Fundnel Spotlight 12 October 2020

Women Leaders: Investing in the Next Generation of Women


Our long-overdue panellist of women leaders grace us with wisdom on sustainability, entrepreneurship, Islamic finance and what it means to invest in others.

At every stage of life, when a woman is given her deserving chance and invested in, statistics show that she drives profits — for everyone.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, if women and men around the world participated equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP could ultimately rise by 3% to 6%, boosting the global economy by $2.5 trillion to $5 trillion. Research by The Peterson Institute for International Economics also found that having women at the C-Suite level significantly increases net margins.

Fundnel's Growth Lead, Eunice Cheng recently moderated a panel discussion with women leaders who are on ground propelling the local economy through their individual focus areas of the environment, self care and financial independence. The chat explores their journey, their challenges and the many hats these leaders wear in forging an equitable path for the next generation of Malaysian women.

The panellists

Ambika Sangaran · Partner, Biji-Biji Initiative & Me.reka

Elaine Hong · Co-founder & CEO, Enya

Joann Enriquez · CEO, Investment Account Platform (IAP)

Missed the webinar? Check out the replay or read a summary below.

The content below has been summarised and edited for brevity.

Ambika, you’ve been with Biji-Biji from the very start — what sparked this initiative and Me.reka?

The reasons for starting Biji-Biji and Me.reka was more about creating social change when it comes to visibility, addressing environmental challenges and environmental-based community challenges. With Me.reka, it's more about education — we create youth and community developmental modules that are focused on re-skilling and upskilling. The whole reason for starting both these businesses was to create and constructively build these impacts within our business as well as the country and Southeast Asian region.

From fashion to sustainable fashion and now to organic pads — what inspired you to the path you’re on today Elaine?

I never thought I would start a sanitary pad business, but it is the journey that led me there. I used to be in fast fashion, where clothes are produced and manufactured without thinking about whether or not people are paid well, or if the fabrics used are eco-friendly and don’t do harm to our skin, or if the cultivation of crops has been ethically maintained. After that fast fashion stint I dove into sustainable fashion — where we think about a more circular way of producing our design ideas without forgoing the environmental and social impact of the industry, because fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil, according to statistics. I fell in love with what I did in sustainable fashion, and it was actually Biji-Biji that inspired me, but I realised that I’d been putting too much effort in clothes, and we don't really need so many clothes in this world.

After that, my business partner and I got together to discuss the next thing that we would like to do, and I always wanted to get into business. One thing that I personally experienced was discomfort whenever my period came, and there is little to no innovation when it comes to sanitary pads, because the big players in the personal care industry like Unilever, P&G have been in this space for as long as we can remember. We did our research and discovered organic cotton pads, but the ones that are sold in Malaysia are very expensive and for people like me, I wouldn't want to burn a hole in my pocket just to spend on something that is a necessity. So with my sustainable fashion background and my business partner’s experience in technology, we came together and that's how Enya was born.

Joann, I understand you’re a mum of 3 wonderful children and on top of your CEO role, also run your own business on the side — how do you balance your roles as a leader, entrepreneur, and mother?

It's a breath of fresh air to be around women for a change. First and foremost, opportunities and challenges will come and go, but you really have to know what you value the most. From there, and with proper time management, everything else will just fall into place. If you don't hold on to what you value, when a new opportunity comes and you just let go of that, it will disrupt everything in a very negative way. However, if you know what's important for you and you really hold on to that and don't compromise, then even if you achieve those things that are secondary, it becomes incidental.

So I think that's what has worked for me from my journey. Some will match your plans, some will not, some will exceed your expectations, some will not but if you hold on to what's important, things will go on as they should eventually. Then of course, time management and also asking for help and knowing that you have a support group of people around you, whether it's family or adopted family and friends — always remember you're not alone in the journey.

So Ambika, sustainability and green business is making the news for good reason right now. How challenging has it been for you as an entrepreneur to incorporate green business practices and convince investors and corporate partners to support the opportunities?

The investors I believe will come when you have customers, because that's where your product is proven. The hardest part for us was actually convincing consumers. Since the beginning of last year, there has been a lot of effort to promote awareness of environmental issues and sustainable products, which we thought was a good thing to have our products accepted. However, there was very little sales pickup for our sustainable products stocked at prominent shopping malls with write ups highlighting the sustainability aspect. Once we removed the signs, we started seeing sales, and I realised customers had the thought of “Why should I buy or spend money on trash?” or “You should give it to me at a discounted price because it's made out of waste materials”. That's not the point! Because it is made out of waste materials, we actually put in a lot more effort in comparison to regular materials to make the products; ensuring they are made fairly, and including a lot more sustainable elements. So for us, the challenge is in the consumer's perception and convincing them. Once that happens, I think investors will come.

From a B2B perspective, the challenge is in the tendering process. In a corporate order, customers need to receive three quotations, and the sustainable product will definitely be more expensive than the cheapest quotation. That's because the moment you implement ethical processes—such as minimum wage, etc.—in the production of sustainable products, you won't be commercially competitive. And if a procurement manager only looks at the lowest cost, then there will be no market for sustainable products. So, I think procurement policies and procedures need to change. They cannot just look at the cheapest product, but they need to look at the sustainable product. Then we can compete. These two are the biggest hurdles in my opinion.

Elaine, the fundraising gender gap is widely known, and though much is being done to address this in the region, what have the differences been (if any) when it comes to pitching to male vs female investors during your fundraising journey for Enya, especially when period care isn’t traditionally spoken so openly about?

Based on my experience, I find that female investors are the ones that tend to understand the necessity of incorporating our unique selling point of organic cotton in sanitary pads. They also understand the importance of choosing something that is better for sensitive body parts, especially during our periods. So health-wise, they understand that better.

When it comes to investing and meeting potential investors though, we are very grateful that we haven’t experienced a difference between female or male investors' understanding of our business model, just because we are a female-centric business or because we sell sanitary pads. Ultimately, it comes down to whether consumers want it, whether there is a demand for the market, whether there is potential for growth in this business, whether there's opportunity for a market leap. So that was the direction and the vision that we wanted to drive at — to tell investors that we're not just a sanitary pad company, we're a femtech subscription-based company with more to come.

As Malaysia continues to take the lead in growing the Islamic finance landscape, more women are seeking opportunities within the sector. What more do you think can be done to even out the proportion of women in Islamic finance locally and globally Joann?

With anything, it's a matter of education. Islamic finance is becoming more mainstream because of the growing population of Muslims, and the demand is obviously higher and the trajectory of its growth is attracting attention from all corners of the globe.

For people who are not familiar, Islamic finance is a matter of religion, and so it is not a trend. In my opinion, the reason why the pie is not any larger than it is now is because the offering is very small. Many countries are still struggling to figure out how to make Islamic finance mainstream, especially within the banking space. But alternatives such as crowdfunding in the capital market space are becoming bigger, and now you have digital banking that's also allowing for more creative solutions. So, that is why there's an attraction there and that is why we urge everyone—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—to study this, because Islamic finance is going to grow primarily because there is a still a very big void in terms of offerings, whether it's in financing, investment, access or regulation — it’s still at its infancy stage.

In Malaysia, I think the first entry into Islamic finance in Malaysia is the creation of Tabung Haji, even before they created the bank. That was in the 1960s but the tenets of what we follow in Islamic finances are as old as Islam itself; it's just finding a modern solution to the same fundamental pillars. People would ask me what is Islamic finance—and I come from a conventional space in the Silicon Valley meaning traditional, conventional banking and studied in Malaysia in INCEIF for two years—but it's basically fair dealings among people and to make sure that all of your dealings and parties are on an equal playing field, whether it's the investor or the one borrowing the money, whether it's the bank or the one keeping the money. There's a very big opportunity to be able to create many solutions and that's why everyone is now getting into the Islamic digital economy, and Islamic finance in the digital space.

According to Harvard Business Review, while access to financial and human capital has been of much focus in supporting female entrepreneurs, another key success factor that tends to be overlooked is access to networks, or social capital. The Asia Foundation, an international development organisation, found that women in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand who use established networks and associations are 24% more likely to plan for growth than women who don’t use such resources. In addition, the businesses of women using networks and associations are, on average, 38% larger than those of women who don’t access such resources.

What kind of support networks have you leveraged to expand your own networks to grow your businesses? Does having a male counterpart help?

Elaine: My business partner is male and we would get questions from investors and friends if he understands anything about sanitary pads and I would say yes! Having Chris aboard is very beneficial, we've separated our roles in the company very clearly and he is one of the main supporting pillars in building Enya to what it is right now.

In terms of network support, I'm a highly introverted person. So when I go to any social or networking events, I tend to be very shy and reserved but I'm trying to get better, and we do leverage our existing networks such as our friends and business partners to slowly expand our network.

Also yes, having a male counterpart does help. Even though we have women-centric conversations, we have always wanted to be inclusive as well because we realised that when it comes to women's health, it's very important to get men involved in the conversations too - to provide a safe space to talk about it, and not to shame them for asking things that they genuinely care about. So starting this business with Chris has helped shape the company into what it is today, in terms of our culture as well as in shaping employees' conversations and this directly impacts our consumers and society as a whole.

Joanne: My board is made up of six CEOs of six of the banks of Malaysia, and I'm the only female and that's been the case in most of the places I go to, whether it's a webinar or talk or meeting. I don't think I've tapped into a specific network as you cited in terms of my journey. For some reason, I never really saw myself too different being female. When I was in Silicon Valley, my whole team was male, and it never really occurred to me that my being female was something that held me back.

However, that's not what everyone goes through. I recognise that for us to really be successful in promoting equity among the genders, it is necessary that we as females band together and really help each other. All of the studies are showing that most of the funding is going to the male because most of the ones investing are male, so this is just the nature of the game. To be able to solve that I think we as females also need to then be more visible and take ownership of our money, firstly, and help those who are also trying to break glass ceilings. Personally, I think we as a female population should be more present, especially in the investing space.

Ambika: In regards to working with male or female partners, I don't think gender is the most important thing. It's more about what you want to achieve and who the best person that can deliver whatever you want to get done right. Because at the end of the day, we're looking to achieve gender equity not necessarily empowering women in order to discriminate against men — that doesn't work as well.

When it comes to networking, I haven't really had anything like a networking platform or a group that I've belonged to. The thing is, because Biji-Biji Initiative and Me.reka have been around for a long time, we’ve been able to build our own network. And while who you know is important, it's not so much about what you can gain from them, but what you can learn from them.

As someone that doesn't come from KL, I did not have an organic network here. Also, I studied overseas, so all my university friends that I could potentially connect with were not here. So a lot of the time, the networks that I depend on are actually my partners whose friends are in KL, and while they may be older than me, these are the networks that I can tap into. I would say that it is super important to build our own networks but how does one go about it? That's the hard part that I'm still struggling with.

A recent research report from the Journal of Consumer Research found men and women both judged eco-friendly products, behaviours, and consumers as more feminine than their non-green counterparts. Have you seen this ‘green gender gap’ through your work at Biji-Biji and Me.reka and how do you think this can be addressed?

Ambika: I'm not sure! I can also think about men who do want our products, and that buy and support our products. So I think it's more about the design of the product. Our designs are indeed more feminine-oriented and I think if our designs were more male-oriented it would definitely be more targeted.

At the end of the day, it's about the consumer wanting to buy the product, regardless of whether it's sustainable—that's what I'm learning. But at the same time there's also this narrative where women are more concerned about social impact, and if you go to a corporate, you may not see women but if you go to an NGO or CSO boardroom, you'll see a lot of women there. I haven't looked at all the numbers but from my own observation, most of the time even in the corporate boards, the C-suite positions that women hold are the Chief Sustainability Officer and CHRO roles most of the time—these two are very social-oriented roles. In these positions, the number of males are also lower so it could be as the narrative says, but I can’t be too sure.

Elaine I know that investing in self-care and understanding your body is something that you frequently educate women on through your Instagram following of about 14,000 followers as of last count. Why do you think that is important and what do you hope that your customers and followers take away from the content that you share?

Relating back to our company ethos, of course we want to talk about vaginal, body and health care first because that's what we are about but mental health is something that we want to go towards and I think that it's important to share this content. I feel that the current commercial companies are lacking an emotional and personal connection with their consumers.

So when it comes to Enya, we don’t just want to sell you period products and just clap our hands and walk away. In fact when we started developing our products and selling them, we realised that rashes and discomfort is not only the problem here. There is a lack of education on these matters in Malaysia, so as a brand we wanted to do something more. We started with social media as it's the most organic way to reach our customers and so we interact with them by way of shareable, educational content. Nowadays people are very visual so we use pictures and try to incorporate things that you can find in scientific textbooks.

Also through our collaboration with brands and NGOs, we noticed that there is such a thing called period poverty. It’s not talked about in Malaysia, so there are no specific statistics on it yet, but we notice that it's a huge problem because it is a necessity. For instance, I know that there's this one particular school where there are girls whose families are struggling financially to get them sanitary pads. So this is one of the things that we would like to work towards in terms of education and awareness.

So with Enya as a period of self care brand, yes, it's important to take care of your health, and it's important to take care of your mental health but it's also important to take care of others. I think as a company, it's our responsibility to do so.

Along the same lines of empowering us with education, being financially independent as a woman is also important. Joann, what are the ways you would propose that women can achieve this?

We’ll divide it into two groups. In many societies, the one that is really controlling the purse or the wallet is the female. I think that's true for the Philippines where I'm from and that's true for people that I know here in Malaysia; the decision maker of who and what to buy is basically the women's. But I think you have to go deeper as I'm not so sure if the investment is also then done by her as well, so that is an area to explore. I haven't really looked at numbers but the overall idea is that in societies where the woman has the money and able to spend and save and I suppose when she can save, by default she can invest too.

For the younger ones, of course you're going to have to earn your money first. Next is to save, and this is the thing we're trying to teach the children now. From a very young age we have to train our children, female or male, to be able to handle their money and so it becomes ingrained in them and they see the value of money.

Of course when you become older and you've saved a bundle of wealth, you can grow that whether by working or being an entrepreneur. It's financial literacy but more so in this women talk, I think it's empowering our girls that they can do whatever they want, and there's no stopping them from doing what they wish to do. Whether they're male or female, it shouldn't be specific to them.

We’ve spoken a lot about a lot of things but I also want to ask you how were you personally invested in when you were growing up (personally, socially, financially) and how have you invested back?

Elaine: The first thing I think about is my family. Both my parents have set a very good foundation for me and my siblings; making sure that we received our education, always there whenever we need their advice. They’re just generally very good examples to look up to and they've provided this very strong layer for me. In terms of what they've invested in me, apart from advice, I think it's examples of their attributes and traits that I've seen.

In terms of giving back, whenever I'm leading the team for example, I always think about how my dad runs the household. My dad is a very patient person and he empathises with people a lot and even though on the outlook he's very fierce, he's actually not. When it's time to show kindness, and even when it's not the time to, he would still show kindness to everybody. I think that has helped me a lot in shaping how I lead Enya today, and though we're just a very small team of five people, we are progressing. So whenever I have troubles, I always think about how my dad leads the household and his team in his company and I learn from his physical, emotional and mental attributes.

Ambika: A lot of people definitely invested and laid the foundation for me, and there are people that are still investing in me because there are different parts of your life and there are different levels of guidance that you need and that's also why whatever I'm doing now is here.

I just wanted to point out about the way parents invest into their children can enable or disable them to be who they are. I’ve noticed that how the parents treat a daughter or a son can make a whole difference in their career progression. If parents say that you have to come back by a certain time, but there’s something that's due today and the daughter is forced to go home - who's going to get the promotion next month?

Similarly for someone from a poorer family who cannot afford their own transportation and has to take public transport in Malaysia — you don't get good quality public transport by 9pm especially if you're out of the LRT line in KL. You have to be out of the office by 7pm just to get home, and so in that case who's going to be there to meet the manager to actually do the job?

I'm seeing these things and so when it comes to why corporate women are not getting to the top as corporate leaders, I don't think it's because they are not capable, but maybe we don't have the structures that allow it. It’s not just about gender but it's also about income inequality. So in terms of investing back, I'm very passionate about social and environmental matters and I'm interested in structures, processes and procedures more than just helping one person. I hope that I'll be able to design and develop ecosystems that will help a lot more people to achieve an equitable world faster.

Joann: We've been talking about finance from my side; I think the most important investment that one can make is time. I always tell my children this — money can be earned back. Time cannot. So the investment of your parents, friends, mentors in terms of the time they give, these are the real investment that's made to you, more than the money. Many people have given me their time to allow me to be where I am now and of course that's family, peers, staff, team, everyone from the person who drove me to work to my nanny growing up - all of these are people who have invested in me.

In giving back, within the family you try to be a better parent, a better friend. It could also be to share your resources and your time with the people around you in the simplest of ways and in the most grand of ways such as creating projects that impact the whole neighborhood or a whole country, but we don't minimize what small things can do within the home, the neighborhood and within our circles of friends.

You've mentioned mental health; one of the reasons why there are rampant problems of mental health more than ever is because I think we've been too busy to listen to our friends, to our sisters, our children and to our parents because it has just gotten so complicated, I suppose these days. But I think the offering of time is something everyone can afford to give back.

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