Overcoming skepticism and winning trust were tough in first 6mths
Focus now on execution of regional hub vision and plans
“THEY seem to be doing a lot of good things,” says Patrick Grove, founder and chairman of Catcha Group, when asked for his thoughts on the impact of the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC) in the one year it has been in existence.
Indeed, while a handful will still claim that it is not doing enough, one suspects Malaysians will side with Grove when assessing MaGIC as a one-year-old organisation, and which, until its sixth month, was still trying to hire the right people to help it drive its mission.
To give the ecosystem a better idea of what exactly it has done over the past year, MaGIC has just released its first-year impact report, listing the programmes, activities and number of participants. But anyone who wants to stay abreast of what MaGIC is doing in real time should really follow its their twitter feed @MagicCyberjaya.
While a look through the impact report may give one the impression that MaGIC is perhaps doing too much and spreading its 55 employees too thin, “everything we do is out of necessity,” says its chief executive officer Cheryl Yeoh (pic above), adding that the agency has a lot of stakeholders to please.
One thing that will keep her stakeholders very happy is establishing Malaysia as a regional startup hub. And this is why Yeoh says she is most excited over the coming MaGIC Accelerator Programme (MAP) in June, adding that it is the one programme in a busy calendar that it has to execute flawlessly.
“It is such an ambitious programme, being the first large regional accelerator,” she declares.
Targeted at startups in Asean (the Association of South-East Asian Nations), the hope is that a successful MAP will quickly help Malaysia develop a reputation as a leading startup hub in Asia.
That, in fact, is the bold new vision statement Yeoh has put on her shoulders: For MaGIC to be the top startup hub in Asia. That means topping Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore.
Vision statements are supposed to be bold, she declares.
At the same time, she is also excited about the social enterprise responsibility that MaGIC has been asked to drive.
READ ALSO: Malaysia unveils social enterprise blueprint
While that world was new to her when she took up the MaGIC role, returning from the Silicon Valley, Yeoh is now well aware of the world of Social Enterprise.
She observes that people are so into social entrepreneurship in developing countries including Malaysia, as they see many issues that need solved which cannot wait for a top-down approach.
MaGIC has been going to the ground all over the country to promote and introduce the concept of the ‘Social Enterprise,’ and has engaged with as many stakeholders as possible. In doing so, it discovered that the concept was very new to many who were already practising it.
“We received appreciative comments and emails from people thanking us for introducing the term ‘Social Enterprise’ to what they were doing in their communities. So that was gratifying,” Yeoh says.
That Social Enterprise role of MaGIC has now been further crystalised with the launch of the Malaysian Social Enterprise Blueprint by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak earlier this week.
The thrust of the blueprint is to help social entrepreneurs build more robust sustainability models around their initiatives. This has been the single biggest cause of the failure of so many such programmes.
MaGIC hopes to reverse this with its Social Enterprise Blueprint.
Too much ‘Silicon Valley style’
She was hired from Silicon Valley with the expectations that she will bring some of the elements that have made that region in the United States the heart of its innovative and technological sphere, but – without going into specifics – Yeoh notes that some of the things MaGIC introduced may have been too different, and it had to cut back as people were not comfortable with this, pointing out that it is still a government agency.
Meanwhile, last December it saw one of the most recognisable names on its board, Khailee Ng, stepped down. In a story DNA did, Ng cited his heavy travel commitments as the main reason behind his decision. [The previous two paragraphs have been corrected for accuracy.]
While the news created quite a buzz in the ecosystem, Yeoh says that if anything, Ng, a managing partner of 500 Startups, “is even more involved with MaGIC now that he does not have board duties.”
And Yeoh also does not plan to settle for playing safe all the time. One of MaGIC’s internal taglines is pushing boundaries for change because, as she points out, “If you do not push boundaries and opt to play safe, you cannot do anything different.”
While it aims to push boundaries, one thing not on the game plan is to try and emulate Silicon Valley. “Some people think we are trying to be like them, but that is not the plan at all,” she argues.
However, one thing she is building that is ‘Silicon Valley style’ is a more transparent culture at MaGIC, so that it can be ‘pushed out’ as well.
Employees across all levels have frequent touch points with her – for instance, a twice monthly teh tarik (tea) session, with an avenue for anonymous questions as well. “I will answer every single question,” she says.
Running MaGIC more stressful
On a personal level, Yeoh admits that the experience of running MaGIC has been way more intense than what she experienced as an entrepreneur herself. Transparency in running operations and being responsible with how funds are managed demand the highest levels of accountability.
“It is way more stressful than running my own startup where I do not need the world to know what I am doing, just my customers,” she says.
Of course, her ‘customers’ today are the entrepreneurs, and she adds “the Government” and “the agencies” and “the public” and “our partners.”
She admits that the first six months were the hardest, toughest, and most challenging period for her.
This was partly because there was scepticism over MaGIC’s purpose and its agenda. Winning the confidence of entrepreneurs, partners and other agencies required going to the ground and building trust.
“Only then will people come to our events and participate,” she says.
One year on, and she feels the “pace” is much better now, partly because MaGIC has a larger team of 55, with around 10 interns. Yeoh is also more comfortable in her role and seems to be looking forward to the next 12 months.
One of her key goals is to ensure the thriving Malaysian startup scene gets the visibility it deserves. She has already started. MaGIC recently put up a Malaysian pavilion at a regional startup conference and gathering in Singapore organised by Tech in Asia.
“Of the 250 odd startups that participated at the conference, 61 were from Malaysia,” she says, adding that MaGIC sponsored 15 of them to Singapore.
The Malaysia pavilion that MaGIC invested in became the focal point for all the Malaysian entrepreneurs attending the conference. “It helped raise our visibility and demonstrate that Malaysia has a robust startup ecosystem,” she says.
Indeed, that sums up the impact of MaGIC in its first year, with Catcha’s Grove right in his feeling that it seems to be doing a lot of good.
MaGIC has helped to create a more exciting startup ecosystem in Malaysia, which is also beginning to be acknowledged regionally.
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CEO Cheryl Yeoh lays out MaGIC’s ingredients
MaGIC launches its Asean accelerator programme
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