Category: Business & Leadership

Aireen Omar

It is the world’s best low-cost airline for the 11th consecutive year as conferred by the Skytrax World Airline Awards, the airline industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. Its business model has democratised air travel, awakened a segment of society, and brought them to places near and far since 2001, having been resuscitated from a debt-ridden unit of a government-linked company. It is natural to deduce AirAsia as an airline, after all it operates in the aviation space across multiple countries, from Malaysia to Japan. Although the assessment is true to an extent, given that ferrying passengers is its bread and butter, it has grown beyond its mantra of Now everyone can fly. It is an airline on the verge of becoming a travel and lifestyle provider befitting the digital age. 

“It isn’t just about flying from one point to another; it is about fulfilling the needs and requirements of our passengers and make it a seamless journey for them and to ensure that on every touch point of their lives, we are able to provide the services and products that they need,” Aireen Omar says of the rationale behind the group’s diversification. “In this day and age where information is at their fingertips, people expect to have a seamless experience so they can enjoy things better.” 

Today, AirAsia’s webpage and app offer hotel bookings and duty-free shopping. The group recently ventured into music by establishing Red Records. At Mid Valley, AirAsia’s in-flight meals are now a compelling option for lunch as the group brings its maiden restaurant Santan to land-bound masses. Its fintech service provider Big Pay is regulated by Bank Negara Malaysia and counts remittance as one of its expanding key features. Five years from now, non-airline business is expected to contribute 60 per cent to the group’s top line from around 20 per cent currently. 

The embarkation on building a digital lifestyle ecosystem is part of their effort to leverage on their assets effectively. One asset, in particular, can’t be quantified by ledgers but is a prerequisite to the digital transformation. “The greatest value of our assets is the data that we have and how can we use that data to create something bigger than what we are right now,” she says. 

Aireen ascent mirrors AirAsia’s metamorphosis and the greater economy’s rapid shift towards digitalisation. At the group, her changing roles have taken her from being CEO of AirAsia Malaysia to being president of Red Beat Ventures. She joined AirAsia in 2006 as director of corporate finance. 

“I have been blessed and lucky to be able to grow with AirAsia and to lead that growth into a new era that is relevant, where people are embracing the digital economy and understanding and becoming more data driven and so forth,” she says, adding the thought of breaking the glass ceiling never crossed her mind. 

“Instead, I was so focused in terms of how do I get better myself? How can I be better than what I am today? How do I keep learning and how do I actually beat the expectations and see if I can do anything different that would be very beneficial and contribute better? So as a result, I suppose that naturally leads to being able to create new areas and be able to lead in that new creation and so forth. I never really thought about whether I have broken the glass ceiling; I just focus on delivering and see what I can do better.” 

It is at Red Beat Ventures, the group’s venture capital subsidiary whose portfolio also includes the group’s non-airline business such as Big Pay, Big Life, Teleport and Santan, that she is helping to piece together and shape the digital lifestyle ecosystem bottom-up through diligent investment into start-ups. 

“When we invest in a start-up, I look at the services and the products that they create or they provide, what kind of business and use cases that we can use from there, not just what they have been delivering or what they used to deliver. I see what the potential can be and how it can fit in with the overall ecosystem,” she explains, adding her role is accompanied by its own set of challenges. 

The biggest challenge is to create a business from scratch, to create new things, and to ensure that what we have created remains competitive, and that we continue to lead the way, to ensure that we leverage on the strengths of our ecosystem.

Aireen Omar

An ecosystem is a sum of many parts, a stage that requires many actors and actresses to ensure its success and sustainability. For anyone looking to join AirAsia in this accelerated period of growth, she advocates humility, diversity and an open mind. 

“There are so many things going on and so many things that we need to learn. Even though we are of a certain stage where people may think we are successful, we still feel that there is a lot to do,” she says. “It is also about the need to embrace a diversity of people with various backgrounds and nationalities because they give different insights. These insights can be very valuable, especially since we are a big ASEAN player. 

“Thirdly, to focus on how we look at what is available within the whole ecosystem, how can we make the most of it, and how this can help grow that business or areas of expertise that we are asked to. It is about having an open mind and that is really, really key. And I see that when new people come in and they have an open mind, when they are focused, they will be very, very successful.” 

To Aireen, mindset is key. It has penned the way her career is playing out. Hence it is no surprise to hear her advice for women in conjunction with this year’s International Women’s Day is centred on this leitmotif. 

“Think of yourself as an individual and how to be the best version of yourself. Then, gender becomes irrelevant. Equip yourself with knowledge. Know your subject matter well and make full use of it. Knowledge is a very powerful tool. Nobody can challenge you if you know your facts. 

“Pick your battles and always aim to beat the expectations. You will be pleasantly surprised with what you are really capable of, and the many opportunities that suddenly present themselves to you when you give more than 100 per cent. There will be many challenges along the journey we choose. It is therefore important to stay focused, persevere and be firm on your principles. Life is precious. Remember to be human. And fulfil that human potential – not just monetary potential.” 

Juliana Adam

Juliana Adam heads the country’s pioneering social enterprise, Biji-Biji Initiative. Founded in 2013 to transform sustainability efforts through progressive ideas, the organisation intends on changing how people view waste and sustainability issues. Turning the planet greener though isn’t the only subject matter Biji-Biji is fervent about; gender equality and uplifting the lives of the marginalised communities are part of its agenda. 

“We have an equal ratio of women to men in the top and senior management teams, both genders having an equal say to the other in decision making,” Juliana opens up on Biji-Biji’s internal structure, emphasising that gender, race and other backgrounds bear no influence on the person’s role within the organisation. In fact, she adds, they offer a fair distribution of maternity and paternity leave to both parents. This, she says, is because men and women have varying needs and it helps ensure both parents are afforded an equal chance to accomplish their tasks, without having to worry about work matters. 

Through its programmes, Biji-Biji has improved the lives of many living on the peripheries of society. By working with the underprivileged across various backgrounds such as women in the B40 segment, they have provided better employment and income sources to these beneficiaries. The children of these beneficiaries consequently benefit from this improvement. 

“One of our makers, who has been with us from the beginning, managed to put his daughter through school and she is set to graduate from university. She is also the first child in the family to receive education and is able to speak English fluently,” Juliana shares, citing that being able to extend opportunities to those who would otherwise be left behind, is one of the biggest satisfactions in her journey with Biji-Biji. 

She further discloses that 56% of their total participants are women. Just as importantly, however, Biji-Biji is Malaysia’s first World Fair Trade Organisation guaranteed member, thus a practitioner of fair wages. This practice allows members of the underprivileged communities who provide their products and services to Biji-Biji Initiatives “to be valued equally, to not be exploited, and for me, personally, it gives them the confidence and dignity that they too deserve to be treated and rewarded fairly,” Juliana says, explaining that they educate their corporate clients that the money they spend on Biji-Biji’s programmes holds far greater meaning than just monetary value. 

“We feel that, as movers and pioneers, we have the power to pave the way towards making a change, and through enabling more vulnerable, female participants into our programmes,” Juliana says, adding that some of their programmes are specifically catered to single mothers with the objective of equipping them with necessary skills to improve their livelihoods. “We are not only allowing them an opportunity to grow, but also to get other larger organisations to follow suit.” 

One aspect hampering women from the marginalised communities from progress, according to Juliana, is their mindset, stemming from consistently being told that they must be reliant on their male counterparts. Often it is a cycle that travels through generations. “Imagine, at a young age, you are told to not dream because you will never achieve it because you are a woman, and at that, you are a woman from a ‘poor’ community?” 

“The help that they need is the fair chance to succeed and not to be shot down just because they are women from an underprivileged background,” Juliana says, adding that many a time, what these women need is a healthy dose of encouragement and belief that they can control their own narratives and that they hold the power to drive change in their lives. 

Also, believe in your own rights to be given a fair and equal opportunity. If you don’t see it for yourself, how do you expect any change to come externally? 

Juliana Adam

As a female CEO, Juliana places a strong impetus upon herself to empower other women. She voices frustrations at statements such as how women have certain roles to play or they can only go so far due to their gender. “It absolutely frustrates me, especially hearing it from other women,” says Juliana. 

In championing fair opportunities for women, Juliana shares, “it empowers them psychologically.” And through empowerment, they grow to become confident and assertive in the pursuit of their goals. 

“All this and more is important, I believe, because these women will transfer these positive attributes to their children and dependents, instilling the same values in them, and ultimately this will be the change that will be brought to the world,” says Juliana. 

The Prestige Malaysia 40 Under 40 alumna believes women’s values are a perfect complement to those of men. “Both need the other to work out the best results. And just simply with this in mind, wouldn’t you think gender equality, providing fair opportunities to both, is important?” Juliana delivers her message for this International Women’s Day. 

Dr Sarena Che Omar

Dr Sarena Che Omar

Dr Sarena Che Omar is making waves in Malaysia’s agriculture industry. A senior research associate at the Khazanah Research Institute, her areas of interest include developing policies surrounding food, farming and sustainable practices within the industry. Sarena was a Yayasan Khazanah scholar at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, where she earned her PhD in Plant Science. Her doctoral thesis employed genetic technologies to explore fungal disease control in rice, the world’s most important food crop. 

Presently, Sarena’s work contributes to the short-, medium-, and long-term food security planning for Malaysia. “I am proud to be able to educate the public on the importance of achieving food security and building a sense of respect for the agriculture and food industry,” Sarena says. 

At the height of the Covid-19 crisis, Sarena was a voice of reason in reassuring concerned citizens of the nation’s capacity to feed the populace. She emphasised that the issue was not in food production but the transportation and distribution of agricultural products during the Movement Control Order owing to labour shortages. 

The pandemic exposed weaknesses of the food supply chain during times of crisis. It also highlighted the importance of the work researchers like Sarena have committed to, dedicating effort to mitigate food wastage and securing the nation’s future in one of our most basic needs. 

Sarena continues to press for increased government expenditure on agricultural research and development. She also advocates for more engagement of the private sector in the agriculture industry to help the nation reach its full potential as an exporter of local fruits and vegetables. 

Although agriculture is a male-dominated industry in Malaysia, Sarena reveals it is also one of the most egalitarian. “Based on my personal experiences engaging farmers and businessmen in the agri-food sector, I have never felt unwelcome or taken for granted. It has always been a good experience. In the research arena, women are well represented, and I am very proud of this,” the Prestige 40 Under 40 alumna shares. 

The young researcher indicates that to be successful in any field, setting the right mindset is crucial. “My mindset is that I want recognition for the quality of my work and experience, not my gender, ethnicity or any other form of segregation. This mindset has pushed me further forward without having to pause to worry about societal expectations, perceptions or glass ceilings,” Sarena admits. 

A tip is not to think of yourself as male or female, young or old, Malay or Chinese. Think of yourself as an individual, branded by your name. In my case, I see myself as Sarena Che Omar, a person with unique qualities.

Dr Sarena Che Omar

“When you do this, your body language and demeanour speak of confidence and not division,” she asserts. 

While gender parity in many fields is far from equal, Sarena encourages women to abandon reflecting on being a minority to avoid fixating on being at a disadvantage. “Thinking this way affects the impression you leave, which will then impact how others in a male-dominated environment treat you in return. In short, I feel that to be a successful person, you have to move away from social categorisations and focus instead on career performance objectively.” 

When it comes to role models, Sarena looks up to one woman above all others – her mother. “She was an adopted child with a challenging upbringing. One day in her youth, her adoptive father asked her what her ambition was. My mother told him that she wanted to be a nurse,” she shares, revealing her grandfather agreed to sponsor her mother on one condition. “He told her he would sponsor her studies to become a nurse, but she would not stop there. He told her she would become Professor Dr Rohani Arshad. My young mum was puzzled,” Sarena reveals. “Nurses can’t become doctors, my mother thought. Yet many years after her father’s passing, my mother achieved that dream. She is one of Malaysia’s first nurses to have a doctorate and spearheaded nursing degrees and postgraduate studies in Malaysia. She is the nation’s heroine in my eyes.” 

Izzana Salleh

An earnest conversation over coffee with eight other girlfriends from all corners of the globe – Uganda, Mexico, Uzbekistan, the United States, Iceland, Oman, India and China – made Izzana Salleh realise that irrespective of cultures and geographies, women continued to be underrepresented in leadership, be it politics or the corporate. The episode sparked the idea for the then Harvard Kennedy School master’s student to pursue a path that will “contribute positively to the gender equality cause,” as she puts it. Together they established Project Girls for Girls in 2017. Today, the international NGO aiming to help young women develop the courage, vision, and skills to take on public leadership has expanded to 23 countries and is still growing, with the Prestige Malaysia 40 Under 40 alumna enthusing that it is her way to “pay it forward.” Living by the motto “if not you, then who; if not now, then when?”, Izzana speaks to us about her organisation and the current state of women’s leadership. 

Do you still see women being held back from leadership roles? If so, in what ways and what are the contributing factors?
In short, yes. There are two main factors deemed as barriers to advancement in our leadership journey. 

The first being systemic issues. This refers to the “where and how” a woman can rise into leadership positions. These are political pathways, corporate ladders and any other journey women embark on in their work life. Career women, unlike career men, are constantly bound by the double burden syndrome of having to deliver well in both the workplace and at home. Women are not provided with an effective support system of childcare at the workplace, easier and/or more affordable methods to hiring home support such that that they can deliver equally well as the men at work. If we begin “handicapped” at the start of the “rat race,” we will be required to work twice if not three times harder to deliver the same results as a man who does not have the same home front obligations and expectations. This point is very much supported by the fact that most Malaysian women drop off the labour force around child- bearing age (30.87 years old) and do not return. 

The second obstacle would be cultural biases. In Malaysia, the various cultures practised here are still steeped in patriarchal values. It is 2021 and women’s success is still measured by their marital status, their finesse in the kitchen and the number of children they mother. Unfortunately, some women have had to sacrifice great opportunities because cultural biases do not support them pursuing it, however qualified they may be. 

I find that the patriarchal culture is the toughest barrier for women in leadership and an impossibly challenging mindset to shift if not for the courageous men and women who persist through the stigma. Many may say that these are just anecdotes. But here are some key statistics that demonstrate the little-to-no progress made in Malaysian female leadership thus far: 

According to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report Index Ranking 2020, Malaysia dropped three spots to be ranked 104th out of 153 countries. This index captures holistic data calculations across economic participation and opportunity (97), educational attainment (86), health and survival (84) and political empowerment (117). 

In 2021, we have 33 members of parliament (MPs) who are women, and while this is an absolute numerical increase, it is still a meagre 14% of MPs in parliament. A sad and far cry from the 48.6% of the female population in Malaysia. In 2019, Malaysia also ranked 143rd out of 190 countries on women’s representation in parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. 

Malaysians (either through political manifestos or agency targets) are also still speaking about achieving 30% female representation. By right, we should be pushing for the conversation to be about 50% (or more) representation to reflect true equality. The conversation begins first, then the actions will follow. 

Are there fears of women as leaders? 

There are no fears of women as leaders, but people are generally happy with the status quo. Until and unless we have enough people dissatisfied with the current unequal landscape, with sufficient will and power to make a change so great and deserving of its people, we will remain as is. 

Do you think women are lacking in any area in order for them to step into leadership? Women themselves are fully equipped with the skills, talent and perseverance to lead. They are, however, severely lacking in: 

• Policy support from the government, especially in the ease of access to childcare which would then give them the ability to rise to their full leadership potential.

• Being treated as equals by men at home or in the workspace (note: equal does not mean identical).

• A shift in cultural mindset by the older generation reflective of the values in this era. 

Do you think women make just as good a leader if not better? If so, what would be the reasons?
Generally, I would say that people are as good a leader as they put their minds to. A woman can be a strong leader; a man can be an empathetic leader. It is not gender dependent. It is dependent on the leader’s personality, values and sense of courage. 

However, there are some recent write-ups that indicate evidence of female leaders having performed better in navigating their nations through crisis, including the Harvard Business Review. It cites female leaders’ ability to deliver in crisis, i.e. the “glass cliff.” 

Post-Covid-19 peak, it was found that outcomes related to Covid-19, including the number of cases and deaths, were systematically better in countries led by women. I look forward to more research and data on this topic. It may be our way to finally smash the “glass ceiling.” 

Can you tell us what are some of Project Girls 4 Girls’ initiatives and what impacts have they created? How do you groom girls to aspire to be leaders of the future? 

At Project Girls for Girls, we run on three main pillars where we conduct mentorship circles, provide inspiration through the webinars/ journals/engagements produced and most importantly, the global network which connects all our mentors and mentees worldwide. Currently, we have various partnerships across universities, NGOs and corporations in our member countries. We have graduated approximately 3,000 girls and trained 450 mentors. 

Our impact is captured through growth in confidence and technical leadership skills (public speaking, negotiations, etc, of our mentees), as well as the testimony and the increase in mentors committing to the cause after having run through the cycle with us. In our experience, mentoring girls who have even a slight interest in leadership provides returns in multiple folds. Her confidence grows under the guidance of an experienced mentor, coupled with growth in skills and a tribe of sisters who cheer her on every time – she leaves the programme a different person with aspirations and an action plan to achieve her leadership goals! That one girl whose mindset and confidence has been changed, will make a difference in someone else’s world. And that matters greatly. 

Your message to anyone for this International Women’s Day?
My message for anyone who has aspirations, goals and dreams is simple but hopefully clear: “Go for it, and go for it today!” Staying true to your course for the next several years will provide the sweetest fruits to your labour. 

Datin Vivy Yusof

Datin Vivy Yusof has always been an entrepreneur, even when she was just a child. “When I was in school, I’d make friendship bands and take orders from friends. I’d force my friends to purchase them” she says with a laugh. Resilient and determined, the entrepreneurial spirit is almost second nature to the co-founder of FashionValet and dUCk Group. “I think I’ve always been stubborn. I’m the youngest child, super rebellious, and I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit.” 

Since its establishment in 2010, FashionValet has become a multi-million dollar company. With offices set up in Malaysia and Singapore, FashionValet proudly carries home-grown brands and designs from across Southeast Asia, serving as a key platform for up-and-coming designers from these countries. 

Her reputation as Malaysia’s top fashionpreneur has long been solidified, not an easy feat considering the many glass ceilings she’s had to break. A law graduate from the London School of Economics, Vivy put her passion for writing to use while at LSE, setting up her blog at, where she still blogs even after 10 years. During a stint at her father’s property development company the Proven Group, Vivy’s entrepreneurial spirit prompted her to start a business of her own with her then boyfriend, who would become her husband. And the rest is history.

I’d love for all women to get out of their comfort zones, and not make excuses for themselves.

Datin Vivy Yusof

Today, Vivy attributes much of FashionValet’s success to her husband, Datuk Fadza Anuar, whom she co-found the company with. “I don’t plan, I don’t think about the cons of a decision, I jump in. That could be a very bad thing. I’m very stubborn and impatient. Thankfully, my partner isn’t. He’s very careful, he plans, and he maps out the strategy. So he balances me out.” 

When asked about the rising trend of entrepreneurship, the savvy fashionpreneur thinks it’s important not to succumb to pressure. “I actually think that you shouldn’t succumb to pressure. I remember there was a time when everyone wanted to start their own brand, when everyone wanted to be an entrepreneur.” 

Vivy states that being an entrepreneur isn’t necessarily something that everyone should strive for. “I don’t like to tell people that they should be an entrepreneur. Because some people are not meant to be entrepreneurs, they are meant to be something else. We all have different roles and different skillsets in life. Maybe you have what it takes to be someone that’s good in something that an entrepreneur isn’t good at.” 

When asked about the increasing opportunities for women in the work force, Vivy thinks that it is incredibly liberating that women are finally getting their shot, while also reminding us not to take the wrong message from it. “I think it’s great that more recognition has been given to women—not to be more superior to anyone, but more opportunities.” The fashion mogul also thinks that it’s essential that both men and women are treated equally. “Men and women can have the same opportunities, and I think that’s great. I’d love for all women to get out of their comfort zones, and not make excuses for themselves.” 

And to put aside a hard-fought law degree to pursue one’s passion requires bravery of the grandest scale, but Vivy has set the perfect example for women and men alike – that as long as you have the passion for it, by all means go for broke and chase your dreams. 

Datin Mina Cheah-Foong

The Body Shop is well known to Malaysians from all walks of life. It’s been with us for so long that it has become an important part of our retail landscape. This kind of longevity is rare, and it’s all down to Datin Mina Cheah-Foong’s adept business skills in ensuring the UK brand continues to reap success on Malaysian as well as Vietnamese shores.

Basing her business philosophy around ethics and sustainability, Mina prides herself in running a business that prioritises today’s social issues as much as it does profit. From championing the rights of women and children to raising awareness on HIV/AIDS, it is perhaps this strong moral compass that has provided The Body Shop the positive public image that has surely contributed to its longevity. 

“Profit keeps a business running, but above everything, the betterment of society must take priority,” Mina shares the mantra she abides by, and that is exactly why The Body Shop has displayed such longevity throughout the years in Malaysian shores. 

Obviously someone who practises what she preaches, upon entering the Fahrenheit 88’s branch of The Body Shop is a water dispenser, to which she explains is not only for customers but also passerby to refill their water bottle to avoid the unnecessary purchasing of more plastic bottles. “We’re considering putting a sign outside to create awareness that it’s not exclusively for our customers only.” 

With over 64 outlets in West Malaysia today, Mina has come a long way since 1984. Besides The Body Shop, she has also been an active campaigner for various social issues including environmental issues as well, namely that of sexism. 

In her views regarding sexual discrimination, she claims that the issue is at its most sensitive stage with how subjective it can be. 

“At the end of the day, a clear line has to be drawn. I do believe in the collective good in people that men and women can absolutely work together without discrimination.” 

Datin Mina Cheah-Foong

She further explained on the obvious gestures of sexual discrimination, one doesn’t really know of the little things that may come across as inappropriate towards women, from a simple pat on the back to just simply asking a woman out for drinks. “Education is essential in establishing a standard guideline as to what is appropriate and what isn’t.”

Carrie Fong

“What’s next?” is the question Carrie Fong constantly poses to herself. As a key figure in the property development industry, the director of Hedgeford Sdn Bhd acknowledges that the solid decisions they make as leaders in the property field will shape the future. 

“Times have changed and so have demands and lifestyles. Property buyers have seen what has been done and want a new upgraded experience. How do we address that?” asks the tenacious Carrie, who spent most of her childhood trailing her father Dato’ Richard Fong to the construction sites. 

Though real estate development runs in her family, Carrie’s inquisitive nature led her to set out on her own path, where she honed her skills in an advertising agency before joining Glomac Bhd as its group marketing manager in 2005. “It was a timely move for me when my father asked me to come on board the company as Glomac was undergoing a rebranding exercise internally and externally at that time,” she says. Her background and experience in the advertising industry proved useful as she was used to learning about various industries and dealing with different clients so property development became just another industry she had to master. It was also a time when the property market was booming and Glomac had multiple projects lined up from townships to high-end developments, condominiums and commercial properties.

Carrie left Glomac not long after to head the marketing team at Malaysia Property Inc, a government-linked real estate initiative that was set up by the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) to market Malaysia as a property investment location overseas. In 2011, she came out on her own to establish Hedgeford Sdn Bhd, a property development company with multiple industrial, residential and mixed development projects under its repertoire. When asked to describe her leadership style, Carrie says, “I am quite an open person and I appreciate feedback.” She readily acknowledges that she does not have the answers to everything nor is she here to provide her staff with the answers. “Everyone has their own input and I’d like to think that I’d give them a chance to be heard,” she remarks.

She emphasises that teamwork is vital as it is never a one-man show in the property industry. Every roadblock they encounter is brought to the table to be discussed as a team, though setbacks that occur and affect her or a staff personally should also be addressed. “I do some form of meditation and try to find out the source of what is bugging me,” she reveals, asserting that she will continue to do what she believes is right. 

Though she has no qualms about putting on her power suit when dealing with a room filled with egos, gender bias has never been an issue for her. “Sometimes you meet difficult women too,” she jokes and breaks into a laugh. “You have to present your idea or opinion with good reason and facts. You can’t just be put off if no one listens to you the first time,” she reiterates. 

Growing up in an Asian culture, she acknowledges that there are plenty of stereotypes that have been imposed on us either consciously or subconsciously. However, she points out that women in Asia are not the only victims of that. “You hear this big voice coming out from first-world countries and realise they have problems too. I really appreciate that we live in a social-media world where we can talk about it openly now rather than suppressing it,” she says before adding, “it’s such a delicate balance, women shouldn’t play the victim card and should try to be independent to come up with a solution for any predicament they face,” says the mother of one, who has embraced the many different roles women play in their lives. 

Sometimes you meet difficult women too. You have to present your idea or opinion with good reason and facts. You can’t just be put off if no one listens to you the first time.

Carrie Fong

When we broach the subject of her success so far, Carrie is quick to denounce it, as she describes the whole experience as still part of a journey for her. “I don’t think I am particularly any more successful than the next person because there are so many incredible people out there,” she clarifies. Instead, she deems the sense of achievement she gains from contributing to the various projects she is actively involved in as her own personal reward.

But Carrie’s responsibilities extend beyond construction sites and boardrooms, as she has also helmed the position of chairperson at the Real Estate Housing and Developers’ Association (REHDA) Youth for 2016-2018. As the third chairperson to fill the role, Carrie has steered the association to contribute back to the industry with a focus on education through the establishment of Future Forward Forum. 

“We want to tap into the trends and conversations that were already happening around the region and bring it here into KL. We are not talking about property outlook or what should we build, but we invite inspiring entrepreneurs or consultants who have their own brand of looking at things because very few people have the opportunity to meet them. It’s an incubation of ideas where hopefully someone goes home with an idea that they can bring to life,” says Carrie, who believes that the forum will serve as a great place to network and meet the speakers. To ensure that Malaysia is on par with the rest of the world, the Future Forward Forum will host a plethora of foreign speakers who will share their expertise and experiences on stage.  

Carrie reveals that the focus will be on creating value not just commercially but community-wise. They are also in talks with a local architecture school to host an idea-generation session with the students. “It’s easy to fall back on things that have been done before,” she says. “As a person, you can’t be stagnant. You grow with time and your mindset has to change as well.”

Soo Shea Pin

There is an almost Thatcher-like quality to Soo Shea Pin. That she displays a similar fortitude in the way she presents herself is perhaps unsurprising. After all Shea Pin was a young law student in the UK during the rise of Thatcherism. Incidentally, the former British prime minister, was also a strong influence on Anya Hindmarch, the witty accessories line that the former lawyer turned entrepreneur introduced into Malaysia 10 years ago. 

Like Thatcher who displayed ambition even as a child, Shea Pin, at a young age, also knew what she wanted to become. At just nine, she informs without hesitation, she knew that she wanted to be a lawyer. It was a profession, she believed, that would give her a voice that seemed to be absent among women during the era of her childhood.

“I came from a background where women had very little power and very little independence,” she says. “It was always the men making money and the women were housewives with no say. I believed that there must be a way to do something to see that you don’t become one of those women.”

Shea Pin knew that she wanted to be “someone strong” and being a lawyer, she says, encapsulated that. There was a certain stature that came with being in the law, where one would be heard simply by virtue of one’s occupation. It, however, seemed a distant goal. Women lawyers, at the time, were rare. The late Tan Sri P.G. Lim was one of the few women who belonged to the profession.

“There weren’t many people to inspire you and there was no CNN or anything like that,” she states. “You had to quietly create your own ambition and work on it.”

Shea Pin is a true definition of a power woman.

Making it all the more challenging was that Shea Pin who studied in a Chinese language school was not very proficient in English as a child. Reader’s Digest, she says, was her “English teacher” and she used to underline all the unfamiliar words. That meant almost every word, she adds in jest. 

But she was aware that education, particularly for women, would be the means through which one could gain standing in society and excel in life. Thus, even when as a pre-university student, she struggled with English Literature, constrained by language, raising doubts among her lecturers about her ability to pursue Law, Shea Pin knew that it was something that she had to do, “by hook or by crook.”  

The struggle continued as a student in the UK. English, she stresses, was everywhere. As an undergraduate, it was just about understanding the basics and achieving a higher grade was something that didn’t even factor into the equation. But it was while pursuing the Bar that everything just “clicked”.

“I could speak well and understand the intricacies of being a lawyer,” she says. “I realised that if I wanted to be a barrister, I would have to think and be like one.”

Thus, when she passed the Bar, an exam that had a 75 percent failure rate, Shea Pin returned to Malaysia with greater confidence. As a young lawyer, she had found her voice. People listened when she spoke. Nonetheless, she was also aware that as a young woman, constantly coming into contact with men who were bankers, developers and in business, that there were many things that she couldn’t do, simply because she was a woman.

“You couldn’t just go for a meeting and exercise your voice,” she says. “I had a lot to prove and show that I was capable. I learnt to communicate.”

When attending meetings, Shea Pin would arrive earlier to ensure that she could choose a strategic seat that would allow her to address everyone in the room. She would arrange her files in a certain way to ensure that she would not struggle with papers during the meeting.

Life as a lawyer was demanding. Shea Pin worked eight days a week. Two hours a day from your sleep every day, she says, will make eight days in a week. 

“I felt very good about it. I felt I could do more,” she says. “You begin to feel the power in you that you never discovered. You can get carried away with that energy and power because you keep stretching yourself until you can’t take it anymore. Then you realise you have more!” 

Along the way, Shea Pin discovered that she had mastered the ability to communicate with these lawyers and bankers. She also came into contact with other women attempting to make their way in the world.

I admired these women who I worked with because I knew how difficult the environment was to be independent, to have a voice. After a while, it became not difficult anymore. I think when people find that you do your job, that you are responsible, they will respect for what you do and what you say.

Soo Shea Pin

“I admired these women who I worked with because I knew how difficult the environment was to be independent, to have a voice,” she says. “After a while, it became not difficult anymore. I think when people find that you do your job, that you are responsible, they will respect for what you do and what you say.”

Having come from a traditional upbringing, Shea Pin believed that education was the path to achieving a higher level of economic independence. The world is different now, she acknowledges. 

“You don’t have to go through the typical way of achieving things in life.” 

It is, perhaps, that which led to Shea Pin embarking on a different profession after practising as a lawyer for 20 years. It wasn’t that she was approaching 40 – age doesn’t bother her – but following changes that were starting to plague the legal profession, Shea Pin began searching for more.  

“I felt I needed more meaning in life,” she says. “Being a lawyer gave me meaning but having gone through many years of it. Then there was the constitutional crisis, the Bar Council problems with the arrests of lawyers, things were not the way that I felt it should be. I felt that lawyers should be more independent, efficient and respectable. All the answers were not positive. I felt it was time to move on to a new point in life.”

Having come into contact with many successful men in business, Shea Pin was inspired to discover if she too was skilled in business. 

“I wasn’t sure I had,” she says. “It was an instinctive move to do something different in life and pursue my passion for business.” 

The opportunity came when at 40, Shea Pin received a call from a friend who suggested the possibility to venture into the fashion industry. 

“I was instantly attracted to the idea and started venturing into that, again not knowing how but somehow the confidence grew and the direction became clearer as I became more decisive to leave the legal practice and move bravely into the luxury fashion retail business.”

Now having successfully introduced the Anya Hindmarch and French Sole brands into Malaysia, Shea Pin celebrates 10 years as an entrepreneur in 2018. Despite both brands having to shutter due to unforeseen circumstances, Shea Pin continues to established her presence in the fashion retail industry with the opening of British royal heritage brand Halcyon Days and later on with Feith, a multi-label shoe company she founded together with her daughter Wen Fei. 

“Women somehow have become so strong, maybe not by choice but by circumstances that if you are not, you will just be a traditional woman and is that what you want?” she asks. “If that is what you want, fine but if not, then you have to find your way.” 

Lee Jim Leng

Lee Jim Leng CEO Hong Leong Investment Bank

Lee Jim Leng knows what she wants in life. During her early adolescent years, she told her parents she did not want to enrol in a Chinese school for fear of having to cut her hair short. When the time came for her to pursue her tertiary education, she settled on Canada. “Why so far?” her father asked. “It’s the cheapest place to study!” she replied candidly. 

Though banking was never on the cards, Jim Leng graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Acadia University and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Dalhousie University. It was then that she discovered she was actually good at accounting and finance, hence settling on banking as a profession. “Funnily, being a banker was not even something we would ascribe to be when we were in our primary years. When the teacher asked us to list down our top three professions, I filled in nurse, air stewardess and pilot,” says the CEO of Hong Leong Investment Bank, who has made banking her world for more than three decades now. 

“The truth is, during the initial stage of my career, I had no idea that banking was going to be my one and only career. I only know I was very excited with the learning environment and that I was actually quite good at it!” The formidable CEO and managing director who currently leads the investment banking arm of Hong Leong Capital first dabbled in commercial banking at Ban Hin Lee Bank Bhd in 1989 before moving to corporate finance. 

In 1993, she joined Schroders Malaysia and fell in love with the fast-paced world of investment banking where the stakes are high and fortunes are made. But success does not come without hardships and Jim Leng has had her fair share of rejection during her initial years at Schroders. How does she retain a sense of optimism when the going gets tough? “Most people often quit when times are bad. But when you love what you’re doing, everything has a purpose. I have always embraced the attitude of giving my best and focusing on improving every day. It’s the culmination of the little steps that we take that will make us stronger by the day. And I believe in perseverance, humility and sincerity,” she says. 

Her unwavering spirit and perseverance stems from a challenging childhood as Jim Leng, who hails from Penang, recalls sharing the same room with her family of six until they could afford their first low-cost flat. “My dad was born in China and only came to Malaysia at the age of 12. He runs a trading business and was only able to afford schooling up to primary six. But he worked so hard and I was ever so proud that he made it on his own and enough to send me and my siblings abroad,” she shares. Thus, Jim Leng has always embraced setbacks as part of her life.

We learn to accept that we can’t have everything. We work around it, try to overcome them and accept that once we’ve tried our best, limitations must be embraced.

Lee Jim Leng

Jim Leng’s steadfast resolution and ability to adapt in any situation has also contributed to her success, leading her team to achieve a few firsts, including ushering in a new era of capital repayment and working with the Securities Commission Malaysia on the first private debt securities during her time at UOB. “For an investment bank, the biggest asset is our talent pool. Each year, we invest heavily in talent building to drive innovation. This helps us find better solutions to meet our clients’ needs,” she says.

However, a good team falls back on a true leader and Jim Leng believes in transformational leadership by leading through inspiration, empowerment and stimulating her employees to exceed normal levels of performance. “I believe in direct sponsorship and accounting of results, rewarding for performance and recognition for innovation. If you are good at what you do, the results should follow,” she remarks.

Lee Jim Leng CEO Hong Leong Investment Bank
Lee Jim Leng CEO Hong Leong Investment Bank

In today’s digital era, she acknowledges that knowledge is almost a given and the rise of Alipay and Wechat has surfaced as a new threat to banks. But Jim Leng has always believed in the key value of applying sincerity in looking after her clients’ long-term interests instead of chasing after profits for the bank. She notes that profits made from short-term strategies without taking into consideration of the client’s interest will often result in a loss of long-term brand reputation and sustainability of the bank.

It’s easy to see why Jim Leng’s clients trust her enough to build a close rapport as she is able to strike up a conversation with anyone at any given time. This winning personality has carried her through and she believes that being outspoken is a quality that, when used with skill and wisdom, can set you apart from the crowd. “The key is to be selectively outspoken and applied effectively to get your thought process and idea through,” she says.

Armed with an equally bold sense of dressing which may sometimes be seen as unconventional in the traditional world of banking, Jim Leng is unabashedly unapologetic as she cites Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson as other unconventional CEOs who no longer abide by conservative dark suits dress codes. “What I am sure is that when I feel good in what I wear, I exude confidence. I’m hoping to send across the message that my abilities are not judged by what I wear but rather how I conduct my conversations and presentations professionally and competently to my clients.”

As the only girl in her family, gender was never an issue in her household as her parents never interfered with her career plans. As for whether she believes in the notion that women have to prove themselves a lot more in order to reach leadership positions, she wholeheartedly disagrees. “Most employers and institutions today practise and embrace diversity and equality. Women who did not move towards substantial leadership positions were often forced to leave the industry halfway to care for their children or ageing parents,” she remarks.

After being in a banking career spanning almost 30 years, Jim Leng fuels her thirst for success and life’s indulgent pleasures through her inherent passion for her job. “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it,” she says, quoting Maya Angelou before strapping on her blue Prada heels and strutting out the door.