Yolène & Nicolas – Hi, thank you for receiving us today! Could you please start with your story in Myanmar?
Sarah Lubeigt – I am a 30-year-old French-Thai. I was born in Bangkok where I did all my studies until the baccalaureate. It is only then that I went to France to carry out my studies in Paris.
My father, Guy Lubeigt, was the first Western researcher in Myanmar. He is a now a researcher at the CNRS, specializing in Myanmar. His main work concerns areas such as geopolitics, urbanization and environment in the country. He was awarded the “National Order of Merit” by the French President last year, pushing forward the knowledge France has today regarding Asian Countries. When I was young, I often followed my father during his missions in the country.
After my baccalaureate, I studied International Relations at La Sorbonne for 7 years. I did Erasmus exchanges in Budapest and Shanghai and I specialized in East Asia. Today, I speak both Mandarin and Thai and of course, French and English.
I quickly realized that my skills would be a real plus in most of Asia, looking for the right place where I could fully make myself useful. In addition, I wanted to take advantage of the emergence of China in the international game and the growing opportunities offered by ASEAN countries.
I then returned to Asia through an internship related to trade at the French Embassy in Thailand, more precisely at “Unifrance”, which is now known as “Business France”.
Can you explain what is Business France’s role?
SL – Business France‘s role is to help French companies developing their international business opportunities.
A very important role of this entity is networking. The organization also brings its expertise on the business environment.
You have definitely accomplished a lot. Today, you are also the Founder and Director of Bioderma Myanmar; how did you manage to reach this position?
SL – In 2013, after a few months in Thailand, I was offered a “VIA” at the French Embassy in Yangon (Myanmar) to open the business office. Indeed, at this time, only few people knew this country and my childhood gave me some clues to understand how Myanmar was opening up to the world.
I was very young, but the mission was a success. I stayed there more than 4 years and became director of the local office of Business France.
As part of my consulting missions, I have worked in collaboration with hundreds of French companies aiming to set up business in Myanmar. Bioderma was one of them. I was completely seduced by Bioderma’s project and ambition to establish a representative office in the country.
These years have shown me how both public services and business projects demonstrate an excellent synergy and can be complementary. I wanted to go further in the process. I wanted to discover “the dark side of the Force”. So, I switched my career in Administration toward a business path, to open Bioderma‘s new office in Yangon.
Your role as an entrepreneur in Yangon helped you to create links with your business role, right? Can you explain to us your role as the French Advisor of Foreign Trade?
SL – Some describe me as an entrepreneur indeed, but I see myself more as an intrapreneur: I have created a new organization within an existing organization.
It’s true that I have been appointed Advisor of France Foreign Trade. I am part of the National Committee of Foreign Trade Advisors of France. It’s an honorary title and not a job! This role is linked to responsibilities: availability and service for French companies, organizations and individuals. My mission is to promote France’s best interests, not only from the economic point of view but also culturally and even France’s moral values.
An important role also of the Foreign Trade Advisors of France is to promote the “VIE” (International Intern in a Company) and “VIA” (French International Internship Programme in an Administration) which are both managed by Business France.
Being a “VIE” is a very rewarding experience, and this is even more true in Myanmar. Here, “VIEs” are sometimes the only representatives of their company (even if they are supported by mentors at the Chamber of Commerce).
We had “V.I.E.s” who went to supervise jungle work sites; others went to the Bagan area; some are almost in complete autonomy during their contract and are then hired and immediately appointed as Country Director.
It’s very rare to have so much responsibilities at 24, 25, or 26 years-old in other places in the world. This brings a truly maturity and a wonderful experience. One year of experience here may be worth 2 or 3 years elsewhere: it is possible to meet Ministers, CEOs; you learn how to win in constant negotiations, etc. You have to know how to adapt to a different culture, be patient, take the time to communicate well and understand your environment.
How do you become a French Advisor of Foreign Trade? Is there a traditional path?
SL – There are prerequisites like having five years of experience abroad. Of course, the attachment to France and its values are also considered; however it is not mandatory to be French to become an Advisor.
Considering my profile, the French local representative appointed me to undertake this mission. The list of all Foreign Trade Advisors of France is then proposed by the French Minister of Foreign Trade and validated by a decree by the French Prime Minister. If the Advisor changes his country of residence, he remains Advisor but is attached to this new country.
How are you able to manage everything?
SL – I’m 100% devoted to Bioderma, it’s my job!
The role of the Foreign Trade Advisors of France is not to make market studies but to give their point of view, to share their address book. To save time, I mostly count on working lunches, to combine the useful to the pleasant!
Also, I was nominated President of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Myanmar in August 2018.
My main role at the Chamber of Commerce is to give impulses, to increase its local impact and to give guidelines regarding the organization for instance, in coordination with the Board. Highly motivated and professional teams take care of the operational job. Of course, it benefits my company to occupy these positions. In particular through my contacts and the multiple sources of information I get regarding business news in Myanmar.
What is your point of view on the development of Southeast Asia and the situation in Myanmar?
SL – A shift is taking place at the level of the world economy and China wants more and more to assume the role of the world leader. Southeast Asia is becoming more and more inevitable from a geopolitical and economical perspective. In addition, there are areas in continuous growth with numerous business opportunities. There is still so much to do!
The Rakhine state of Myanmar is experiencing a long-term crisis. This humanitarian tragedy has been particularly highlighted by the media but is not the only problem Burmese are facing today.
In my opinion, it is not fair to summarize Myanmar in this conflict which remains localized. Most of the country is peaceful and safe. Continuing to do business in Myanmar is as important to French interests as it is to support the Burmese people in this crisis.
Moreover, the growth of Myanmar is one of the largest in the region with more than 6% in the medium term. It suggests economic and social changes.
Is it easy to start a business in Myanmar?
SL – Yes. Even if it is a complex country to apprehend the first time, it is not so expensive and difficult to start a business. Setting up a business with a few thousand euros is possible. Finding a job in two months, too.
There are also many examples of French success stories with for example Synapse, a communication company founded in Paris in 2011 and established in Myanmar in 2013, which is surfing on the dynamics of South East Asia’s growth.
I can give you the example of the contract of the Grenoble-based company Poma, which in 2017 built a gondola that allows Buddhist pilgrims to reach the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (“Golden Rock”)in the south of the country.
For a young French entrepreneur, real support exists to set up in the country. The first contact is the on-site Chamber of Commerce. This entity will be able to share many contacts and much expertise. This can range from help in finding offices to meeting with business partners.
Apart from certain associations and the few Burmese private incubators, there are no public programs in Burma to support foreign entrepreneurs. It is therefore very important to rely on the solidarity network of expatriates and the resources set up by France in this country.
How do you see your future?
SL – I wish to continue to support the French companies and the French who wish to settle in Myanmar. I like having this contact with people. Creating links, value and positive energy!