Society distorts women’s ambition as aggression

She has been a telco engineer with over 15 years of experience in system engineering encompassing both technical and non-technical areas. For someone who always wanted to become a doctor, she realised that practical and logic made more sense to her than memorizing. Mathematics and Physics came more easily and while there were many sets of engineering to choose from, she settled on telecommunications because it was highly logical. You can prove the end results without memorizing by applying concepts.

What excited her was that she could make decisions no matter how the equations were turned around and she could find the same results or something that could be improved upon. This was the journey in which she became a businesswoman and today realises that it was very much about passion.

At the time, however, it was about wanting to make that change. Even in the earlier part of her career, while working for other companies, as a training manager she was always thinking about making an impact based on what she saw in her training classes. She wanted to have more impact in what she did. This was evident in her first job at a notable Malaysian telecommunications company where she stood out for always wanting to go beyond and do more than what was given.

Sharala Axryd is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia-based The Center of Applied Data Science. ASEAN’s first and only, one-stop, data science institute, hubbed in Malaysia, it integrates learning, networking and internship. She took time to share her story with AsiaBizToday.

What are the activities that you undertake?

Our ambitions can be summed up in, “Futureproofing the World”. This statement anchors what we do, what we offer and even the conversations I have been having with others. It is about futureproofing the economy in this new norm amidst Industry 4.0, futureproofing the workforce with the skills needed to adapt, evolve and roll out. We are deeply involved with that as well as how to manage the future of the workforce. We are taking up projects literally looking at graduates with the skills relevant for Industry 4.0, companies to manage their talent internally and businesses in how to operate sustainably while staying relevant, all of that on a platform base. We may not know what that future may be but the workforce will be actively creating that future. What we offer is business and people-readiness to embrace Industry 4.0 and that could be on a talent-based, skill-based and workforce-based.

What was your trigger and motivation to get into this?

Although I came from a traditional family background where I was expected to adhere to the typical path of marriage and children, it wasn’t in my nature to be complacent. In fact, it took working abroad in Europe where the expectations were different, no matter how small or what you have been taught. In Belgium I saw engineers self-teaching themselves programming. I started questioning myself if culturally we were conditioned to follow what we were taught and wait to be told what to do. What I say and what I think can make a difference, be it in an engineering solution, be it in a business solution. My words carried impact.

It is pretty obvious now but three years ago it was so difficult to convince people how crucial future proofing is. It was so clear to us that this is the way forward, even when there were people calling it hype, people were saying I still got time. Industry 4.0 is about data, analytics and artificial intelligence. Everywhere we looked, everywhere we read, we kept seeing this calling. The pattern was there. Four, five years forward it proved to be the case.

What have been your experiences in this leadership position?

There’s a saying that leaders are born and they cannot be made. I think that there’s some truth to both, if you know what I mean. Maybe not entirely. But I think what I have learned most about being a leader is being able to self-reflect constantly to stay relevant, be it building the business, be it managing my colleagues in the company, be it decisions that we have made. Constantly self-reflect what we have been doing and what we have done. The only way you can self-reflect, especially when you are doing something that is game-changing, is to just read and equip yourself with as much knowledge as you can. Only then can you self-reflect. If you are not exposed to the amount of reading, you won’t have anything substantial to reflect on to be honest.

I think what takes guts to be a leader is to always stop and think about what we are doing, what works and what didn’t in business decisions and why, how we addressed an issue in the company.  There are phases in businesses that you can never be prepared for until you are in there.

Which are the important factors that keep you going?

If you had asked me three months ago, it would have been more on the impact we made but now, what keeps me going are my people. The people at CADS coming and telling me that like every time they go see a customer or anyone and talk to them about the impact we could bring, the high it brings them… That’s what keeps me going, feeling like we are on the right path. All this while it felt like only a few of us were preaching it. There were internal doubt and disbelief on the purpose we were trying to build because these naysayers couldn’t see beyond. Now I see that people are eager and hungry, they are driven by purpose to achieve what CADS stands for. That is what keeps me going.

Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?

In terms of obstacles, I would say it veers more towards the technology and where people undermine the urgency to implement digital transformation. Post Covid-19 I see the rush has picked up but before that it was an obstacle. I kept telling people that the tsunami was coming yet I didn’t expect that tsunami to be Covid-19. The pandemic definitely expedited the technology measures that people were procrastinating on.

Now to move on the obstacles of being a woman, I would say it is more lonely than anything else. Because I am in the technology world, I don’t get to see a lot of women to share with. For example, there are prominent female figures around who denounce the female-specific categories in business award ceremonies because why can’t women just be grouped together alongside the men, why the separation. I agree to that but in the absence of not having that equality naturally, there is a need to infuse femininity that would otherwise be missing. It is about bringing these accomplished women together, meeting one another and building that connection. At most public events like panel sessions, seminars, conferences and such, I always find myself the only woman in tech there. While not necessarily the only woman per say, I can’t have the same conversation with online e-commerce women that I do with someone who is also running a tech start-up or business consultants who deeply working with data science and analytics.

At the end of the day, obstacles stop you from growing. I think I’m not facing any obstacles like that but what I wish I could have is more women leaders and mentors in the space. There are a lot of opportunities in technology whether you are female or male but regardless you need to bring your A-game.

Where do you usually find inspiration from?

I find inspiration from what we do. I find inspiration when we make an impact to a company. I find inspiration when I read. These are the two sources where every time we get an idea that we implement, then customers come back because they see the impact. This always inspires me to do more, differently and staying relevant. That’s the whole excitement about being agile.

What’s your proudest moment so far?

My proudest moment is when we went on lockdown and how the whole company got in to drive the business. It’s something that I’m still trying to recover from and wrap my head around! This is the culture I have been wanting to build for years. Even offering unlimited annual leave and working from home options, none of worked. Now my proudest moment is what we have achieved as a company and as a culture is almost auto-running, with productivity soaring to 100%-150%!

How would you define success?

A lot of people say that you cannot define success from money, you shouldn’t define success from ambition… I define success when we have built something we are proud of, no matter how small or big it is, and that everybody in the company feels that they own a part of that success because they contributed to that success. When CADS on its own is by the people for the business is where I would consider that a success.

What Advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?

You will from many that you cannot do it. There will be doubts that what we envision can be done. I think women get it more than men, in my opinion. Women also have a lot of inner doubts because we are mothers, wives or we are women in general that society has imposed certain expectations on. Don’t underestimate or let others underestimate your partners because they are the pillars who make it possible for you to go out there and do what you do. Society makes it out that women should be put in their place and when you are so ambitious, the assumption is that you are aggressive. Ambition is distorted into aggression in women. These are all labels that are put on you and I think that if you are clear on what you want (although entrepreneurs are notorious in not always knowing what they want which is fine) and you got the feeling that this needs to be done, you can put away all hurdles. Or you won’t see it as a hurdle, merely something that can be overcome because you figured it out. Women naturally do that, it’s in our DNA to be resilient in the face of adversity. Don’t feel guilty about wanting things for yourself. Society will say you are neglecting your children in the pursuit of your own aspirations but don’t let those words dampen your spirit.