Sondang Grace Sirait

Listed among the mistakes commonly made by new entrepreneurs is having the ambition to be amazing and to try to do it all, only to end up creating constraint to the growth of their business.

Looking such at ease at the helm of her multi-million dollar highway transportation company Mandalar Minn Express, it’s hard to imagine Lai Lai Aye, one of the most successful businesswomen in the country, once fell victim to that mistake.

In 2002, freshly after graduating from Yangon University with a bachelor degree in mathematics, the fashion-minded entrepreneur opened a store at Yuzana Plaza, selling imported items from Thailand. The business, however, didn’t prosper.

Quickly dusting herself off, Lai Lai joined the Myanmar Women Entrepreneurs’ Association where she started building networks and discovering new revelations.

“At that time, we had an assembly program in Malaysia, and it was there where I began to develop some new ideas. Compared with fashion, businesses in transportation, construction and such are closer to the needs of the people in this country,” she thought. 

Feeling reinvigorated, Lai Lai then tapped into her savings to start another business, this time in highway transportation. Thus in 2007, Mandalar Minn Express was born. The only catch, however, was that she had no prior knowledge of bus fleet maintenance. A few years into the business, the decisions she had to make grew alarmingly more complicated and costs blown out of proportion.

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“At that time, I listened to whatever people were telling me without verifying whether it was true or not. Some of the bus drivers came to me pitching this or that and I took them at their word,” she recalled. “Until one day, the man who would later be my husband gave me a wake up call. He had been a partner at a big company back then. He told me that with the way I was running things those days, I would be out of business by the following year.”

Within no time, the burgeoning entrepreneur rushed to change the way business was done. She had always been interested in the marketing, management and administration aspects of the company, but now it was time to be exposed to a much wider scope—though with her now husband Khin Aung joining the team, Lai Lai would soon have less to worry about vehicle maintenance.

Her bus fleet gradually expanded. Within eight years, the company went from owning six used Japanese buses to 90 brand new buses—70 of which are Swedish-made Scania and the rest Japanese and Korean.

In accommodating growth in demand for bus services that link major cities in the country, routes were continually reviewed and new ones added. In late February, Lai Lai inaugurated her 15th branch in Myawaddy, near the border with Thailand, with which two more routes were added, bringing the total sum to 23 routes. The cities covered by Mandalar Minn Express now include Mandalay, Naypyitaw, Mawlamyaing, Mudon, Meikhtila, Magway and Taunggyi.

As a major player in the highway transportation industry, Lai Lai maintains an active presence on a variety of networks, especially those that promote women entrepreneurs—which is still considered a rare breed in this country.

“There are just so many challenges that women entrepreneurs have to face. The way we do business has to be different. We have to be better,” says Lai Lai, who’s also the secretary of Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation, Executive Committee member of Myanmar Women Entrepreneurs’ Association and Central Executive Committee member of Myanmar Young Entrepreneurs Association.

“It’s always a good idea for women entrepreneurs to join an association, because there we help each other. For example, I would order my printing materials from a fellow woman entrepreneur, who then returns the favor. In all the associations I joined, I’ve always tried to participate and contribute whatever I could. During the 2013 SEA Games, for instance, I donated some buses to be used for some events,” she says, summing up, “It’s good to have network.”

Networking aside, Lai Lai’s success has also been empowered by dignity, respect and faith.

When Mandalar Minn Express began operating, it was the only intercity coach service that offered ample legroom for its passengers. The other ones were busy stuffing more seats. “Some people emphasize only on the business side. That’s not good,” says Lai Lai. “I love my work, my employees and my customers. I treat them like family. I always respect feedback from both employees and customers.”

Keeping her customers first, Lai Lai soon came up with more innovations. Comfort ranked highest, and with that, VIP services were launched to cater to the needs of the wealthy clientele, which covers special meals and alcohol beverages served by well trained bus attendants.

All the hard work soon paid off. In 2012, Mandalar Minn Express was awarded the ASEAN-China Young Entrepreneur Outstanding Award and business only kept getting better by the day.

It’s not only the customers she’s keeping happy. Her employees, now numbering above 500, are also benefiting from the employee-friendly workplace culture at Mandalar Minn Express. Bus attendants are provided with extensive courses on English language skills, personal grooming and first aid. Another policy allows the provision of microloans or loans at zero interest.

Her sensitivity toward the needs of others comes from her nurturing nature, as a woman and also as a devout Buddhist. Born in Thanlyin, on the outskirts of Yangon, to a government official father and a teacher mother, Lai Lai was the youngest in a family of eight siblings. It was her late mother, she recalls, who installed in her a fervent desire to honor Buddhist attitude toward life by ways of practicing love and kindness.

“When I was little, my mom would make me go to nun monasteries every weekend to learn about Buddhism and pray. I still do that until now. I also try to go to Shwedagon Pagoda at least once a week to pray,” says Lai Lai, who’s now expecting her second child. “I believe in forgiveness, sacrifice and good deeds. It has helped me cope with good or bad situation.”

It’s very important, she says, to ask for prayers. When her son Ye Wanna Aung was born last year, Lai Lai shunned the idea of throwing lavish celebrations. Instead she gave donations to monasteries and charities. As part of company policy, she also gives away one free seat each day on all of her buses to traveling monks.

These days, her pregnancy—now in its fourth month—demands Lai Lai to cut back on her working hours, which has seen her delegating more tasks to her sister and aide. Still, between tending to her young son and channeling the inner gardener in her, the energetic woman can’t help but come up with longer-term plans for the company.

“In three years I want to open gas stations for my buses. I have ninety units that must be fueled everyday. I also want to look into businesses that are related to the bus service. Our VIP service is very popular, serving more than 3,000 passengers every day. Instead of outsourcing, I can produce the drink and food myself,” she says.

As those close to Lai Lai would attest to, her enthusiasm for life is inspiring, her good energy contagious. In whatever role she’s played—daughter, sister, wife, mother, entrepreneur and organizational activist—Lai Lai has proven her mark. And for now, there’s no stopping her.

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