“I’m still struggling,” the tanned, muscular 34-year-old said as he apologized for interruptions during a recent meeting in his sparsely furnished office. “What I have, 60 percent is what I want. 40 percent, I just have to cope with it. It is what it is,” he said.
Like China, which relied heavily on overseas Chinese in Hong Kong and elsewhere to finance its own industrial boom, Myanmar has high hopes its diaspora will help rebuild its economy and lift millions out of poverty.
Nay Aung, a 34-year-old Stanford graduate and former business operations and strategy manager at Google Inc., is among a vanguard of overseas-trained professionals who have returned to Myanmar to find both opportunities and challenges. Many are setting up companies in niches that bridge the chasm between the city’s antiquated hardware and the 21st-century world of Wi-Fi and online business.
So far, trends suggest the heavy lifting for investment, especially in manufacturing, will depend more on overseas Chinese who prospered from China’s ascent as an industrial power and now are seeking fresh opportunities.
Data show foreign investment amounting to $46.3 billion as of March 31, the lion’s share of it from China, Thailand and Hong Kong. The total amount invested by all Myanmar citizens was equivalent to about $4.7 million.
After 15 years in California, Nay Aung said he felt he’d gotten enough corporate experience for a project of his own.
“It seemed like Myanmar was about to re-open, so I decided to take a risk and come back. It was just a part of me wanted to come back since the beginning and a part of me just was at a stage in my career when I wanted to try something new,” he said in an interview at his bustling office in Junction Square, a new commercial complex in downtown Yangon.
Myanmar’s leaders are banking on investment in export manufacturing and services to help the country emerge from the poverty and isolation that deepened under Western sanctions against its former military-led regime in the 2000s. The goal is to create factory jobs for the more than two-thirds of the population still working in the country’s once prosperous but long neglected farm sector.
Along with money, Myanmar needs skilled manpower to lead its economic revival. One area where the country is forging ahead is in telecommunications and technology, where there are fewer vested interests to obstruct newcomers.
Many working in the IT field are returnees like Nay Aung and business partners Minn Thein, Godfrey Tan and Michelle Winn, high school acquaintances who left Myanmar as teens and earned technology and business degrees in the United States before deciding to return to Yangon in late 2012.
Min worked as an IT consultant for 13 years at Avanade, a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture, earning six figures, and settling down in Seattle with his wife and two kids.
The company he founded with Tan and Winn, Frontiir, set up a Wi-Fi network between two universities that has expanded into a technology support firm employing dozens.
“We want to bring what we think is best of Silicon Valley to Myanmar. That’s our dream,” Min said.
While returnees are active in Myanmar’s technology and finance industries, they’ve so far had little impact in other areas, says Rachel Calvert, a senior consultant at IHS in Singapore.