With her parents working as civil servants, May Myat Mon Win spent much of her childhood moving around Myanmar. From the Irrawaddy Delta to the most southern tip of Myanmar, adapting to new places and people comprised a significant part of growing up.
“This is probably how I picked up my passion for liking people,” ponders the 47-year-old. “Easily very comfortable with strangers…easy to talk with strangers. That’s all the fundamentals of hospitality.”
Now May Myat Mon Win is recognized as a pioneer in the industry, the first Myanmar person to run a five-star hotel—the Chatrium Hotel Royal Lake Yangon, whose list of awards would make you feel dizzy. For that, she credits her colleagues that include a 50/50 split of men and women in senior management and an executive board of three women and one man.
“For any hotel business there is no one-man job,” she says. “Even if you are extremely capable and excellent you can not do this alone. Fortunately we still have the whole team working together.”
Twenty years ago the energetic leader helped launch the 300-room hotel, which sits next to Kandawgyi Lake in a refined state of colonial elegance. But its current glory was preceded by “dark days,” she recalls, during which occupancy was 20 percent and staff salary was cut by 30 percent for some months.
This period, when the US imposed heavy sanctions on Myanmar’s military regime for rampant human rights abuses, was testing for all hotels and practically all firms in the country.
“That’s one of the reasons the team here is really strong,” says May Myat Mon Win. “We survived it. To close down is going to hurt everyone, to shut down a business should be a last resort.”
The hotel’s staff of 250-300 back then has since swelled to 430. Each one has no fear of gender discrimination, as, according to its general manager, “we don’t have any gender bias.”
“But if you don’t know the job or subject you will have a hard time,” adds May Myat Mon Win.
The Chatrium is a UN Global Compact organization, meaning it aligns strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, labor environment and anti-corruption.
Though running such a hotel would pack anyone’s schedule, May Myat Mon Win also acts as chairperson of Myanmar Tourism Marketing—part of the country’s tourism federation, which tackles seemingly mammoth tasks like rebranding Myanmar.
In this role she has walked into many a government meeting where some participants have feigned a sort of disenchanted “oh, a woman” surprise.
“Sometimes on a big table I am the only woman sitting there,” she says. “I wonder, why am I the only woman participating?”
May Myat Mon Win, who has three teenage sons, comes from “the lost generation,”—called so because of the political upheaval following nationwide protests against the military regime in 1988.
Regular university closures disrupted her education and so she threw herself into work: first as an English news broadcaster for Burma Broadcasting Service and then in sales for Lucky Gold Star LG Corporation.
But by the time she entered the hospitality industry—in the form of Summit, then Yangon’s only private hotel—she was armed with a master’s in Business Administration.
Her advice for young women: “Don’t pull yourself back from achieving your dreams. Being a woman doesn’t stop you from doing anything you dream.”
Photos by Rasmus Steijner.