An Inside Look at Female Entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia

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Increasing numbers of women from Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam are opening franchises and launching startups, as one CEO discovered. By Lucie Newcomb (President & CEO, The NewComm Global Group, Inc.)

As I stood before this sea of 60 hopeful female faces in May, dutifully seated in perfect rows reminiscent of a standard classroom more than our glamorous hotel, it dawned on me that the Women Entrepreneurship curriculum I was about to teach for the third time this week in as many locations had not even been created three weeks prior.

In fact, before my surprise email invitation from the U.S. Embassy, Kuala Lumpur at the end of April, I had never even heard of Kuching, Malaysia, in this beautiful state of Sarawak. Yet, here we all were. Our group comprised a representative from the U.S. Embassy of Kuala Lumpur, who retained me and my services and was my walking SME, and YB Dato' Sri Rohani Abdul Karim, the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, who kindly traveled to open my workshop in her hometown of sorts. Also present was hard-working local community development Embassy partner, AZAM, who recruited entrepreneur participants and arranged the logistics.

Last but not least, there was me, a seasoned exec and trainer, not entirely over jet lag, who did not speak a word of Malay; generally works in Europe and Africa; and has never experienced heat and humidity at 92 degrees Fahrenheit and 89 percent humidity at midnight!

Time for lift-off towards new dimensions of learning and success in what was to be another wonderfully generative experience for us all.

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Kuala Lumpur’s Women in Tech

My first stop, predictably, had been the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, where I had the pleasure of working with two, very different groups of tech women entrepreneurs: the Association of Bumiputra Women Entrepreneurs Network of Malaysia (WENA) and Gorgeous Geeks, a women in tech group that seemed to be comprised more of the Chinese dimension of this complex culture. My last-minute trip meant minimal cultural research, but I was learning fast.

Nuraizah Shamsul Baharin, the longtime head of WENA, and Managing Director of multimedia company, Madcat World, gave me some additional insights: "Being a tech woman entrepreneur here provides me with many opportunities. We are judged based on the quality of our products. Whether it is as head of WENA, where I can help provide opportunities for others, or as head of my business, Madcat World, a multimedia company with over 800,000 downloads in 201 countries, it's an exciting time to be a women entrepreneur in Malaysia; especially in tech.”

Kota Bharu, Kuching and Cake

From “KL,” I was off to another world entirely, despite what a short plane ride might suggest: Kota Bharu, in the Malaysian state of Kelantan, to train at the University of Malaysia's Women's Entrepreneurship Institute. Although aspects of the largely Muslim culture are evident in Kuala Lumpur, it seemed predominant in Kota Bharu. And it was in Kota Bharu where I was, much to my surprise, training women entrepreneurs who generally sold cake, not code.

Brunei Darussalam and the Franchise Model

Following both Kota Bharu and Kuching, I immediately jetted to another country, despite it taking only a 20-minute plane ride: Brunei Darussalam (also known as “Negara Brunei Darussalam” in its native Malay.)

Like much of my Southeast Asia program, it was a packed time, with five events in two days, thanks to exceptional support from the U.S. Embassy, Bandar Seri Begawan. I presented workshops to women entrepreneurs, in conjunction with Brunei’s Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources, and the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Brunei (under 40, vs. college students in Kuching).

Brunei Accenture Group Networks (BAG). Lucie interviewed by CEO Haslina Taib (with group Q&A)

Here, the franchise model seems to be working well although the price of entry for international franchises, as in Malaysia, has fueled the emergence of local innovations. I had the pleasure of having the Managing Director of Tasconi’s International, Hjh Sapurahbee Hj Ibrahim, in one of my courses.

She explained to us about the process and business benefits of acquiring a halal certification. With restaurants currently in Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, the enterprise is expanding to the Philippines and is actively seeking franchisees for continuing the entrepreneurial spirit.

The Entrepreneurs of Kota Kinabalu

My final stop, back in Malaysia, was the vibrant coastal area of Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah. Like Kuching, "KK" is also on the island of Borneo which is shared by three nations: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia and it was a great place to end my first Southeast Asia tour.

 

I was hosted by the Sabah Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals Association (SWEPA), with workshops on both Saturday and Sunday. President Jeanette Tambakau, owner of Jari Jari Spa, and a spa training academy, told me, "I have been an entrepreneur for many years and in several kinds of businesses. Currently, one of my core business strategies is to incorporate the richness of Borneo's heritage into some of our services, providing our customers with a truly unique experience."

Evanna Phoon, Kuala Lumpur-based former tech exec and founder of Founder Method, an online webinar series for entrepreneurs, notes, “Out of 15 entrepreneurs here in Malaysia, there is usually only one female. Women entrepreneurs typically start small, in services or retail industries; occasionally in petroleum and gas which are big areas for us. With the increasing activities of women entrepreneur groups here, I wouldn't be surprised to see more women entrepreneurs making it BIG here. From my perspective, the Future of Entrepreneurship is Women.”

The Lessons I Learned

And what did I, an accidental entrepreneur from so many years ago, learn on this amazing business adventure in public diplomacy?

Thanks to the U.S. State Department, I now know without a doubt that all the stuff I teach both entrepreneurs and leaders about the need to be agile and flexible, as well as exceptionally capable and focused, is beyond true. And that, while I put a great deal into designing and delivering an excellent interactive curriculum, one of the top benefits of my training sessions, it turns out, is simply bringing entrepreneurs together for what can become lasting connections; another kind of public diplomacy.

I have also learned there are many more reasons to be hopeful than reasons to be fearful; and that so much more unites us than divides us as entrepreneurs, if not people, regardless of circumstances. The goals, visions, roadmaps and dreams that live large behind these quiet female voices and gentle demeanors signal the hope, promise and potential that is reaching out from inside each of us.

What have you learned from entrepreneurs from other cultures?

Photo Credit: Lucie Newcomb in Kuala Lumpur with the U.S. Embassy Kuala Lumpur staff, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development staff and executives from WENA (Association of Bumiputra Women Entrepreneur Network). From Top Left: Sadayan Riazurrahman (Public Affairs, U.S. Embassy), Andrew Herrup (Political & Economic Affairs, U.S. Embassy), Nuraizah Shamsul Baharin (President, WENA), Alyeea Mansor-Brookes (WENA/Petroleum Entrepreneur) and Noorul Ainur Mohd. Nur, PhD, Secretary General, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.Bottom Left: Lucie Newcomb (NewComm Global), YB Dato' hjh Rohani Abdul Karim (Minister, Women, Family & Community Development).


About the guest blogger: Lucie Newcomb leads The NewComm Global Group, Inc., a firm specializing in accelerated Global Markets Expansion and Global Leadership. Clients have included Quote.com, Cisco, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and many startups. Lucie is a mentor for TechWomen, a U.S. Department of State international program for women in STEM careers; US Market Access Center, for foreign-based entrepreneurs; and 3Plus International for career women. She holds degrees from U.C. Berkeley and Saint Mary’s College of California. She can be reached at hello@newcommglobal.com or on Twitter: @newcommglobal.