Helping transform the Democratic Voice of Burma
CFO, DVB Multimedia
In 2012, after 14 years of upward mobility and deep satisfaction at the brokerage firm Charles Schwab, where she was vice president of corporate planning and analysis, Sonja Velez stepped away from the working world.
The abrupt shift in her career path might lead some to believe that she had undergone a premature midlife crisis. But that wasn’t it at all.
Velez simply decided to take a break. She spent time with her ill father, traveled, and earned an MFA in creative writing. When she returned to full-time work in April 2014, she was still in finance, but it was as CFO of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a media organization that began in 1992 as the voice of expatriate opponents of Myanmar’s military regime. It was broadcast into Myanmar (or Burma, the country’s name is still in dispute) via shortwave radio from neighboring Thailand.
The move overseas is not completely surprising. Velez earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and development at UC Davis in 1995 before earning her MBA at Berkeley Haas.
Now, as Burma moves toward a more democratic form of government, DVB has a physical presence inside the country and is trying to become a for-profit organization. That’s where Velez comes in. “The story of DVB won me over,” she says.
The channel, which started television broadcasting via satellite in 2005, was instrumental in relaying details of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a series of demonstrations against the ruling junta in Burma and the resulting governmental crackdowns.
Transforming DVB into a commercial enterprise is a major challenge. Some staff accountants have no formal training. And while the outfit’s executives are competent, managing a for-profit enterprise is different from running an NGO. “It’s a whole new exercise for the management team,” Velez says. Thankfully, she has the experience to lead DVB through its transition. Her tenure at Schwab included managing astonishing growth during the tech boom and abrupt slowdowns during two recessions.
One of the biggest challenges for Velez is the same faced by many American executives working in developing countries: the relative lack of formal structures and methods. “There are so many issues we don’t have to deal with in the West,” she says, such as a lack of consistent accounting and taxation standards.
Despite the hardships of working for a bootstrapped media outlet in a developing nation, Velez also says her experience has been an “unforgettable adventure.”
Whatever she ends up doing next will be informed by her experiences at DVB. “I may be back in the Western world,” she says, but she aims to continue doing work that “builds a bridge between socially beneficial enterprises and the traditional corporate world.” —Dan Mitchell