CEO of Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC)
“It’s my call to action, my national service,” enthuses Surina Shukri, revealing the reason for her return to Malaysia to take up the position as CEO of Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC). Since leaving her homeland years ago, Surina has forged a career on Wall Street, working at one of the world’s most prestigious banks and helping its clients to improve their businesses. Her final role with JP Morgan Chase was head of strategy, business management and innovation, middle market banking and specialised industries. It was during her time in New York that she bore witness to the changing dynamics of commerce and banking to become increasingly technology driven. In the months after her departure from the bank, she became an entrepreneur herself, trading a stable job for a transformation and growth venture studio of her own founding – SheNovation Ventures – focusing on fintech and blockchain start-ups.
Then a call from the Malaysian government altered the path of her life. “When I look back and reflect on all the things that I have done, I feel like the universe has prepared me for this role,” she adds, “so to me when I got the call, it was a no-brainer.”
She left behind a career and friends in New York, with the dark cloud of living away from her husband and children hanging over her head, to give her all to help build a robust digital economy for Malaysia. Established in 1996, MDEC is a government agency tasked to lead the nation’s digital economy.
“In the early days, it was all about building up the supply side of the equation; it was all about building tech companies. But today, technology has moved from vertical to horizontal,” Surina says, explaining that the focus is not just on growing a tech company but also shifted to drive a wider digital adoption among existing businesses.
“Everything that we do can be boiled down to three core strategic pillars. Number one, in order to build a robust digital economy, you need skilled Malaysians. We have a big, robust agenda around skilling – schools, colleges, universities and the workforce itself. When you think about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the best tech infrastructure you build isn’t going to go very far, if you don’t have skilled Malaysians attending to that.
“The second one is unique digitally empowered businesses; you need businesses to adopt digital as well. While we continue the work that we do to build up our tech champions and make sure that they are competitive, not just in Malaysia but also in the region and globally, we are also doing digital adoption with SMEs. If you do this right, investment will start to come into the country.
“Hence, investment is the third pillar. Investment isn’t just about getting foreign direct investment; it is also about getting people to continuously invest in digitalisation.”
Surina adds that businesses should adopt technology just like society has made electricity an indispensable part of life. Thus far, she is heartened by Malaysian businesses’ cognisance of the importance of digitalisation and they have been swift to participate in MDEC’s engagement programmes when opportunities arise. Citing an example which was an e-commerce sharing session held in July last year, MDEC had anticipated the attendance of around 200 SMEs, but the agency received 400 in RSVP. On the day of the event, people who showed up had ballooned to 700 and the venue had to be moved to the office of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in order to accommodate all of them. Similarly, another event targeted at SMEs in December saw 2,200 attendees, outstripping the anticipation of 1,000 people.
“It goes to show that there is momentum and SMEs understand the need to adopt and they are ready. Now, they are looking for ‘how- tos’ and this is where we come in. Through the advocacy work to raise interest and awareness, now we are rolling out programmes to help SMEs along the way,” she says, adding to incentivise them further as allocated in Budget 2020, eligible SMEs may receive matching grants of up to RM5,000 for their adoption of digitalisation in their daily operations.
“Being digital is, a way to be better, faster and cheaper. Ultimately, it makes you more competitive.”Surina Shukri
It has been over a year since Surina has taken up the position as CEO, so how does she rate their own performance?
“From an organisation’s standpoint, I think so far, so good. We have established the importance of digitalisation. Secondly, I think every single person at MDEC is clear on what the mission actually is. We are building teams that work cross functional and cross divisional, and we are pushing ourselves to always do better. Today, our role as a thought partner with the private sector and the public sector is clear,” she answers with candour.
“To me, the most important thing is to make sure that all of us at MDEC and our partners are passionate about what we are doing because we think it is the right thing to do. We are really here to help shape the country.”
With the ease of access to the technological sphere these days, particularly the start-up scene, one wonders if gender disparity still exists. Surina, who is armed with a wealth of experience in supporting and elevating women in leadership development especially in high-impact sectors such as tech, may just be the perfect person to provide clarity. When I pose her the question are women still at a disadvantage, her response is somewhat proverbial, “Are you a glass half-full or glass half-empty kind of person?
“From my standpoint, I am actually quite encouraged by the momentum that we are seeing. Many people don’t know this, but Startup Genome did a ranking of different start-up ecosystems across the world, and we (Malaysia) were ranked in the top three in friendliness from a start-up’s standpoint – like for female founders.
“It is primarily because there are a lot of people that are interested and that makes it easy to start a business over here. There are still challenges, of course, like biasness in fund raising. But I think institutionally, there is a lot of momentum and we are beginning to see more role models and success stories.”