Oil and gas and mining account for 99 percent of foreign investment into Myanmar's $52 billion economy. But Mandalay Capital is staying away from extractive industries, in favor of fast-growing sectors more likely to be free of cronyism, corruption and political baggage, like information technology, telecom services, media, education, health care, real estate and financial services. Ali said he's targeting a rising generation of local entrepreneurs, rather than cultivating relationships with established crony businessmen.
Htet Nyi is one of Mandalay Capital's first local clients. The son of a clinical psychologist and a doctor, Htet Nyi started Myanmar Finance Co., a trading company, 17 years ago. He launched a business specializing in small loans for the poor in March and is now in talks with foreign companies about setting up a joint venture or raising capital to grow the microfinance business. "So far I'm financing it from my own pocket," he said. The only funding he can get now is a local bank loan at 14 percent interest a year, down from 18 percent last year, he said.
Mandalay Capital's five employees work from a bungalow in a residential neighborhood, rather than an office. Yangon has just 63,000 square meters (678,126 square feet) of office space — that's less than half as much as in a single skyscraper, Empire Tower in Bangkok, according to Colliers International, a real estate company. With such limited supply and rising demand, prices have shot up.
"The landlords demand rates that don't exist anywhere besides Singapore," Ali said. Rather than pay $150,000 a year for a small office, he rented a bigger house for a sixth the cost in Yangon's coveted Golden Valley neighborhood.
Ali said the biggest challenge has been finding the right people to hire. The local education system withered under military rule and Mandalay Capital has found it difficult to convince Myanmar nationals educated and living abroad to return to the country.
Alyor Khasanov, head of human resources at Silk Road Finance, Mandalay Capital's parent company, said he has been trying to convince a Myanmar expat that his career opportunities in Papua New Guinea pale in comparison to what Myanmar has to offer, but it's been tough to overcome the man's skepticism.
"My task is to make him understand this dramatic change, because here is a country of tremendous opportunity," Khasanov said.
Khine Zyn Tha, 25, returned to Yangon after studying accounting in New Zealand and became Mandalay Capital's first research analyst.
She has no investment banking experience, but did manage to explain to her parents what an investment bank is.
"I had to explain it's not a bank bank," she said. "It involves finance. There are investors who would like to invest and there are people who need funds to develop their business. We are the intermediaries."
She wanted to stay in New Zealand — the good medical care and ability to get a mortgage, an impossibility in Myanmar, were deeply tempting — but had to return for family reasons. At first she was unhappy, discouraged by the lackluster professional standards of the local auditing firm where she worked.
"I wanted to become a professional," she said. "I have a huge appetite for higher education. If I go to Bangkok and I see my peers from other countries, if I can't speak at the same intellectual level as them, I feel inferior."
Now that the world is coming to Myanmar, Khine Zyn Tha's ambition is finding a new outlet. With each passing day, the possibility that this opportunity will be curtailed strikes her as ever more remote.
"We've already tasted freedom," she said. "They cannot take it back."
Follow Erika Kinetz on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ekinetz
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