Abir Abd Rahim is the Regional Leader for Lean In Malaysia, an enterprise focused on women empowerment. This is her story of strength and girl power.
I grew up in a middle-income family. My dad is a successful ship captain (who is now office-based), and my mum is a high spirited physics teacher. I have three brothers – 2 older and one younger, and also a younger sister.
In the past few years, my family grew to become a family of 10 now that 2 of my brothers are married. One of them has a daughter, who I am fond of. I call her my little teapot because she looks like Mrs Tea Pot from Beauty And The Beast in her sunhat.
We’re a very simple family.
Though I was born in Malacca, most of my childhood was spent in Klang, Selangor. Up until ten years old, I was exposed to the co-ed schooling system before moving to Georgetown, Penang. There, I was exposed to the all-girl schooling concept – the Convent schools.
It’s the most liberating to do – to take charge and set your own terms!
I must say that I enjoyed growing up in different parts of the country where the culture is different, and the society is different. It taught me the art of adapting at a young age; having to move to new schools, new environments, new teachers and new activities to do.
At school, I was active in co-curricular activities since Standard 1. I was seven years old when I first signed up for a competition. It began with storytelling, which then moved to public speaking and debating. I don’t know what caught my teacher’s attention to sign me up for these competitions – I swear I wasn’t the noisiest person in the class.
Little did I know, I was going to the nationals for these competitions and, wait, this got me thinking: Gosh! I was already so busy since then! Hahaha!
I led this busy lifestyle until I moved again at 16 to attend the prestigious boarding schools in the country – Tunku Kurshiah College.
So the childhood I had and remember until today was mostly leaving and adapting. And you know what I got out of it? (Besides my survival skills) Wonderful friends that I have made along the way.
I have a first class degree in Actuarial Science from Swansea University and a Master’s Degree in Actuarial Management from Cass Business School, London. That time I was one of the recipients of the King’s Scholarship (Agong Scholarship).
My full-time job today is in the Actuarial at Takaful Malaysia, managing Actuarial Pricing and projects. I enjoy what I do professionally (#ilovemyprofession), and the fact that I get to practice what I studied back in university is such a blessing. Numbers give me the kick. So, don’t be deceived by how I present myself all the time! I’m truly a nerd!
Outside office hours, I run Lean In Malaysia as its Regional Leader part-time. This appointment came by in 2016 by Cheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook.
Lean in Malaysia is a women empowerment platform that educates, enables and empowers women to pursue their ambitions both personally and professionally. We do this via our Lean In Circle Dialogues, Lean In Mentorship Programmes, Lean In Masterclass, and Lean In Summit Malaysia.
Today, Lean In Malaysia has a member base of more than 4000 people in Malaysia and a network of more than 300,000 across the Asia region.
Apart from wanting to have a more purposeful and meaningful life, what triggered me most to become a champion for women empowerment and work-life balance was when I came back with a scroll, having completed my Masters at 24. I had people around me asking me what’s next? So the usual answer I gave them was my five year career plans.
In my journey, I have learned to fight for myself.
But you know what their response was?
“How come there’s no marriage in your 5-year plan? What’s wrong with you? You better start looking for a life partner!”
Can you imagine how confused I was? For someone who just came back from studies and eager to start her career, I was told that success is defined in a certain manner. So I looked around me and realized that this expectation is normal especially for girls and I felt held back.
Being a rebel all along, I decided to take charge of my own life, to define my own success and happiness, and not to allow anyone to be in the way. It’s the most liberating to do – to take charge and set your own terms!
And because I can do it, I sincerely wanted every other girl out there to do the same thing too.
So I got into Lean In Malaysia holding on strong to that mission.
Especially for women, I believe that you shouldn’t limit your life based on societal expectations of you, and instead, you should step outside of the box and explore the adventures and wonders that this world possesses, and be the best version of yourself and make every day count.
How do you become the best version of yourself? By making the most out of your day, every day. Life is short, you know?
In my journey, I have learned to fight for myself.
There have been times when I would be in the pit of the wheel, so lost and weak, because I was hard on myself as that’s how I was growing up. But in the end, I realized that you wouldn’t find anyone there to help you out of the pit but you.
So I learned how to fight, for those opportunities in life, for my rights as a person and a woman, fight to earn an honest living, fight to get closer to my goals and fight to make this world a better place, with whatever I could offer.
I also learned that it is hard being a woman, not just in the workplace but at home.
We’re often subjected to the double burden, where women have full-time jobs and are also responsible for significant amounts of unpaid domestic labour. And when we fail to deliver, we beat ourselves to it. These things were never talked about at school, what is normal, and what is not?
So most of us got into adulthood without realizing issues such as gender bias, unconscious bias and what not. When it hits us, most of us don’t know how to manage it and decided to take the exit route which is out of the workforce. That’s why today we have low women participation in the workforce and only some women leaders across organizations and communities.
It is still embedded in today’s society about women’s roles, and Lean In Malaysia strives to change that mentality and shift that narrative onto the bigger picture.
We involve both corporate and public sectors in our conversations, we bring our male counterparts on board for healthier and equitable discussions, and we also provide a support system to women themselves who are currently going through the aftermath of this double burden.
And from all of this experience, and the different and diverse people I meet every day, I learned to go beyond my own boundaries to be a better person.
Everyone has made mistakes, so as I. I don’t believe in perfection.
I hope that I’m able to be a good leader in the society, be it in my organization that I work with or in my community.
There were mistakes done at work and also mistakes done in my personal life. But I wouldn’t go into details with the latter, lol!
I can share one at work whereby I have mistakenly provided the wrong results to the relevant people involved and realized it too late when the results have been then shared with third parties. That was a big blunder on my end as it was going to cost the company.
But I decided not to act based on emotions, which I was feeling guilty that time and mixed with the fear of screwing up my career!
Having led so many projects at work and also leading Lean In Malaysia, day by day my approach to solving problems improved. You must not solve any problems when you’re emotional. Instead, you need to keep a cool head and start brainstorming on damage control with calmness and rationale.
What to do, who to call, how to circumvent it from getting out of hands?
So I made sure I rechecked my results, calculated the impact from that communication, called the relevant parties to understand the situation better and finally went to my boss to inform him.
Always be objective with your decisions, and your actions and the one efficient way to do it is to keep a cool head and remain professional.
The world is our oyster, and there’s so much more to explore, and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to what we have now.
For myself, I want to be a CEO someday soon in my industry and bring change to whatever I work on and wherever work takes me. I hope that I’m able to be a good leader in the society, be it in my organization that I work with or in my community.
I also wish to continuously affect people’s lives positively, help the people around me to achieve a more meaningful and purposeful life, as it will then indirectly teach me all of life’s greatest lessons for my journey. The world is our oyster, and there’s so much more to explore, and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to what we have now.
I also hope that we can all finally achieve that day, when everyone’s given equal access to the opportunities in life, regardless of colours, gender, age or status.
How to get to this? We need to #PressForProgress!
My name is Abir Abd Rahim, and that was my story.