By: Misja Ilcisin, 2015 Global Social Benefit Fellow
Moving to Myanmar to work for Koe Koe Tech was not part of my post-college plan. As a 2015 Global Social Benefit Fellow (GSBF), I had the privilege of working for Operation ASHA – Cambodia, a social enterprise that works to eradicate tuberculosis worldwide. Having had an incredible experience with them, I planned to return to Cambodia to continue working with them in March 2017. However, shortly before I was expecting to leave, organizational changes made that an impossibility and I suddenly found myself without a job, any semblance of a plan, and a one-way ticket to SE Asia.
I quickly reached out to my contacts at Miller Center and, incredibly, they connected me to GSBI alum, Koe Koe Tech – an IT social enterprise in Myanmar that was in need of an Operations Associate. Their mission of providing affordable, quality, sustainable technology for Myanmar’s health sector aligned well with my interests in health systems development and strengthening. So, in a leap of faith, I accepted the job offer and moved to Myanmar on a two-week notice. More than one person thought I was crazy, but one of the most significant skills I gained as a GSBF is the ability to adapt to whatever new challenges and opportunities a situation presents. In the fellowship, we were constantly thrown curveballs and had to develop real time solutions to continue to push our research forward. This is a skill that I took to heart and have applied to my own life countless times since the completion of the fellowship, most significantly when I embarked on this new chapter in my life.
As the Operations Associate at Koe Koe Tech, I wear many different hats. Koe Koe Tech has grown rapidly over the last year, so part of my job is to help improve processes, identify and reduce bottlenecks, increase the clarity of communication between teams, and help optimize how we spend our time. I help oversee product management for may, our women’s health application and HMIS, our hospital management and information system. This includes helping set and oversee development timelines, user testing, impact assessment, user interviews, content generation and curation, marketing, and working with our partners on expansion and distribution. Balancing and prioritizing these different tasks can be a challenge, but I am able to build off the core task management skills that I learned as a GSBF. During my time in Cambodia, my partner and I independently managed and executed four distinct projects, which often pulled us in different directions at the same time. We had to work our projects into the existing schedules of OpASHA’s employees and plan ahead to ensure that key tasks, like translations for surveys, were completed on time. My task management skills were greatly improved during the fellowship and that is a skill I have been able to carry forward into my work at Koe Koe Tech.
One of the things that I most appreciate about working at Koe Koe Tech is that of our 42 employees, 40 are Myanmar-nationals and only two, Mike Lwin the Managing Director and Co-Founder and myself, are foreigners. I have a strong belief that organizations working to aid in the development of a country should be primarily lead by citizens of that country. These individuals have a much better understanding of the local context and can help create change that is much more sustainable than that of an organization made up of mostly foreigners. To many people, adapting to this environment might be very challenging and uncomfortable. However, I have found settling into Koe Koe Tech’s work environment to be one of the easiest parts of my transition to living in Myanmar. I think there are two main reasons for this: 1) the nature of the wonderful people at Koe Koe Tech and 2) the humility that was taught to us as GSBFs.
First, everyone at Koe Koe Tech is extremely friendly and have gone out of their way to make sure that I feel welcome and included, which has helped more than I can explain. To my second point, a big part of our class time in the fellowship was devoted to recognizing the importance of cultural humility and understanding that when you cross cultural boundaries, those who have the most experience in the local context need to be recognized as the experts and should generally be deferred to when it comes to who you assume has more knowledge. Having had some experience in the development sector, I often see foreigners treat local staff as less important than themselves since they don’t have degrees from fancy universities or their English is less than perfect – despite the fact that these foreigners often speak little of the local language. This assumption – that because you are foreign, you must know better and be more important – is easy to gauge and immediately puts up a barrier between yourself and those whose expertise you most need. Maintaining humility during my time here has made it much easier to connect and build relationships with all of Koe Koe Tech’s team. The importance of humility in all its forms was heavily emphasized during our GSBF experience and it is a key lesson that I have used countless times since moving to Myanmar.
Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and the Global Social Benefit Fellowship have been a huge part of what have made me the person I am today. Through this program and under the mentorship of many incredible individuals at Miller Center I have gained countless skills, confidence, a deeper understanding of my vocation, and developed the ability to pursue, relentlessly, that which I am most passionate about. Hitting the ground running with my move to Myanmar and Koe Koe Tech are my first real step in working to achieve my goals of helping develop sustainable health care systems in low-income countries. I have been given an incredible opportunity at Koe Koe Tech and, as a result of Miller Center’s work with undergraduates, an opportunity that I am prepared for, with all its ups, down, challenges, and successes.
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