Kelly – founder of Yangon Bakehouse – Cafeteria and bakery with healthy food, which organizes training programs for women from disadvantage backgrounds to give them chance to enter the labor market and change their lives.
Q1: What do you appreciate yourself in the business mainly for?
I think the biggest success is about moving women from informal economy, those women who had no means of income, to working places, formal economy. They become valuable, functioning women contributing to their household income and at the end of the day that’s what I’m the proudest of. There was one woman who at the beginning I questioned whether she was the right apprentice to accept for our course. Finally she graduated, and 6 months later I met her again. She left her husband, took her child, she is working, she stands on her own feet. When I saw her, the glamour of her skin and light in her eyes… she is a different person today. She said she changed her life. In moment like that you just feel that what you are doing make sense. Of course it’s not about her leaving the husband, but she found the power to go on her own, change her life. And now here she is, paying for her son’s education. Isn’t that what we all want, to be able to live on our own, without depending on anybody? To have a choice?
Q2: What is the biggest challenge for you now?
The operating environment, it’s really taught. It’s not only for us, but for any small or medium size business. Let me give you an example. Myanmar starts to boom and all landlords put the rent up. If you are a small or medium business you have to put down one year rent ahead, that’s before you buy anything else, decoration, equipment. The amount of investment becomes very, very high. How to create a small business with taking such a risk? The operating environment has been the biggest challenge, especially in the beverage industry where the margin is very small, nobody gets rich with that, unless you do alcohol. Bakery, café … you don’t make big money.
Q3: What advice do you have for yourself in this situation?
Reflect backward what were the lessons to learn. It hasn’t been a straight line of progression. What have we learned, what are the best ways to go forward? We always think about our program, what works, what doesn’t work, what could we do differently, even in terms of our model: is it the best model? What do we need to do to make it better? What do we truly know it works and can be replicated? You need a couple of years to look back and see what was working. The next step forward will be reflection.
Would you like to add something else?
Our company started years back when in Yangon there were limited Western beverage places. With a growing expats community there was the need for this type of places, with healthy options. There was a market. The second thing was that I have worked all my life in sexual and reproductive health in different parts of the world, including Myanmar, where I worked for 8 years for issues connected with poor women and how their choices in life affect their health. Or rather lack of choice. They make decisions based on economics, a lot of them don’t have access to services as they don’t have any income. And the third thing…I was working in NGOs all my career. And I’ve got tired of NGOs and donors doing the same things over and over again to address the same issues. I wanted to see if I can address those issues in a different way. There has to be something else than relying on donors just giving you money. I was linked to different people, also my future co-founders. And we started to discuss Yangon Bakehouse, how it will look like, its basic outline. We decided to set a company and we were ready to invest on it. We did an IndiGoGo crowdfunding campaign around 2012 and we had some backers to help us, people believed in us. The reason why we were successful was that we were able to involve the community to support us. By that I mean our suppliers, from which we buy local products. We bring women into this program, hire Myanmar people. The other part of the community are our customers. We have to be able to convince our customers that it’s better to drive 5 minutes more down the road to our cafeteria, even if driving in this city is terrible. Please, stay in your car 5 more minutes because you are going to make a difference in somebody’s life. You can eat your cheesecake and feel good about it. The profits go back to people. But it’s not only that, it is important for us to have a product which will stand by itself. People’s empathy and sympathy doesn’t go very far, it has to be a good product.
The questions were asked on our behalf by Anna and Andrea from How to (ex) change the world.
Singapore, 11th May, 2016