Alum in Action: Mimi Wu

Mimi Wu
Batten Alum Mimi Wu (MPP ‘09).

To say that Mimi Wu (MPP ‘09) is impact-driven is an understatement. As the co-founder of Myanmar Recycles, a plastic recycling company cleaning up the dirtiest post-consumer plastic film in Myanmar, one of Batten’s first accelerated Master of Public Policy students remains committed to inciting positive change through communities around the world. Since graduating, Wu, a native of Northern Virginia, has lived in Uganda and Myanmar—experiences that have expanded her understanding of the numerous problems facing communities around the world. 

Batten Communications caught up with Wu over email in Myanmar to discuss her experiences as a Batten student and how she continues to employ the skills and knowledge gleaned from her studies in her current work.  

Q. What initially drew you to the Batten School?

A. I’m impact-driven. There's something deeply ingrained in me that wants to make a positive difference in this world. Before joining Batten, I was a pre-med student studying biochemistry until I finally admitted that I wasn’t performing well enough to continue and quit early into my third year at UVA.

After that decision, I didn’t know what to do next. I started studying psychology and economics and even considered becoming an environmental lawyer or an animal rights activist. It was purely by chance that I saw the Batten recruitment flier. While I can't remember the exact wording of the flier, I do remember feeling indelibly excited as it spoke to my interest in learning how to effectively solve complex problems facing our society. As I learned more about Batten, I was increasingly drawn to the program's balance of data and qualitative analysis. 

Q. How has your experience at Batten informed the work you are doing now?

A. One of the most important skills I learned at Batten was how to analyze new and abundant information quickly, identify problems from multiple angles, and develop well-rounded solutions. For me, the heart of policymaking is being able to understand your audience and their perspectives, then finding middle ground. Batten also taught me how to communicate my ideas succinctly and effectively.

In the last eight years of working in Uganda and Myanmar, I have honed these particular Batten skills. Building a plastic recycling business as an entrepreneur with a limited understanding of recycling, no engineering knowledge or prior business experience, and a pedestrian understanding of the Myanmar culture means that I am constantly bombarded with new information and challenges daily that I must digest, analyze, and quickly find solutions to. It runs the gamut from how to optimize machines and employees, to how to navigate the murky bureaucracy to acquire important business licenses, to helping multi-national fast-moving consumer goods companies figure out how to set up collection networks for their used packaging. These are all scenarios I never encountered at school but have applied critical thinking to overcome the barriers.

An example of one specific challenge was a contract negotiation with Yangon’s municipal government to divert plastic film from landfills. This contract took several years to finalize. To prepare, I studied the city’s waste management plan and its existing operations, interviewed groups from government workers to waste pickers, visited informal and formal waste sites, and conferred with local leaders about the waste situation and how to best approach the city council.

Currently, I am spearheading a waste management working group that includes representatives from my former employer, the International Finance Corporation (IFC). The goal of the group is to develop a single voice on waste management and develop a unified strategy and funding plan for the Myanmar government. 

Q.   Tell me more about Myanmar Recycles. How has it evolved since its inception? How would you say what you do now compares to what you thought you might do when you were a Batten student?

A. Myanmar Recycles collects and recycles plastic film that is too dirty and too complex for most global recyclers. Since 2017, we have provided a real solution to Myanmar’s plastic pollution problem. As the leading plastic film recycling company in Myanmar, we collect and recycle post-consumer film on an industrial scale and in an environmentally responsible way. I co-founded and manage the company with my fiancé Henry Cox.

I have never been entrepreneurial; I hadn’t even conceptualized the idea of entrepreneurship until late 2009. But after I moved to Uganda in 2011, I was exposed to the limitations of foreign aid. I saw how aid can lack practicality, such as building a hospital but not a road to allow patients to easily access it, or funding irrelevant studies rather than implementing actual solutions. Further, organizations are rarely self-sustaining and are dependent on donors and politicians. I wanted to support a country’s development and solve a critical issue on a financially-sustainable platform. 

Originally, I conceptualized the recycling business for the Ugandan market in 2012. A friend had owned a factory in Kampala for over three decades, which was profitable, provided long-term employment for locals and consequently supported the livelihoods of their families, and helped the local economy grow. I saw how private sector investment can play a critical role in sustainable development and decided to pursue my recycling business idea—keeping in mind how plastic waste is a growing global problem and one that requires innovative solutions.

My plans changed after a visit to Myanmar in 2013. After decades of isolation, the country was opening up to foreign investment. The appetite for new technology and growth was palpable and exciting. After being there for only a few days, I decided to relocate from Uganda despite having no network there. 

In hindsight, moving to Myanmar was advantageous because Southeast Asia is the largest plastic polluting region in the world. Therefore, if we can create solutions here, we can replicate that model and make a significant impact.

Originally, Myanmar Recycles set out to process post-consumer plastic film, but we quickly realized that our technology wasn’t capable of handling such highly-contaminated waste. Most global recyclers only recycle post-industrial scrap because it's clean and therefore only needs at most a light wash, which is why there are only a handful of global recyclers taking on post-consumer plastic. To survive, we stopped recycling post-consumer plastic, thinking it would be another five years before we would try again. Fatefully, we met an expert in washing post-consumer plastic six months later, who helped us modify our existing equipment and bring in additional state-of-the-art technology.

Processing this kind of plastic waste is complex and costly, and keeping a business going is extremely difficult and stressful. Even more so in a foreign, emerging country. But I have always been passionate about creating a positive and lasting impact, so I keep putting one foot in front of the other because I know that what we are doing is critical to solving our global environmental crisis.

Q. What advice would you give to Batten students interested in pursuing a career in international development? 

A. I have worked in a variety of international development sectors, but I primarily focused on maternal and child health and nutrition. I interned at USAID in D.C., consulted for the World Bank in D.C. and briefly again in Myanmar, worked at the international non-governmental organization (INGO) Management Sciences for Health (MSH) in D.C., managed a randomized controlled trial in Uganda, and consulted for the IFC in Myanmar.

My work at the World Bank and the IFC required me to distill new information to provide new insights for papers, reports, and client meetings. This was a core exercise during my Batten studies.

While working at MSH, one of the most valuable experiences I had was coalition building with other INGOs, as INGOs often have funding limitations and less “influence.” Batten’s emphasis on leadership and collaborative teamwork played a prominent role in helping navigate this process successfully.  

I highly encourage students interested in a career in international development to seek varied work experiences at different organizations, both at home and abroad. The reality of working in an emerging country is that there will be many challenges you never anticipated, but living abroad will build and strengthen your resourcefulness and expand your understanding of humanity’s interconnectedness, challenges, and collective strength.