Cover How 3 female CEOs overcome barriers to success in their industries

Three leaders from healthcare, tech and data analytics share what motivates them to succeed

There are a million ways to fail at something. The famous American inventor Thomas Alva Edison, known for a considerable number of blunders before his literal lightbulb moment, might instead call it a million ways to learn how not to do things. For many, the fear of failure can often be the greatest barrier to speaking out, taking risks or daring to dream big when the odds aren't in your favour. 

And though the odds haven't entirely been in favour of women when it comes to attaining senior leadership positions in top ranking companies in Malaysia, the country has indeed seen a slow but steady increase in the number of females who occupy C-suite positions in business.   

Ahead of International Women's Day 2022, Tatler hears from three extraordinary women, a young hospital CEO recently named among Forbes Asia's 20 most powerful businesswomen in 2021 and an athlete-turned-tech startup leader and a data analytics doyenne, on battling self-doubt, managing gender bias in the workplace and setting priorities.

Nadiah Wan, Group CEO of TMC Life Sciences

I think youth grants a kind of fearlessness because you think, 'the worse that can happen is I fail, so I'll just start again.
Nadiah Wan

Nadiah Wan’s story is proof that age is no barrier to success. The group CEO and executive director of Thomson Medical Centre Life Sciences and also CEO of Thomson Hospital Kota Damansara, Nadiah believes youth can be an advantage. In her case, it was a combination of youthful fearlessness and humility that made her open to taking on more challenging roles in hospital administration, no matter how unfamiliar or intimidating.

Growing up, were you ever made to feel that you shouldn’t voice out your ideas and opinions?

Nadiah: Definitely not! My parents were very clear that kids are their own persons and were entitled to their own ideas and opinions. From a very early age we were involved in discussions from moral philosophy and politics to where we should go on holiday. They were the type of parents who were concerned about who we were as people, rather than what we could do.

What's the source of your confidence? 

I am always up for something new and interesting, otherwise I get bored. So I always say 'yes' when given a new challenge because I end up doing and learning all sorts of new things. The key is to approach these challenges with humility so you actually learn from your mistakes.

What has helped you become more productive and impactful in your role as CEO?

Having discipline is important. There are only so many hours in a day. Increasingly I find I need to switch from saying 'yes' to everything to saying 'no' to everything except the important things. I spend a lot of time talking to my employees because developing your team is important so you don't shoulder the work alone. Lastly, it's important to keep your mind intellectually curious so that you can learn from others.

Related: 4 Ways to Foster More Female Leadership in Malaysian Companies, Shares Tan Sri Noorul Ainur Mohd Nur  

Have you ever felt not being ‘good enough’ compared to your male peers?

I don't really feel like I'm not good enough. Having lived and worked at home and abroad, you kind of know that you're not that bad. The only issue is how relationships and networks are built in the working world, which may be weighted towards men.

For example, I don't enjoy golf and probably miss a lot of the discussions or negotiations that happen on the golf course. But I find that there are other activities or topics that can help you build relationships with people, whether it's food or something else. So I work around that.

Do you think it’s possible to prioritise high performance in the workplace without compromising work-life balance?

There are a few variables that affect this equation. The answer depends on what every individual wants, man or woman. What industry are you in and what is expected of those who perform at the top of your career? Do you have a social support network that can help shoulder some of the burdens? How many commitments do you have in life–how many children or dependents? What sort of lifestyle do you enjoy? You have to juggle all the variables and come up with a solution that's acceptable to yourself and the people around you.

Sharala Axryd, CEO and founder of the Centre of Applied Data Science (CADS)

As women, we dream for others; for our children, for our family, but why don’t we ever dream for ourselves? 
Sharala Axryd

A staunch advocate in the push for a Malaysian data analytics revolution (and for more women in STEM), Sharala Axryd founded the Centre of Applied Data Science in 2015 to improve data literacy in the Malaysian workforce and empower Southeast Asian organisations to become more data-driven. This Penang-born telecommunications engineer was also the only Malaysian to be featured in Come Creations Group's Strong Women in IT 2021 global report.             

Growing up, were you ever made to feel that you shouldn’t voice out your ideas and opinions?

Sharala: Always! Half the time my mum would be like, "You cannot say these things or do these things because you're a girl". Culturally, we're taught to be quiet and be respectful. I believe we should always be respectful of others, but I also think that if you’re passionate about something, you’ve got to make yourself heard.

Did that change when you started working?

I’m a very passionate person and I want to drive change. In the workplace, people would often tell me, "Put your head down and work, Sharala, no need to call attention to yourself".

When I was working in Europe, I was actually encouraged to give opinions and suggestions, even if they weren't necessarily taken. But the fact that I could have an opinion and voice it out without worrying who it would offend, that liberated me. I learned then that people do want to hear your opinions. They might not want to hear bad news but they want to hear what you have to say, especially if you have a solution.        

Did you ever feel that you weren’t 'good enough' compared to your male peers?

When I started engineering, I realised that certain things didn’t come as naturally to me as they would to my male peers; for instance, troubleshooting and the way to go about building stuff and so on. I knew I had to learn them. Amazingly, because I was a minority in this industry, it was easy to get help from the guys. So I knew I wasn't good enough when I started but I was determined to learn.

What else have you observed about being a female leader in such a male-dominated industry?   

I like being the underdog. Once when I was still working in telecommunications, I was in Austria doing a workshop. I had my files ready and waited as the engineers came into the room. After five minutes, they asked me who the trainer was. I took it as a compliment! You rarely see engineers with make-up, so they probably thought I was someone's assistant (laughs). 

It's always funny when people don’t expect much of you, and then you open your mouth and they’re like, "Sh*t, she does know her stuff”. 

What are the barriers to success for women in engineering or IT?  

We tend to be more cautious, more risk-averse. The other thing I always say is that we’re not ambitious enough. We dream for others, we dream for our children, we dream for our family, but why don’t we dream for ourselves? 

Kimberly Wan, CEO and co-founder of Otomate Me

In 2016, Kimberly Wan co-founded Otomate Me, a software-as-a-service business that helps companies automate their priority communications, counting big names such as Sunway Property, UOB, The Blue Hub and more among their clientele. A former competitive skater and national ice hockey player, Wan's first job was at the health and wellness startup PurelyB, where she felt empowered to share her ideas and views with gusto. With this same go-getter determination, she started Otomate Me with co-founder Azlan Alam Malik.

Growing up, did you ever feel hesitant to voice out your ideas?

Kimberly: There were times when I felt hesitant. I grew up in an environment that focused on excellence and was highly goal-oriented. This, at times, meant that there was little space for creativity and path deviation.

As a result, when moments arose to voice out ideas, I would often overthink what I wanted to say or contribute a million times over just to ensure that it was valid and useful. Sometimes, even taking too long to go through the pros and cons of the idea would make that moment pass.

What inspires your leadership style today?

My employees inspire me to continuously learn and improve in order to be the right kind of leader. They are able to do their best work when the right support is behind them, be it through the fostering of a positive work environment, having empathy and understanding, and through providing clarity on the goals we are collectively working to hit. For me to be this person, I work on improving myself to be able to serve others.

Related: Lennise Ng of Dropee Wants to Help Small Businesses Thrive

Have you ever experienced feelings of not being ‘good enough’ compared to your male co-founder?

I have experienced these feelings before. Upon taking stock, I've found that sometimes, more work or improvement was needed and other times, it was purely in my head.

What has helped me overcome this was recognising that my co-founder and I each bring different strengths and values to the table. In order to continuously hedge against these less-than-pleasant feelings, my focus has turned towards self-development and improvement as a means to redirect my attention to the things within my control.

What work habits have helped you become more productive and impactful?

Undertaking breathing exercises throughout the day helps me keep calm and centred, having a consistent daily routine helps start the day right and applying single-mindedness to the tasks at hand. I also prioritise quality sleep and good nutrition.  

Do you think it’s possible to prioritise high performance in the workplace without compromising work-life balance?

That largely depends on your personal definition and what season of life you're in. My opinion is that each woman needs to introspect and determine what matters most to her, then decide if the opportunity cost is worthwhile.

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