Go-getter Allison Morris is helping entrepreneurs succeed in what The World Bank ranks as “the most difficult place in the world to start a business.” An American who grew up mainly in Singapore, Allison learned from a young age to value diversity and adventure. But her love of travel, meeting new people and checking out new places, led her down a more meaningful path than most. She has dedicated her life’s work to making a difference against all odds. Allison is a now partner of her own firm Morris and Silvester Consulting, which is breaking barriers in Myanmar. They provide evidence-based analysis for government initiatives, recommendations for the private business sector in a wide-range of industries, and detailed research for nonprofit organizations wishing to support Myanmar’s complex needs. Allison and her partner have also started Project Hub Yangon, which is Myanmar’s first start-up incubator, running programs for entrepreneurs to launch scalable, sustainable and impactful businesses.
Let’s hear more from Allison about her story, how she found the courage to relocate to Myanmar and what we can do to help the cause:
You have impressive experience for a young woman – ranging from counseling women refugees on start-ups and micro-loans, to consulting for OECD, and directing a social enterprise. Tell us what initially led you down this path?
I’ve always been motivated by the idea of combining a passion for making a difference with my career. Much of my background was shaped by my childhood as I grew up in Singapore, which offered a great opportunity to travel around Southeast Asia, India and Nepal. This exposed me to many different ways of living and different communities. In college, I started out by exploring human rights issues and advocacy by getting involved with Amnesty International and Students for a Free Tibet. Living in Atlanta, I also started to get very interested in the challenges of the immigrant community – which is very large and diverse in Atlanta. I volunteered as an English teacher for older immigrants, who often were very well-educated doctors, vets or teachers in their home countries, but weren’t able to get the same kind of jobs in the U.S. This experience had a huge impact on me, and I wanted to do something to change the environment that immigrants operate in throughout the U.S. I realized that instead of focusing on human rights, I wanted to focus on policy, which had a huge impact on the lives of immigrants and refugees. This led me to pursue a Masters in Public Affairs in an international setting. After that, I landed a job with a growing social enterprise back in Singapore that focused on areas that were close to my heart: immigration, women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship. In 2012, when Myanmar began to open up, my partner and I decided that if there was ever an opportunity to help shape policy and change in a country, this was it. We packed our bags and moved in Yangon that summer and haven’t looked back!
Tell us more about the unique challenges that young entrepreneurs face in, what you have called “One of Asia’s last frontier markets.”
Myanmar has actually been ranked by the World Bank as the most difficult place in the world to start a business. This doesn’t bode well for aspiring entrepreneurs, but it’s not stopping them either. Starting a business in Myanmar is difficult because:
- Entrepreneurs are up against competition they aren’t used to;
- regulations are changing quickly;
- rent and internet prices are incredibly high;
- It’s difficult to find employees who have the skills you need.
Many of these challenges are not necessarily unique, but they are definitely exacerbated in Myanmar, due to the uncertainty of the transition, the influx of investment from abroad, and the weak infrastructure to support these changes.
Through Project Hub Yangon you have launched an exciting event called Global Entrepreneurship Week. Tell us more about the level of enthusiasm from the Burmese at this event and in general throughout Myanmar as the country opens up?
We’ve had a great time hosting Global Entrepreneurship Week Myanmar over the past three years. Each year the events have grown, thanks to our many partner organizations. In the first year (2012), Project Hub ran 4 events, including a business idea competition. We really weren’t sure what to expect since we had only been in Yangon for a few months, but we had 60 young, aspiring entrepreneurs join us for that competition and everyone was very enthusiastic about learning how to develop a business model and presenting their ideas to the judges. Fast forward a few years and the 2014 GEW Myanmar reached over 1,000 people in three cities in the country. We had major donors like USAID and GIZ support events, as well as over 10 partners help host. There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about the new business environment in Yangon, as the country opens up.
Your incubator program is focused specifically on supporting women entrepreneurs right now through what you are calling Project W. What is one success story you can share that is coming out of that program right now?
We’re excited to see Rosy’s Chin Fabrics and CiCi fashion continue to develop. These two businesses took home the grant prizes of $4,000 and $2,000 at the end of the program and the two women, Hilary and Rosy, have really been committed to growing their businesses. CiCi is working on plans to open their first flagship store and has secured contracts to produce uniforms for major corporations, and Rosy continues to make partnerships with international dealers to export her products. From our 2013 program, we’re happy to see two of the businesses have grown substantially and secured foreign investment as well.
How can tourists, who may travel to Myanmar, support some of your women entrepreneurs right now if they wish?
They can buy beautiful Chin fabrics from Rosy (facebook.com/rosyschinfabrics)!
Currently, travel magazines can’t get enough of Myanmar, and tourists will certainly be flooding into the country like never before! You obviously are very connected with Myanmar’s needs on all levels because of your network, research and interaction with locals every day. What is your one piece of advice for how to travel ethically in Myanmar right now?
My advice would be to take the opportunity to learn about the history of where you are going – the people, culture and challenges they may be facing. Make the choice to be a knowledgeable tourist in Myanmar.
Yangon based Allison Morris is partner at Morris and Silvester Consulting and one of the founders of Project Hub Yangon. For more information on her work and the exciting things happing in Myanmar, visit www.projecthubyangon.com
Feature Photos: Courtesy of Project Hub Yangon, credit to Mr. Shady Ramadan
While stumbling upon the work that Allison Morris and her partner are achieving in Myanmar, I was truly inspired. I don’t use that word lightly…as it’s often over used for flattery’s sake. But Allison’s courage calls for use of the word. She not only has relocated several times and chosen a field of work that is incredibly impactful to others; Allison picked up her life in Singapore as partner of her own firm and said “You know what? Let’s go make a difference in Myanmar…the toughest place to do it.”
Thank you Allison for your courage, the work you are doing in the poorest country in Asia and how inspirational you are to others who learn of your story.
“Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps the more precious thing is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as ‘grace under pressure’- grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.”
― Aung San Suu Kyi