#2: The Game-Changer

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We go behind scenes with Melissa Low - the brains behind the beloved monthly arts & culture bazaar, Riuh In The City. A self-proclaimed misfit, we hear the the journey of the psych major-turned-banker, and how she finally found her calling: masterminding what is now a cultural brand that unites communities.


MELISSA: It's not direct. Sometimes things are… you tend to learn things more indirectly. Meaning, like, you just experience things, and you go like, "hey, this could work,". Rather than actually going with a purpose. Actually, there's a long story for it.

AZURA: We have a lot of time. Go for it.

MELISSA: Panas lah

AZURA: Ah, panas sikit, kan? Air-con kena kuat.

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 this episode: Melissa Low.

Once a month on a weekend, Melissa hopes that one word will be on everyone's lips: RIUH. In Malay, the word itself refers to a noisy and festive vibe. You might have seen RIUH take over your social media feeds - with its cool venues, such as Sentul Depot and the River of Life. Would you call it a market, a bazaar, or perhaps, a mish-mash of pop-up stores, creative workshops, showcases and live performances, its premise is to celebrate all things made in Malaysia.

Featuring local vendors with artisanal products catering to lovers of arts and crafts, jewelry, apparel, food, and more. For all that it is, RIUH in the city has a purpose. Melissa hopes that it provides a platform to elevate the Malaysian creative industry and economy. Now, I wanted to know what goes into making a RIUH weekend. And I headed straight to the source: Melissa Low.

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We're comfortably cruising in the back seat of a sleek Mercedes-Benz CLS 450. And with the air-conditioning well adjusted, we chat about the difficult road to success. They say behind every successful woman is herself. And in Melissa's case, it was a combination of her own determination and vision, with a little help and support from her family.

MELISSA: This is the best family I've ever had. No, seriously, I have the best parents, and even my brother who gives me a lot of shit.

AZURA: As younger brothers do.

MELISSA: Yeah, I know. But they are really the most supportive. Even when I'm down, and things are not good, I dare to speak to them about it. You won't hide things from them, and I'd share with them. And we'll sit down - everyone sits down and talks about it. So even when my brother goes through anything, even when my dad, sometimes, we always talk about things as a family.

AZURA: So you've always been a very open and communicative family.

MELISSA: Oh yes - very. My dad encouraged that a lot.

AZURA: What does your dad do?

MELISSA: My dad used to be a banker. He came out and did his own project management, my mum runs her own business. So now, they're kind of semi-retired, but um, they're still working, they're still doing the business that my mum is running, just to like, kill some time. So I think sometimes when you see how much your parents go through, you'll pick up a few things of, like, how much perseverance they have, and how motivated they are. And it makes you feel like, you know what, if they can be like this, I should be better, because they have given me a better life than what they had.

AZURA: Did they remind you of that all the time? Did they say, "Eh, Melissa, I've done this for you, I've paid for your education,", or was it something that was…

MELISSA: Oh, no. One thing about my parents is they've never been that kind of, where they go… You know, there are some Asian families who go like, "I brought you up, now it's your time to take care of me". No, my parents have never expected that from us - never. They will never bring it up to say, "you know, I've already done this for you." They let us be, let us make our decisions and see where we want to go. But of course, there are times when we need advice, then my dad will sit down and advise us about what he thinks and what he feels. But he will never expect anything from us. For him, he'll always say, "In anything you do, don't give up. Just really try the best you can, and most importantly, don't hurt yourself and don't hurt others to gain what you want."

AZURA: Sounds amazing, can he adopt me as well? [laughs]

MELISSA: I'm sure you have a great dad too!

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Melissa found her passion in giving back to the community. Volunteering for social causes resonated with her. She had since with the likes of the Malaysian Association for the Blind, and the UN's Environment Program. Listening to all these achievements, you'd never guess that Melissa was quite the rebel at school.

MELISSA: Yeah, my friends and I we did get into trouble quite a lot..

AZURA: What did you do? Did you like cut class?

MELISSA: Yeah, skip school

AZURA: Set things on fire?

MELISSA: Oh no we don't do that - that's just dangerous! So like, yeah, skip classes, skip school..

AZURA: Science or arts?

MELISSA: Science. And then we'd do a lot of things that we're not allowed to do - you know, like those childish stuff like eat in class.

AZURA: Guilty.

MELISSA: And then, sleep in class while the teacher is teaching.

AZURA: Guilty.

MELISSA: And then go for recess early, you know, that kind of nonsense to be honest. But to be honest, I had fun. And after that was psychology. What was interesting that… Then when I graduated, I was in the UK, so i was trying to look for a job, and it was 2008 - the financial crisis. Then I was like, "Oh my god,". There were a few people who called me back and said, "actually, we're in the midst of firing so I don't think we're able to hire". Then I was like, "oh, crap.". Then there was this initiative by UKEC. They started sending a lot of corporates and banks to the UK.

AZURA: The graduate fair, right?

MELISSA: So, somehow, they got a hold of my CV - I don't know how. And I got a call -- it was CIMB, Bank Negara and a few more that called me. Then I was thinking, "you know what, I'm just going to go for interviews. Just go. I mean, I need to gain the experience, right?" So I went to Bank Negara - it was ok, I got the job.

But until today, I'll always remember this remember this interview, the CIMB interview. And I didn't know it was the Head of HR, Puan Hamidah, who was the one interviewing, and to be honest, I didn't know who she was. I went for the sole purpose of getting experience - not to get the job.And I was studying psychology, why would I want to join a bank, right? So I went in, we had a chat, and she did ask this question: "You did very badly in school - what happened?".

I was honest with her, and I told her that I didn't enjoy what I was studying, and I was having a lot of fun, and I didn't think it was important. Then I was just explaining everything, and I think the best part of that interview was when she went: "You know, I really like your honesty, I appreciate it, and you're hired".

AZURA: Oh wow!

MELISSA: I thought she was joking. I mean like, I've just graduated - how do you know about the working world? Then I started laughing, then I was like, "oh, wow, are you serious?". She was like, "yeah," she said, "I think for us, what's important we're looking for is not just about background.". I said, "okay, so what position? Probably the best thing I'll need to work in is HR, because I'm doing psychology."

She was like, "No, no. If you accept our offer, why don't you go into our management trainee program first?" Then she said to think about it.

Then after a few months, no job. I went back to KL, and I was like "times are bad lah - you know what, just try it - it's a management trainee program, meaning I'll learn something, right?". So I went into the program - it was a freaking tough program.

AZURA: What was your dad's reaction at this point? Did he think that this daughter of his, who was a misfit in school and a degree in psychology, was going to end up in the bank?

MELISSA: For him… Okay, so my dad always has this thing about it doesn't matter what you do, but once you make a decision, you make sure you do your best. He'll always say, "Before you get married, you can go have fun, but once you get married, or once you make that decision to get married and to have a family, you'd better be good at it,". You know, it's like that responsibility you need to take. So he was like "Okay, go. Go ahead!" So I went to the management trainee program - it was really had. We'd sleep at 3-4am and go back to work at 8am for strictly two months. Then the trainer told me, "you know what, I think you can do investment banking - why don't you try it out?" I was like, "okay, why not, right?"

So I tried. It was tough. My first year - I'll be honest with you - it was so tough because I had no experience, no background.

AZURA: Tough in a sense of knowledge?

MELISSA: Knowledge. So I didn't have any technical knowledge, because I did science, then I went to do psychology. I didn't even touch math, I didn't even touch accounting or economics. So what I did was… while working, I went to buy myself books. Literally the 101 accounting for dummies, then financial analysis.

AZURA: You actually bought the book: Accounting For Dummies?

MELISSA: Yeah, then the financial analysis books. Then some of my friends told me to buy some of these books - these are quite good to refer. So for one year, it was very very challenging. And you know, investment banks, you don't work 9 to 5, and then I had to study on my own. But I had really good colleagues.

AZURA: Why did you stick it out then? I mean, you know, did you not think that, "you know what, guys, this is not for me, I'm going to do something else." What made you want to stick it out?

MELISSA: Um, I think because it was something new. It was something that I have not experienced, and I have no knowledge about. And I always feel there's no harm in gaining more knowledge. And in turn, it is pretty true, because my 5 years experience in banking actually set a pretty good foundation for me. So right now, if anything I want to do, if I want to go into business or helping someone else, at the end of the day, business is still the core of things, right? You can be a performing artist, but you also need to learn how to market yourself. So being in the banking industry actually gave me a very good foundation and platform.

AZURA: It's like… It gives structure to this misfit, to this rebel, to know how to harness your creativity and like, do it in a way where it actually can work. Is that what it was?

MELISSA: It wasn't the best, but if you think about it in the long run, uh, yeah, it did help me to be a much stronger person. I could just take anything that comes towards me.

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Now, bazaars were far from a new concept in the Klang Valley. However, most remain trapped in time, relying on traditional retail experiences. RIUH in the city puts cultural education above all that, as more often than not, you find yourself leaving RIUH with a sense of appreciation and discovery of local products, rather than thinking about a good bargain.

MELISSA: So, of course, when we see the other bazaars, for example, Art for Grabs. And then you have Publika. So we thought like, oh, those were great, but we were thinking, how to not just make it a market, you know, as an alternative. And one thing about Malaysians, we're always saying things like we don't know what to do over the weekend - the only thing that we can do is go to the malls,". So we were like, ok, if we're just going to create a market, it's just going to be another shopping experience. What are we going to do more? How can we get people to have fun, for people to stay, and yet promote local. So that's where we were like, you know what, let's work it out - we were trying to figure this out over a few months. And we were like, "you know what, we'll do shopping, and let's have some education bit as well,". Because the future generation, they're not very exposed to the arts. I mean, during school days, if you see, we do not even learn much about the arts. There's this thing about science stream and arts stream - that kind of thing. But arts is actually very general - anybody, even if you're a doctor, you can still paint.

AZURA: Were you interested in the arts, at school?

MELISSA: I studied music. I studied piano until I was Grade 8.

AZURA: Right - did you do anything else? Were you a painter, a performer?

MELISSA: Not really. I'm more into performing arts and music, because I studied that and I enjoyed musicals a lot - so I've watched a lot of musicals. At the time, international musicals were more prevalent. The local ones, you rarely knew about them. But it was good that Malaysia tried to bring some in, to try to cultivate that kind of sense of liking and interest for those kinds of musicals. But for me, I think it's besides likes arts and all. For me to do this, it's really mainly for the social bits of things.

AZURA: Meaning?

MELISSA: Meaning, for example, this is a group of people that needs support and needs help. They need a business-minded person to see how they can help them flourish. So for me, when I joined MyCreative (RIUH's creators), I mean, leaving the bank, that was something that I wanted to do. Besides the interest, but also the fact that, how can we groom them? Because this is also the first time where the government is actually trying to help the industry. So, I felt like, why not, let's just go with this and see what we can do for them.

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As our ride in the Mercedes came to an end, we made our way back to the studio to talk a bit more about RIUH. Helping people get off the ground is definitely one of Melissa's traits. And that reflects in her initiatives, including RIUH in the City, where they highlight artisanal vendors, giving them a valuable opportunity for growth. But where does this yearning to help people stem from?

MELISSA: Okay, I think, it's again, how I was being brought up. I think I was talking about my dad is, you know? Such a kind person he is and how he's always there to help the ones in need as well. And I think I kind of developed a bit into that. Like how my mum always said I'm like him. And I feel like, if I can have a good life, and if I see others, sometimes people just needs opportunity. People just need a bit more knowledge to go further to where they want to go. And that's when I feel like if I can help, then I would. I would want to do that. Because you can't change the world. Realistically yes - there's no way I can change the world.

AZURA: But you can!

MELISSA: Uh, nah. But I feel helping one -- making a change to one person's life is better than none. So for me, when there's opportunity where I can pursue to help, then I'll try -- I'll give my best to see what I can do.

AZURA: Is that what kinda led you to PINTAR? To help children on a bigger stage, so to speak. On a bigger platform, to help kids excel better at school.

MELISSA: I think PINTAR… Yeah, it wasn't so much that I want to help. But it's just that program came about and I saw it as an opportunity to further explore what I had been doing previously, during University days. So that's where I took the opportunity to see how else we can help. Since I have a little knowledge and experience and knowledge from the past, and see whether I can try to apply it to this program.

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AZURA: And what were the typical problems that you came across when it comes to children who were not fulfilling their potential. Is it social problems again? Is it problems at home?

MELISSA: I think for me, one of the reasons I don't excel that well was because of the syllabus. For example, where I have to study this, and I don't really have a choice. And I think I see that in a lot of people as well, because some of them do really well when they start working, for example. That doesn't mean that if you don't excel in school, you won't be a good person, because I think attitude is very important, in wherever we are -- whatever stage of our lives.

I think with the kids, many of them I would say, social problems. When you come from a not so fortunate family. Parents do not have so much time to invest into their children -- like spending time and talking to them. What's going to happen is that these children are going to feel neglected - there's not enough guidance. That's where people sometimes act out, or they just do not see it.

As kids, how you see certain things as parents and the people around you, they put things into your head. They speak to you, make you think. But sometimes some of them don't even have that kind of opportunity. I think what's important at the time is to survive, rather than anything else, so…

AZURA: Did it make you realize what were some of the gaps in our education system, based not only what you experienced, but also what you saw in these children as well?

MELISSA: I feel that, um, in our education system, there should not be a distinction between the arts stream and the science stream. I feel that all subjects should be given out to anybody, and maybe you'd have to pick 7 or 8 subjects. And there will be a good mix of science and also the arts. Because arts still relates back to culture, right? Arts brings out humanity in people.

AZURA: It civilizes people.

MELISSA: Exactly, which I think is important. And um, I think it would also be fun to have a mix. If you're going to do science stream, everything is so heavy. Wouldn't it be fun to do something that's like, where you do not need to use your head, but you use your heart, right? So I feel that there should always be a mix in things, a balance in things.

AZURA: Right. Do something that also sparks joy, is how that phrase is being used a lot now. But it's not just use your brain, but doing something that enlivens the heart a bit more. So that kind of yin and yang, that kind of balance brings you to where you are today. You did a bit of the banking, did a bit of the numbers, and now you've moved on to RIUH. Does that inform your everyday life? This balance of the financial know-how, and loving the arts. Is that what makes you who you are today, and do you think that's something that people need to emulate more -- having a bit of both?

MELISSA: I guess I have to respect everyone has their own way of living, and how they see things is different, but yes, I do practice that. Everybody is idealistic. Naturally, everyone is idealistic. But sometimes you block that out because that's not how society thinks. And there's always this thing about you must make it, you must do this and that. And that makes you a good person, a successful person. But I always believe that if you can try to balance out the idealism of things, but also the realistic things -- to try and put them together, then at least, when you do things, there's a bit more passion. You'll tend to feel a lot of happier. And when you're a happier person, you'll get to do things better as well.

So for me, I think there's this word called grit. I really like what Angela Lee - she spoke about it. And I feel that it comes two ways. The passion bit, which I see is the idealistic bit. And then you also have the realistic bit, or perseverance, resilience and that kind of stamina. That's where you need the mind, the other one, you have the heart. For me, my passion puts me with goals and objectives that I set to achieve. And perseverance will keep me going and keep me fighting for what I believe to do in the long run.

AZURA: Did you model yourself on anyone, during this journey? I mean you mentioned your father a lot. But was there any female figure within the industry or within the arts that you felt, "I want to be like her?"

MELISSA: Wow. I mean, not in the arts, that would be my mum. I think I've said how much she has done. In the arts, I think for local talent, I think, Sheila Majid. Honestly, when I saw her, I thought that was really nice! I met her like, once or twice.

AZURA: Do you like her music?

MELISSA: Yeah, I like her music! The thing about her music is that everyone listens to it, right? Somehow, in some form, her listeners are very diverse. If you say Sheila Majid, everyone knows Sheila Majid. It doesn't matter which background you're from, or which race you're from - it doesn't matter. What's important is that she makes us proud. And she, as a person, she's actually a very nice person - for someone who's so popular, who's known by everyone, she's just so humble, and you can tell that when she became popular, it was because of her passion, but not so much of she wanting to be someone. So I think maybe that brings her back to ground, which is really amazing, actually.

[SHEILA MAJID - SINARAN]

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Just like how Sheila Majid's music brings Malaysians together, it appears that RIUH has succeeded in doing just that. I asked Melissa whether that was her vision for RIUH in the City.

MELISSA: Yes. So, our target market is very simple, actually. You know how certain events they have like, "okay, we only target the youth, or this". But actually, we target everyone - all ages, all walks of life, all races. What we're trying to do is create diversity and unity - and also in terms of age. I mean, everybody would want to hang out together, right? So this would be a good opportunity where every part in the stage of your life, you'll always have something to do every year.

AZURA: Does it warm your heart? Because I go to RIUH quite a bit, and I see grandparents and their grandchildren, and their children as well, altogether, playing bubbles, whatever. Do you come down, and think that "this is is what I wanted"?

MELISSA: Oh yes, actually, that's the most heartwarming. So there was once, we saw this over 80-year old with her tongkat. When they started playing music, she was dancing - it was cute. Her grandchild was dancing with her, and it was really nice to see how everybody had fun. And not just them - the youth. They enjoyed themselves, and they actually don't mind being around elderly people or young kids. So that was nice to see that - to bring everybody together and nobody cares who you are and we're all here to have fun.

AZURA: It was a RIUH moment in that sense! [laughs]

MELISSA: Oh yes, it was! I think it was always a riuh moment when people tell us how much they enjoyed themselves. And when you see and witness that kind of laughter and smiles, it feels really good and is very satisfying, to be honest.

AZURA: What strikes me about RIUH -- and I've attended quite a few of your events. It's almost like a love letter to the city, or a love letter to Malaysiana. Is that your brand DNA? You've got all these different locations - the Sentul Depot, you were at APW, then you were at P.J., and you were by the river. Is that your intention - to remind Malaysians of what their backyard is like, and how joyful it can be?

MELISSA: Yeah, I think it's.. So we started out in APW Bangar, and when we started, we didn't know that we needed such a big space, because it was us testing it out to see how well we would do.

AZURA: And you became a victim of your success.

MELISSA: Aw, that's nice of you! So we outgrew the place, and that's where we started venturing into other venues. I think one of the venues we received so much feedback from was the one at River of Life. I tried to think about it - why do people like it so much?

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AZURA: My Instagram feed lit up that weekend - all with pictures from RIUH.

MELISSA: Because over the weekend, one thing about KL City is that, not many locals will actually go down to hang out. And I think this was the first time that… I mean somebody told me, of course it's not true, that "you know, this is my first time seeing so many Malaysians enjoying themselves in the middle of the city,". There were a lot of people as well who told me, "wow, I didn't know they did it so beautifully with whatever they've done with River of Life". We had the most visitors at River of Life -- about 18,000 over the weekend.

AZURA: Wow.

MELISSA: And I think that was very different. So you have the people, the diversity, the unity, and right smack in the city centre.

AZURA: I think there's a challenge in making sure that every event is unique, and there's no [inaudible]. I mean, you're only as good as your last event, right?

MELISSA: Yes.

AZURA: Have you got everything plotted out for the year? This months going to be this, this month's going to be raya, this month's going to be looking back to the 70s (which you have done as well). How do you come up with themes and ideas that would bring people out?

MELISSA: Hmmm.

AZURA:[laughs] Or are you still figuring it out?

MELISSA: So, yes, I'll be very honest with you, with the themes sometimes. I mean, as much as we'd like to plan ahead (which we do sometimes), but things change -- you know, how fast things change on a monthly basis. So, sometimes, we ride with what the trend is, what is it that people like. Because at the end of the day, it's for the people - it's not for us, right? So we'll see what people enjoy most, and many times, we'll figure out the theme, maybe a month before?

AZURA: Oh, you're ruining the illusion for me, I thought you got it all figured out!

MELISSA: But honestly, that's the fun bit. That's the fun bit in the theme sometimes. Because when you plot everything out, I feel like it's not as fun anymore.

AZURA: It's not as dynamic.

MELISSA: Exactly. So we're like, "you know what, let's think of a theme - how can we go about it?". But sometimes it also comes back to the type of content. There are certain months where there's just this few specific great content that we can showcase, so then we'll gear the things towards that. So it's very versatile - it can go around.

AZURA: It's very fluid, in a sense. Has anything not worked so well? In terms of feedback, in terms of vendors making money?

MELISSA: Um, so, of course there's always limitations to certain things. Sometimes there's venue limitations whereby parking is always a problem. Congestion.

AZURA: It's a huge thing for Malaysians, right?

MELISSA: Weather! Panas also complain, hujan also complain. And RIUH, we can't just do everything indoor. It has to be a good mix of outdoor and indoor. So these are a few things that people tend to be not too happy about. But for vendors, let's be honest, there are some who do very well and some are just so-so. I think it goes both ways. It could be maybe we did not promote enough, but I mean, if others can do well, so why are you not doing well?

One thing about RIUH, what we want to give as well is for entrepreneurs to test their products - to see what people like, what people support, and what will people appreciate. And from there, by joining RIUH, you'll be able to gauge among all your products, what works the best. And maybe you'll get to see that this is what people will want, and in the future, you'll work towards that. Because it's a good platform to test out.

AZURA: And it's all very curated - whether you're a food vendor or someone who's selling batik shirts. You do select and choose your vendors, I imagine?

MELISSA: Yes.

AZURA: Are there certain touchpoints that they need to meet in terms of… is it Malaysian enough, or is it something different?

MELISSA: I think most importantly is that it's artisanal - that's the main key. We don't take in trading businesses, um, businesses where you buy and sell. But these are artisans - these are designers themselves who designs the product. And for each RIUH, we have a proper mix of content. Even for the vendors, we don't have the same kind of vendors, because I mean, what's the point? Why are we getting them to compete among each another, let's give them the opportunity. Maybe sometimes we have one women's batik, one men's batik, and maybe one.. Selling candles and stuff like that. So we have a good mix, and also on a monthly basis, we would change up the vendors. We have a lot of applications and we also go out to seek new vendors -- unique types of vendors.

AZURA: And how do you seek these vendors?

MELISSA: Oh, we do the old-school way. We actually go on Instagram, websites, Facebook, and then we just look through and contact them through private message and then wait for them to reply.

AZURA: Just good old investigative work then, right?

MELISSA: Yeah actually, when we started it was like that. The first RIUH - no one knows about RIUH. It was tough and we approached one by one, and explained the approach - "what this is about and can you come and support us?". It wasn't easy, and until today..

AZURA: But it's your special sauce, that you're looking at, right? It's the curation - that's the special sauce. That's what people are still trying to struggle, but you have managed to do that so quickly. It's been, what, a year plus? Two years?

MELISSA: Oh no, it was actually in March, that was our 19th edition. So it's almost two years.

AZURA: But you've built that brand very quickly, and I think people have come to have certain expectations when it comes to RIUH. You're grimacing now - is it hard to meet those expectations?

MELISSA: Yeah, it's not easy. Things change so quickly, people get bored so easily.

AZURA: Do you feel that RIUH has fulfilled its promise, though - in helping these artisans, in helping to promote Malaysian culture, in bringing communities together?

MELISSA: Actually we do, this is something that I confidently say, yes, we did make a difference. But what is always a struggle for people, for everyone, businesses, is sustaining it and making it as great or even better.

AZURA: KL is a tough crowd, right? People move onto things very quickly.

MELISSA: Yes, it is! I mean, come on, we move on with things very quickly, so..

AZURA: Would you roll it out on a national basis? Do you think there'll be a RIUH Penang or a RIUH Ipoh?

MELISSA: Oh yes! Guess what, this year we'll be going to Ipoh and Kuching. We'll share the dates later on, but these are definitely the two states which we're going to this year.

AZURA: So, you know, Melissa, just to round things off: you strike me as a miss-fix-it in a sense. I mean, you see a problem and you try and make things better. RIUH, in that sense has helped to bring communities together, be that nurturing person towards entrepreneurs, be a counselor in some ways. What's your next project? I mean you're definitely in the first act of your life, I feel. What else do you want to do, what's next for you, or are you staying on this path for now?

MELISSA: I think eventually for me, in anything that I pursue, what's important again, is that whole balance bit again, having the realistic bit, but I'm more into the social bit of things. So for me, wherever I go, it doesn't matter what industry, but just as long as what I'm doing is able to make a difference, even in a small way.

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And that brings us to the end of our second episode of Shift, Steer and Strive: a production of BFM and Mercedes-Benz. I'm your host Azura Rahman, and this was written, edited and produced by Daryl Ong. With additional research by myself and Ariff Roose, and Ezra Zaid as Executive Producer.

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

 

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