The Woman Behind Myanmar's Facebook

The country of Myanmar has an Internet penetration rate of one percent, making it one of the least connected places in the world. But things are changing: now that Myanmar, also known as Burma, is transitioning into a democracy, online censorship is coming to an end and Web users are on the rise. SQUAR (pronounced "square") is one of the very first social-networking tools to ever exist in Myanmar, and was founded this year by Rita Nguyen, a Vietnam-born Canadian citizen. Nguyen saw potential for widespread social media growth when she first visited Myanmar back in January, and launched SQUAR in June.

“We really took a leap of faith to release the product as early as we did," Nguyen explained to a local newspaper. "It’s very common in Silicon Valley to develop technology like this ... Something very light, called a 'minimum viable product.' The idea is that you have something that is functional so that your customers can use it, feed back and help you refine and build your product."

Historically, there have been many obstacles to doing business in Myanmar — which, until 2011, had seen a half-century of regimes riddled with human-rights abuses and totalitarian leanings — but its brand-new tech sector seems set to explode. Nguyen told the BBC that she quickly raised $500,000 by reaching out to just three investors, all of whom were quickly persuaded by the social network she proposed. “I would encourage anyone who’s interested in technology to get here soon,” Nguyen said. “Because this is going to be a digital revolution, not evolution.”

SQUAR exists entirely in the Burmese language, and aims to be like Facebook for Burmese nationals. The social network has 17 categories in which users can post, like relationships, news, and contests — but since it's still evolving, SQUAR will continue to add separate categories based on their users' interests. Anyone can download SQUAR's Android version on Google Play, but it probably won't come in handy unless you happen to be in Myanmar.

“We haven’t had any issues when it comes to hate speech or any of the political stuff," said Nguyen. “The youth of the nation has better things to talk about, evidently.”

Seeing a woman spearhead one of Myanmar’s first forays into social networking is both important and sobering, as we're used to seeing men pioneer America's tech and business sectors. In October, Twitter came under fire for revealing in their IPO a seven-person board of directors — none of whom were women. The New York Times noted that women aren’t just missing from symbolic positions like boardrooms, they’re all but unaccounted for in the field of technology.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women made up 15 percent of software programming and computer jobs in America in the 1970s. This rose to 34 percent in 1990, but women now only hold 27 percent of computing jobs, despite the technology boom that followed the 1990s. Ironically, in spite of Myanmar's tumultuous political history, it's also a pioneer when it comes to women spearheading its brand-new technology sector.