Women Thriving in the New Economy

loading The Women in Economy Conference strives to build a sustainable economy for the women in Penang.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail delivering her keynote address.

What are the benefits of closing the gender gap in economic participation? For a start, the world as a whole could increase its GDP by US$5.3tril by 2025 – if the gender gap is reduced by 25% over the same period.1

Despite women making up half the world’s population, the world Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) for women in 2017 stood only at 48.7% against 75.2% of men. Closer to home, although women’s LFPR has gradually increased from slightly over 46% in 2010 to 54.7% in 2017, Malaysia still has one of the lowest women’s LFPR in Asean.

The two-day Women in Economy Conference: Rethinking Entrepreneurship for Today’s Women, hosted by the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) last September, convened influential stakeholders and leading members from the government, private sector, academia, expert practitioners, civil societies, communities and entrepreneurs who are working towards building a sustainable economy for women in Penang. It also addressed the main barriers preventing women from realising their productive potential and how to overcome those barriers.

“The gender gap is still prevalent in both political representation and the labour participation rate,” says Ong Bee Leng, CEO of PWDC. “Measures must be taken to narrow the gap. Having women participate and contribute to the economy is one of the strategic thrusts of PWDC. Entrepreneurship provides the opportunity for women to earn a decent income while balancing their family commitments.”

“The landscape of Malaysia’s economy is beginning to change. We are shifting towards an innovation-driven economy,” says Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail in her keynote speech. “Janice D. Yoder points out that many male leaders tend to masculinise work by emphasising behaviour that values assertiveness, decisiveness and domination. These qualities are well suited in an industrialised economy with its emphasis on manufacturing.

Entrepreneurship provides the opportunity for women to earn a decent income while balancing their family commitments.

“In an innovation-driven work environment, however, a team’s creative efforts must be managed. Unlike the industrialised economy, this new work setting needs women leaders who are able to not just provide a sense of direction, facilitate creative discourse, manage conflict and tap into the diversity of their team; but are empathetic, willing to listen and who value non-conformity as well.”

First-time Entrepreneur

Goh Ai Ching, the co-founder and CEO of Piktochart, started the web-based infographic application with her husband Andrea Zaggia seven years ago in Penang. The couple are firsttime entrepreneurs and now boast a team of 58 employees, with 17 of them working remotely in Europe, North America and Singapore.

“While the designing and technical aspects are built here in Penang, our customer service and marketing are based abroad. In a technical environment like ours, the pace is extremely fastmoving. We cannot not innovate nor can we have a software that stays the same. Customers expect you to come up with new features all the time.

“In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen explains that in disruptive situations, action must be taken before careful plans are made because you do not know what is going to happen to your market. You won’t know how much it needs or how large it can become. The plans that you make serve a very different purpose. They are for learning rather than for implementation because the market is so subject to change. Basically, each action that you are taking is an experimentation; it is just to validate some of the assumptions we have made while building a particular business.”

Goh shares three crucial ingredients needed to create an innovative environment while scaling up a start-up as an entrepreneur: i) To establish a safe environment where good ideas are created and nurtured; ii) Brilliant minds; and iii) Data-informed decision making.

“Good culture is essential. In Piktochart, we have seven core values that we apply when making everyday decisions. These are humble, open up, passionate, excellent, fun-loving, user-focused and love. Culture is truly an unspoken code in that it defines the way we handle difficult situations. Firing employees, for example, is very difficult to do and for me, with no background at all in HR, I needed to learn everything from scratch, and to understand what type of culture we wanted in Piktochart and keep reinforcing that.

“I emphasise that as women, we naturally have a more nurturing, empathetic side to us. When it comes to giving feedback, Andrea is more direct, but I’d evaluate the person’s predispositions before delivering my assessments. I think it’s a complementary feature to have in an organisation.”

Piktochart currently has a ratio of 45% women to 55% men. “I find that it’s very important to have this balance when creating an organisation that scales on talent. James Collins believes that a company should limit its growth based on its ability to attract enough of the right people. It’s something that I deeply believe in as well. Growth is only limited by the inability to hire talented employees, and I think women are an essential part of the workforce today.”

At the stage of life Goh is in now, as a wife, a mother and also an employer, she has felt the need to examine what her family commitments are and what worklife balance actually means. “We are a 58-person team growing at different stages in life. Between us, we have had 15 babies born in the last seven years. The office now has a nursery room and we employ a baby-sitter so that the women are able to work while still ensuring our children are taken care of.

“I think these are deliberate actions that can only be executed if a woman sits at decision-making levels because as a mother, I’m definitely not willing to sacrifice the education of my children for the sake of growing the business. I’m trying to find a balance between the two.”

Bite-sized Business Tips

Business is simple, but it is not easy. Only 20% of business owners survive the first five years, and of that 20%, only 20% will survive the next five years, says Maresa Ng, CEO and president of ActionCOACH Malaysia.

“There are two types of entrepreneurs: those who know what to do and those who do what they know, and the difference between these two groups is a powerful mindset. Most of the time, as entrepreneurs, we’re too busy trying to solve symptoms instead of fixing root causes.”

Ng shares some vital lessons that have plagued many business owners and entrepreneurs while growing their businesses to the stage of commercial success. “Don’t get too busy. Business does not mean ‘busi-ness’; most mistakes happen when we get too busy. Instead, learn how to identify between working in and working on the business. The challenge with business owners is that they don’t have enough time to work on the business because they are too focused on the nitty gritty aspects of internal business. You have to learn how to strategise and plan your thinking time for future business expansion.”

Know your numbers to ensure business sustainability, she councils. “Especially your gross profit and net profit margins. When you understand your margins, you’ll be able to price your products accordingly. This is a very crucial point.”

Having a clear-cut business plan is equally important when setting or working towards target goals. “Keep it short and simple, a one-pager that must be visible at your workstation because entrepreneurs get easily distracted with new ideas and strategies; and always remember to share your plans with your team so that they are prepared to go the distance with you as well.”

Another mistake a lot of entrepreneurs fall prey to is their inability to sell their products. “No one else in your organisation understands your product, service, unique selling proposition and business better than yourself. The challenge with business people is that they do not know how to sell, dislike selling or are afraid of rejection. Don’t be. Rejection is just one more feedback from your potential customer to teach you how to sell better next time – that’s what rejections are for,” says Ng.

1World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017.



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