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Advice & Inspiring Words from Malaysia’s STEM pioneer

September 18, 2017
To promote fresh thinking, new ideas, and different perspectives in the STEM (science, tech, engineering and mathematics) sector, Malaysia has launched the National STEM Transformation Plan 2017-2025 to attract more women to enrol for STEM education courses - women made up less than half of the graduates in engineering and technology in 2015.
The STEM gender in-balance is not unique to Malaysia. Only 23% of STEM researchers across East Asia and the Pacific today are women. This in-balance is unlikely to change in the near term because the percentage of women currently enrolled in STEM courses remains low across many parts of the region – 37% in Thailand, 33% in Singapore, 44% in Malaysia, and 10% in Cambodia.

Balancing the equation

Across ASEAN, and the rest of the world, GE is aiming to “balance the equation” by setting a goal of having 20,000 women fill STEM roles throughout the company by 2020. To achieve this, the company is running programs including the “If You Can See It, You Can Be It” initiative, and others that include highlighting the example of regional STEM role models such as Fikarina in Indonesia, and Phan Kim Nen, Le Thi Thu Hang, and Le Thi La in Vietnam.

Malaysia’s female STEM pioneer width=One of the best-known females making a mark in Malaysia’s STEM sector is Anu Sheela Themudu, the co-founder of innovative tech company iGeneEstablished in 2005, iGene is a medical informatics company that develops new medical capabilities including digital autopsies. Anu recently made time to talk to GE Reports, sharing more about her career highlights and challenges, together with words of advice for young women who want to make it in the STEM sector.

1. Anu, what’s your current role, and main responsibilities?

I am the co-founder and the first formal employee of iGene Sdn. Bhd. My entrepreneurial breadth covers conceptualization, building and nurturing of a company from its greenfield situation. iGene has been my primary venture since graduating with a BBA from the University of Hertfordshire and an MBA from Universiti Putra Malaysia.

In terms of responsibilities, I’m focused on strategic management by formulating the global operational plan, financials, and mapping resources to business activities. Execution has been my primary role by ensuring deployments are done on time and within budgets set.

As digital autopsy is a new concept, and talent is not readily available. I spend time finding people with the right attitude and fundamental knowledge, to train and equip them with the required skill sets. I am personally involved in the selection of employees, their development and mentoring with the view to continue nurturing a much-desired entrepreneurial spirit across the team.

I have also been instrumental in expanding the company to Bangalore, Melbourne, and London. In 2011, I was recognized as a top-5 finalist for Women Entrepreneur of the Year, Malaysian Prime Minister's Award for excellence in management and entrepreneurship. My contribution to science and technology and dedication to growing iGene was also recognized in Women Assembly Achiever's Award, 2015. Most recently, I become the first Malaysian to be selected as a finalist for the prestigious Telstra Business Woman in Asia Award, Australia.

2. How, and when, did you become interested in working in the healthcare and IT field?

A pure turn of events. I was the first employee of the company that incubated iGene. My business partner, Matt Chandran - who founded iGene - could not pay my salary then and suggested I look for another job. As I came from an above average family, I proposed working without salary for a year as I believed in what the company was doing. As a result, I was offered shares and made a business partner of the company. We embarked on this journey together, leading the change - of the 550-year-old post-mortem practice - into a superior non-invasive, and efficient technique. The Royal College of Pathology United Kingdom has recognized digital autopsy as the future of post-mortem examination best practice.

3. Throughout your education, and training did you feel daunted by being in a predominantly male environment?

When I was studying, I didn't look at myself as a female. I’m a very strong person by nature - that was how my dad brought up the girls in the family. With confidence, dedication, and positive thinking, I know I can overcome any problem faced. This is very true when I started working with iGene. My business partner is a person who believes in opportunity for all with merit.

At iGene, my method for recruitment is based on two criteria - attitude and aptitude. iGene's team comprises talents from eight different nationalities with an almost 50:50 gender makeup. As an employer, I only want to recruit the best - gender is not an issue.

4. How did male colleagues treat you then – has it changed much over the years to present day?

I am in a fortunate situation because I sit on the other side of the fence as an employer. I believe my male colleagues are left with no choice but to give me respect. However, I do see some female staff being treated unfairly just because of their gender by their respective bosses.

I believe this is common across any industry or country. For someone to gain respect, it must come from within yourself. When you have high self-esteem, you will eventually gain respect. People will not push you around because you are female, they push you around because you are weak – you must stand firm in your beliefs and self-worth.

I currently see many programmes championed by corporates and governments addressing gender equality. This is a good start, but to see a big impact, the change should come from you. Tell yourself, you are not less than the men out there. Mental strength is the biggest tool to close the perceived gap of gender inequality. Policies and programmes put in place by the government, and corporates will escalate the speed of achievement, but not quality.

5. Since you have been working, have you noticed more women coming into the industry?

Yes, I see more and more women coming into the STEM sector. I think this is because there are awareness programs that the government is currently conducting in schools. Companies like Facebook, Google, Tesla, and Alibaba - to name a few - have created excitement among children.

6. To young women who may be considering a career in the STEM sector, what advice or encouragement would you give them?

My simple advice is please stop thinking that because you are a woman, you are at a disadvantaged. Such state of mind is your biggest drawback. You are mentally defeated before you even start the race. Tell yourself, I’m going to conquer the moon and plan your strategy, set your target, and execute with full confidence and positivity. On your way to achieving your goals/dreams, you may tumble, face hurdles, challenges, problems. But remember, a problem is a problem regardless of gender. Therefore, one’s achievement, or failure, is in their own hands, and not others.