No barriers in tech, say these four Malaysian female founders, but creating more networks will help

  • Women often have a deep underlying purpose for building their companies
  • Sharala: Women our worst enemies, have  to reach out to help, even if not asked

The formidable four (Clockwise): Raja Jesrina Arshad, Lina Esa, Renuka Sena and Sharala Axyrd.

Globally, the underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship and leadership is attributed to a range of factors, including a lack of education, limited asset ownership, social and cultural restrictions, gender stereotypes and unequal access to resources. In some countries, for example, women who are not heads of households need their husband's permission for certain activities and require men as co-signatories.

In Malaysia, women are fortunate to be largely free from such restrictions, and it is noteworthy that a higher percentage of women are enrolling in educational institutions compared to men. 

The gross enrolment rate for girls in primary and secondary levels was 98.3% and 94.7% respectively in 2020, compared to 98.2% and 90.1% for boys. Women also had a higher enrolment rate than men at the tertiary level, with 46.9% versus 33.3% respectively in 2021.

While there is no consensus on what an acceptable or fair representation of women in entrepreneurship should be, it is acknowledged that  in Malaysia, women have given significant contributions. In 2016, the most recent data available from the Department of Statistics Malaysia, 20.6% of the 98.5% SMEs were women-owned. Not great. But not bad either.

To gain insight into the experience of some female tech entrepreneurs, DNA spoke to four founders who between them, have between three years to 22 years of experience.

One key take-away from Lina Esa, Co-founder of Cult Creative (since 2021), Sharala Axryd, Founder and CEO of Centre of Applied Science (CADS) (since 2015), Raja Jesrina, Founder & CEO of PurelyB (since 2014);  and the most experienced founder, Renuka Sena, Senior Partner at ScaleUp Malaysia Accelerator and Co-Founder/CEO, Proficeo Consultants (founder since 2001), is that none ever felt their gender presented tougher than normal challenges. 


Valuable insights into challenges and opportunities

These women entrepreneurs have established themselves as leaders in their respective segments, from creating a job platform for creatives to founding the Centre for Applied Data Science (CADS), and from developing a plant-based superfood blend to coaching startups to becoming winners. By sharing their perspectives and experiences, they offer valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities facing women entrepreneurs in Malaysia today.

Lina, the ‘rookie’ among the four, fell into entrepreneurship during the height of the COVID pandemic after the publisher she worked for shut down operations. Together with Shermaine Wong and Manisha Jagan, they founded Cult Creative with the vision of empowering the creative industry by democratizing access to career opportunities. Lina was also inspired by her father, an architect and businessperson, and the women in business that she featured during her years in publishing.

Jesrina, on the other hand, started her company in 2014 after experiencing personal health issues and realizing the lack of accessible and affordable wellness solutions in Malaysia. Her vision was to promote sustainable and healthy living, overcome health issues through a lifestyle change, and maintain good health through natural healing methods. Jesrina believes that many entrepreneurs, especially women, are inspired by their own personal struggles and how they overcame them, leading to the birth of their companies.

For Renuka, becoming an entrepreneur was a personal decision. In 2001 she co-founded a legal practise specializing in intellectual property but didn't enjoy it as much. Her passion for coaching and mentoring entrepreneurs led her to work with startups and becoming a co-founder of ScaleUp Malaysia. Renuka believes that in order to teach others, you must first experience it yourself.

Sharala's drive to make a positive change led her to seize an opportunity she saw in 2017 to use data analytics and intelligence to help Malaysia become a high-income nation with better skills. Given the nick name, Malaysia’s Data Science Queen by former MDEC CEO, Yasmin Mahmood, Sharala believes by empowering individuals with education and skills, entire communities could benefit and be elevated to the next level.

On the inevitable challenges they faced as women entrepreneurs, Renuka stated that she had not experienced any gender discrimination. “Personally, I don't think I experienced any challenges that are specific to my being a woman. All the challenges that I faced were the normal challenges of being an entrepreneur, like finding clients, getting paid for work done and figuring out my business model.”

Sharala and Lina echoed this sentiment with Lina saying,  “I don’t recall any specific hurdles we’ve faced just by being women. We’ve been able to access mentoring, opportunities and anything without any hindrance.”


Inspire and build their companies and teams with empathy

Jesrina considered herself lucky to be based in Malaysia, as she had not experienced the gender bias that she had seen women face in other countries. “Seeking funding was initially a challenge. Whilst we have been very blessed to be able to raise a substantial amount over the course of the eight years, but it was very challenging and harder compared to some of our male peers because of the kind of business we were doing rather than because we were women.”

While she raised US$500,000 in seed funding led by 500 Global (then called 500 Startups) within a year of launching PurelyB in 2015, the subsequent funding was harder to come by, though she now has hit US$1.8 million (RM7.93 million) in total funding raised.

[Ed: Paragraph updated for accuracy.]

With an ambition to build Asia’s first health and wellness content integrated marketplace then, Jesrina encountered investors who could not connect with its mission and who viewed the market as too niche and difficult to scale. “Male investors couldn’t resonate with it [our purpose].” 

In terms of distinctive skills/strengths, Jesrina zeroed in on the oft mentioned traits of empathy and compassion, stressing that women entrepreneurs inspire and build their companies and teams with empathy, which is a strength. 

Infact, Jesrina sees this as a superpower that allows women to balance the aggressive drive to build a business with the heart and soul of compassion and empathy, creating a culture of loyalty, purpose, passion, and a family-like community. 

Women founders focus on taking care of the people they work with, their company, and stakeholders supporting it. Jesrina added that while men may also possess these qualities, she sees it in every single woman entrepreneur she knows. Moreover, women entrepreneurs often have a deep underlying purpose for building their companies due to personal experiences or something that has happened to someone they care about deeply.

Sharala, on the other hand, centres on pure grit and toughness as key qualities. She believes that women naturally possess the necessary skills for entrepreneurship, such as grit, toughness, strength, hard work, and risk aversion through over-analyzing., with the latter being a double-edge sword. Sharala acknowledged that over-analyzing can be a disadvantage as it can deter women from becoming entrepreneurs.

Renuka agreed that women tend to be more risk-averse, with many overthinking and striving for perfection. She added that while this can be advantageous in ensuring the quality of their products and services and keeping customers satisfied, it can also lead to delays in taking risks. Renuka emphasized that to be a successful entrepreneur, one must be comfortable with taking risks on a daily basis.


Discipline a significant strength, creating a positive feedback loop for change

In addition to these qualities, Renuka believes that discipline is a significant strength of women entrepreneurs. “The strength that I see in a lot of women, I would actually say, is discipline. Most women entrepreneurs are very disciplined about their time and their focus. Because they wear multiple hats, right?” she reminds. 

“Which means that if I need to get something done during work hours, it must get done because at 6pm, I need to go back home, I need to cook, I need to look after the children, I need to pick up the children, I need to do this and I need to do that. So, they're very focused in terms of how they spend their time.”

To this, Lina adds: “There is strength in the patience and calm that women can bring to the table. Women have great intuition which make them great people leaders, they’re naturally courageous and great communicators. By being more risk-averse they can be more trustworthy and businesses can stay resilient.”

Entrepreneurial activity is also shaped by social capital and social networks. Additionally, as women entrepreneurs expand their networks and influence, they bring important issues concerning inequality and inclusive development to the table, creating a positive feedback loop for change.

Yes the lack of such networks is highlighted as one of the challenges faced by the four founders. Jesrina noted that in the past, there was a lack of support for women entrepreneurs, but now there are more open forums and community groups that invite women entrepreneurs to learn from potential mentors and advisors. 

“That makes a lot of difference. And that is something that we had been lacking for many years. I remember back in 2015 when we started PurelyB. There was hardly any woman entrepreneurship support.“

While the situation has improved, more supportive groups should be created, along with access to mentors and advisors, which can be instrumental in helping women navigate their entrepreneurial journey. 

Jesrina emphasized the importance of women having access to additional support groups, which can enable them to overcome perceived obstacles, understand their capabilities, and confidently answer questions such as "Can I do this?" and "Should I do this?"

Government has a role to play here too, says Lina. “I think that women- and family-skewed initiatives by the government can also be encouraging for those returning to the workforce. Elevating role models for them to be seen, and encouraging peer-to-peer mentoring, women’s networking or something similar is also really helpful for the ecosystem.”

She believes that fostering and nurturing these communities can help create a breeding ground for the next wave of successful women entrepreneurs.

She added “It is because you may have the best idea, execute it well but may not have enough resources to make it grow. By resources I mean everything and anything from access to funding and investment to marketing and branding strategies  to lawyers, biz advisors, business structuring, access to target audience in the more cost-effective ways especially when you have limited capital.”


Woman, especially in corporate should mentor to promote a more supportive culture

Sharala suggests that every woman, especially those in corporate positions, should mentor younger women to promote a more supportive culture. 

“My only ask for every woman, especially corporate ladies, is to mentor the younger ones. As much as we all talk about supporting each other, women are our worst enemies.”

She also acknowledged the need for women to support each other more, citing her own experience of finding more male mentors than female ones. She feels that the responsibility to reach out and mentor younger women starts with her, and encourages others to do the same.

She added “it starts within me, right? I have to make  a mental effort to reach out to ladies even if they don't ask. “

As women continue to excel in various fields, it was observed that the importance of technology adaptation cannot be overstated. Digital technologies are revolutionizing industries across the globe, and Malaysia is no exception. This country has much to gain from digitalization, particularly its small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and women-owned SMEs.

While COVID-19 has disrupted global supply chains and social interactions, it has also brought about a newfound appreciation for digitalization which can help offset gender related barriers, thus promoting a more level playing field for women in business. 

Women play an important role in the economic growth of a country, and empowering them as entrepreneurs is key to achieving sustainable and inclusive growth. 

Also, given that women make up about 49.58% of the global population and have longer life expectancy than men, it is only imperative that their capabilities be honed and tapped, for obvious economic and societal benefits.


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