Written by Audrey Camp
Caroline Htay walked through the airport in Yangon, Myanmar with money tucked into her shoes. It was 1999, and she was preparing to board an airplane for the first time in her life. Her ticket would take her to Singapore, where she would enroll in a university program. In her whole life, she had not spent one night outside her parents’ home.
Cultural norms didn’t allow for things like slumber parties or summer camps. Caroline’s house was even more strict, because she was an only daughter. Saying goodbye to her family, 23-year-old Caroline wasn’t sure when she would see her parents again.
Enjoyed school and worked hard,
but didn’t spend a lot of time thinking
about what she wanted to do for a career
“If it were up to my mom, she would never have let me go,” says Caroline. “I think my dad convinced her. It was the only way.”
As a child in Myanmar, Caroline remembers standing in line on the first day of school each year. The socialist government handed out school books, rulers, paper and pencils to students on a quota basis. Sometimes the books were new, but most of the time they were second hand. Caroline enjoyed school and worked hard, but she didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what she wanted to do for a career.
The government exercised total control over the educational system, and students were strictly tracked. Kids who did well in eighth grade went into the sciences; kids who didn’t do as well went into the arts. Strangely, the latter track in 1980s Myanmar included things like accounting. Caroline’s aptitude for school meant she wound up studying chemistry, biology and physics in high school. Studying business wasn’t even an option.
Schools closed indefinitely in 1988
as a result of demonstrations and rioting
On August 8, 1988, a revolution came, and along with it demonstrations and rioting. Caroline showed up for her 7th grade exams that year and discovered the schools had closed indefinitely. The students were excited for the break, which only lasted a few weeks that time. But political turmoil continued to conflict with Caroline’s education. In 1996, the government closed all the universities without warning. This closure lasted much longer.
“I was just waiting, reading novels and watching TV for almost two years,” she says.
Caroline learned English by reading
Reader’s Digest and Danielle Steel.
Caroline and her family decided she should use the time to learn English, no easy task in Myanmar then. Though the country has long had a high literacy rate—books are sold on every street corner in multiple languages today—there were only two places to find English books in the mid-1990s: The British Consulate and the American Embassy. Caroline frequented both.
“I read everything I could find,” she says. She took the books home and read them side by side with a dictionary, translating and learning. “I remember doing that with Reader’s Digest and Danielle Steel.” When she laughs, Caroline bobs her head and shakes her straight, black hair back out of her face.
As her English improved, she began exploring opportunities to study outside of Myanmar. Singapore Polytechnic offered a chance to study business. With her father’s encouragement and her mother’s reluctant blessing, Caroline joined twenty of her friends at the airport boarded the plane to Singapore.
Cooperative living gave her a crash
course in budgeting and shared costs
“I took a bachelors in accounting and finance,” she says of her time at Polytechnic. She was living in a shared room in a large house near the campus, and cooperative living gave her a crash course in budgeting and shared costs. When she wanted to call home, she had to go down to the public phone, wait in a long queue, and pay $3/minute to hear her mom’s voice. Instead, she often wrote long letters home, and tried to include money. Her father’s health had taken a turn and he was unemployed, having resigned his civil servant job after the 1988 turmoil.
Like many of her friends, Caroline worked hard at part time jobs cleaning and waiting tables while in school. Singapore’s economy was struggling, and jobs were tough to come by. The owner of one of the restaurants noticed Caroline’s work ethic and gave her an interview for a job in the company’s financial office. When Caroline arrived for the appointment, she took the interviewer by surprise.
“I said, ‘Can we keep this short? I have to hurry back to school to take my final exam,’” she says. “The woman was kind and told me I should have just asked to reschedule the interview for a different day; but I was desperate for a job. It was the only way I could become a permanent resident.”
She got the job.
After her graduation from Polytechnic, Caroline went on to the Singapore Institute of Management and specialised in accounting. She was hired by telecommunications company StarHub, where she worked for four years, ending as a senior accountant. Along the way, Caroline got married and purchased a flat with her husband; they began to put down some deep roots. Only when StarHub began to consolidate its offices, did Caroline look for other opportunities. A friend working at Motorola helped her get an interview, and she transitioned over to their Singapore offices smoothly.
“A good mentor gives guidance, not answers”
At Motorola, Caroline met the company’s Financial Controller. He became her mentor, inspiring her to think outside the box and to be more ambitious. “A good mentor gives guidance, not answers,” she says. “I used to be a timid, soft-spoken person. He encouraged me to take challenges and to challenge others.” At Motorola, Caroline advanced to the position of Senior Regional Financial Analyst responsible for Asia Pacific and the Middle East.
“At the time, I didn’t know who Telenor was.
I started by Googling it”
When Telenor became licensed to open offices in Myanmar in June 2013, Caroline turned to the internet for more information.
“At the time, I didn’t know who Telenor was,” she admits. “I started by Googling it.”
Caroline had come to the crossroads so many daughters know well. Her parents were ageing, and Myanmar doesn’t have a pension system to support its elder citizens. The country had reached another revolutionary precipice, this time in the form of a democratic election. Caroline had been actively supporting Myanmar from afar, doing volunteer work and sending money. She had watched hopefully as the government liberalised and development increased. Perhaps she would have the opportunity to help rebuild it from the inside. After discussing it with her husband, they decided to take the Telenor position and go home.
In November 2013, Caroline began at Telenor as Head of Accounting and Tax. “I have very good management here that support and believe in me,” she says. In less than three years, she was named Chief Financial Officer of Telenor Myanmar.
Humble about being the first female citizen of Myanmar
to hold such a high executive position
Caroline sits in a tea shop in Yangon and watches a row of monks in scarlet robes pass the window; people approach to give them alms. She marvels at how Myanmar’s citizens have remained open and generous—Myanmar has topped the World Giving Index for three years running—through the political upheaval and sudden industrial boom. She’s glad to be back, with her husband and family. Now 40 years old, she continues to read, though her tastes have changed.
“I like the classics. War and Peace,” she says, as if this is no real feat. Then she admits to spending too much time on Facebook.
Caroline is humble about being the first female citizen of Myanmar to hold such a high executive position.
“My family does not have a good understanding of what it means,” Caroline says. “But my grandfather is different. He is 90 years old, but he is very modernised. When he saw the news, he was very excited.”
After a pause, she adds, “I do not think about it very much. I just try to be a good worker.”