Behind network of new traders


By WONG LI ZA

THE dotcom bust was a bitter pill to swallow but Roslan Bakri Zakaria was determined to bounce back with a vengeance. Now at the helm of an entrepreneur group, the New Entrepreneur Forum, and an ICT company, he is pushing on to raise the competence of entrepreneurs and ultimately make a difference in the industry.  

NEF took shape in 1997 during the start of the Internet thrill. Over a casual meeting on a Saturday afternoon, a group of 10 entrepreneurs talked about the industry and the current issues they faced. 

“We found that all of us shared common interests and problems so we decided to meet up once a month,” said Roslan, 37. 

Initially known as the New Economy Forum, the group consisted of young bumiputra entrepreneurs who discussed the shape of the ICT industry and its development in the country. 

NEF then became an avenue where its members could leverage on each other’s expertise and skills. It also worked towards raising the competence of entrepreneurs in Malaysia. 

These meetings soon led to the first Netbash event that was held in 1998. A networking event, it drew an initial turnout of 56 people. 

“We started to bring in new people with a value to put into the group. Then the number grew to more than 100 and subsequently 400. However, the number later dwindled because there was nothing else to talk about,” admitted Roslan. 

The reason, he said, was that people knew what to do for a start-up but the industry itself was still not supportive. 

NEF’s focus then switched to ICT. 

A common complaint among entrepreneurs, said Roslan, was that they could not get the top people to meet up with them to present their ideas and business plans.  

Following this, NEF organised a gathering of CEOs, chairmen and government officials to meet with the entrepreneurs. 

Subsequently, government agencies started calling the NEF to tap young entrepreneurs to help with their projects, thus giving the group a higher purpose. 

Looking back at the dotcom cycle, Roslan felt that it had definitely been a bumpy ride.  

“There were a lot of entrepreneurs then, and a lot who wanted to go into the Net (business) because of the hype of it.  

“Then they discovered, hey, it was not as it seemed, but a lot of us survived the dotcom bust. The true entrepreneurs are those who survived till today,” he said. 

He added that existing entrepreneurs were more seasoned and cautious in their ways.  

“They refused to fold their company because they still believed in their ideas,” said Roslan, who went without pay for a year when his earlier company, Mu’min Sdn Bhd, closed down. (Under Mu’min, Roslan also created a new company that focused on Islamic travel and performing Umrah). 

The perennial problem faced by entrepreneurs is funding, Roslan said.  

“There is a big gap between venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. We are still pushing to fill that gap,” said Roslan, adding that NEF works closely with the Technopreneurs Association of Malaysia (TeAM). 

NEF and TeAM prepared a paper last year entitled Early Stage Funding, Creating a New Catalyst which was forwarded to the National Economic Action Council (NEAC).  

Inevitably, NEF’s focus this year is funding and marketing both locally and overseas. 

“The main challenge for NEF is trying to break the barrier of the old school. People are comfortable doing things in a certain style and, if asked to change, will be resistant. We have to change the mindset of the industry,” he said. 

In the next five years, Roslan envisaged the role of NEF as one that will still be behind the scenes.  

“We will still push for policies and position papers so that our voice can be heard. We also feel that the results of what we do now will only be felt later,” he said, adding that NEF is also working closely with the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDC). 

Holder of a Diploma in Accountancy from Institut Teknologi Mara and a degree in Economics from Indiana State University, US, Roslan is also a member of the Malaysian-Saudi Business Council. 

Besides his involvement in NEF, Roslan is also the co-founder and chief executive officer of Innovation City Sdn Bhd (Innovasia), an Islamic ICT solutions provider.  

He admitted that the company also faced sustainability issues. 

At the moment, it is waiting for funding from a venture capitalist to build an Islamic Knowledge Management System (IKMS). 

“With the growing number of Muslims in the world, a lot of agencies recognise the new market for new Muslims. The main problem in the Muslim world is the difficulty in getting articulated and verified opinions about Islam in specific topics, such as insurance. 

“We have tailored IKMS to provide content for the Islamic world to be used by the non-Islamic world,” he said. 

He further explained that getting content from the Quran, hadith and fatwa was not difficult but creating an application that extracted the content and linking it to the related issues – such as insurance, cloning or heart transplants, for example – was tough. 

Asked if he considered himself a religious person, Roslan said that he was “getting there”. 

“Once one appreciates and understands what he is doing, it will be more meaningful, and I’m still in that process,” said Roslan, who reads at least two pages of the Quran every morning. 

Roslan, who has six siblings, spends a lot of time with his wife, something that his father, a former Government servant in the Customs and Excise Department, instilled in him. 

“My weekends are strictly off unless really necessary,” added the movie buff, who credited his wife, an assistant manager of contracts, for being supportive during his low points in life. 

Once an ardent basketball player who represented Selangor in the non-Chinese basketball tournaments, Roslan is now trying to pick up the slower-paced sport of golf.  

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