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    What I learned about social enterprises by working at one

    Guest blogger Lauren Leatherby is a first-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School who spent Winter Break as a short-term fellow at Proximity.

     Folds of longyi fabric drape onto the floor as a dozen farmers, their faces cooled with thanakha, discuss the past season’s challenges around a low table.  

    “Labor costs have doubled,” one farmer says in Burmese, the others nodding in agreement. “We can’t afford labor costs anymore. Costs have gone from 2,000 kyat per day to more than 4,000.”

    Proximity co-founder Debbie Aung Din asks about other difficulties they have faced. How have they dealt with the labor shortage? What kind of pests have they seen this year? What tools do they need the most?

    Since arriving at Proximity for a short fellowship, field meetings like this combined with my time at Proximity’s brightly hued, open office in Yangon have shaped my ideas of social enterprise. Below are a few of the things that stood out to me, surprised me, and even wore on me about my time here at Proximity.

    Customer Respect


    In a previous job, I conducted market analysis projects at a Fortune 500 company, where constantly soliciting customer feedback was critical to success. I’ve found Proximity listens to Myanmar’s low-income, rural farmers in the same way my previous employer listened to its Rolex-wearing customers. The luxurious $50 dinners of customer feedback meetings may be swapped for tea leaf salad on the floors of thatched-roof homes, but the respect and high value that Proximity places on its customers’ opinions is the same.

    I’ve also been impressed with the resources Proximity puts toward following up with its customers in proportion to its relatively small staff. The Knowledge and Social Impact Team spends their time taking buses, motorcycles, and ox-carts to remote villages, where they ask farmers about changes in yields, incomes and spending, after using Proximity products and services. Thanks to their work, the organization has measured nearly USD $400 million  in cumulative increased economic impact across Myanmar through the sale of Proximity's products.  


    Swimming Against the Current

    Walking into Proximity’s design lab, a naturally-lit, brightly painted space in Yangon’s industrial zone, one quickly gets the feeling that creative things happen here. Multicolored dry-erase sketches of prototypes dot the windows, and a mural depicts a fish swimming upstream, going against the norm.

    “These are some of the ideas from our Team Improvement Project this morning,” says Ko Nyan Lin Htet, the design lab’s newest engineer, as he directs my gaze to a handful of sketches on scrap paper. “We brainstorm like this every Friday. My idea presents a way to light the whole floor using only natural light.”

    These Team and Personal Improvement Projects, which take time away from current projects to focus on self development, were just one way I saw Proximity’s emphasis on being unafraid to fail a few times before getting things right. This emphasis on creativity and innovation struck me as representative of Proximity’s overall business model –using swift, imaginative solutions to confront large, seemingly intractable problems.

    Burmese at Heart


    Knowing that Proximity operates only in Myanmar but has strong Western connections, I wasn’t sure what to expect in regard to office culture. As I found my way up to Proximity’s third-floor office my first day, I saw a neat array of shoes outside the door. Guessing I should take mine off too, my first day at Proximity also marked the first time I entered a new job barefoot.

    I had previously worked abroad in Dubai, where my meetings were held in English and the office generally followed U.S. work culture, so the amalgam of Burmese and English used during Proximity's staff meetings was striking. While a few expats dotted the crowd, the room was nearly entirely locals, and not a single foot wore shoes. Longyis predominate over pants here, office snacks generally consist of Myanmar jellies and tea leaf salad, and Burmese is the primary language echoing throughout the office.

    The Mundane Exists Here, Too

    Finally, my time here has reminded me of the regular work that goes on even at award-winning social enterprises like Proximity. While high-level strategic thinking frequently takes place, with meetings discussing the future of Myanmar's energy and innovations to combat rising labor costs, there are also the same mundane, day-to-day tasks that go on everywhere. I got to help on projects I really liked, but where was my help, at times, most exigently needed? Writing up job descriptions and finding photos for publications. This was a reminder that even at the coolest organizations, there’s still no shortage of small tasks in addition to the big, fun, shaping-the-future-of-this-country brainstorming.



    New Year, New Faces: Su Hlaing 


    Su’s love of other cultures started early. Growing up, Su attended an international school in Yangon, where her classmates – often the sons and daughters of diplomats – hailed from around the world, an experience that informed her childhood career decisions.

    “I used to want to be a diplomat,” she says with a small laugh as she makes herself at home on a couch in Proximity’s office. Well spoken, poised, and rarely without a glowing smile, Proximity’s newest team member would have done a fabulous job in the foreign service, but we’re lucky she chose Proximity instead.

    While her fervor for diplomacy has waned, her enjoyment of different cultures has only grown. Su received a full scholarship to attend university in the United States, where she studied Asian studies and Chinese. After graduating, she worked in Washington, D.C., at an international food policy research organization with coworkers from all over the world.

    She recently moved back to Myanmar to reconnect with family and friends, only to discover her cross-cultural education would continue in her home country. Now, she says, her job at Proximity has taught her about rural ways of life in her own backyard.

    During her first three months working with our irrigation division, Su jumped right into her new role by traveling all around the country giving sales training to field staff and developing relationships with countless farmers along the way.

    “I saw Myanmar in a way that even many people here don’t see [it],” she said. “I saw how hard rural farmers work and how they are really in need of techniques and strategies. When we’re able to provide for those needs, through Proximity, I feel like I’m doing something for my country.”

    Giving back to her community has always been a big part of Su’s life, from teaching English in Yangon during her secondary school years to volunteering with refugees in the United States. Her desire to have a positive impact drew her to Proximity’s social mission, and her love of adventure drew her to what she saw as its creative, international culture.

    Here, her role is still evolving; Su will be working with a number of different teams during her first few months to find the perfect position for her within the organization. It won't be the first time someone who's multi-talented and versatile was hired at Proximity and given a taste of different roles before defining their own. So far, Su's enjoying her role at sales, and we can't wait to see where she'll end up. 




    We're in good shape

    To start the year off on the right foot, literally, 90 staff members joined the 2015 Yangon Marathon. While only one person was brave enough to run the full 42km path, Proximity did win the 10k team race. Here are some photos from the day!


    1000 words, 2015 beginnings

    The sun sets over Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State.

    It’s tempting to get poetic about the year ending while contemplating the setting sun over Taunggyi. After all, it's been quite a year. Some of the highlights include receiving the Ashden Award for Sustainable Agriculture in May, a partnership with Studio D, Visa, and IMTFI to the research and develop a new financial service designed specifically for rural Myanmar, and raising over $60,000 in the Social Entrepreneurs’ Challenge thanks to the amazing support of people all over the world and the Skoll Foundation’s matching grant. As 2015 dawns, we want to take a moment to thank everyone from staff to strangers who helped turn challenges into opportunities for innovation. Happy New Year!



    In the incubator: a new financial inclusion product

    There are few things as creamy and delicious as Burmese be u hin (duck egg curry), and yet, the inhabitants of Mhaw Aine Village in Dedaye refuse to believe that duck is a delicacy in some parts of the world. “We’re sick of duck eggs!” Ma Mya Mya Htway says; “we have them every day,” she explains. For some Proximity staff members, this would be a dream come true (cough, cough), but it’s easy to understand why Ma Mya Mya Htway would rather eat pork or chicken; she belongs to a family of duck farmers that have been raising the animals for generations.

    Ma Mya Mya Htway’s mother first taught her the basics of duck farming when she was a child, and to this day she continues to follow her mother's advice. Only two things have changed. The first is the kind of feed she uses for her ducks. The second is that, for the first time ever, she’s received a formal micro-loan to help boost her livestock business.

    While Proximity Designs has been offering farmers micro-loans since 2009, Ma Mya Mya Htway owns no land and doesn’t farm, making her ineligible for a crop loan.  She’s one of countless landless villagers across Myanmar who often have to rely on daily wages from working on others’ land or in the cities to meet basic needs. Even if they start small businesses like Ma Mya Mya Htway has done with her ducks, landless households still can’t qualify for traditional micro-loans from NGO’s or the Myanmar Agriculture Development Bank.

    Because of this, Proximity Finance has started looking into financial services that are more inclusive of non-farming households. These upcoming products, including duck loans and the on-the-go loan, not only provide access to credit to people who’ve never had it before, but also strengthen our social enterprise business model. 

    When Proximity decided to test out a pilot duck loan earlier this year, the $200 loan disbursement was timed to coincide with the yearly lean period for duck farmers in July. While duck egg production rises and falls seasonally, output decreases by more than half during this month. We checked in on Ma Mya Mya Htway two months later, and she reported that business was going well; she used the initial disbursement to buy nutrient rich food that helped her ducks lay more eggs in July, which has helped her save enough money to buy a cellphone. With it, she’ll be able to call the duck vendor in the nearest town directly and secure a better price for her product.

    The duck loans have also had a secondary effect on Ma Mya Mya Htway’s reputation. She’s the group leader for the thirty families in Mhaw Aine that are participating in the duck loan pilot run. While she’s been well-trusted for years, the impeccable job she’s done keeping records has earned her additional respect, both from her fellow villagers and from the Proximity Finance team. Thanks to her work, we're looking to expand the program and make loans available to more duck farmers in the coming year.