The young bank executive bringing international standards to a frontier market

5 minute read

Having become Managing Director of a Southeast Asian bank, I found myself wanting more insights into how bank governance is carried out in other countries. In 2020, at 26 years old, I was offered the job of Managing Director of SHWE Bank in Myanmar. I balanced this with another role as founder of Mo, a fintech start-up seeking to improve access to finance for the underbanked in the region. My priority is transformation - both from an HR perspective, but also a digital one. Corporate governance, and specifically bank governance, is essential in the role I do.

An emerging market

SHWE operates in a relatively embryonic banking sector. The Myanmar Stock Exchange was only founded recently and there are only about six companies listed. As a frontier market, most of the banking system is just developing. The bank itself was only founded in 2016, but has grown to 600 people, and now offers deposits and loans and other banking services via a network of branches and agents. Risk management is an essential part of my day-to-day job, and it’s also a priority for our central bank. Being a frontier market, I felt that it would be good to learn about what other countries are doing and what the best practices are.

A mix of different nationalities

I searched online for a suitable course to enhance my knowledge, which included corporate governance programmes online, but I couldn’t find any that were specific to bank governance. Oxford was one of the only ones to offer this. In July 2022, I travelled some 8,500 miles to join 25 other banking executives on the Oxford Bank Governance Programme. 

From the start it was very welcoming, even though I was the youngest there, we were soon all talking about school, life, MBAs and what we did. A stand-out feature for me was the mixture of different nationalities, particularly from emerging financial economies.

When I signed up for the programme, I assumed that we might just learn about EU or UK bank governance, but there were people from as far as Nigeria, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Brunei. They came from different backgrounds as well - insurance and credit bureaus, for instance. This meant that we learnt how different countries were progressing with their banking sector - even from a risk management perspective - and how the central banks of each country worked.

We had some really interesting discussions with the lecturers about the difficulties of operating banks. I particularly resonated with the participants from emerging markets like Nigeria, which is slightly more developed than Myanmar.

For me, it was sort of like seeing into the future. I appreciated meeting other female bankers on the programme too. Although I was one of only three women on the course, I saw how amazing and powerful they were. They were so vocal and eloquent. It made me feel more empowered, knowing that other females are facing similar challenges. I would definitely encourage more female bankers to go on this course.

Enhancing knowledge

Three themes from the programme particularly resonated with me:

Economic and social governance

I didn't think that we would be talking about economic social governance. That was a real eye-opener because we don’t really discuss this topic in Myanmar. As soon as I got back, I started an economic social governance committee. It’s in a knowledge-sharing phase at the moment. My initial aim is to get the executives and heads of departments to understand that this is a concept we need to be thinking about. I've even spoken to some of our product team about specific loans for clean projects; maybe solar projects, or electric vehicle projects. It’s something that I want to continue pushing.

Stakeholder management

The programme enhanced my vision of this. Managing the board, the people within the organisation and our customer’s expectations is a key part of my job. One thing I learned from this experience, as well as my start-up, is the importance of a team. You must have the right team if you want to execute a strategy, even before you enhance corporate governance or any product offerings.

Why bank governance and reputation go together

It's not only about the products that we're pushing out. Our reputation will affect how the customer is going to adopt our products. As a financial institution, it’s essential for our customers to trust us and to know that we are there for them. As soon as I returned from the programme, I got to work to enhance the reputation aspect of the bank. We've made our website more transparent to enhance more of our brand, trust and reputation. We’ve answered some key questions. Who are our board members? How are we ensuring our customers and employees are Covid-safe? What’s our purpose and how is it aligned to each stakeholder? This kind of information was not public before.

I now understand that good governance is about transparency, but it's also about your mission statement, your vision statement, and dealing with stakeholders and customers; there are so many parts to it.

The future

I’m going to make sure that I am more active on the board, strengthening the team, and understanding more about unifying the organisation as a whole. I’m also going to be developing my fintech to service the underbanked market, not only in Myanmar but in other places like Cambodia or Laos. We are focusing on financial literacy at the moment, like how to use a credit card properly so that you don’t get into debt.

I am definitely going to keep in touch with my cohort from Oxford. We often message each other with questions about how to deal with different problems - and we already have a plan for a reunion in two years' time.