For Salt’s latest Women in Tech interview, we caught up with Sharala Axryd, Founder and CEO at The Center of Applied Data Science (CADS), to talk diversity and advice on creating an inclusive workplace.
The #SaltSessions Women in Tech #WiT interview series speaks with thought leaders from around the world to get their opinion and advice on how they have grown their career in tech, and overcome challenges and adversity during their career.
What is your current role and the most exciting part of your work?
I’m the Founder and CEO of CADS. The most exciting but challenging part of my work right now is to look upon the growth and scaling up of the company. The challenge is different when it’s a one-person company versus a three-person company. When you’re just starting as an entrepreneur, your main priority is to get revenue, but as you move forward, you have to think about succession plan and sustainability. As we scale up, having to deal with these challenges is a little exciting for me.
What has been your most career defining moment that you are proud of?
It was in 2017 when I won the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Award. To be honest, I wasn’t so much for awards because I don’t handle competition very well. When I was nominated for that award, I never thought that I was any better than my competition, in fact, I thought they were much more successful than me. I established CADS in 2015 with a vision to build something new for the country, but along the way, I would question myself on whether this is the right thing to do. When I won the award in just two years, it gave me some sort of reassurance that I was doing something right. It gave me the confidence that I was creating an impact to other young girls from small towns that had big ambitions to be successful. The award also got my mum to stop worrying about me not having a steady income. I think all the doubts at that point were answered when I won the award.
What do you think we should be doing more of to encourage more girls to consider a career in tech?
I think the effort to encourage more girls to consider a career in technology should be until ‘the cows come home’. But having said that, of course, there has to be a will and determination to do it. I think there should be enough mentorships, especially for young teenagers — they need role models. Yes, there are figures like Oprah or Michelle Obama, but for a lot of people they are too high up there, they’re untouchable, so girls who come from small towns can’t get close to these figures. Hence, people like you and me, who are from this environment should take the time to become the mentor. I’m generalising things here, but IT or tech people are ‘inward-looking’ where they would only think about business and technology. When I won the EY award, my friend reminded me that this is the platform for me to share my stories and inspire others.
What challenges have you faced in the workplace, especially your experience in male-dominated environments?
I am where I am today because I am a woman. It’s really hard for me to answer this because four out of five of my advisories are men. Having said that, one prominent challenge that I do face is loneliness. When you’re working in a male-dominated environment, you’re not in the ‘boys club’, so your approach in getting things done is slightly different.
What is the biggest deterrent in your opinion to women succeeding in the workplace?
The mind! Don’t get me wrong, but some women tend to think that they are not ambitious enough. The thing is, women can be aggressive, but I don’t understand why we would not put ourselves on the pedestal and try to achieve more. Maybe culturally, we are told to be content, and not be selfish, but that shouldn’t stop anyone to go for more. If you are aggressive in what you want, the outlook would be a little different as a woman.
Who has been your biggest advocate/mentor in your career and why?
Subconsciously, the two groups of people that support me all the way are Robert, my husband and my parents. My mum has always prioritised education, and has always wanted me to have a steady career and to build a family. After I married Robert, I realised my parents had laid the foundation in terms of education and Robert is the one who pushes me on my entrepreneurial journey. Thus, these two sets of people are the pillars of my strength. They are also my teammates in terms of backing my personal responsibilities as they would help take care of the kids when I’m busy. This type of ecosystem is really needed for me to thrive.
As an employer, what would you recommend to other companies regarding infrastructure to have in place to develop the best talent?
In CADS, we label it as a ‘trust-based’ environment where freedom comes with a huge amount of responsibility. We have created an environment where we give freedom to our people. When COVID-19 happened, the management implemented remote working as a policy but employees had to take accountability in what they do. I can see that everybody in the company is committed and I believe this environment allows employees to grow. It is hard to achieve this, but I think companies should look into it as it would allow employees to prosper and thrive.
In a management position, how have you found it best to promote and nurture women’s careers?
Mentoring is the best method. I’m going to get killed when I say this, but women tend to be insecure. We need the validation, and having someone to guide and mentor us would help a lot! We will be surprised at what we can do, but we need to have that confidence. Once we have the confidence, it will be very easy for us to move forward.
What are some of the best and worst workplace initiatives you have seen/heard of to help promote diversity?
Recently, I’ve been learning more about organisational development, design and implementation (DDI) and I do feel that most companies’ initiatives, especially the bigger companies will do it just because they have to. There’s no heart and real action. Inclusivity is important, but accountability is important too. Everybody from the senior leaders to interns need to take accountability in pushing this agenda forward. I do know it’s easier said than done.
The best initiative is from Sweden where they have 49% women and 51% men in the workforce, and they treat everybody equally. For example, they provide the same amount of paternity leave as maternity leave. When you have this kind of ecosystem where the welfare of the workforce is taken care of, it would definitely raise the GDP (gross domestic product). And when you have raised the GDP, it would allow the country to have better healthcare, education and infrastructure. I think organisations can look at how Sweden was able to create this social economic environment.
How has COVID-19 affected the way you work?
I’ve been wanting to push for a trust-based culture in the company even before the lockdown. However, my senior leadership team thought if we would work from home, the productivity would not be there. But since the lockdown, the team is more productive having to work remotely. There’s less time spent on traffic and it’s easier for every one of us. Of course, we would have Zoom fatigue, but I told my team they have to figure out ways to settle it themselves as we are all adults, and it is our responsibility to do our work. I would suggest physical activities or develop hobbies to cope with fatigue, but the team has to figure it out on their own.
What changes do you foresee in the workplace in the next 12 months?
I think people will slowly get into the remote working environment even after lockdown. I don’t foresee people going back to the office in full capacity by next year.
Who is your modern-day hero?
My modern-day hero is Hans Rosling. He’s a Swedish physician, academic and public speaker. I first saw him in 2015 when I watched his interview with the BBC on YouTube. He would promote the use of data to explore social issues. He’s also published a book called ‘Factfulness’ where he suggested that the vast majority of people are wrong about the state of the world. He demonstrates that his test subjects believe the world is poorer, less healthy and more dangerous than it actually is, attributing this not to random chance but to misinformation.
Any reading/website you would recommend to stay updated?
One thing that I’ve always told my kids is that you cannot stick to one medium. You need to get a world view about stuff and you need to read as much as you can.
What is your biggest stress reliever?
Binge-watching Netflix! I can hands down tell you that. Currently, I’m watching a series called ‘The Originals’. It’s a spin-off from ‘The Vampire Diaries’ where it is about vampires and drama.
Is there one piece of advice you wish somebody gave you at the beginning of your career?
There are so many advice people gave me at the beginning of my career which only made sense later. It all depends on what phase you are in business or in life, and that is why it’s quite particular for me when I’m about to give a piece of advice because people would not see it until they are faced with a challenge.
However, one common theme that I got from the books that I’ve read about entrepreneurship is that you should never borrow money from the bank. You need to grow the money organically. Banks will only loan you money when you have money. You need to build your credibility with the financier. That’s the piece of advice I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career.
What job did you dream of when you were a kid — your Plan A career path?
I always wanted to become a doctor as I already had everything planned out. I wanted to build my own clinic and put 10% of my salary into helping pregnant teenagers raise their kids while still furthering their studies. I believe that education is the key for a better future. But when I did my A-Levels, I realised that biology requires a lot of reading and memorising while physics is more logical. I am simply bad with memorising things, so I skewed my path into studying engineering.
Fun fact about you?
Nobody knows that I can paint. I remember asking my parents to send me to tuition, so that I could take up the arts stream. I was not a natural artist, but I was taught to paint. It’s too bad that it’s been awhile since the last time I took up a paintbrush. Maybe I’ll revisit this talent soon.
With a passion for data science and over 15 years of experience in the telecommunications field under her belt, Sharala Axryd is the leader in data-driven business transformation and driving the benchmark for data science solutions in the ASEAN region. She is a thought leader in the data science space and a highly sought-after advocate for women in STEM. She is also an award-winner of the EY Woman Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Malaysia and among the Digerati 50 by Digital News Asia (DNA) to name a few.
Sharala is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Center of Applied Data Science (CADS), ASEAN’s first and only one-stop platform and centre of excellence for data science. She was part of the team that brought in The Data Incubator (an American-based data science centre) to Malaysia, launched ASEAN’s first data science accelerator programme in 2016 and spearheaded an initiative with the Harvard Business School in Boston to support Malaysia’s national agenda to be the hub for big data analytics (BDA).
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