Letting A Teen Think Like An Entrepreneur

By Emilia Ismail

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Shamita Sheetal.

It was not an easy competition to start with – beginning at the school level, it proceeded to the state level, and then national and international. Each contestant is randomly paired with another contestant from a different country. This is the FedEx Express/Junior Achievement International Trade Challenge (ITC), an annual competition organised by JA Asia Pacific and sponsored by FedEx Express.

Its aim? To nurture the entrepreneurial spirit and business skills of students.

Shamita Sheetal represented Malaysia. She was up till 1am in her hotel room the night before the competition last August, practising and going through as many details as she could. She was so nervous she couldn’t sleep until the crack of dawn.

“I was under pressure, but I also believe it is important to be honest about the realities of running a business. You won’t get the best team all the time and you will have to work with people from different cultures in an organisation. There are other factors that could send a team into a tailspin, such as tight deadlines and uncooperative members,” says Shamita.

She was paired with Trang Hoang from Vietnam and they were given 36 hours to come up with a market entry strategy. “Before the competition, I learnt a lot about the advancement of technology, financial planning and ways to sustain a product in the market. I read a little about customer service and startup companies to get a sense of what I was about to get myself involved in. I did what I could to stay ahead of the pack,” she says.

However, seven hours into the competition, with five failed attempts at a medical product and with virtually nothing to show, panic set in. “Every other team was already working on their slides and were ready to present to the judges. It was nerve-wracking,” she says.

The girls broke down in the bathroom many times. “I think somehow, crying in the bathroom helped us let off some steam and keep our eye on the ball. We reminded ourselves to focus on what we can control, which was to discuss our problems and to agree on our solutions.”

Shamita and Trang Hoang went on to present a revolutionary invention, The Cardiator, which can curb cardiovascular diseases by detecting elevated cardiac enzymes up to six hours before a potential heart attack. The Cardiator is equipped with biomarker sensor technology and a heart rate monitor, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) virtual assist capability for immediate response support – a great leap from existing devices available in the market today.

The pair came second, beating 58 counterparts from Australia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The 16-year-old SMK Convent Green Lane student had been fascinated by medical matters since she was a child. She would borrow medical books from the school library and watch countless videos on surgical procedures. Presenting the Cardiator came easily for Shamita.

Shamita and her teammate, Trang Hoang, at the FedEx Express/Junior Achievement International Trade Challenge.

“To be a cardiothoracic surgeon has been my only career goal in life. I’ve never thought of a plan B because medicine is the only thing I have ever wanted to do,” she says.

But if her dream is to be a cardiothoracic surgeon, why did she compete in an entrepreneurship competition?

“Being entrepreneurial will enable me to understand the medical industry better. I can exploit that knowledge to create new opportunities, be it in research or in making medical breakthroughs as a medical doctor,” says Shamita.

She credits her parents for the win. Sujata Seelan and Sathia Suppiah both had confidence in their daughter’s potential to be a startup superstar.

Describing her daughter as a driven, enthusiastic and confident person, Sujata, a mother of three said Shamita always wants to do her best. “At a tender age, she could conceptualise ideas all by herself. Her interest was also instilled by her school teachers, the Penang Science Cluster and the MNCs in Penang, which regularly organise competitions, campaigns and workshops in which she would participate. We never stopped her from taking part in any of these competitions or workshops.

“Don’t get me wrong – Shamita is just like any other teenager. She enjoys going to the shopping mall with her friends, chatting on the phone and listening to K-pop. But she’s naturally very driven. Sometimes I have to remind her to take things easy,” she says with a laugh.

Sujata and Sathia both started their careers in a product and development company. They think it essential to teach their children the kinds of technologies that are evolving today to make a product sellable and appreciated by customers.

“I think exposing our children to entrepreneurship starts them out on the right foot in life. It helps if we can encourage our children to always think outside the box and create something, rather than always being the consumer,” she says.

But Shamita has her weaknesses, too. According to Sujata, learning to deal with the stress that comes from competing is something Shamita is still coming to terms with. “When she’s working in a very tense situation, she can lose control of herself. But this will be part of her life in any path she chooses, be it in her profession or in daily life. She will need to overcome that through maturity and exposure,” Sujata says.

Would she rather fix Shamita’s weaknesses or continue to develop her strength?

“I go for the latter,” says Sujata. “I see she has many avenues to work on her strengths and perform on a greater platform. I trust she will able to fix her weaknesses along the way.”

Emilia Ismail

is the co-founder of Penang Hidden Gems and a writer. Her articles can be found in The Star, Penang Monthly and Penang Global Tourism.