Cheryl Yeoh leaves, MaGIC on quest for new CEO
By A. Asohan December 4, 2015
- Last working day this month, headhunting agency appointed
- Comes after mounting pressure on MaGIC to stick to original mandate
[This story has been updated with additional information and an official statement from Cheryl Yeoh]
IN a not-quite-unexpected development, Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) chief executive officer Cheryl Yeoh (pic above) will be leaving the government agency, and the Malaysian Government has engaged a head-hunting agency to find a replacement.
Her last official working day will be Jan 14, 2016.
Yeoh first took on the role in April, 2014. Sources told DNA that her contract was for two-plus-one years, with the additional year being at the discretion of the Malaysian Government.
It is not known why her tenure has been cut short.
Her leaving the agency, which operates under the aegis of Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance (MoF), comes after months of mounting pressure on MaGIC to adhere to its original mandate of reaching out to entrepreneurs of all types, and not just technology-based ones, one source told DNA.
This is in line with when MaGIC was first conceived at the 4th Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES 2013) in Kuala Lumpur in October 2013, and when it was proposed by Prime Minister Najib Razak in his annual Budget speech later that year.
MaGIC would be “an independent body that will act as a one-stop centre for all kinds of entrepreneurs – not necessarily just high-tech and those related to ICT, but also entrepreneurs dedicated to the services sector, agro-based products, logistics and so on,” Dr Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, Secretary-General of the Treasury at MoF, told DNA at GES 2013.
Irwan is currently chairman of the MaGIC board.
However, when MaGIC was finally launched in April 2014, as part of US President Barack Obama’s first visit to Malaysia, it had already been repositioned as an agency focused on tech startups.
This has put some pressure on the Najib Administration, one MoF source told DNA, because the Budget 2014 allocation of RM70 million for MaGIC, followed by a further RM35 million allocation proposed under Budget 2016, was for the original mandate.
“Not enough was being done to reach out to non-tech startups and entrepreneurs, especially those from rural communities,” said the source.
Yeoh was selected as CEO because of her entrepreneurial background and her Silicon Valley networks, but sources told DNA this was also a double-edged sword in terms of procedures at the agency.
‘She put us on the map’
But even those sources who expressed discomfort with how MaGIC was being run, readily acknowledged Yeoh’s accomplishments.
“She put Malaysia on the world startup map, it’s a real pity that something could not be worked out,” said one source.
“She has largely done what she said she would set out to do, but it was always going to be a challenge for someone in her early 30s and who has spent her entire working career in the United States, to be able to come home and navigate around Malaysia’s public sector,” he added.
Yeoh began her working life in New York City where she worked in management consulting after graduating from Cornell University with an undergraduate degree and later a Master’s in Engineering.
There, she launched a product called CityPockets, a digital wallet and secondary marketplace for daily deals. Later she relocated to Mountain View, California, where she launched Reclip.It, a personalised shopping list app. She then sold her startup to WalMart Labs.
Under her tenure, MaGIC successfully launched its [email protected] programme, which saw 57 entrepreneurs from 31 startups participating in a two-week immersion programme at Stanford University and Silicon Valley.
More importantly, she kicked off the MaGIC Accelerator Programme (MAP), which had 52 startups from across the Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) region taking part, and which also raised the profile of Malaysia as a regional startup hub.
Even her critics said that Yeoh’s US entrepreneurial background was especially important here, because she could “speak the Silicon Valley language.”
Heislyc Loh (pic), the founder of the Kuala Lumpur chapter of Silicon Valley’s Founder Institute, was one of the earlier team members at MaGIC working on community engagement, and he was unequivocal in his praise for Yeoh.
“Cheryl [Yeoh] is a detail-oriented, transparent and all-rounded leader who can deal with different stakeholders with composure, even during challenging times,” he said.
“She is resourceful and able to communicate ideas and vision clearly,” added Loh, who spent nine months at MaGIC and was involved in the MaGIC Startup Academy programme as well as the initial programme design for MAP.
“Of all the close ties and connections she brought from Silicon Valley into the ecosystem, I’d like to highlight two things, with the first being her relentless energy and vision to develop MaGIC Academy as a multi-element education programme to continuously up-skill local entrepreneurs and talents,” he added.
The second thing Loh said he wanted to highlight was MaGIC’s strategic partnership with Silicon Valley’s 500 Startups, which came from Yeoh and 500 Startups managing partner Khailee Ng – also a former MaGIC board member – “working hard in the background to make happen.”
The succession issue
It is not known whether Yeoh’s successor would have to go through the same selection process that she did, which involved a selection committee of six people from both the public and private sectors.
While a headhunting agency has been engaged, DNA’s sources said that the Government is also looking at the other two shortlisted candidates from the initial batch, but acknowledged that this may be a long-shot.
“You want someone who understands entrepreneurs, but also able to deal with public sector concerns,” said one source. “It’s going to be tough.”
Founder Institute’s Loh, when asked about the biggest challenge facing Yeoh’s successor, said it would be “to continuously lead and attract a team of passionate and highly-talented people who believe in enabling entrepreneurship for Malaysia and beyond.”
Another source pointed to this as an issue: “Her successor’s biggest challenge would be dissociating the role from the person.
“Cheryl [Yeoh] managed to drum up and channel a lot of passion and drive in a ‘cult of personality’ way, which is par for the course in the startup ecosystem, but perhaps not the best way to lead a public sector agency.
“Her successor will have to deal with the fallout of disappointed and possibly disillusioned MaGIC employees,” the source added.
Statement by Cheryl Yeoh, outgoing MaGIC CEO:
By way of a mutual agreement with MoF, my contract will end on Jan 14 2016, after one year and nine months of service.
However, I’ll also be clearing a lot of my annual leave before my last day of service, so I will be in and out of the office toward the end of my contract.
MoF has given me a wonderful opportunity to set up MaGIC and steer it in the right direction where it will benefit entrepreneurs not only within Malaysia but the larger South-East Asia, and to truly put Malaysia on the map for the right reasons because we have so much untapped potential.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my chairman Dr Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah for convincing me to return to Malaysia to be the founding CEO of MaGIC, to all our ecosystem partners who’ve collaborated with us, to the mentors, instructors and investors who’ve generously stepped forth to give back to the community, to the entrepreneurs who believed in MaGIC, and last but not least, the MaGIC family who’ve worked so hard to make sure we create a sustainable and impactful ecosystem for entrepreneurs to thrive in – especially my first 10 hires who believed in me and my vision back when I had nothing.
I will be taking a three- to six-month break to recharge, travel and focus on personal growth as well as spend time with close friends and family. I might consider some advisory or consulting role on my ‘sabbatical’ as I’ve had a lot of requests to ‘pick my brains.’
While I will not be involved in the selection process of the new CEO, I believe that the chairman and board of directors of MaGIC will choose the best person for the job – someone who will continue to lead the amazing team I have built, who will hopefully continue all the great programmes and initiatives that we’ve started here at MaGIC and provide the vision for a future roadmap that will truly benefit the entrepreneurs and the country.
I hope the new CEO will also continue to build on the company culture we have, because MaGIC’s success is built on the fact that our team operates in an environment that lets them be at their full potential.
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