As an Oxford graduate with six languages under her belt, the founder of MBits Digital is quite literally a #girlboss. After spending some time in the political scene, she decided to venture into the world of entrepreneurship and started her own telco and broadcasting company. One of the youngest female CEOs in Malaysia, Sara Nattaya Azmi talks about her career transition and inequality in her industry.
In the keynote speech you gave during our ‘no holdbacks’ health forum, you mentioned that you’ve always wanted to join the United Nations and you went on to work in politics when you came back to Malaysia. What made you want to transition from politics to the telecommunications industry?
I didn’t actually go into politics by choice, [laughs] it was by coincidence. I was surrounded by, fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of politicians growing up because of my mother.
I met a politician when I was in the phase where I wanted to join the United Nations. Generally, with the United Nations, the idea for me was doing politics but on a global scale, and I thought that would be the best way to make a change. But then I met a local politician who said if I wanted to go global and didn’t even understand my own country, especially grassroots needs, then I should forget about trying to achieve what I wanted with the United Nations.
That was a bit of a shock to me. So, I became an international liaison officer for a politician first, which revolved around communications. When that individual became a minister, I became a private secretary which again, was also about communications.
After going into politics and meeting people on the ground, you realise it’s actually all about communications and how to put the message across for the person to understand what you’re trying to do for them. That was the biggest thing that I learnt in politics, especially in grassroots: the importance of finding simple ways to put a general message for everyone across the board to understand.
After about six years in politics, I left because I didn’t really enjoy that kind of environment. Being in a dog-eat-dog environment, it was always about survivability and looking behind you to see if someone is going to stab you in the back.
With the amount of experience that I had in communications on that level, I thought of trying to do the same thing on a nationwide scale but not from a political perspective. So, it wasn’t a very big leap from politics and communications. The transition for me was very natural.
Why was it important for you to start your own company?
I do a lot of content. I really, really believe that content is the future in moulding the minds of the people. I’m not saying that education isn't fundamental, it definitely is but some may not have access to education. There’s a big chunk of people who cannot afford higher education, maybe basic education but not necessarily at a higher level.
I attempted to create positive messages – ‘edutainment’, as I call it – for these people or generally everybody across the board. It was very difficult because I didn’t own the platforms. When you look at the media platforms around 2013 or 2014, it’s going back to TV stations and traditional forms of media. So, I needed my own platform in order for me to create the type of content that I think will be beneficial for society.
When you don’t own the platforms, there are so many challenges. For example, I did a very big content called 1Malaysia Ikon and I managed to get the prime minister at the time, Dato' Sri Najib to endorse it. It’s basically about me getting very influential Malaysians that are all over the world like Zang Toi, Yuna, Jimmy Choo, Michelle Yeoh, etc. to show the younger generation that you can achieve anything in any industry at a global scale if you put your mind to it. The content was all self-funded. When we wanted to get it to broadcast, the broadcast station was giving us a hard time despite the fact that it was actually supported by the prime minister’s office. They said that the content wasn’t commercial enough and that it was too educational, so they couldn’t give us airtime.
At 23 years old, I created content that I really wanted to share with the young people of that time and I couldn’t because I didn’t have my own platform. That’s why it’s so important for me that I build my own company today to own both telecommunications and broadcasting platforms.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when transitioning into a different field?
I would say financial survivability. It’s very challenging when you’re coming from a political background where you’re employed to suddenly transition into doing something else and becoming an entrepreneur. It’s taking a very big risk with whatever funds that you have to start something that you believe will benefit not only yourself but also everyone else.
I was really young at the time. At 25, I got my telecommunications and broadcasting licensing from the Ministry of Communications. That was very monumental because as a young person and also a woman, there is close to none in the industry who has all this licensing.
Another challenge for me was exploring telecommunications and broadcasting to build these platforms. Mind you, I wasn’t really mature yet. In my mind, I thought I was because I was already achieving so much at such a young age. The problem is that your mind may be mature but you haven’t experienced that much emotionally. It’s like a constant battle. You’re thinking this is the right decision but you’re just assuming because you’re making a decision based on emotions while thinking you’re mature and doing the right thing. So, these are all the big challenges as a young entrepreneur at that time.
Do you ever feel like you’re not being taken seriously by those in your industry because of your age or gender? If so, how do you navigate that situation?
I think it's definitely a factor. When you look at Malaysia, every industry is still dominated by people in a certain age group whether it’s corporate or telecoms. Even until today, I think I’m the only one within the youth age group who has all this licensing and is building all these platforms on top of being a woman. Naturally in Malaysia, there are a lot of women in the fashion and F&B industry who are business owners but with telecommunications and broadcasting, you’ll most likely not able to find another one. It’s a very male-dominated industry.
As I go along, I see that it’s very technical and challenging because from a media perspective, women are always objectified. There’s a mindset that women have a very specific role in the media industry.
So, I have to challenge myself and convince people that I know what I’m doing through self-confidence. What I try to do is that I try to remember my objective and what I’m trying to achieve and just focus on that.
Sara Nattaya goes even deeper into gender inequality and entrepreneurship in the second part of the interview.