Digerati50: Airlifting the entrepreneur ecosystem

  • Has a deep belief that entrepreneurship, combined with technology, will empower youth
  • Displays a key hallmark of all successful entrepreneurs – not giving up

Digerati50: Airlifting the entrepreneur ecosystem

WHEN it comes to the four pillars of Malaysia’s technology ecosystem – policy, funding, entrepreneurs, and technology – Dr Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah (pic), Secretary-General of the Ministry of Finance, sits prominently at the apex of policy and funding.

Nobody in the tech and wider entrepreneur ecosystem doubts that.

But what stands out about Irwan is his obvious passion in supporting the cause of entrepreneurship, and his deep belief that entrepreneurship, combined with technology, will empower youth especially to do greater things than if they pursued a corporate career.

He doesn’t just sit in his office either, content with disbursing public funds. He lends his time to attend hackathons, in his blue sneakers, baseball cap and all – which is what he wore to one weekend event back in 2012. All the while, he exhorts youth to take up the challenge and dare to dream that they too can build the next Facebook or Google.

Encouraging others to dream, especially youth, comes easy for Irwan because he is a dreamer too.

In early 2014, when the nondescript building in Cyberjaya that had been identified as the headquarters of the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) was being renovated, he would, after a typically long day at his office in the administrative capital of Putrajaya, make the short drive to the MaGIC building.

More excited than anyone at the impact MaGIC could have, Irwan allowed himself to dream of its catalysing impact in moving Malaysia higher up the ladder as a technology-savvy nation, riding on the entrepreneurial flair and drive of its next generation of startups.

As a result, Malaysia’s startup ecosystem has benefited immensely – both from a funding perspective and through supporting policies which now see the country recognised as having a startup ecosystem that is second only to Singapore’s in Southeast Asia.

But Irwan, as the chairman of MaGIC, has bigger dreams. The aim now is to turn Malaysia into Asia’s leading startup hub. If that’s a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), consider this: He once said, “I want to bring Stanford to Malaysia.”

It’s not for the glamour. Having visited Silicon Valley, Irwan is well aware of the catalyst role Stanford University played, and continues to play, in fuelling the entrepreneurial and innovation drive of the United States, especially Silicon Valley. He is hungry to see the entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem in Malaysia receive such a nuclear boost.

“He made entrepreneurship his single-minded focus although he is the secretary-general of MoF (Ministry of Finance) with a broader role,” says an ecosystem leader who has had a close view of Irwan in action.

“For the first time in the history of the ecosystem, a very senior government official was willing to not only help airlift the ecosystem … but is himself an ardent student of entrepreneurship.”

Not just is he a student, Irwan has already shown one key hallmark of all successful entrepreneurs: Never give up.

His support for technology and innovation goes back further to the turn of the new millennium when MoF allocated hundreds of millions in funding for public university researchers for not just R&D (research and development), but in the hopes they would commercialise some of their research.

It was to prove a frustrating experience for Irwan, who led the effort at the ministry.

Undeterred, now there is a specific programme for Malaysian academics to be exposed to and trained by Stanford academics.

And that’s determination for you. Irwan will do whatever it takes to airlift the Malaysian entrepreneurial ecosystem.

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