Growing sustainable women-led businesses in Myanmar


Interviewed by Alexandra Peard

Photo: Courtesy of Valentia
Entrepreneur Thiri Aung with tea farmer and producer, U Ba Si at the Misty Valley Village Tea Farm on Pindaya Mountain, in Shan State, Myanmar. Photo: Courtesy of Valentia

Thiri Aung, aged 43, is a Yangon-based entrepreneur originally from the small town, Pyin Oo Lwin, in Myanmar’s Mandalay Region. In this interview, Thiri tells us how she’s helping Myanmar’s women business owners succeed in the face of ongoing crises.

Three years after the military takeover in Myanmar on 1 February 2021, the country’s economy has shrunk by around 10 per cent, making Myanmar the only country in East Asia that has not returned to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity.[1] And as fighting continues to intensify and the economic, political, and humanitarian crises worsen, families are in financial distress and coping capacities are stretched to the limit.

Women are particularly vulnerable and the situation has led to a notable backslide in progress on gender equality and women's empowerment. Traditional norms about what women can and should do obstruct their access to certain professions and industries, and to positions of leadership, so they are often relegated to lower-paid forms of employment. They were also overrepresented in the employment sectors hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic,[2] with the female unemployment rate increasing five-fold from 2 per cent in 2017 to 10 per cent in 2022.[3]

Within this environment, Thiri Aung – a Myanmar woman entrepreneur and founder of the women’s business support network, Women Transforming Myanmar (WTM) – is passionate about developing women-led businesses, not only as a way for individual women to create sustainable livelihoods in the face of crisis, but as a vital step toward a more prosperous and gender equal Myanmar.

UN Women has partnered with Thiri to support Myanmar women through the Transformative Feminist Leadership programme, which Thiri designed. Since the programme launched in September last year, 522 women have already accessed training, mentoring and other support in-person and through UNDP Myanmar’s recently launched e-learning platform.

In this interview, Thiri tells us more about her work with UN Women and her own entrepreneurship journey in Myanmar.

As well as running Women Transforming Myanmar, you also have a successful business with your husband. How did you become an entrepreneur?

In 2017, my husband and I decided to leave our jobs and start a business. Myanmar had started opening up. Many international companies had come in, the internet was more accessible, and entrepreneurship was starting to become popular.

We are passionate about environmental issues, and we realized that the most important thing to us was making the world a better place for our kids, so we started an upcycle furniture business.

At that point, I had been working in the corporate sector for about 15 years and I thought: I had accomplished many big projects, so running my own business would be easy. That is what I thought. My husband and I were very dreamy in the beginning. But starting your own business is difficult! At every step – from finance and accounting to marketing, everything – we had to learn from scratch.

So how did you learn about running a business? Did you have any support?

Fortunately, we were selected for an accelerator program. We trained for three months with mentors and a coach, and we learned different strategies for planning our business. I then completed my MBA, which I finished in Switzerland in 2019.

With everything I learned, it felt like a new world had opened up to me and I wanted other people to know about it. I realized that all entrepreneurs and startups need this knowledge – they should all be able to access intensive training, mentorship, and coaching.

And so, this inspired you to start your own network to support women entrepreneurs?

Yes, I started Women Transforming Myanmar (WTM) in 2020. It was when COVID-19 hit Myanmar hard. People had to stay home, and many corporations were reducing their workforces and lowering salaries.

I saw that many women were starting to use the internet to sell products, such as their home cooking, but they had no idea how to do it. I wanted to connect them, so they could help and comfort each other. And I wanted to help them not only start their businesses but sustain them in the long run, so that they could then create job opportunities for other women.

So, we started providing training and knowledge sharing sessions. Now we have more than 4000 women entrepreneurs in our network, and we organize webinars, training, panel discussions, business excursions and networking events and offer mentorship and consulting.

You recently began partnering with UN Women to deliver the Transformative Feminist Leadership training programme, which you designed yourself based on your experience as a woman entrepreneur in Myanmar. Tell us more about that.

From September to December 2023, we have supported current and aspiring women entrepreneurs through in-person leadership training and a blended online-offline community of learning. We aim to empower women entrepreneurs and women leaders of micro, small and medium enterprises to lead social change and create more equitable, inclusive businesses, which leads to business development and economic development. 

Our training focuses on leadership development, economic empowerment, the intersection of businesses and human rights, and gender equity – because UN Women and I have a shared vision for Myanmar women to play a leading role in Myanmar's economic development.

They learn about gender equality explicitly, how to become better leaders and how to build the business to be more responsible. For many of the women, it is the very first time they are exposed to gender-focused leadership training. So many women have opened up and talked about how their voices are unheard in their village and community just because they are women. They feel safe sharing these experiences with each other during the training and they support each other.

UNDP recently launched a free eLearning portal aimed at Myanmar's micro, small, and medium enterprises. Tell us how WTM and UN Women are using this platform to reach women entrepreneurs.

I worked with UN Women to develop a learning programme on women’s entrepreneurship and gender, and I provide online facilitation on the platform forum to support women through their journey and make sure they get the most out of the eLearning package.

The platform, which is completely free to access, was launched in October, and already 397 women have registered and 239 of them have completed the course, earned their certification, and marked a significant milestone in their entrepreneurship journey.

Tell us about the women who participate in the Transformative Feminist Leadership programme?

Some women just need to earn extra income to support their families during this crisis. Others have big, long-term ambitions to create a sustainable business they can grow in Myanmar and internationally.

We have many women with food related businesses. We also have women who make and sell textiles, footwear, accessories, and handcrafted items. We have artists, farmers, mental healthcare providers, and educators. We have women in the printing business. We have a woman who is a consultant for plastic waste management and another works on carbon credit trading. There are so many different businesses represented in our group, and they share their expertise, skills, and services.

And why is this kind of gender-specific business support so important to them?

Women entrepreneurs face so many barriers – in Myanmar and globally – including not being able to access business support services that are tailored to their needs, such as being available at times they can access them and covering topics that relate specifically to their experiences. Women can also face challenges accessing finance, so that is another thing we try to help with, finding investors for women-led businesses.

It has been so wonderful to have our participants tell us that our Transformative Feminist Leadership training acknowledges all the challenges they experience and helps them share experiences and solve problems together. I look forward to continuing to work with UN Women to support more women entrepreneurs to connect and support each other to achieve their goals.

Find out more

[1] 2023 Myanmar Economic Monitor : Challenges Amid Conflict. Washington, D.C. World Bank Group. Available online.

[2] International Labor Organixzation (ILO) brief, Employment in Myanmar in 2021: A rapid assessment. Available online.

[3] Myanmar Labor Market Update 2023, ILO. Available online.