Myanmar: A Lesson in Leapfrog

Facebook has become the internet of Myanmar

Over and over again, at each company we have visited, we hear the same story about the incredibly high penetration of smartphones in the Myanmar population. The figures shared with us have been astounding, all above the 90% mark. Thura Ko Ko, a senior adviser to TPG Capital and co-founder of YGA Capital, talked about the phenomenon. “Around 2014, the percentage of Myanmar citizens with cell phones was about 8%. From 2014 to 2018, that figure has risen to almost 100%. What is even more impressive is that over 85% of those who have a cell phone, own a smartphone,” Thura says as he leans against the podium at Myanmar Imperial University.

Thura Ko Ko, a Myanmar citizen, spent his early years as a telecommunications investment banker in London. After a successful career in private equity in the United Kingdom, he finally decided to move back home. Using his expertise, he has advised or individually invested in several projects in Myanmar over the last decade. He spoke about the smartphone penetration phenomenon as if it happened by accident. When the government realized they needed to catch-up to their neighboring countries, they passed a law allowing foreign companies to build and operate cell phone towers. This brought rapid investments with towers sprouting up all over Myanmar. Suddenly, there was 4G available wherever you went and citizens leapfrogged the normal progression of cell phone purchases of flip phones to smartphones. Furthermore, Facebook has become the go-to search engine or means for any internet use whatsoever. It has defined and molded the way citizens conduct modern business.

“It’s crazy. I walk out of the plane in Munich and pop in my SIM card and barely get 2G service if I’m lucky. I’ll fly back to Myanmar and literally everywhere I go, there is 4G service and you can download videos, movies, anything you want,” Alex Spitzy from JJ-PUN told our group.

This leapfrog effect that Myanmar has witnessed in smartphone technology is not isolated to just this industry. Thura Ko Ko believes it will also happen in healthcare, finance and retail as well. With regard to retail, he mentioned that only 30% of the population live in cities with malls and the current infrastructure issues deter those with access to traditional retail stores from shopping there.

Myanmar Imperial University, the first private university in Myanmar, hosted us for a discussion and networking event at their brand new campus

“E-commerce and Fin Tech should do well because of the large population…the big guys are coming. Alibaba, Baidu, they’re all on the doorstep,” he says as he answers questions from MBA candidates from Columbia Business School and Myanmar Imperial University, “Financial access to banking is incredibly low. You will see us bypass the normal banking branches and head straight to Fin Tech.”

That’s exactly what Brad Jones, CEO at Wave Money, is doing in Myanmar. With an incredible story of Fin Tech penetrating Myanmar of mobile banking, Brad and his team have captured 95% of the market share. Wave Money has essentially become a cash transport system that can send money across the country in minutes. A customer goes to a Wave Money agent, pays in cash, the Wave Money agent sends this to a customer’s account, and that customer can go to one of any 38,000 active shops to receive the money. In an economy where there is only about 6% formal banking penetration and cash is king, Wave Money has become the go-to solution for Myanmar citizens who need to send money to families back home after earning wages in the major cities.

With all this rapid growth and the leapfrog effect coming soon, coupled with the high transparency in the country because of high-speed internet and high smartphone penetration, it is imperative for companies to also develop their social and sustainability programs. Large multinational corporations like Unilever, and smaller companies like Arao Company, are doing exactly that.

Trisha answers questions after the formal presentation

Trisha Mukherjee, the marketing director at Unilever for Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, talked about the importance of building the next generation of Myanmar leaders through their “Leaders Grow Leaders” campaign. From 2014-2017 they sent 4 employees to different countries to work and learn better practices to bring back to Myanmar. In 2019, they plan to expand the program and send 6 more. Of the over 1,500 employees they currently employ, there are 30 managerial roles. 11 of those roles have been localized by Myanmar citizens and they have a goal to double that number to 22 in the next few years.

When asked about the 2018 Myanmar minimum wage increase to $3.60 per day (up from $2.50) and how they were paying their factory workers, Trisha said that the Unilever-only factory workers are paid substantially above minimum wage and the two joint venture factories are slightly above with monthly incentives and benefits.

Smiles from the factory workers come across their faces as we walk through the floor

Khaing Mie Mie Win, a Burmese businesswoman with an incredible story from rags to riches (see link for full story), has built Arao Company from the ground up to several large garment factories with over 3,200 employees. The factories have been modernized and the working conditions are well above expectations. Some workers are paid minimum wage, but most above the new Myanmar standard and all with compensation incentive packages.

Khaing Mie Mie Win discusses her incredible story as a widowed tailor to the employer of over 3,200 people

Not only are the facilities being modernized, but the systems and operations are being optimized as well. “Last year we were producing 35 pieces of garment per hour. After our factory manager rearranged the floor with a new system, we are now producing around 55 pieces of garment per hour. Our goal for the next year is to get to 65,” Khaing Mie Mie Win tells us at her factory.

Both visits to Unilever and Arao Company opened the discussion about gender biases and what the companies are doing to correct them. Unilever has created ads that break down the cultural norms about patriarchy and empower women with the knowledge that they can compete with men on every level. Both companies employ majority women in their factories (Unilever over 60%; Arao Company almost 90%). Khaing Mie Mie Win told us as she finished her compelling story, “that [this] become my motivation, to help these women have better lives.”

A woman in the Arao Company factory marks fabric samples

Although it seems like operational efficiencies have developed in some factories, there is still substantial room for improvement. “There is a lot of hand holding that has to be done in Myanmar operations. A job that would usually be done by 1 [person] is done by 3. The level of skill needed is still far behind other countries,” says Trisha.

Operational inefficiencies don’t just occur on the individual level, but on the corporate level as well. When asked about the potential for good investments in the airline industry, Thura Ko Ko scoffed at the idea. “We had 8 airlines in the country. Last year, 5 of them went out of business. We have 23 private banks in Myanmar. Not all of them will survive. Consolidation is not easy and will be challenging going forward,” he says as he wraps up the optimistic discussion with a bitter reality.

There is much work needed for Myanmar to become a major player in Southeast Asia, but with each visit, we become more and more convinced of the potential for success.

Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Myanmar

“If you look on the banks of the Irrawaddy, you can see the combination of land, labor, and capital that developed from the time the British empire took control of Burma and transformed it to the largest rice exporter in the world by the beginning of the 20th century,” Sean Turnell says as he points to several British colonial buildings in Yangon’s commercial sector. You can clearly see what he means as taller buildings sprouting up across Yangon have dominated the skyline shared with cranes peppered in every direction as more infrastructure development looms.


“For 10 years, I was on the blacklist by the government and couldn’t come here. But since 2010, the development of this city has been incredible.”

Sean Turnell is an Australian economist that has worked in Myanmar for the better part of his life. His path was not straightforward, but through a series of different economic roles, he finds himself in a seemingly important position. While simultaneously working for the Myanmar Development Institute (MDI) as a senior adviser, he also holds the position of Special Economic Consultant to the State Counselor (essentially the Prime Minister of Myanmar), a role created specifically for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar

Sean painted a picture of colonial Myanmar under British rule as one of the major cities of the empire, appropriately dubbed the “rice bowl of the British empire.” It thrived under British rule and created a dominant player in Southeast Asia.

However, after receiving independence, the country transformed into an authoritative military regime. Sean described what followed: “when the military took power, they destroyed all the universities. After the 1988 demonstrations, they dispersed the faculty. They never wanted students to congregate together. They reduced the standards across the board and corrupted the system.”

The fight between reformers and the military regime has been going on for decades, only recently seeing an opening of the country to the rest of the world with the election of the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Suu Kyi. Because of these policies, Myanmar has seen an influx of foreign direct investment and tremendous growth. Last year, the country experienced 6.2% GDP growth, putting it at the 10th fastest growing economy in the world and 2nd in Asia. “Basic fundamentals are in place, which makes Myanmar a very promising market,” says Nevcan Gungor, a CBS alum who holds the position of Chief Investment Officer for an infrastructure conglomerate Shwe Taung Group. She goes on to explain the recent laws benefiting privately-owned companies: “The 2016 Arbitration law was crucial to the opening of the country. Having a basic rule of law and contract enforcement has really helped the business climate and contractual systems.”

Nevcan continued to say that the current government is trying to find the right balance between economic development versus social and sustainability development. The NLD feels that in a lot of other developing countries, economic development came at the expense of social development. So, the Myanmar government’s focus is to balance these two and enable growth while taking these considerations into account.

Last year in 2018, the NLD released the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP) which lays out the framework of where the government sees the development of the country. This has largely been received with positive reviews, but there still remains a number of challenges to accomplish this plan. Among those are political stability, lack of institutional infrastructure to support investment, economic policy uncertainty, and access to sustainable/long-term finance.

Particularly within the financing component, there is significant foreign exchange risk. Most of the financing is done in USD, but businesses operate using the Myanmar Kyat. Any fluctuations in the exchange rate can greatly expose companies.

For example, a recent drop in exchange rates hurt JJ-PUN when they purchased a stockpile of working capital thinking they would expand rapidly, but lost over $1 million and nearly all their profit from 2018 within that sector.

A joint venture between Jebsen & Jessen and Serge Pun Associates, JJ-PUN is a conglomerate that operates primarily in Myanmar within the agriculture space. Alex Spitzy, a managing director with the group, spoke to us about these challenges that Myanmar still faces.

Alex explaining their distribution model of agricultural chemicals with dealers and farmers

When explaining the process of bringing new products to Myanmar, he said the government is still a big hindrance to companies trying to compete in Southeast Asia. In order to get products approved, like safer chemicals for farming, companies have to wait 2 years for experimental registration and 10 years for full registration. He has proposed to the government that if the US, Thailand, and other countries have an approved product, why not expedite the registration process for that product? They seem to disagree. 

“I think the current government is too afraid to fail. They are micromanaging and analyzing everything…If you want to get a country from the bottom and raise it up, you have to be daring,” Alex says with passion as he speaks to our group.

He goes on to speak about their mission, “our vision as a company is building a better country for the Myanmar people. We want to upgrade Myanmar…as Serge Pun says, if you do something good for the country, the money will come.”

Burmese students from the Shan State flocked to take pictures with us at Inle Lake

Although there seems like many obstacles are in the way for a complete rebirth of Myanmar as a significant player in Asia, one cannot help but feel optimistic for where the country is headed. The Burmese people have proven to be genuine, kind, empathetic and loving.

Many companies like Proximity Designs also believe in the future of Myanmar and its people. They are a quasi-NGO focused on providing products and services to the rural communities of Myanmar. They work closely with farmers with a hands-on approach of teaching them efficient farming methods.

Jim Taylor speaks with our group at their modern headquarters in Yangon with a panel of employees from each business line at Proximity

“We saw a massive market that was terribly underserved. It’s been neglected by private companies, the government, public services, and even the aid sector which left farmers on their own,” Jim Taylor, co-founder of Proximity Designs, says to our group during the company visit. “If you look at the neighboring countries in Southeast Asia and their transformation, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, and even Bangladesh…the key to rebuilding a country is a strong rural sector.”

The future is bright for Myanmar, as long as the current political trajectory does not falter. People like Sean, Nevcan, Alex and Jim have faith in what this country can and will become. After our first two days of company visits, we are beginning to see the light on the horizon as well.

Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Myanmar: Growing Pains in Government and Industry

Sule Pagoda in Yangon next to the Supreme Court building and the Yangon City Hall

“Doing Business in Myanmar” is the title of our course for the upcoming Global Immersion Program (GIP) where almost 30 Columbia Business School students will throw themselves into the cultural aspects and businesses in Yangon, the country’s largest city.

Really Professor Khandelwal? You stuck with the generic title for the course? (Pretty sure the default for all GIPs is “Doing Business in —“) You couldn’t come up with anything better like “Leadership Expedition to Patagonia” or “Philippines: Asia’s Rising Tiger?” There aren’t even tigers in the Philippines! See above for a better title for next year’s trip.

All jokes aside, Doing Business in Myanmar seems like an appropriate title. Everything we have learned thus far about the country is how far it has fallen behind its neighbors and the struggle it has faced trying to move from an authoritarian military regime to a democracy that would eventually stimulate growth in their businesses and the rights of their citizens. So maybe a simple title for the course is appropriate. Focusing on the fundamentals of what is necessary to move from a broken country to a competitor within Southeast Asia.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting…Traveling to Myanmar?

Over the last four weeks, I have been traveling the region and keeping an open mind about the different cultural experiences and business practices I’ve come across. From the countryside and cities of Vietnam, to Bangkok and the southern islands in Thailand, a quick trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and wrapping it up with a visit to Chiang Mai, I’ve tried to take in everything from local customs, customer interactions, government regulations and how citizens go on about their day to day lives.

The entire trip, I have thought about Myanmar, and specifically Yangon, and how they will compare to these places. I could be completely wrong, but I picture Yangon as a mix between Hanoi, Vietnam and Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Hanoi is full of amazing smells, annoying sounds, and delicious food that when combined with the old colonial French buildings makes it seem much smaller than a city with a population of 7.5 million. However, as soon as you see the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and the nearby museum dedicated to the same man, you are reminded of the communist party’s control of the country. Albeit for better or for worse, one cannot deny that on the surface, the government has a much stronger presence and influence on its people than the surrounding countries.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam

Chiang Mai is a popular tourist destination in Northern Thailand that is home to over 300 Buddhist temples scattered throughout the city and the surrounding area. The people, mostly Buddhists, have been incredibly hospitable, friendly, and genuine with their actions. I found myself having to negotiate so frequently in Vietnam, that a classmate pointed out I developed a pattern whenever making a purchase. In Vietnam, I would frequently haggle the price and usually get the souvenir, taxi ride, or meal for much less. In Thailand, it went something like this:

Vendor: Friend, for you, I give you this [jade bracelet] for 100 baht.

Me: 100 Baht!?!? *Does math in head really quickly* (that’s like.. about $3) That’s… that’s actually a really good price. Okay, yeah…I’ll take it.

So that is how I picture Yangon. A city filled with kind people who are still feeling the weight of their government bear down upon them. A city, like Hanoi, that has a colonial past and an oppressive government in the present, with Buddhist temples scattered throughout. People who are trying to make ends meet and welcome tourists into their country which has historically suffered lower tourism rates that most (if not all, this is a blog post, not a research paper) of the neighboring countries in the region.

Most importantly, I’m excited for the company visits and hope to learn about the progress that has developed in recent years and the optimism (or pessimism) about the future of Myanmar and where business leaders think it will be in 20 years. Like most of the neighboring Southeast Asian cities, I’m interested to see the dynamic between the corporations vying for early positions in a developing city and the local businesses that would prefer cash to avoid taxes and can bend just about any rule to garner a sale.

The largest city in Myanmar, Yangon, which has struggled to maintain a 24-hour power supply as recent as early 2018 (something we don’t even come close to thinking about as an issue, literally taking for granted) will have surprises for us all. Doing business in Myanmar is more complicated than it seems.

Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Real Estate in China: Just Build It

Heavy mist and grey skies greeted us as we walked off the plane in Guangzhou, China. The same climate bid us goodbye as we drove to Shenzhen one day later.

The last two days in southern China, first in Guangzhou then in Shenzhen, have been fast-paced as we’ve visited 7 major leaders in the real estate landscape here. The contrast between Singapore and southern China is stark. Singapore is a small city-state with a population of 5.4 million people. Guangzhou, largely recognized as the world’s manufacturing center, boasts a current population of 14 million and is one of China’s 5 National Central Cities. Singapore is pristine. Guangzhou is noticeably a busy, less manicured manufacturing hub and exhibits signs of development. There is a far greater number of cranes in the sky in Guangzhou and Shenzhen than there are in Singapore. Construction is around every corner, largely because land owners must develop newly-purchased land within 2 years of purchase and understand that building income-producing real estate assets is a safe harbor compared to holding cash that may lose value against other international currencies.

We were fortunate enough to visit the the Ping An Financial Center – a 600-meter (1800-foot) Class A office building, which is soon to be completed. This building is the third largest in China and is due to open in April. It will house Ping An, a large regional life insurance company, and several high technology and finance companies. Most importantly, its construction marks the creation of a structural icon in southern China, much like the Empire State Building is in New York City. In fact, the building’s ownership originally requested it look identical to the Empire State Building and subsequently scrapped the idea after viewing the model and deciding that the scale and shape of the structure didn’t quite match the surrounding real estate. The building is 118 floors and boasts an observatory: the first in Guangzhou and undoubtedly a future major attraction and revenue source. We donned hard hats through the construction site, boarded one of 4 double-stacked elevators and travelled to the 56th floor where we experienced the leasing team’s impressive marketing video on floor-to-ceiling screens all around us. We were 1 of 15 tours that day.

On the social front, the LN Garden Hotel in Guangzhou hosted a happy hour for our group, complete with a live band, a dim sum bar, a noodle bar, a full dessert table and a party bus. After a long day of traveling from company to company, this was a welcome surprise! An even better surprise occurred when our resident singer requested Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York and took the stage to serenade us all for the next 5 songs. Dancing en masse ensued. Pictures are of course provided below. Who knew we had so much CBS talent in our group?

Nicole Atoyan ’17

Singapore, China & Hong Kong: the journey is upon us!

When I think of Singapore, skyscrapers and images of technological modernity immediately come to mind. I would be remiss by neglecting to mention the image of The Jetsons – a once popular American cartoon – that also comes to mind for me when this hyper-developed nation is mentioned. The trip will formally begin in two days, when 40 Columbia Business School students and two faculty members from the Paul Milstein Center for Real Estate depart for a study tour of Singapore and the Pearl River Delta region of China. The fortunate portion of our group that hasn’t endured an endless stream of final exams has already departed, visiting the beaches of the Far East before heading to Singapore.

Our first day will be filled with cultural visits: a visit to the Gardens by the Bay (pictured here), Chinatown and Little India. A riverboat tour and dinner at one of the most notable seafood restaurants will follow.

120607010620-gardens-bay-panoramic-horizontal-large-galleryWe’ll spend the next two days meeting with leaders in the real estate industry: multinational companies such as Blackstone Real Estate Partners, the largest real estate private equity company in the world, and Capitaland in addition to strong players in the regional market such as GIC. We’ll end our Singapore experience with an alumni reception at Spago.

Guangzhou, nicknamed the City of Flowers in southern China, is our first stop in the Pearl River Delta region. This area is considered the birthplace of the ancient maritime Silk Road, now used as a major trading and transportation hub.  This major city is an important commercial center in China and a focus for real estate development and investment.

The group will also explore Shenzhen – another major commercial center in the Pearl River Delta. Meetings with Vanke, Jones Lang LaSalle, Swire Properties, Fosun and site visits of the Ping An Finance Center and the Qianhai project await.

The trip will end with a day to explore Hong Kong before returning to New York City. I can’t wait for the adventure that lies ahead. I am, however, hoping to sleep for the duration of the 21-hour flight there!

Nicole Atoyan ’17

 

The Spirit of Chazen #Brazil2016

What is Chazen? 

“In 1991, our founder, Jerome A. Chazen, MBA ’50, recognized the need for a new kind of leader: one who understands cross-cultural issues and their impact on business. That vision led to the creation of the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business, which serves as the hub of global activity at Columbia Business School.”

(cheesy nationality jokes aside)

When I step back to reflect, it’s truly remarkable how globally diverse our cohort of 30 students were, representing 14 nationalities (here we go: Netherlands, Italy, India, Israel, Lebanon, Peru, China, Japan, Brazil, Turkey, Canada, Greece, Malaysia and good ol’ USA), but also surprisingly diverse business backgrounds: 

Visiting the Suzano Paper & Pulp factory – who knew that Martina Carbone CBS ’16 would pepper the speakers with R&D questions, given her chemical & bio-engineering background?

Who knew that Audrey Stewart CBS ’16 spent time in Taiwan working on nuclear weapon detection for the US Army?

Traveling abroad with a group as awesome as this is a natural catalyst for conversations about … religion, politics, family, and hey, even hair type (Beleza Natural, Operations Management 101); conversations too taboo within the confines of a classroom, yet somewhat organic and free-flowing when you’re chilling in a bus with the lush forest of Rio as your backdrop.

For me – these conversations are the ‘deep and meaningful’ that help us know each other better; the real forage for international and cross-cultural capital that makes us more informed and educated business people.

That’s the Spirit of Chazen.

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In 33 #pictures – São Paulo & Rio de Janeiro

Reuben Gan, CBS ’16

São Paulo (Jan 17-20, 2016)

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Day 0 – Visiting the quickly gentrifying neighbourhood of Vila Madalena.

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Pop-up block parties in the neighbourhood of Vila Madalena.

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Company #1 – Natura Cosmetico’s headquarters in Cajamar, Sao Paolo.

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Glass is abundant at Natura’s HQ, promoting one of the company’s key values & principles – Transparency.

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Laura Burkey, CBS ’16 tries on the Natura’s cosmetics line.

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Samar Estephan, CBS ’16 tries out a Natura hand lotion.

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Andy Zheng CBS ’16 browsing the fragrance section of Natura’s mock retail store.

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Men, a natural target market.

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Company Visit #2 – As we learnt, Azul’s competitive advantage as Brazil’s no.3 carrier is owning networks of connecting flights that GOL & TAM can’t compete with.

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Fun Fact – Azul is known for their gummy candy planes. Children often ask their parents for this when they know they’re flying. How is that for a cost-effective CRM strategy?

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Company #4: Donning safety hats & goggles to tour the Suzano Paper & Pulp factory, the global leader in producing Eucalyptus tree-based paper products.

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Company #5 – B2W, Brazil’s leading e-commerce company, furnished with plenty of entertainment.

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CBS-ers taking last shots at Sao Paolo. Will one of us win the Chazen Travel Photo contest?

Rio de Janeiro (Jan 20-22, 2016)

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Company #7 – BNDES takes us through what it takes to work at Brazil’s leading development bank.

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The Famous Cathedral de San Sebastian in Rio De Janeiro.

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The iconic PetroBras building in central Rio.

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Lunch at the historic Confeitaria Colombo, a taste of colonial Rio.

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Company #9 – The Operational Centre of Rio De Janeiro, a world class live database tracking weather, traffic and crime to mitigate tim-sensitive issues such as mudslides. (picture by Vitor Selles, CBS ’16)

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Company #10 – Beleza Natural prides itself for serving the needs of communities of Brazilian women with intensely curly hair, giving it their signature “relaxante” treatment for more relaxed, softer and shiner hair for better confidence 🙂

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Co-Founder of Beleza Natural, Leila Veliz – “Working at McDonald’s was my first MBA”, on understanding the need for a continuous flow system in running an operations-based service business.

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“Be beautiful and free!” Fun fact – All Beleza Natural models are either customers or staff; the company believes in realistic, everyday beauty. All smiles @ Erin Williams, CBS ’16

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Lesson #1 (from Core Operations Class) – An “assembly-line” (Ford model) process in action. In case recruiting doesn’t go according to plan…

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Operations Strategy lesson no.2 – some assembly lines are less efficient than others..

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And some others…

Bonus: Post-Chazen Hangout @ Rio de Janeiro (Jan 23-25, 2016)
(conveniently-timed as Hurricane Jonas hurled through NYC)

#Advice for future Chazen travelers – book the latest flight back! You won’t regret it 🙂

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The Christ Redeemer. Photo courtesy of Johnny Yaacoub, CBS ’16

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Panoramic chill by Ipanema beach.

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The Selaron Steps, the famous work of a Chilean-born artist in the artsy neighbourhood of Santa Teresa.

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Parque Lage. Brunch with a beautiful botanical backdrop.

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The Orquestra Voadora – world-renowned marching brass band practicing for the Rio Carnival. If we could only stay another week..

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Breathtaking view of Rio De Janeiro from Sugar Loaf mountain.

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On the very last day, with the Sugarloaf Mountain as the backdrop.

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Tchau Tchau! (bye bye)