People tend to think of global CEOs of colossal businesses as suit-and-tie men with a preference for expensive hobbies. Nang Lang Kham, Deputy Chief Executive Director of KBZ Bank is quite the opposite. A young, articulate woman with a thorough and innovative vision is now at the leadership of the country’s largest financial enterprise.
The most striking aspect of meeting Nang Lang Kham in person is not her youth or beauty, but the sincerity in her manners and the modesty with which she carries herself. Clad in comfortable yet smart clothing, a conversation with Nang makes it clear that she is a true polymath, a person with a curious and educated mind with a passion for learning new things – from online banking to tonic-infused cold brew coffee.
“I’m actually quite a private person, but I’m also not an introvert” replies Nang when asked about her public persona. Despite coming from a prominent family, public speaking never came naturally to her. It was only after 2014 when she attended the U.S. Department of State Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership Program, a four-week program for emerging young women leaders from all over the world, that she got the exposure and confidence to share her learning with others.
After that, Nang followed her calling to make an impact on people’s lives by focusing on the Corporate Social Responsibility of the KBZ business as well as setting up her family’s foundation. It was only in 2016 that she transitioned towards the business itself, at a time when KBZ was going through a transformation stage, transitioning from family business to a professional business. Together with her sister Marlene, Nang became a proper employee of the company her parents started back when they were still teachers in Shan State.
Putting Myanmar onto the world map has been a driving force for Nang and her family, especially after 2011 when the country first opened up and started going through a process of transformation and growth. Just like with her public speaking, Nang emphasizes the need to ‘learn to be outside of your comfort zone’ in order to accomplish this: “You can’t just sit in your office and expect these things to happen.”
Gender equality and inclusivity
Gender and disability equality and inclusiveness in the workplace have been major issues pushed forward by Nang inside KBZ. “In the beginning, I was told that these issues were for NGOs or governments to work with and that the private sector would not participate much. But actually, the private sector is where a lot of employment is. If you really want to push the employment and leadership of women, you can’t leave the private sector out of the conversation. In Myanmar, the issue is a bit more complicated, in the banking and retail sectors there is equality of pay, but it is the leadership positions where women are excluded. At the bank, more than 60% of branch managers are females, but when we get to head office level, there is a funnel. So it is the private sector that really needs to push, working with the experts from the NGO sector. So it’s not just a conversation anymore, now it is about implementing policies.”
The challenges of being a successful woman in an industry dominated by man have not eluded Nang herself, who wittily remarks: “When I go to events, people will often think I do Public Relations or they will ask me to go sit behind. Not to discriminate against women in journalism or PR, but it is a bit stereotyping to assume that a woman will be in media roles, instead of thinking they could be from corporate, right?”
“Also, women in Myanmar are constantly pressured to get married and have children, which I think, in this day and age, you don’t really need to. What I mean is, there is no pressure to do things in a certain time frame, the world today allows you to be successful and driven in your career and still want to have children in the future, without sacrificing either.” When asked about what wisdom she would share with other women who aspire to have a successful career like herself, Nang replies with no lack of assertiveness: “When there are opportunities, take them. And don’t give excuses.”
Education and the digital age
Nang’s flawless English and cosmopolitanism attest to her experiences abroad. At the age of 14, she moved to Singapore to study in a boarding school. This experience taught her to be independent and resourceful, and especially to grow as a person and develop good judgment. More than anything, though, Nang reflects back on this time as being exposed to a diversity of people and cultures, learning how to see things from different perspectives and learning about other people’s lives, “learning how to not be single-minded” as she puts it.
Like her parents, Nang and her sister Marlene have a strong interest in education. But like in everything else, Nang’s vision is long-term, even futuristic. Going beyond structured education, Nang believes in a more holistic education: “You need to know how to plan your life goals, how to find your passions, and finding inspirations/aspirations – the way you want to be, how to grab these opportunities and grow.”
“As the oldest sibling”, Nang laughs full-heartedly, “I got the worst share. I was the first child, so my parents were always worried and concerned. They were very restrictive. That was hard, they were always concerned about safety.” Nang figuratively paved the path for her two younger sisters, studying abroad and setting a very high bar. When she was growing up, her parents’ business was not the powerhouse it is now. Nang was born in Shan State when her father was still a teacher. During the first year of her life, her parents would drop her off at a friend’s house before work, and she recalls with a laugh: “I would always love to play in the pig’s pen, with all the dirt. I don’t really remember because I was still pretty young. But the way it’s been described to me, I lived through the journey of them being teachers and then moving to Taunggyi where my dad did trading, still living in someone else’s house. And then from there he and his friends bid for the untested gems land in Sagaing. People think that we started big, that’s not really true.”
Nang comes from a tight-knit family of achievers, all sharing the goal of having an impact on people’s lives in one way or another, through medicine, education, or banking. Closeness is very important to them, her family has a tradition of sharing two meals a day together. Beyond the dining room, Nang works together on a daily basis with her younger sister Marlene: “We complement each other, but we have quite a different profile. It’s a good support system, a sounding board; for one, you get immediate feedback” she says tongue-in-cheek with a smile. “At the end of the day, we both have one vision for the company. We are both very interested in fitness and food, and we share the same friends so most of the time we are together. But we do have our own space and time.”
“My parents are quite open-minded, they are both teachers and entrepreneurs. In the early days they were more traditional, but because of education, they always wanted us to be exposed to education beyond what they have learned themselves. And now they learn a lot from us. My mother always asked us about what we were learning, what it was like living in Singapore or in Australia, what the food is like… I think curiosity was always there, but during their generation, they did not have the chance to be exposed to more international grounds. Actually, my mother is interested in a lot of things. She wants to use digital platforms, she wants to learn how things work, even emojis” Nang explains with a smile.
This interest in the digital, of course, extends beyond Nang’s family. Myanmar skipped the generation of analog phones, the penetration of mobile devices in the country has been a major shift, a frog-leap in the way people use and share knowledge. KBZ has a goal of 100% digital connectedness, to really achieve financial inclusion in a digital sense, leaving no one behind. In terms of social responsibility of the telecommunications sector, Nang stresses the importance of digital literacy in order to enforce issues such as privacy, security, and reliable news sources.
“What will Myanmar’s story be? The future I’m looking at is digital. The future I’m looking at is equal and inclusive. The way I see it, in order to empower people, they have to be financially independent, and they have to be in control of their finances and planning.”
Tell me what you read and what you eat and I will tell you who you are…
‘If you know what books someone is reading, you can know what someone is thinking’ the old saying goes. So, what books lie on the reading table of this young leader?
Topping the list are the much-discussed non-fiction best-sellers, ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ and ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ and ‘Homo Deus’ by Yuval Noah Harari.”I love these kinds of books, but at the same time, I love books that are very vivid and have lots of story-telling, like Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’. Her whole life story is amazing.”
“I‘m really interested in people’s lives. I want to know how they got to where they are, and what their inspirations were. So Michelle Obama, in her book, wrote about the house where she lived, how she met her husband, and all the way until becoming the first lady. She has been a great supporter of him, and at the same time, independent; she is a powerful female leader and role model.”
Another book on her list is ‘My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today’ by Laura Jane Fraser and Nora Pouillon, about the woman who opened the first organic restaurant in Washington D.C. “It is very futuristic. It makes your brain work to see ‘wow’ how this is where the future is, how can I be part of that? It’s interesting to me how people with very strong passions have a drive to really get there.”
“This will sound weird,” says Nang with a laugh, “but whenever I travel to different countries, I will always include a cooking class on my trip. But I cannot cook. So I won’t remember anything afterward, but I love the experience. From food you can tell a lot about the people, and make connections. I’ve taken cooking classes in Vietnam, Amsterdam, Italy, Barcelona, and one in China,” Nang says, holding back the laughter. “If I wouldn’t be in this business, I would be a travel writer.” As a testament to her nature as a true explorer with an infinitely curious mind, her recent interest is in the Arctic Circle, about which she talks about passionately.
But when asked about her favorite food she goes immediately back to her Myanmar roots: “I eat Mohinga every morning.” Nang’s devoted father travels back and forth, especially to Shan State, and whenever he comes back from the airport in the morning he brings her favorite Mohinga from an airport restaurant she especially loves.
“Be kind in what you do” Nang learned from her mentor, the former CEO of Sam’s Club, Rosaline Brewer. “I was amazed to see what a humble leader she is. I always thought of CEOs as extroverts who you cannot touch” recalls Nang with a bit of nostalgia in her voice for the role model from whom she learned so much. “I used to think of CEOs as extremely confident people who always know exactly what to say. But she taught me that you need to prepare a lot when you are doing public speaking and especially when you are giving an interview, you can’t just improvise” Nang reflects with a smile as she calmly sips her green tea.