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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.