#4: The Go-Getter

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We chat with Surina Shukri, CEO of the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), about growing up in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, her keenness to embrace opportunities, and what it means to be back in Malaysia after spending nearly two decades on Wall Street.


On this episode, I speak to an individual with a huge task. Someone who's been chosen to lead Malaysia's digital economy forward. She's worked abroad - New York - to be exact, and successfully ran an 18 year stint in Wall Street. She punched above her weight and carved a place for herself under extreme competition and high standards.

SURINA: When I set out to actually work at J.P. Morgan, I thought, my main goal, my main way of contributing back is that I want to show people that me, as a Malaysian, as a woman, this girl from Taman Tun, who went to MRSM - I can be as good as these people that I went to Wharton with..

AZURA: I've earned my place here!

SURINA: I've earned my place - I'm sitting at the table, and so that was what drove me. And to be part of a firm like J.P. Morgan - this is like the biggest and the most well-run, um, organisations in the world. To be part of that leadership team, to me was.. I felt very proud of myself.

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Brought to you be 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.

And on this episode, I speak to: Surina Shukri, Chief Executive Officer of the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC).

Surina has plenty to be proud of. She holds dual degrees in Finance and Systems Engineering from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Soon after graduating she made a bold move to leave Malaysia and pursue a career in Wall Street.

SURINA: My first professional, non-internship work experience was actually at Esso -- Exxon. Because I was an Esso scholar, so I had to serve my time. But I broke my bond because I thought it was much more fun -- I wanted to see the world, and there were so many things happening abroad, and if I'm studying finance, the real place to practice that is of course on Wall Street, so that was what drew me there. So, much to the… Well let's just say that it required a lot of courage to say, "you know what, I'm going anyway".

AZURA: Right - to your parents?

SURINA: To my parents, and also just make sure that I was comfortable with serving that bond. Because I had to pay back Esso the entire cost of my education. That was a lot of money. And all the aunts would say, "Surina, boleh beli rumah tau."

She thrived in New York. With seventeen years at JP Morgan Chase she honed her skills working on multi-billion dollar mergers and acquisitions, capital raising, driving digital transformation and leading teams through the financial crisis of 2008.

I decided to start our conversation on the road in a Mercedes E-Class for some reflections on change, foresight, progress and her early years. Intuitively, we headed out to where it all started for Surina – her neighbourhood township.

AZURA: So we're just driving through Taman Tun now, nineteen years on, what does it feel like to live here now? I mean, so much has changed. This building is new, it wasn't there five years ago.

SURINA: Yes, it wasn't there. I actually feel blessed. And the reason why I say blessed is because Taman Tun is a model townhood, and it's because somebody 20+ years ago, had the foresight to say, "we should build something like this. We should build a community where its nice, vibrant and can continue to expand, grow, et cetera". And so I'm a beneficiary of growing up here - that's why I say blessed. And so now, I feel like I gotta pass that on. Move that forward. What's the equivalent of this ecosystem, that's all encompassing, that benefits people, and then you create people like me, my sister, others. There are a number of people in my leadership team that are actually from Taman Tun.

AZURA: [laughs] I find that Taman Tun people are very tribal - they're very proud of where they are. "I can't move out of Taman Tun, you know"...

SURINA: It's not just Taman Tun because Taman Tun is Damansara Jaya and Damansara Utama. It's kinda like this whole... yeah, we're all kinda like one kampung, and all part of it together. Again, that's an example, like I said, an example of foresight development of some people from way back when, working - public sector and private sector - working together and then coming up like, "Alright this is how it should be done - let's build something like this for the benefit of everyone". And it's thriving, and it works. So with that mindset, that's what I bring to MDEC - like this whole: Stuff works! I'm a product of Malaysia, actually.

Even in her teens and early 20s she was not intimidated by difficult decisions. She was ready to put herself on the line.

AZURA: Obviously, you then moved to MRSM Taiping.

SURINA: From Damansara Jaya, I went ot MRSM, because I thought that going to a boarding school would be a good idea.

AZURA: You thought?

SURINA: It was hard when I went through it.

AZURA: Taiping is quite heavy going, right?

SURINA: Taiping is quite heavy going - but what was interesting was the exposure to the rest of the country, because KL, Taman Tun etc. And now I have friends from all over the country, from Johor, Penang, Sabah.

AZURA: And just to put it in context: MRSM Taiping was the cream of the crop of the MRSMs, right? So you've got a lot of brilliant minds, so to speak, gathered in one place. And what was that like, as a teenager, you know, being surrounded by people that's just as clever as you or cleverer - what was that like for you?

SURINA: It felt nothing different than in the prior school, because I think as students, you're just going about your day in a memorable manner. But what was nice about the experience - that MRSM experience - was the way that we learned, was non-traditional, ie., very project based. Before, it would just be in the front of the class, and you're just listening and you're doing. But our MRSM Taiping experience was quite progressive. There would be lessons, times when the teacher goes "Alright, we're going to do something different: you all do your research, go to the library and you will teach the rest of the class". And so it's learning through discovery, learning through action. So that part of the education was quite exciting - I really enjoyed that.

AZURA: Right - and also allowing for more discussions.

SURINA: That's right, and being where the entire class is as thinking and active and really invested as learning as you, made it for a very robust kind of discussion.

AZURA: So do you keep in touch with your friends from MRSM?

SURINA: Absolutely. Absolutely yes.

AZURA: When was the last time that you actually lived here, proper?

SURINA: 2000. So I had graduated from Penn (University of Pennsylvania), I came back, and so I spent a year and a half in KL working. So my first professional, like non-internship work experience was in Esso -- Exxon. Because I was an Esso scholar, so I had to serve my time. But I broke my bond because I thought it's much more fun, like I want to see the world and there's so many things happening abroad, and if I'm studying finance, the real place to practice that is of course on Wall Street, and so that was what drew me there. So much to the… well let's just say that it required a lot of courage to say, "Right, I'm going anyway."

AZURA: To your parents?

SURINA: To my parents, and also just to make sure that I was comfortable with serving that bond, because I had to pay back Esso the entire cost of my education. That was a lot of money. And all the aunts would say "Surina boleh beli rumah tau".

AZURA: And that takes a lot of self-belief at the same time. Where did that come from?

SURINA: But here's the thing: one of the biggest lessons I learned there was… See, we are pre-programmed to think about downside scenarios. Okay, so of course, as I was making the decision, I was thinking through: can I pay back the bond? What happens, like what's the worst case scenario? What can happen, etc. So we always automatically do it. Whenever we're trying to make a decision, you pre-program yourself to do that.

But at the same time, I think that we don't spend enough time thinking, "ok, what's the best thing that could happen?". And so, that's what gave the confidence to actually give it a try.

AZURA: But you know, going to New York, looking for a job on Wall Street, that's a huge, big, hairy audacious goal, right? What spurred you on, I mean, because obviously you had this job in engineering, I imagine, in Esso?

SURINA: Nope, in the finance department in Esso. I was a dual-degree in Undergrad, and I studied systems engineering and financial management in technology - it's funny, because that's kind of my job now. So that was what I was doing, but it was just… let's go and see. How old was I… I was probably about 24 back then?

AZURA: And the lure of Wall Street was too strong.

SURINA: It's not just the lure of Wall Street. It is.. Let's just give it a shot - let's give it a try.

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I wanted to know what helped shape such a courageous and self-determined Surina? She remembers her childhood as one with plenty of exploration and independence.

SURINA: When I was growing up, we had the freedom to take actually go take the bicycle and ride around the neighbourhood by yourself - so you just go to the closest park. By the time I got to 12, we could go from here to all the way on the other side of Taman Tun. It was ok - it was acceptable. And going to school even - elementary school - we used to take the bus to like Sekolah Ugama, which was close by, with a regular bus. And so this sense of freedom of exploration, independence was what they always encouraged.

AZURA: Did you find the same amongst your peers, or were you like … did they say, "Oh Surina, you take the bus?"

SURINA: It wasn't the norm. Like even with my cousin, with very strict parents, said, "wow, you're actually going?". Because growing up sometimes we would… Like in my later stages, even going for my interview with J.P. Morgan was self-funded. It was like "I'm just going to go for this interview in New York".

AZURA: So your parents were not so surprised then, in that sense? They say, "you know, Surina, from young, is independent. She's on her bike, getting around and taking the bus to school."

SURINA: Yeah, like all of us, we have this spirit of independence.

AZURA: Right - do you do the same for your kids?

SURINA: I try to.. [laughs]

AZURA: [laughs] ...but?

SURINA: Yeah, it's a… We try to encourage independence. It's not easy - I don't know how my parents did that. Because the world has also changed, for example, one of the big conversations that stayed top of mind before this, as far as parenting was concerned, was at what age will we allow Ian, my eldest…

AZURA: How old is he?

SURINA: Now he's 10.

AZURA: Right.

SURINA: … Ride the New York City subway by himself? Because that's the question that all parents in New York City have to figure out - at what age? And so the discussion goes, and my husband is like: "15, 16?"

AZURA: [laughs] What about you? What was your ideal age?

SURINA: I was thinking by 12 they would do that.

AZURA: And Ian wants to go now?

SURINA: I think he's getting ready. I think slowly - we encourage.

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Thriving in the world's financial centre is no easy feat. Who would've thought that accepting and embracing her Malaysian identity and story would fuel her inner strength in New York?

AZURA: I mean, was that something that you said proudly during your many years in Wall Street? When people ask you, "where are you from, Surina?". What did you say then?

SURINA: It took a while, actually. Because before, there was a little bit of a complex, because we used to think, "my Malaysian story was probably not as interesting as that persons story of when he was growing up in the UK,". And so I would not share as much.

AZURA: Just kinda gloss over it.

SURINA: And then I realised as I got… I learned to get much more comfortable in my skin. I learned to be much more confident of what we have.

AZURA: Which is a lot.

SURINA: Which is a lot. Take for example, simplest: like breakfast. Case in the U.S.: everybody eats eggs for breakfast, bread…

AZURA: Granola.

SURINA: Granola, and so I thought like to be cool, I also need to... Because I'm eating something different, like I won't really tell people like I really like Nasi Lemak for breakfast. Because that's what we do in Malaysia - that's rice. So it required a little bit of a mindset shift to say, "look, my story isn't as interesting as other people's. There's this whole… I'm enough.

AZURA: Did you also feel… I mean, I lived abroad for 10 years as well - I lived in London for 10 years. And there's also that slight sense of responsibility of being an ambassador for your country, for your people. Did you feel that as well?

SURINA: Definitely. When I set out to actually work at J.P. Morgan, I thought that my main goal, my way of contributing back, like I just want to show people that me, as a Malaysian, as a woman, this girl from Taman Tun who went to MRSM, "hey, I can be as good as these people that I went to Wharton with."

AZURA:"I've earned my place".

SURINA: I've earned my place. I have a seat at the table. And so that was what drove me. And then to be part of a firm like J.P. Morgan - this is like the biggest, one of the most well-run organisations in the world. To be part of that leadership team, to me was.. I feel very proud of myself for that.

AZURA: Did you have any... like "I gotta pinch myself that I'm in this moment?"

SURINA: No - it was not "I have to pinch myself that I'm in this moment"- it was never that. I was very, quite grounded to say like, "Wow". Because it's not easy - it was hard work, no doubt. But what I felt really good about was the relationships that I've built over the years. It's because of who I am. Malaysians, we're very mesra…

AZURA: That's what we're raised with, right? The values.

SURINA: Exactly, those values. And my counterparts over there, they appreciate me for me.

Home was New York for close to 18 years. What did it feel like coming back to KL after being away for so long? Almost immediately it leads to a passionate discussion about customer experience and the reality on the ground.

AZURA: I'm sure there's been an adjustment of sorts?

SURINA: The weather, the traffic.

AZURA: I was just going to say - I think one of the biggest things for you must be having to drive everywhere, as opposed to living in New York, where I imagine it's slightly different from getting around?

SURINA: Yes - you hop on a Subway and you're there, and now there is driving. Fortunately, I haven't been driving because I have a driver.

AZURA: We were going to ask you to get behind the wheel this morning, but we thought that maybe…

SURINA: Oh yes - no, because my driver's license has expired and I don't actually have an active one.

AZURA: And we're responsible producers.

SURINA: … and plus, I really don't like driving anymore. Because in New York nobody even has cars anymore - you hop on an Uber and you get to where you need to go.

AZURA: So, traffic is a big adjustment.

SURINA: Traffic is a big adjustment.

AZURA: Opening bank accounts?

SURINA: Oh my god! Yes!

AZURA: Something as everyday as that is just so different in terms of banking services there.

SURINA: Yeah, so we have quite a bit of work to do on that regard. But it's understandable because when you look at the technology innovation. So first you're just starting to use the technology, then you start to improve the customer experience. I think in general, we are in a stage where all our businesses are thinking through what that customer experience is like. Maybank still has got some work to do.

AZURA: … Okay we'll leave it at that! What kind of work, let me know. What kind of work do you think that we can improve on the customer experience, because coming from America, where everything is so customer oriented, right?

SURINA: Yeah, so it starts with the lens of the customer. And so then you design your experience through the lens of the customer. And I think that that's the adjustment that businesses are going through right now. This is not like Malaysia versus… all businesses - because even at my older company, we're always thinking that, "oh here's the services - the customer takes the service". No - you have to understand: if I start, what's my customer experience journey like? If I'm trying to buy something, that experience starts with going to the website - your Google search. And then you get access to that, and that it's the website itself. So you have to map this customer experience journey, and to make sure that the experience is good. Because today, we're not necessarily competing on the technology itself, the product itself, the brand itself. All products and services now…

AZURA: Are the same.

SURINA: Yes - it's starting to get commoditized. And so what really differentiates is the customer experience. So one of the things that we're working on at MDEC is.. Let's just take MSC-status companies: when people decide to invest in Malaysia, you go through this process then you can be an MSC-status company, and then you can get certain incentives and what-not. And so we start engaging them over there. The reality of it is that, let me start my customer engagement process at, you know, SSM - the registry. Because anybody that's doing business in Malaysia, you have to start with registering first. And so that's when that experience starts - so make sure that the information flow, the data flow - your everything starts there, and all the way to the end. So we have to think about how do you compete on experience, how do you compete on making sure that that process is the process for all customers.

AZURA: So you got your work cut out for you in that sense.

SURINA: This job is not for the weak hearted, because the stakeholders are broad and wide. But I anchor on certain things and apply that. And what I mean by that is customer experience, like if we just say, we want to make sure that we deliver a good customer experience, then we innovate on process. So regardless of which stakeholder you are dealing with, it's the same.

We ended our relaxing journey in the Mercedes. It was a ride filled with insights about upbringing, the power of neighbourhoods, finding the courage to explore and embracing one's identity.

Now, as we hurried back to the studio, I found myself reflecting on the journey my peers and I made back to Malaysia. I wanted to explore this a bit further with Surina.

AZURA: I don't know about you, I mean I always ask this to people who have been away for a long time, um, what made you come back? For me it was family. For me, it was two years of conversation with my mum: "Bila nak balik ni?"

SURINA: February 2008, it was all about "bila nak balik ni", and then after that it shifted a little bit: "you know, actually, opportunities are good for you". So, just stay over there. So for us, it was always, we made the decision: you know what, I think we will stay here, because life is all about opportunities anyway. But then, this opportunity came about.

AZURA: So it was a pull-factor, not a push-factor? You were happy in New York?

SURINA: I was happy in New York and had completely different plans. I did not think of this at all, like it was, I'd do my thing in New York.

AZURA: I mean, you're a New Yorker, and so were your kids and your husband.

SURINA: Yeah, and we were really thinking about: down the line, what kind of businesses can we do where you're half in New York, half in Malaysia, but we want to stay there. And I got recruited for this. And for me it was knowing what I know, and seeing what I'm seeing, and now there's an opportunity to actually help deliver impact for the country. It's something that.. I will not be at peace with myself.

AZURA: So it's a sense of having to pay back.

SURINA: Mhm.

AZURA: Really? Wow, so it wasn't family, it wasn't like, because some people come back because of their kids - "I want to give them the Malaysian experience". It was not that too?

SURINA: So it was not that per se, because today we've realised that you can deliver all those experiences without having to be here. Like family - alright we'll come back to visit family, family will come to visit, we talk, we Skype, etc etc. So to me, it was really, this is still my country, and I wanted to actually give back.

AZURA: And your husband was on board with this?

SURINA: Mhm.

AZURA: Really? Wow! There was no like…

SURINA: He was actually the one - because I was like, I'm just going to the interview and see what happens. But he said, "you know, I think if you go, there's a very high chance that you'll get the job." Like, ah, we'll see what happens. I mean, he was very supportive.

AZURA: I mean, it's not like I want to labour on this point, but I've had friends who were in similair situations where we were abroad and in London for a while, and it seems that the only things that would convince people to come back is either family or like… or family - that's it, really. So I find it amazing that it was your desire to do something for the country, to be the real impetus to make you want to come back?

SURINA: I would actually edit that a little bit. So what's really important for people - family and then your career. So for a lot of us that were abroad, when we think back, it was 2008, and you're in your earlier stages of your career. And so that was all about I wanna make sure I learn, I get experience etc., that was what drives your second ten years of your career. And so I had that experience in New York. So now I'm at a stage of my career where it's all about: ok so I've learned, how can I apply all of this - what are the opportunities to actually apply all of this. Then you start looking at all the opportunities at hand. And so today, the world is actually quite mobile, people are moving, there's a lot of activity happening in Asia, anyway. From a macro-standpoint, people know that there's a lof activity in Asia, so you should probably think about what's your Asia exposure, etc. And so for me, it is a career opportunity for me to lead an organisation, and the sweetener to that is the fact that I'm doing it with… there's a bigger purpose.

AZURA: And that's what everybody's looking forward to now, right? In your jobs? A sense of purpose, meaningfulness in what you do. I mean I think a lot of people go into their first jobs wanting to make money, or make ends meet. You know, have a nice life for you and your family, but you get to a point: why am I here? Was it like that for you?

SURINA: It's quite common - when you turn 40, you're just, oh what do i do? And for me it was looking for greater purpose and so that's kind of also why when I'd left J.P. Morgan, one of the purpot things that I was driven by was supporting female entrepreneurs, female leaders, because we've got a lot of work to do there, globally. So that was a greater sense of purpose, and over here, it's all about change. We need to move forward, and so if we don't think differently, if we don't become more innovative, if we don't become more brave, then it's hard for us to move forward.

For someone who's been at the epicentre of capitalism for 18 years, doing national service may seem a little bit out of step, but Surina clearly is not someone who's happy to stay in her comfort zone. This belief system would help her embrace the role awaiting her as she moved into her 40s, and back to Malaysia, to champion and drive Malaysia's digital economy.

AZURA: I want to talk about you leaving J.P. Morgan as well, and moving into tech. In many ways, banking, you know, there's an old-school, old-world element about it. There's a sense of being bound by regulations, a sense of being bound by conventions, whereas technology is almost the antithesis of that, right? It's all about innovation, being dynamic - being able to make changes very quickly, and not really being bound by regulations, so to speak. How was that shift in mindset for you, or was it something that you've always already had?

SURINA: I would say… uh, so from banking to technology, and what was that journey like? So to me it was.. Number one, when I was in school, I was also studying tech, and so I had that pre-planted in me already.

AZURA: So you've always loved tech.

SURINA: I've always had an affinity towards science and technology. And then, professionally though, although I was working in financial services, through my role, leading strategy, we're trying to answer the question of: as a bank, how do we service tech companies? Particularly, the fast-growing tech-companies that are out there. So that led to a lot of research, a lot of understanding, a lot of thinking through what are the actual issues. And so that gave more in-dept exposure in understanding of what was happening in Silicon Valley, startups, and etc. How do VC's think, and all that.

AZURA: That appealed to you? The way of thinking, the way they move?

SURINA: Absolutely. It was clear back then that it was not just the creation of technology that generates value. For example, it's not just the software companies - it's companies that are able to apply technology. So that's where you get Fintech, Adtech - semua lah, everything has a… Proptech, I think that's what they call it. Every single vertical now has the word tech embedded at the back of it.

AZURA: So there's an application…

At this point, I pulled out a poster featuring the amazing women we have in our public sector. And she's made it to this poster. She remembers the women who gave her the courage to pursue great things as a young adult.

AZURA: and so that's you! And…

SURINA: I would say it's us! Because I'm not the only one there.

AZURA: You're not the only one there. It's titled: Kerajaan Pakatan Harapan Memperkasakan Wanita - so Pakatan Harapan empowers women, and you've been named alongside all these luminaries like Dato Sri Wan Azizah, Hannah Yeoh, Tan Sri Zeti - it's kind of this band of trailblazing women. How does it make you feel, being put in this position of having to be this ambassador? You were an ambassador in New York, and now you're an ambassador for women, you're an ambassador for breast cancer survivors - you're an ambassador for so many things. How does that make you feel, as Surina - the person?

SURINA: First and foremost, I feel proud of our country that we're going on this path. I feel that there's still a long way to go. I feel that from a country's standpoint, this is almost not new, because I remember when I was growing up, Tan Sri Zeti was the governor of Bank Negara. And so that gave me the courage, actually to say, whatever, you know? Finance? Women belong in finance. Look at Malaysia - we've got the bank governor, and I remember back then, the A-G was also female. And my mum was a working mum, and I have lots of friends who have mums who were working mums. So it seemed normal. And then going to the U.S., on Wall Street, actually no - it's not that normal, and we really have to do more. And so coming back here, i feel, yes I'm proud of this fact that we're actually recognizing that diversity in leadership is key, because that's where.. You know, everybody's just different, and you approach things differently. Women - we have a bias towards executing just to get stuff done. We're nurturers, natural nurturers. So I feel extremely proud that we have that poster, I guess, is what you call it.

AZURA: You gotta print it out to put it on your wall.

SURINA: Yeah, I will.

AZURA : Give a copy to your kids! [laughs] put it on a T-shirt!

SURINA: With others - and they're all very, very impressive women. And there are many, many, many others out there. Many others, like I have many girlfriends, like even in my MRSM class - they're all overseas and doing amazing things. And I'm just one of many.

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We had to wrap up our conversation as she stayed laser-focused, on track and on top of her busy schedule. I wish we had a little bit more time with this powerhouse leader, but I get the feeling that this will not be the last we'll hear from Surina Shukri - CEO of MDEC.

AZURA: I really feel, Surina - just to wrap things up - that you are on the precipice of great things. You're back here in Malaysia after so long, and you're going to be - not just leading MDEC - but also leading your family through this adventure of being back here in KL. Should I check in with you in a year's time - where do you think you'll be in like one year's time or two year's time?

SURINA: I hope I am at the same place, ie., still grounded. Because, to me the real reason - like what's the niat for doing all of this, that part has to be clear. And I hope that I don't change too much other than continuing on this growth. I feel like it's all about growing. This role to me is all about making sure I become a better mom, a better leader, a better speaker, a better everything, so that I can share that with others. That's the spirit that I'm trying to share and impart in my organisation. So hopefully, it's the little things that we do for ourselves, by continuing to always grow, helps inspire others to do the same.

Shift, Steer, and Strive is a production of BFM 89.9 and Mercedes Benz. I'm your host Azura Rahman and this was written, edited and produced by Nova Nelson. With additional research and coordination: Myself and Ariff Roose. The Executive Producer was Ezra Zaid, and we had additional sound mixing by Lawrence Graham.

And this marks the end of this series of Shift, Steer and Strive. To listen to more episodes from this series, check out bfm.my/strive or stream it on the BFM app.

 

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