Spellbinding CEO Of MaGIC



MaGic CEO Cheryl Yeoh at the MaGic office in Cyberjaya. (Pic by Hussein Shaharuddin/TMR)

A day after US President Barack Obama left Malaysia last year, the government handed the keys to the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC) building to CEO Cheryl Yeoh and wished her the best of luck.

MaGIC is, of course, Malaysia’s onestop centre for start-ups and technopreneurs, and holds the responsibility of taking a whole generation of Malaysian businesses to new heights. For a few weeks, though, Yeoh was everything and everyone — she was the CEO as well as the receptionist.

Yeoh originally made her mark in the Silicon Valley after graduating from Cornell University. Brilliant and beautiful, she is always bursting with positivity amid the very grey walls of Malaysian administration.

Her achievements and resume are online for all to see, but The Malaysian Reserve had a unique opportunity to have a chat with the 31-year-old and find out what makes her tick and what memories she holds dear.


Early Days

“There was a big forest behind my house, some big longkang as well,” said Yeoh. “I remember pretending to sleep in the afternoon, and then waking up and jumped the fence. I would knock on my neighbours’ doors and soon had a group of kids following me up a small hill but what we thought was a mountain.

“We saw a little stream and called it our waterfall!” she laughed.

A ringleader from an early age, Yeoh was destined to guiding Malaysia’s startups to the world stage. She is more wellknown for her own start-ups CityPockets and Reclip.it but her first businesses were much earlier and a lot cuter.

“I was 14 years old and my mother was shutting down her catalogue business,” said Yeoh. “So I offered to sell her stock and she told me I could keep all the profit.”

She commandeered a friend — Simon — to do the heavy lifting and then started knocking on doors to sell various office supplies.

“We would go to buildings that have signs saying ‘No Solicitations’ so we’d pretend we’re delivering items from a Japanese company. I’d go in and I’d be very scared because I could see the people realised I was not 16 or from a Japanese company. All the while, my mother was waiting for me in the car!”

The office people would buy whole sets, impressed with Yeoh’s daring and gumption. She soon sold off her mother’s entire catalogue. It was not her first or last business endeavour. Supported by her mother, she would participate in flea markets at Amcorp Mall and earlier started a “Batu Seremban” business using her mother as the “factory”.

“My mother always taught me to be independent,” said Yeoh. She must have done a wonderful job as Yeoh eventually graduated secondary school as one of the top 200 students in Malaysia. These 200 students were invited to a dinner at Putrajaya with Tun Dr Mahathir and were each given a scholarship.

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Spreading Her Wings

“I chose to study in the US rather than the UK because I believed it suited me better,” said Yeoh. “The UK education system is a deep dive and I didn’t like that.”

Cornell was no walk in the park either. The scholarship came with some conditions — she had to score 3.5 CGPA. The first year she was there, Yeoh kept to herself and to the Malaysian dorm.

“Cornell had the highest rates of student suicide, and I was very depressed,” said Yeoh. “So I put in all my passion into helping out in depression cases.”

By her second year, Yeoh was already very active in many societies and clubs, even becoming president and VP of numerous projects and entities. She was finally immersing herself in the American culture.

“I believe we were sent there to study in order to learn from the culture and the environment, so it defeats the purpose if the students don’t take the opportunity,” said Yeoh.

“We often see the US as a success, that they have a capitalistic view and they’re seen as aggressive and not humble, but I believe it’s because they promote themselves quite well while we Malaysians tend to hold back.

“There are pros and cons to both approaches and the key is finding a balance to both.”

After graduating, Yeoh became a management consultant and then dropped everything to do her first start-up — CityPockets.

“It was difficult,” she said. “I had to leave a lifestyle of designer clothes and pour everything into the start-up. I even had to sleep on a futon in a friend’s living room.”

CityPockets was a digital wallet to keep track of the numerous coupons and vouchers out there. It was Yeoh’s precious baby. However, soon she had to rethink everything as Groupon crashed, affecting numerous businesses including CityPockets.

“It was a very low point. Failure is very scary,” said Yeoh. “But the second time is always better! I think you have to fail a few times to get it right.”

Yeoh soon pivoted the investment in CityPockets to Reclip.it and it was a success. Rumour has it that Reclip. it was sold for a lot of money — something Yeoh cannot comment on. She was then wooed by the Treasury Secretary General at the Ministry of Finance Dr Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah to head MaGIC.


Weaving Spells

“I wanted to contribute and impact people in a positive way,” said Yeoh. “When I die, what will people say? Have I been a good friend? I hope it will be that I influenced them in a positive manner. I also hope to start a family before I die.”

Relationships are admittedly difficult for Yeoh — she has been way too busy with MaGIC to do anything else. In fact, even before her work started, she was besieged by calls from people.

“The first few months when people found out, I was so surprised by the cynical reaction,” said Yeoh. “It was as if they didn’t want me to come back. I didn’t understand the political situation, but I didn’t want to find out. I didn’t want to hear too much negativity. I wanted to come back fresh and give it a fair try.”

It was brutal. Yeoh recalled not having any opportunity for time off as she wrestled to build MaGIC from almost nothing at all.

“The day after Obama went back to the US, they handed me the keys and said, ‘here’s your building’ and I was just five days back from the US,” she laughed.

“But I’m a Gemini. I adapt to situations. I realise their intention is there. I mean, I am a most unsafe choice, a total wild card. This intention — a symbol of change and hope — is why I came back.”

She sat at the reception area and began drafting her victory conditions and strategic game plans. Soon, MaGIC attracted more people and started to get busy. Now, a year later, MaGIC and Yeoh can boast of a respectable slate of initiatives and events. You can glance at their detailed report card atimpact.mymagic.my.

“I’m not into doing something half way. I’m in it and fully committed,” said Yeoh.

No matter what happens with our currently unstable political landscape, it is through people like Yeoh — driven, passionate, intelligent and possessing the right combination of positivity and realism — that the country can hope to move forward. Let’s hope she keeps knocking on doors and leading bands of imaginative people up a mountain to find their waterfall.