By Tina Lu
A while back, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the most amazing female leaders in the world, Yin Myo Su (nickname: Misuu), who recently won the 2015 Goldman Sachs and Fortune Women Leaders Award in addition to the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award. Misuu not only owns a successful chain of luxury hotels and resorts in Burma (now known as Myanmar) but also runs the Inle Heritage Foundation.
Misuu has always been aware of Burma’s social problems and has worked to fix them from a young age. As young as four years old, Misuu realized that many of her friends, who couldn’t afford to buy even pencils or books, were not on an equal playing field with their relatively wealthier classmates. As she grew older, Misuu witnessed more and more of society’s inequalities until one day in March 1988 when the brewing social injustice finally bubbled over into a conflict between a group of lowly students and another group of privileged young males. The conflict sparked student movements around the country for freedom in education and social equality.
Misuu, who was a student herself during this era, explained the situation to me. “We couldn’t study what we wanted to in school,” she told me. “We were only allowed to study what we were “good at” in terms of our exam scores. Creativity and critical thinking was not valued. We had to memorize whatever our teacher said.”
Not one to accept such injustices, Misuu joined the student protests, eventually convincing her father to support the movement with her. When Misuu went abroad to study at a hospitality school in Switzerland, her father became even more entangled in Burma’s politics, becoming elected into a public office and subsequently arrested for his election. Though Misuu’s circumstances were far from ideal, she is thankful for the lessons she learned through such hardships. She no longer lives her life for herself or even her family. She lives her life for others who didn’t have the opportunity to live for themselves, and she sure shows that collectivist mentality through her actions.
Misuu’s collectivist focus started with cultural activism. Although Misuu puts much of her effort into preserving the heritage of the Inthar people, she doesn’t do it just for the Inthar people. Sure, she wants people to know about the Inthar’s house on stilts, rowboats, and floating gardens, but she also wants to show others the diversity of the world. She wants to encourage other minority groups to share their own culture to preserve not only the Inthar heritage but the heritage of all races and all cultures.
Misuu’s methods to achieve such heritage preservation are fun, inventive, and truly inspiring. Though she built a house for Burmese cats, she insists she is not a cat lady. Now, this cat house is no longer just for cats, as Misuu has renovated it to include her family and tribal heritage as well. The heritage house includes an upstairs restaurant that serves Misuu’s grandmother’s old recipes and a backyard garden that produces all served produce.
Misuu is not only a cultural activist but also an environmental one. While trying to certify her backyard garden produce as organic, Misuu discovered that the water supply around her was contaminated from the chemicals and pesticides nearby farmers were using. In response, she started a farming project that encouraged good agricultural practices and a water project that sent water samples to labs for scientific analysis. Along the way, she learned that the fish in Inle lake were endemic and started an aquarium project to revive the native fish population.
Though I liked learning about the activist side of Misuu, I also wanted to understand the hospitality businesswoman side of her. From my prompting, she told me about her humble journey into the hotel business.
At four years old, Misuu was already familiar with tourism in Burma. Her father, the only decent English-speaker in their town, built a guest house, Inle Inn, for lost tourists. At an early age, Misuu grew an affinity for interacting with the tourists. She liked learning about where they were from; to her, it was like learning about a different world. Misuu enjoyed the hospitality business so much that she decided to study hospitality herself. Now, her three pillars are passion, people, and profit. To Misuu, money comes along with commitment, passion, and a shared vision.
When Misuu returned from her educational hospitality experience in Switzerland, she decided to start numerous different hospitality projects with her family, which culminated into the Inle Princess Resort, a 35-bedroom luxury resort on the Inle Lake in Burma. Though the resort was a for-profit business, Misuu tried her best to make sure it benefited her community. All building materials used, including timber and bamboo, were from the area in which they lived. All workers in the resort were from their village or nearby villages. People who started working at the resort when it first opened still work there now.
Though the Inle Princess Resort only has 35 bedrooms, it has provided the local community with over 170 jobs. With a garden, an artisanal village, and a farm full of cows, buffaloes and pigs, the Inle Princess Resort is much more than just a resort. It is self-sustainable and only uses organic and biological materials. Misuu treats all of her employees like family; by giving them a chance to improve themselves, they win, she wins, and her business wins.
Combining her social interests and affinity for hospitality management, Misuu decided to build a vocational hospitality training school for younger generations. In a region where almost half of the youth are high school dropouts, having a school that teaches youth real skills is extremely important. To Misuu, helping the younger generations is they key to advancing society. “Everything is full cycle,” she says, “so we need to share knowledge to conserve and preserve.”
Despite the current success of her business and multiple other pursuits, Misuu faced many challenges along the way, notably the monk-led protests in Burma and Cyclone Nargis. During the 2007 and 2008 time frame, Missu’s resort shot down to 12% occupancy, and she was close to bankruptcy. At that time, she was running six different hotels and resorts with over 600 employees. In the end, it was her team and her employees who helped her solve the problem. Her workers knew her business was in trouble, so some of them decided to work half time or take time off. The near-bankruptcy experience only brought her closer to her team, who she credits for all of her successes.
When I asked Misuu about one challenge she faced as a woman, she told me many. As a young female businessowner, Misuu frequently had to hide behind her father and attribute her successes to him. In her culture, it is difficult to accept that a woman could be so successful in her own right. But the main gender-specific challenge Misuu faced was a personal one. Three years ago, she separated from her husband. In Burmese culture, divorces are public signs of humiliation. Women who are divorced have either committed an atrocity or were not dutiful wives. But in Misuu’s case, she and her husband just weren’t happy together. Though they made the mutual decision to separate, Misuu faced much backlash from society and from her family. But to Misuu, valuing her independence was more important than anything else, and she uses her independency to promote other women’s independencies too.
Despite all of her accomplishments, Misuu is still incredibly humble. When I asked her how she felt after receiving the Goldman Sachs and Fortune Women Leaders Award in addition to the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award, she responded, quite surprisingly, with the phrase, “extremely uncomfortable.” To her, she was simply at the right place, in the right situation, at the right time. “I’m not that special,” she told me. “If other people had the same chance that I had, they could have done the same thing.” (This just shows you how special she really is.)
Finally, I just want to thank Misuu for giving me the opportunity to interview her. We chatted for almost three hours, and despite how hard I tried, I couldn’t fully convey her passion, dedication, modesty, and other 1000 amazing traits in just one (albeit long) blog post.