#1: The Serial Entrepreneur

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Azran Osman-Rani, the founder of Naluri Hidup and former CEO of AirAsia X, fully embraces his unorthodox career trajectory. But while his ability to take on different challenges is inspiring, his perspectives and reactions towards failure is what sets him apart.


AZRAN: I stayed an extra year at Stanford to do my master's degree for the one sole reason. I'll tell you this, only one reason because my senior year, we were the undefeated number 1 ranked Ultimate Frisbee team in the whole country. That was an amazing team. We were undefeated, completely clean slate. All the way to the national championships in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, won all of our games in pool play on day 1, won our semi-finals. In the finals, we met the number 2 team in the country, from the East Coast, and we lost 20 - 17. The one and only game that we lost was in the national championship finals.

AZURA: … the game that really mattered.

AZRAN: The game that really mattered. Uh, so I applied for the Master's programme to do 1 more year so that I could go back to the national championships and take another shot at it. And we got to the national championships in my master's year, but we lost in the semi-finals.

AZURA: Oh no-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh! This supposed to be a killer redemption, Azran. You should say you won it.

AZRAN: No, I know. But life is not a fairy tale. You learn. You learn failure..

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Brought to you by Mercedes-Benz and BFM, you're listening to Shift, Steer and Strive -- a show that shines the spotlight on influential minds, and the inspiring, as well as sometimes eccentric personalities behind them. I'm Azura Rahman.

On today's episode: Azran Osman Rani.

Azran has worn many hats during the course of his roller-coaster career. He was the CEO of AirAsia X, the Senior Director of Business Development over at Astro, and CEO for iflix Malaysia. Azran is currently laser-focused on making mental healthcare more accessible via Naluri Hidup - a digital coaching platform that aims to shrink the divide between professional help and the people who need it.

Mercedes Benz Malaysia was cool enough to drop off a CLS 450 at our studios - and Azran being Azran, jumped at the chance to get behind the wheel… while I jumped at the chance to get the interview going as we took the car for a spin. Despite the Taman Tun traffic and minor bumps here and there, we somehow managed to have a meaningful conversation.

AZRAN: Absolutely, absolutely. That's been like my single consistent business purpose over the last 15 years.

AZURA: Right - trying to change society?

AZRAN: No - to provide services at a more affordable and accessible.. but at the same time - how do you create better services. It's not just "here's what's available today". People are paying RM100 for it, and therefore we're just making it available at RM10. But how do you make it better than the RM100 version at RM10 because you have the luxury of starting from a blank sheet of paper.

AZURA: So It's not about piling it high and selling it cheap - it's about giving everyone the same access - similar access

AZRAN: Yeah. Hopefully even better access. Whether it is iFlix, where it used to be you watch your tv shows in a room that's connected to a set top box. If you want to watch in another room, you gotta pay for your set top box. To one where it's not the convenience of it being on mobile, but to be able to download your shows so you can watch it when you don't have internet connectivity. When you're on an AirAsia flight, or when you're on an LRT ride, and you don't have a lot of data quota, right? So, offering a better product at an even more affordable rate.

So the big, for example, hopefully, as a society, we're gonna be more accepting and we're gonna talk a lot about mental health, right? It used to be that mental health was a privileged service, because not many people have access to a psychologist, where every session is RM300 - sometimes RM600. If you go to a public hospital in Malaysia right now, the average waiting time is about 9 months to get an appointment. It's crazy, right? You can't have effective therapy when you see your therapist once every 9 months.

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For Azran, learning is a lifelong pursuit. His thirst for knowledge means he continues to learn beyond his days on the University campus. Today, Azran pursues learning through experience, through the ups and downs of his career, and even through therapy.

AZRAN: Why this interest in mental health? It's interesting because only now you start getting comfortable talking about, you know for some of us, we went through episodes. We had big challenges and for most of us, it was taboo - you don't talk about it. Because you don't want to be vulnerable. And I think one of the things i learnt - especially being a CEO of an airline. It's "oh you're not supposed to show vulnerability. Who do you talk to? Because, [towards] your board, you always have to project a sense that you have things under control. Your management team under you, they're all kind of like looking at you and judging you. You don't have a lot of places to turn to. And yet…

AZURA: It's a lot.

AZRAN: It's a lot, right? And so you can find yourself in some very dark places.

AZURA: Are we talking from a personal experience?

AZRAN: Absolutely. Several episodes. So I think, for me, it's finally getting to a stage where I'm willing and I can talk about it. Because also, I feel like, hey at least now I have something that can help people who are wrestling with this.

AZURA: Wanting to develop this app and this kind of service: this holistic, fully informed picture for mental health services. Was it drawing from your own experience, your own frustrations when you're trying to deal with these issues that you're grappling with?

AZRAN: Yeah, so interestingly for me, as with a lot of things, when you try to do something, you have to focus. You can't solve all the big problems. And the one part that I'm really latching on is the intersection between mental health and physical health. The intersection between mental and chronic disease, specifically. Depression and diabetes, anxiety and angioplasty.

And because … I've lost family members to diabetes and cancer and heart disease. And actually, people don't think about mental health issues when people are going through these episodes. Doctors are only spending 15-20 minutes in a consultation, telling you "ok do this". Nurses are very focused on "well, I've only got a few minutes with you, I just need you to do this. And you're left to your own.

And chronic disease is not something like a surgery where you can fix it with a procedure or one drug. Right - you live with it. So the mental stress and challenge you go through is massive. And most people don't have that level of care.

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Now, you might think that someone like Azran Osman Rani would have always had clear-cut ambitions - but that wasn't always the case. Azran's vision and purpose wasn't that obvious, and neither were his educational pursuits. He struggled to find his place in an education system he felt was too conventional. Things fell into place once he changed his approach and mindset from rote learning to curiosity.

AZURA: Were you a frat boy? I have this vision of… Ivy League, and…

AZRAN: Yeah, but the Ultimate players were kinda anti-established social gatherings. The Ultimate guys were the guys who were like: "You know, I don't want to conform to fraternity structures" and…

AZURA: Institutions.

AZRAN: So we were kinda a bit…

AZURA: So you were the cool…

AZRAN: No we were kind of dorky ones who were misfits. Yes.

AZURA: What was it like though, having that experience and then coming back. Was it fun for you?

AZRAN: It is life defining, and I'll tell you why. As an 18 year old when you're in an environment where after 12 years of being told you're supposed to learn things, memorize, regurgitate. To, as a freshman year, you're told to come up with new ideas. Read books, including things like the Quran, Bible, Torah, Laudzud, Conficius, and then challenge it. How do you challenge these things?

And then you gotta debate. 50% of your grade is speaking up - not in memorizing exams. aNd the other 50% is writing a paper to argue a new point that doesn't exist today. So it's a very different thing, and I think..

AZURA: I think you thrived on that - seeing that you're the person you are today.

AZRAN: Yeah, so um, that probably helped build that foundation. That curiosity - that when you look at something, it isn't what it is today, but you start thinking about what it could be. Because in everything, there's always a different angle, and that there's always a way to improve on it. And I think that was the foundation, where you're thrust into any situation and say "challenge the status quo and make it better".

I think that's the unique part about the education experience I had. It wasn't about reinforcing the status quo by regurgitating what's already been written, but challenging it to say "what's your original idea - what's your contribution to humanity in terms of new thought". It sounds daunting, but the more you do it, the more you get the hang of it.

AZURA: it's like getting the rug pulled from under you after your 12 years of education in Malaysia.

AZRAN: Absolutely, yup.

As the ride went on, I couldn't help but notice certain parallels. The car, like its driver, thrived on innovation. Both mean serious business, but share a casual, almost playful edge to them.

Most of the leg work was done by the car's adaptive features - allowing us to focus on our conversation. Azran's purpose has always been about bridging the divide by using technology to realise his ideas, but never forgetting that people come first. And that's a great example of emotive design: making something like healthcare not a luxury but a service that's accessible to all.

As reluctant as we were to leave the comfort of the car, we switched up the scenery and headed into the studio to continue our conversation.

I wanted to talk about Azran's upbringing - his family, his life as a kid, and how it helped shape the person he is today… so I found an old picture of Azran as a little boy that he had shared on Instagram and decided to take the former AirAsia X CEO down memory lane to that point in his life.

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AZURA: … But what I wanna do is go back to the very beginning.

AZRAN: Ok.

AZURA: And I want you to talk about this little guy here.

AZRAN:[laughs] Harsh! Oh no!

AZURA: I think he's quite cute! Reminds me of my son after not having a haircut for like, I dunno, two months or so? It was the 70s, right? You're rocking that batik shirt. How old were you in that photo?

AZRAN: I'm gonna guess 5 or 6?

AZURA: Tell me about this little guy here! He's got the same smile as you do now!

AZRAN: Yeah so, two stories to share. Um, I was incredibly privileged to have grown up in a household where my parents would encourage me to speak to adults. So both were university lecturers. So we would occasionally have dinner with their colleagues who would come over for dinner. And I have to talk to them. They'll ask me "how was school" and "what's this and what are you thoughts on that" - and I think that was, again, foundational. You learn at an early stage to talk to adults. It wasn't a household where kids were told to keep quiet. But you were encouraged to participate in conversations.

AZURA: Were there a lot of debates, a lot of arguing around the dinner table as well?

AZRAN: Yes, there can be.

AZURA: With your siblings too?

AZRAN: That was encouraged. So that I think was probably a unique part of my development. But the other part - I have told this story a few times. If I were to trace back to why I am a bit screwed up and thinking differently, I use this story, if you've read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers about 10,000 hours, that genius is not an innate talent, but it's just that Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods because he started golfing at 3 years old. Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan because he made more free-throw practices than anyone else did.

And one of the interesting stories in the outliers book is about the Canadian professional hockey team, where there was a disproportionate number of people who were born in the early part of the year: January to March. Why? Well because in Canada, ice hockey is such an ingrained part of their culture, where you start at 3 or 4. And at 3 or 4, if you were born in January, you are actually physically bigger than kids born in November or December. And because ice hockey is a physical sport, you get noticed earlier. Then you get chosen for the top team, then you move on from peewee leagues to minor leagues - you get those opportunities. And I think in a way, similair for me, except that I was born in December. So I was the runt in my peer group.

AZURA: I was born in November, so I feel you in that sense.

AZRAN: Well there's also a genetic part to that. So often times I get left out at football games at the playground. And you're not big enough or good enough. You learn how to make up your own games because you can't join the mainstream game. Even at high school, all the really big boys were on the football team. Now, I love sports, and I starred in field hockey, but that school over there - Sekolah Menengah Taman Tun - the field hockey team were the guys who didn't make the football team.

AZURA:[laughs] I think that was the case in a lot of boys' schools.

AZRAN: The field hockey team would go to VI or RMC and come back with an 8-0 thrashing or, a 12-0 thrashing. My main point is that because you get left out at an early stage, you learn to be creative. You learn to make up stuff on your own, and also interestingly, as I look back, I learnt to rope in kids younger than me to follow my games.

AZURA: I've always been the one who had to line up right at the front of the line because I was the shortest. I don't know how that affected me but I think I turned out okay in the end, despite this diminutive stature. Were you always a good student though? Because you made your way to the Ivy League, did you always have that discipline of wanting to achieve and do well in your studies. How was your schooling life like?

AZRAN: You know, I hate to say this, but it was a lot more natural and intuitive. I can't explain it so I don't think I put in as much effort as a lot of other people did because I always had interests outside of school. So, we come back to stanford, where besides the fact that I spent more time on Ultimate Frisbee, the other thing was, I took the bare minimum number of electrical engineering classes to satisfy my electrical engineering degree, because that was what was required of me. I had to leave this place with this piece of paper. I had no interest in electrical engineering. I completely maximised all the other classes - from psychology, ballroom dancing, sailing, economics - that was more fascinating for me. And in the US, you have that flexibility.

AZURA: Ballroom dancing, though. What's your favourite? Paso doble? foxtrot?

AZRAN: This was 1991, 92, so…

AZURA: The cha-cha-cha?

AZRAN: It was quite a large variety, you know, some of us can't pick one.

AZURA: [laughs] I can't imagine you skimming through the ballroom. So you were a misfit by the sounds of it.

AZRAN: And now I'm coming to terms with it - that it is okay. It is okay to be that square peg in a round hole.

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AZURA: Did you glean anything from that Master's though, did you learn anything additional in engineering?

AZRAN: I have no idea what I studied.

AZURA: You were just hitting that frisbee.

AZRAN: Completely. But interestingly, so this is life, life may seem random, but there are all these connections that somehow emerge if you keep your options open, so the one thing I knew was "well, I've run out of eligibility - I've gotta go out and get a job. I have no idea what I want to do. Except, what I know what I didn't want to do is engineering. So I talked to my senior ultimate frisbee team members and one of them said, "hey, I'm with monitor & company, a management consulting firm".

"Wow, what do you guys do?"

"Well we work on different projects in different industries"

And I was like, "wow, you mean you get to do different things all the time?

That's really cool - for someone with an attention deficit… uh it's a challenge for me, right? So I was like "that's really interesting - I really want to do that." So I set my mind to do that.

So here's the thing about me: when I arrived at Stanford, my first instinct was: "Where's the field hockey team" - because I want to keep playing field hockey. And then the Americans looked at me and went "Dude, only women play field hockey here, men play ice hockey." And I'm like ah shit - I'm a tropical boy, I can't make it in field hockey. And that's how I discovered ultimate. But for me, ultimate wasn't just learning how to throw a disc. I wanted to be the best at it. And even if it meant we would stay up to 1AM just to throw 500 times. We did that until I got to the team, and then from there, you're not satisfied getting into the team - we want to be the #1 team in the country - that's how screwed up I am.

AZURA: You did your 10,000 hours.

AZRAN: And then, when it came to this management consultant thing: "that sounds interesting - I really want to do it". One interview after the other; rejection, rejection, rejection. 11 Rejections and I didn't quit. But every time a company rejected me, I'll go back and say "thank you, can you tell me what my shortcomings were?". And I'll go back and try again, and luckily Booz Allen was company number 12. And maybe lack of talent that year, and they said "let's let this wacky guy in".

But again, life is also by chance. In 1994, the economy was booming like mad, and they were just desperate for people and they were hiring like crazy. But 3 years later, the world changed. So had I graduated 3 years later, I'd still be struggling for a job, I didn't know what I would've started and I wouldn't know where I would have ended. So life is about chances these fortuitous things.

AZURA: So you don't discount these chances, or these episodes of fortitude in that sense. It's about seizing that opportunity.

AZRAN: But I've been lucky, I've been like somehow, you know, the right time…

AZURA: I mean if you look at your CV: you went to Booze-Allen, McKinsey ..

AZRAN: It's incoherent.

AZURA: …One way of saying it, then you went to Bursa, Astro, and then obviously you were the first year of AirAsia X, you started of iFlix, and now you're at Naluri Hidup. And that seems like… you seem to have a hobby of tackling difficult projects.

AZRAN: Ah, so it might seem to the outsider that it's random, and it's just different industries. You know, "Azran a rolling stone gathers no moss", right? You need depth.

AZURA: Has someone said that about you?

AZRAN: Oh, plenty.

AZURA: Really? [laughs]

AZRAN: But what they don't understand, the lens that they wear, you judge based on industry, the company and therefore if you change industry and company, you must just be fleeting around. But there has been one consistent theme throughout, which was: how do i get better at building businesses that challenge the status quo and.. It is a craft, that to me, different industries but applying the same approach, meant that I could have more depth. So there's actually a method to the madness.

The path of, "you know what, I wanna define my career as: this guy just wants to figure out how to make things more affordable and more accessible". So if you ask me to create a premium brand or build some big heavy infrastructure, I would struggle. But if you put me in any different industry about how to make things more accessible and more affordable, I think I'd do a pretty good job at it, because that's been my focus.

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Coming to the end of that conversation, it became clear that Azran has a positive outlook on failure. He sees obstacles as opportunities to learn, adapt, and grow into someone better.

In 2018, Azran was involved in a serious cycling accident with another vehicle. It would prove to be his toughest challenge yet - both physically and mentally. I was keen to know what lessons surviving something like that could teach an optimist like Azran Osman Rani.

AZURA: It's gotta be asked, in a sense that, you mentioned that you live life with no regrets. But you know, going through something major like that, it has to be asked, did you feel any regret with that? In almost putting your children's futures in general. Because you could have easily not made it, and not pulled through, and that impact is being felt in your family that you could have left behind. Was there any regret in that?

AZRAN: There may have, but as.I shared in the documentary. When it was explicitly phrased to me in exactly that context by well meaning friends and family members - some of which are loosely affiliated with this organisation. I remember going, "Huh". And that was it - that was the trigger point, because I remember well, what is important for my children, what do I wanna tell my children?

And from being lost, well I said, "thank you for framing it as what do I want my children to learn from it", and I said, actually, what I really want my children from it is not that you go through life avoiding risky situations. You take it on head on, because the one thing we've got to learn is how do you get back up when you get hit. And if I could show that I could get back up, that would be a very very powerful message for my kids. That life isn't about avoiding risk, but expect to get beaten down. Life is not going to be linear nice and grow. You will hit roadblocks, you're going to get smacked down hard. And it's going to hurt. And the more you get better at getting back up, the more you're going to be ready for life.

AZURA: I mean, it wasn't a very long road to recovery for you. You were back doing triathlons within six months, which is amazing by any standards. I'm sure your physicians are proud of that at the very least. At which point during your recovery did you think: "you know what, I'm going to shrug this off and I'm going to do a triathlon in six months".

AZRAN: The triathlon part was probably after three months. But it's not like you can decide to get better. There was a lot of hard work. There was physio practically every single day, where this arm couldn't go more than 90 degrees. And it was really painful to do so. I couldn't even do a single push-up because the shoulder was pretty much crushed. And so it was day-in day-out of trying to move it 1cm higher and shrieking out in pain and then doing all kinds of rotations. Day-in day-out, week-in week-out, month-in and month-out until it moved and moved and moved.

AZURA: That must've been depressing as well.

AZRAN: Definitely, so this is where when someone said, "what's the turning point and what's the point where you suddenly said I want to do a triathlon". It wasn't one thing - it wasn't somehow ding, and I'm on the road to recovery. There are days where you feel good and you're ready to take on your physio sessions, and there are days when everything goes back dark again. And it takes days to get back up.

My first 3-4 months, I had big vertigo - getting up in the morning, the 5m journey to the bathroom was tough. It's as if the whole world was spinning, and you're just trying to make it inch-by-inch to the bathroom. When you get to the bathroom, you sit down on the toilet and had to like, take 30 minutes to compose myself. So it wasn't easy by any means.

AZURA: I'm happy that that was the happy tale of redemption, because you did do the triathlon, and you beat your time from the year before.

AZRAN: No I did not. It was phrased differently.

AZURA: Ah, okay.

AZRAN: I was slower than the year before, but I was still within the time that I set to achieve.

AZURA: Which is a feat by any order, considering that you had a major accident before that. Of course, that resulted in you writing that book, 30 days and 30 years, and you did that documentary as well. Was that a form of catharsis for you in trying to relive and let it out to impart some lessons to people who might go through some similair issues?

AZRAN: Yeah, so my official explanation for why I wrote the book was, yeah, I made a lot of mistakes in the last 20 years, and by writing it down, I hope people can avoid the mistakes that I made. But the real reason was because of my therapy. Part of therapy is writing down and making sense of what happened to you. So that was my therapy.

AZURA: Did it make you feel more vulnerable though - having to speak about these mistakes. Having to document it and show the whole world?

AZRAN: It's getting comfortable with vulnerability.

AZURA: Are you comfortable with vulnerability?

AZRAN: I'm getting a lot better at it right now. I'm completely happy to say that I'm a really messed up person, and I go through a lot of these episodes, and so many times I need help because I can't do it on my own.

AZURA: Like we mentioned earlier on, you have a very varied CV, and now you've founded Naluri Hidup. Is this your final calling? I have a feeling that this isn't your final act. I have a feeling that you're working on something else as we speak.

AZRAN: Well, so as per my book, what I'm really obsessively focused on is what I'm going to do over the next 30 days. After that, I don't know. So if you ask me what I'm going to do in 1 year, I have no idea. And the best part of it is, I've learnt to come to terms with, I'm cool with not knowing what I'm going to do. But I'm super clear on what I'm going to do over the next 1 month, and I'm also super clear that I keep asking what's changed, what have I learnt, and what I'm going to do the next month.

So that seems to be the better way of approaching it, than to say you know what, in 3 years time, I'm going to do this. The danger of doing that is you create tunnel vision. You start to say "this is my path" and the moment you have that path, you let go of other potential paths, and you miss out on things that are happening in the periphery.

And I'd say in my case, it's always about unexpected things. I never applied for AirAsia X. I never applied for iFlix - they were just random things. I never applied for Astro before AirAsia X. People came to me and said, "Hey, look, we've got this idea and would you like to be a part of it?". But if I had somehow planned that says I'm going to be doing this, then I'll keep saying "No, that's not part of my plan so I'm not going to do that and stick to my plan". So plans are very restrictive for me.

AZURA: I know a lot of people in your position don't like to use words like failure. A pivot is what it is - you're switching strategies.

AZRAN: No, I've failed.

AZURA: Really? And you're comfortable with saying that?

AZRAN: Yup.

AZURA: It's a way of coming to terms with things? Because you strike me as a really positive guy. I see your social media, I've listened to your talks, and it seems that nothing can phase you.

AZRAN: it doesn't phase me anymore because you embrace failure. You embrace shortcomings and you accept that that is normal. So if you don't let it get to you, you'll win. So, success in life isn't about "I no longer fail" and "somehow I'm successful", and it's this fairytale image that the media has built up. But success is actually - for me at least, the way I'd define it - is being comfortable with failure, because failure is part and parcel of life. You can't avoid it. So, you're gonna get hit, just get back up and go onto the next thing. And if you do that, you have not failed.

Shift, Steer, and Strive is a co-production brought to you by Mercedes Benz and BFM. I'm your host Azura Rahman, and this episode was written, edited and produced by Arvindh Yuvaraj. Additional research and coordination was done by Ariff Roose and myself. Executive Producer is Ezra Zaid, with additional sound mixing by Lawrence Graham.

To listen to more episodes from this series, including an upcoming interview with Melissa Low, check out bfm.my/strive or stream it on the BFM app.

 

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