Yasmin Mahmood starts to shape MDeC
By Karamjit Singh February 11, 2015
- ‘I am not here to lowball KPIs. I want to make an impact’
- Expects any intervention to be innovative, impactful, sustainable
Her working spot is not at the large deep brown expansive desk with plush leather chair. Rather it is at the small glass top table that seats six, with Yasmin sitting at one end, back to the window wall, with a large monitor to her left and white board to her right.
But don’t describe that as the seat of power at MDeC, the Malaysian government agency established in 1996 to spearhead the development of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and help develop ICT into an economic pillar of the country.
Because, to Yasmin, she has inherited a seat of responsibility, an amanah (An Arabic word that has a broader Islamic meaning. It is the moral responsibility of fulfilling one's obligations due to Allah and fulfilling one's obligations due to Allah's slaves or other people) whose scope and impact goes way beyond anything she has ever led before and where the consequences of failure go beyond losing your job.
“Because, if you fail, you are failing a nation not shareholders in a large company.” But she has no intention of failing. Pushing both herself, “I have never worked harder in my life” and her team, with one manager she brought in saying, “She’s a hard driver, pushing for aggressive targets.”
Indeed towards the end of the 75-minute session, she acknowledges the tougher KPIs she is demanding. “I am not here to lowball KPIs. I want to make an impact, MDeC wants to make an impact and I am really excited that most of the people here are onboard and committed. For those who are not, too bad. You don't have a place in the organisation then.”
At the same time, she tells her 400-strong team that she expects MDeC to be the most innovative agency within the Malaysian Government’s ecosystem. By that, she has set the definition of this to be that any intervention that MDeC works on, has to be innovative, have high impact and be sustainable.
Not afraid of failing
Yet, seven months ago, Yasmin did not dream of being the lead drummer at MDeC. “In fact, when I heard of Sham (ex-MDeC CEO Badlisham Ghazalie) leaving, I was wondering what he was going to do next and then promptly put the thought of who would succeed him out of my mind.”
But then she got a call asking if she would like to be considered for the role. She thought long and hard about it, assessing where she was in her life and what she wanted to achieve at age 50, and “decided to throw my hat in the ring, fully prepared for how my life would change if I was offered the responsibility.”
To those who wonder if she is going to play it safe, her early actions over the past five months on the job have given them reason to reconsider. These include sending two executives to Silicon Valley to establish an MDeC link there to help Malaysian companies; creating a new Enterprise Division position with a general manager to help companies in the RM20 million (US$5.58 million) revenue to jump to the RM200 million (US$55.8 million) zone and reassessing all its programmes to decide which ones to keep and which to pass to industry.
[RM1 = US$0.28]
She asserts that she is not afraid of failing. Especially if that failure is a result of MDeC having tried to take on risky endeavours where successful outcomes would have been able to move the needle a lot more than just make incremental progress with what she describes as “business-as-usual programmes”.
“If you don’t take risks, you cannot make an impact,” she says.
At the same time, she is not keen on making an impact at any cost. Declaring that she is driven to do the right thing, which includes avoiding any overlap with what other government agencies are doing, “wasting tax payers money [through duplication of efforts] is a big no-no for me,” she asserts.
That is good news to those who worry about too many duplication efforts by various government agencies.
Yasmin’s biggest challenge
One key data point that Yasmin shared keeps her awake at night is this:
Around 80% of the Malaysian companies in the IT cluster earn less that RM1 million (US$279,080) a year. This is followed by 8% of them earning “RM20 million (US$5.6 million) a year or more” and of course the top 2% earning RM200 million (US$56 million) a year.
Looking at this from the glass half full lense means that Malaysia has a pretty strong startup ecosystem. But Yasmin is aware that there just is not enough movement from the lower tier companies to the RM200 million range.
Her solution? Create a new Enterprise Division, hire a general manager and task him with the job of creating customised programmes that can help the RM20 million revenue companies to get to the RM200 million level.
The common ground that MDeC has identified among the RM200 million companies is that they have global market access and were geared from the beginning to export their products. “While the products can be validated in Malaysia,” says Yasmin, “they are meant for the global market.”
This is also where the soon-to-be-launched MDeC Americas office to be headed by vice-president Dan Khoo comes into the picture. With a 1,000 sq ft office already rented in the Silicon Valley, Khoo’s job will be to look out for opportunities for the promising companies identified by the Enterprise Division. He will be assisted by another MDeC executive and one hire from the United States.
The Silicon Valley base is also meant to be used as the launchpad for Malaysian companies to target the global market. The rationale being that, it will be easier for them to tackle the global markets if their products have been validated by the Silicon Valley. It should be noted that Norway has been running a similar programme for a number of years.
While in the past there have been similar market access programmes, Yasmin notes that they were not customised. This is where GAIN (Global Acceleration Innovation Network) comes in and its accompanying focus on high growth companies.
“It is almost like an accelerator programme where we pick companies in the RM20 million range which have the hunger, products, people and Intellectual Property (IP) and we help them in a way that makes sense for them. It will be completely customised,” she adds with even M&A (merger and acquisition) activities being part of the picture here.
What will not be part of the game plan is to help them get business from the Malaysian Government. “We have been trying to get this for so long, and it has not worked. I don’t want to flog a dead horse,” says the MDeC CEO, determined that her agency’s time and efforts are invested in activities that can create the biggest impact for the ecosystem.