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From noodle-shop floor to career banker

It's often said Lady Luck plays a rather large role in determining those who make it in life and those who do not. Luck though seems to never have played a role in the life of May Khansyla - yet that hasn't stopped her being named one of the United Nations' most inspiring women.

The head of international banking at ANZ Laos, May certainly doesn't fit the stereotype of a career banker.

"If you have a goal, don't give up no matter how challenging your journey is."
May Khansyla, Head of international banking | ANZ Laos

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Born and raised in the village of Pakse, where the Mekong meets the Xe Don River in southern Laos, most of May's childhood was spent immersed in books on the floor of her aunt and uncle's noodle shop.

When she was just 13 years old her parents made the heart-wrenching decision to leave May behind and move 120 kilometres south to a poorer province in order to chase work, taking with them her eight brothers and sisters.

What makes a conversation with May so uplifting however is the unassuming way she describes her story. While her modest nature is unmistakable, so is the dogged determination with which she has chased and achieved success from such humble beginnings.

And not just personal success: at the top table at ANZ Laos, women make up 60 per cent of senior management. But this doesn't reflect the reality in the broader community, something May is vocal about changing.

“My biggest wish is to see women represented more equally in government,” she says. “If I had one dream for the future it is to improve the ratio of women leading the country.”

Although there is clearly an imperative to improve, Laos actually doesn't fare badly by international comparisons, with women making up around a quarter of its parliament. This proportion roughly matches the 22.9 per cent of women in Laos who manage to achieve a secondary education.

But May says women still face criticism for eschewing traditional home-based responsibilities to make their way in the workforce.

“People still question me quite a lot about being so career-driven,” May says. “But I think I'm just proof that if you have a goal you can do whatever you set out to achieve. When younger women in my team see me, they know they can do it too.”

AN INSPIRATION

Her own story is truly inspirational, something the UN award captures.

“The sheer size of my family made it difficult for my parents to work hard enough to sustain a living,” May says. “My mum can't read or write and the only living she could earn was in agricultural work or selling food at the market.”

“My dad was a mechanic and some days, if he had no work, we wouldn't have enough food to eat. My brothers and sisters had to quit school at a secondary level to help my mom and dad to work for our living.”

But May never accepted that she should suffer the same fate.

“I grew up with an acute perception that not studying hard would mean I'd be left without a good job,” she says. “This upbringing and my environment inspired me to pay attention to my studies and to do whatever work I needed to in order to get myself to school.

“I was raised in my aunt and uncle's noodle shop, helping my cousins to set up every morning before school, working every evening after school and finding time for my studies in between,” she says.

Now a mother herself with a boy aged seven and two girls aged one and 10, it's clear from the way she recounts the past that she never saw being split from her family as something to lament.

“It was very, very hard for me as a kid to stay apart but it made me quite determined and extremely resilient. I had a goal – to study and help my family,” she says.

By the age of 18, May applied for and won a place at university in Lao's capital Vientiane. Just a year before that, she had a new motivation for success.

“My father passed away when I was 17 and it really just drove me harder because I had to help my mother to provide for the family,” May recalls in her matter of fact tone.

From the National University of Laos she won one of just 40 AusAid scholarships to study at Swinburne University in Melbourne's affluent, leafy suburb of Hawthorn. She had never been overseas before but didn't ever think about remaining in a relatively comfortable place like Australia.

“I met my husband at Swinburne,” she says. “He's a programmer and he's also from Laos and from a similar background to me. We never thought about staying, we both wanted to go home and look after our families.”

RETURNING HOME

Taking a job in accounts at former Melbourne mining company Oxiana helped pay the bills but on returning home in February 2008 May started as an assistant relationship manager with ANZ Laos.

In the space of just seven years she worked her way up to lead a team of six as the Head of International Banking at ANZ Laos.

May wants to use the UN accolade to further her mission to build the influence of women in Laos.

Her message to other women is simple: “If you have a goal, don't give up no matter how challenging your journey is. Use your hardships to give you enough strength to continue walking toward your goal. Be positive, be resilient and never forget where you came from.”

It's a personal message and an inspiring one and something she is living proof of.

Ayesha De Kretser is head of international communications at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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