Cheryl Yeoh, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC), intends to get back into the business of launching and running a startup herself.
But it will not be for another year at least, as she prepares to leave the agency that she has played a leading role in setting up since it was launched to much fanfare by US President Barack Obama and Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak in April 2014.
“I will eventually start a business. Maybe 2017 and beyond I can consider but probably not in the next year. I really want to take a break and not work for awhile,” says Yeoh in a phone interview with e27.
The Malaysian was speaking last week to clarify a Digital News Asia (DNA) story of her impending departure from MaGIC, an agency under the auspices of Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance.
Met KPIs ahead of time
Citing unnamed sources, DNA intimated that “mounting pressure” on MaGIC to adhere to its original mandate of reaching out to entrepreneurs of all types and a focus on tech startups and entrepreneurs have been factors in Yeoh’s forthcoming exit.
It also suggested that her contract was for two years, with the option of an additional year at the discretion of the Malaysian government.
But Yeoh, whose tenure at MaGIC will fall three months short of two years when she leaves on January 14, 2016, says that she is doing so simply because her contract is up.
“My term was [for] two years [but] I’ve achieved my KPIs (key performance indicators) ahead of time. I’ve achieved all of the programmes I’ve wanted to set up and I’ve made sure that the team is strong enough to continue running those programmes,” says Yeoh.
No mounting pressure
Downplaying her move, she says, “My title is the ‘Founding CEO’ because I was meant to start something up. Sometimes, you do need different leaders for different stages of the company. I’m not so sure why it’s so surprising for people but it’s quite normal for where I come from in the [Silicon] Valley for people to come and go.”
While making clear that DNA first reached out to her to confirm the news and that she had sent the ‘official statement’ carried in the story as a response to questions that they sent, she adds that there had been no clash in ideas between her and the Board.
“There was no ‘mounting pressure’ at all. The Board meets quite frequently and we always tell [them] what we are going to do and they are fully supportive of our plans. There has not been any push-back to focus on other types of entrepreneurship,” says Yeoh.
Yeoh’s links with Silicon Valley, where she became a successful entrepreneur in her own right, having co-founded and sold Reclip.It, a personalised shopping list app, meant that she was always going to bring in a focus on tech startups and entrepreneurs.
She indicates that this was something she did not hide from MaGIC when interviewing for the job of CEO last year.
“When I was being interviewed in February 2014, I did a whole one-day presentation about what I would do for MaGIC, and 95 per cent of what I presented last year was what I eventually executed. So it (MaGIC’s development) hasn’t veered off from what I had presented,” says Yeoh.
Emphasising that her ideas were backed by the Board, she refers to comments made by Tan Sri Dr Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, the Chairman of MaGIC, covered in a February 2014 DNA story.
She says, “In fact, our Chairman himself made a statement that MaGIC would focus on tech entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. And this was two months before I actually came back [to Malaysia].”
The need for a tech focus
But a focus on technology and social entrepreneurship did not mean discrimination against other industries. In fact, she says that technology and social entrepreneurship encompasses a variety of industries.
“There’s this whole misconception about the tech and ICT (information and communications technology) industry – that it’s only one industry and it’s very niche. But the truth is that we support all industries. The component they share is that they all leverage technology,” says Yeoh.
Explaining why this focus on technology is necessary, she says, “If our intent, which I was told is to push us (Malaysia) from middle-income status to high-income status (for Gross National Income under the National Transformation Programme), then we have to be forward-thinking and that means we adopt technology because the world is moving that way.
“So it doesn’t make sense if you ask me to start up an agency that trains traditional entrepreneurs. There are already agencies doing that and those agencies still remain relevant for that group of entrepreneurs.”
The programmes that MaGIC has launched under Yeoh’s stewardship include the MaGIC Accelerator Programme (MAP) and the MaGIC Academy. Along with its global and regional programmes aimed at lending startups exposure to ecosystems outside of Malaysia, Yeoh says they form three pillars (to accelerate, educate, and expose) for MaGIC to move ahead without her.
Seeing the inaugural batch of 50 startups from 12 countries — all with a focus on ASEAN — graduate from the four-month-long MAP during the Demo Day in November was a highlight for her.
“We had over 150 investors come and a lot of them said it was the best Demo Day they’ve ever attended in the region. MAP was for any startup (local or foreign) as long as they’re focusing on the ASEAN market. The emphasis on ASEAN was important to us and the fact that investors are now paying attention is a great achievement,” says Yeoh.
Reflecting on what MaGIC has achieved, Yeoh says, “I think what we’ve managed to do is create this agnostic, neutral, and agenda-free platform that has managed to earn the trust and respect of the community – all the successful entrepreneurs, the investors, the VCs and corporations.
“We have helped shed light on what startups are, removed the taboo around them and created this critical mass [of startups] that [has] made Malaysia visible globally in terms of being a good place to start a company in Southeast Asia.”
‘Not an easy task’
The journey, as one imagines, has not been all that easy, especially moving from the progressive culture of Silicon Valley to one fraught by racial (or bumiputera) policies, which critics such as Jefrey Zan Dain Yunan of Pergerakan Pemuda UMNO (the Malaysian ruling party’s youth wing) have deemed fit to use as ammunition against MaGIC as recently as last week.
When asked about the challenges she has faced, Yeoh says, “It’s obviously not an easy task. The first six months, I didn’t know anyone so I wasn’t lucky enough to come in knowing people that I could hire right away.”
After hiring her first 10 staff in the initial two months, Yeoh also needed to understand the needs of the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem and learn about the other organisations already existing within the space.
“I didn’t want to simply impose what I thought we should do. I needed to validate my ideas for what the ecosystem needed,” says Yeoh. “The other challenge is that there are a lot of other agencies who are already supporting entrepreneurship in very different ways so I’ve had to make sure our mandate didn’t overlap with other agencies.”
Within MaGIC, she has also worked to instill an organisational culture that is not common in Malaysia.
“Malaysia is known to have a very high power distance (a phrase that describes how much people at the top of the hierarchy expect to tell people at the bottom what to do and, conversely, how those at the bottom expect to be told what to do by those at the top). Obviously, in Silicon Valley, it’s the other way around. So we try to practise it (through initiatives such as weekly Ask-Me-Anything sessions with her or the VPs) here at MaGIC as well and I think it’s worked well for the company,” says Yeoh.
Developing individuals, not just companies
Underlying this openness to staff members is a desire Yeoh has to contribute as much as she can to their personal development.
“I want to be known as someone who develops individuals, not just companies. Every team meeting, I try to do a personal growth exercise for them to develop personally and professionally as well. I will definitely miss my team a lot but I know we’ve accomplished a lot and that the team is passionate about staying and carrying on the work that we started,” says Yeoh.
And while MaGIC will soon carry on its work for startups and entrepreneurship in Malaysia and the region without Yeoh at the helm, the Cornell University alumna imagines she will be travelling somewhere in the world, not that she has had time to plan for it.
When asked whether she sees herself staying in Malaysia or returning to the US, Yeoh says, “I’ll probably travel back and forth. And I’ll probably travel around – Africa, South America, Antarctica, Europe. Who knows?”
And while she travels, she will have time to consider some of the varied proposals she has received from different parties around the world – to build a startup ecosystem from scratch, to set up a venture fund and help to vet startups, to build co-working spaces, academies, and accelerators, and to play advisory roles.
She is unsure what she will take up or if she would even accept any of these proposals.
“I’m not rushing to get a job,” says Yeoh, who expresses more certainty about the sort of impact that she wants her next venture to have.
“Whatever I work on in the future will have global-level impact, not just regional [impact],” says Yeoh, who adds that she will not be turning her back on the region. “I definitely want to find a way to keep myself connected to the region even if I return to the US.”