Make sure you’ve got the right perspective and are ready to work hard towards achieving the right goals. And never give up!
I recently took a leap of faith and started a business in Myanmar. It was an answer to a lifelong calling, my heart’s response to “what I want to do when I grow up”. It was not a decision taken lightly. My family provided a catalogue of lessons on entrepreneurship, many of them hard earned and hard learned.
In the 1930s, my maternal great-grandparents in the former royal capital of Mandalay traded silk throughout the country. The Gon Silk House family was among the richest in Mandalay and kept one of two horse-drawn carriages in the city, the Governor having the other. The family was also famous for graciously lending out diamonds for society events. Then came World War II and the family fled Mandalay, taking only the possessions it could carry.
In the 1950s, Rangoon was a boomtown. My paternal grandparents were top industrialists who built and ran the country’s most famous modern textile business. Hanthar Aye Nylon was a household name and the whole country sang along as its jingles and slogans were broadcast on the radio. In 1962, business was roaring and the family had amassed a pile of cash to build a bigger factory. Then the new socialist government nationalised businesses, demonetised the currency and threw my grandfather into jail for the crime of capitalism.
In the 1980s, socialist Burma was poor. Big businesses were all state-owned and badly run, and private enterprise was discouraged by high taxes and the threat of expropriation. My father, a passionate photographer, set up a successful business developing photographs. My mother worked beside him and later founded the country’s first advertising agency, a joint venture with then-Madison Avenue advertising giant McCann Erickson. Along the way, my parents suffered two demonetisations, runaway inflation and international sanctions that saw their clients and business partners vanish overnight.
You are right to ask: After all we have endured, have I not learnt anything? Why trade a comfortable professional career for uncertainty? Perhaps it is about family legacy and penning another chapter in the same tome. Perhaps it is about something in my blood. What is sure is that the family experience provides some helpful lessons.
Have perspective on risk: Many aspiring entrepreneurs are held back by the threat of failure. I have seen my family survive and continue to thrive after countless setbacks of epic proportions. This gives me the perspective to take the leap.
There is no substitute for hard work: A prominent guest lecturer during my MBA studies gave this advice and it has stayed with me because I know it to be true. I have never seen my grandparents or my parents idle and they worked for the love of work itself. The wealth that they created in the process never changed their work ethic.
Do it for the journey, not for the money: Many people see entrepreneurship as the path to riches, to acquire what you cannot hope to receive in a ‘normal job’. A mentor once told me: “Never chase money because the moment you chase money, it runs away from you.” I never heard the business people in my family say their ambition was a certain amount of riches. They were motivated only by passion and the journey itself.
Make education the main inheritance: In Burmese there is a saying, Pyin-nyar-shwe-oh lu-ma-khoe, “The golden pot of wisdom cannot be stolen by men”. My parents spent the equivalent value of an elegant villa to give me a university education in the United States. They liberated me from the expectation of joining the family business, allowing me to become my own person. They are incredibly proud that I am not a princeling, who was handed the reins of a business they built to take seniority over more experienced staff solely by the virtue of my birth.
Persevere, keep the faith and keep going: I am blessed to have the backing of an optimistic and supportive family, but we’ve all experienced setbacks. In the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, an excerpt of which is below, never give up!
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
It feels completely liberating to be charting my own destiny, and I aim to persevere, work hard, enjoy the journey and hold on!