first been in touch the military coup happened in Myanmar and you have relocated to Bangkok. How has the coup impacted your work and the whole business environment in Myanmar?
The negative effects of the coup have been well-reported. I would divide the way the coup has impacted our work into three aspects: The first one would be the physical safety aspect. There are indiscriminate shootings and bombs going off at random. When your physical safety is at stake, you are unable to think, let alone envision or build a better future. Even during the pandemic when people were told to stay at home to be safe, that was not the case in Myanmar. This has impacted a lot of business people and the working middle class.
The second aspect is that planning becomes impossible. Right now, nobody knows who the official government is. There are two parallel governing factions that claim their legitimacy in Myanmar. That puts you in a dilemma, because while you need to pay your taxes, you do not know whom you should pay it to and whether your payments will even be recognized. Policies and planning are left on the sidelines of the present.
The third aspect is psychological. After the coup, it was clear that the business environment would be extremely unstable and that it would be hard to make deals or to finalize a project. Amidst all that psychological stress of constantly being in a potentially life-threatening situation, you still somehow need to manage your projects and meet your deadlines, but under these circumstances, your productivity is naturally low.
Jessica Aung is an impact investor and social entrepreneur focused on job creation and economic empowerment in Myanmar. She is the first Myanmar Representative at DEG (German Development Finance Institution) — a member of the KfW Banking Group — with a global portfolio of about $10 billion. At DEG Myanmar, Aung leads financing in long-term, private sector investments that drive sustainable development. Aung has been an advocate for expanding business opportunities to all. She founded the volunteer-driven initiative WyneeMyanmar.com (WYNEE), which advances workforce readiness among Myanmar youths, empowering over 5,000 in two years. In addition, Aung has passed all three levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Program and is a founding member of the CFA community in Myanmar. Her alma mater, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, presented her with the 2018 Nanyang Outstanding Young Alumni Award in recognition of her achievements in the Myanmar business community.
This interview was conducted as part of the Gen A program 2021 by Martina Froehlich, Project Manager at Asia Society Switzerland.