Woman, Yes. Techy, Definitely.

Nadira Yusoff, managing director of Girls in Tech Malaysia, believes that empowering women is good economic strategy.

Nadira Yusoff’s journey as an entrepreneur began at a tender age – at six, to be exact. “When I couldn’t get things from my parents or they could not give me the things that I wanted, I thought of ways to make money,” says the single mother.

Nadira knew not the term “economics” at that time, but she understood that if she bought more, she would be paying less. Buying sweets in bulk and selling them to her classmates gained her a neat profit. “I would strike deals with the kedai runcit and get the uncle to sell me five gula-gula for 10 sen, instead of three for 10,” she fondly recalls.

In school, she was intensely competitive, having joined and played almost every sports. This taught her sportsmanship and perseverance. Twenty years in business now, she has weathered many ups and downs and even hit the lowest low. “I think it was the sportsman in me that helped me to not give up, to get up and try again,” she says.

It was at university that Nadira, who holds a degree in Electrical Engineering, developed networking skills through her involvement in various activities and volunteerism; she realised the importance of knowing who one can rely on. When she delved into business, she did not have investors, capital or funding. “It was always revenue-generating first. You must sell one to get one; you have to rely on your network. Go to the people you know first who will trust you,” she shares.

Her volunteer work aided her in developing empathy with people on the ground. This translated into knowing what the customer wanted and ultimately helped her create better products.

Rocky Start

A self-professed techie, Nadira admitted that she came upon the subject by chance: “I never really believed that technology was my calling. I only entered engineering because it was just the way forward – it was a decision I had to adopt.”

The young and ambitious Nadira spent two and a half years developing Morrieland, a children’s edutainment network to develop language proficiency via interactive storybooks, launched in 2007. Then, she hit a stumbling block: “We thought we were going to be a hit, that the Ministry of Education would buy the software. We spent RM4mil of our own money,” Nadira recalls. Despite the staggering amount invested, the ministry refused to buy the software due to incongruence with their curriculum.

And so, to the public she went. The iPad was not out yet and parents were adamant about not allowing their children unmonitored access to the internet. “We techies felt we had a great product. At that time when the product was launched, the market was just not ready. And that was it,” she says plaintively.

Nadira and the GIT Penang Mini Chapter team.

Despite the scarce consumer base, maintenance was necessary and new content had to be churned out. In 2010 the company performed so badly that Nadira had to sell everything she had. Within a year she was forced to downsize her staff of 120 to just about 50. “That was the lowest point in my life – not that the business was doing bad, but the fact that I had to let go of over a hundred employees, affecting their families as well. It’s something I am affected till now,” she says. It was only in 2014 that the market was finally ready for Morrieland, and today it is used in 27 countries.

Women in Tech

The first challenge Nadira faced was by virtue of her being female in a male-dominated industry. Perceptions are cast on women regardless of their status, be they single or married with kids. Both men and women view women in technology as less capable.

Although the struggle is real to convince people that women have the capability to build tech products, a woman must also be able to speak the language,” advises Nadira. “You must know yourself and be very confident about it.

Harvard Business Review conducted a survey that showed sexism in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields disproportionately affect women of colour; 41% of Asian women are pressured to be “more motherly”. 1

In 2007 Girls in Tech was founded at Silicon Valley by Adriana Gascoigne to provide a platform to empower, engage and educate women in STEM fields. Closer to home, Girls in Tech Malaysia (GIT Malaysia) in Petaling Jaya is one of Girls in Tech’s 60 local chapters. @CAT Penang, a community of startup entrepreneurs, creatives and techies, works closely with GIT Malaysia for the GIT Penang Mini Chapter.

Through GIT Malaysia, Nadira hopes to achieve increased participation for women and get more women involved in technology. She strongly believes that empowering women is not about feminism; it is an economic advantage – Malaysia’s female population is reaching 50% after all.

“We need more women involved in technology because the products developed will be more inclusive on the range of needs. The representation of women in technology companies needs to be there to bring that kind of perspective that will encourage organisational growth,” Nadira says. Case in point is the product designed by American social entrepreneur Veronika Scott: a heat-trapping jacket that can transform into a warm and weather-resistant sleeping bag, creating employment opportunities for Detroit’s homeless at the same time.

“We have many women in the entrepreneurial space, but women have to be techy in order to create tech ventures. If you are not yet techy, we will find you a techie and match you up,” Nadira explains. She is also involved in the Great Women Collective, which employs fashion to debunk the stereotype that technology is unattractive – e.g. pineapple fibre, plastic and wool are made into high-quality lifestyle products such as pillows – and targets mature markets such as Paris.

While there is still a ways to go, GIT Malaysia and its Penang Mini Chapter are striving to provide women with the necessary tools and know-how to excel in the tech industry. And with gutsy women like Nadira sharing her story and experiences and providing counsel to women who wish to make it in the male-dominated sector, the gap can be bridged.

For more information about GIT Penang’s events and workshops, visit http://acatpenang.com/programmes. Join @CAT’s community platform at http://community.acatpenang.com to connect and interact.

Lynette Low is a third-year law student and a part-time writer with a zest for human rights.

1 www.theodysseyonline.com/the-problem-withwomen- in-stem

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