THERE is always life after the arena, as Sarina Sundara Rajah, 37, has found. The former national rhythmic gymnast was down and out after suffering from a knee injury at her peak. Fortunately for her, she found coaching a good path to fall back on.
“I started coaching in 2004 while studying. And I found that I love coaching. I love kids and the sport, so it just gelled,” she shares.
For sure, it didn’t start off with noble intentions.
“I went into coaching to earn money. I had to pay back my PTPTN (National Higher Education Fund Corporation) loan!” she laughs.
But when she saw that her students were winning competitions, she realised that this could be a new career path for her. And so, Sarina’s part-time coaching went on to take the shape of Stargaze Sdn Bhd.
The company owns and operates the Sarina Rhythmic Gymnastics Club (SRGC), which carries out various gymnastics education efforts as well as event and talent management initiatives.
SRGC has been growing steadily over the years thanks to her network, experience and knowledge of the sport. Intake for its classes has been increasing and Sarina has built quite a following at the grassroots level, making inroads into schools and garnering support among parents of her students.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t all smooth-sailing for the company.
SRGC encountered a setback not too long ago with the entry of a venture capital (VC) fund. Expansion plans were then on the cards for the company as it aimed to open multiple centres and move out into the region.
However, Sarina soon realised that these plans may not fit well with the nature of SRGC’s business.
“Kids are in school Mondays to Fridays. They usually opt for weekend classes. So your venues will not be utilised on weekdays. And that will add on a very high and unnecessary operational cost for us,” she says.
Additionally, operating a gymnastics club is highly niche, she points out, requiring you to be on the ground and have close communication with the parents.
As such, she decided that exponential growth via a VC wasn’t the way to go. It turned out to be a costly experience for her. After one and a half years, Sarina bought back her shares and started “building from scratch again” after the transaction was concluded earlier this year.
“That said, I’m not closing the door on investors. We do need investors to grow.”
At the moment, SRGC operates two centres in the Klang Valley and teach about 150 students. Apart from that, Sarina also teaches gymnastics in private and international schools. The company is set to open another centre in Perak through a partnership.
Last year, the company turned in revenue of RM600,000. But with all the plans on Sarina’s plate, which are set to take off in the near future, it is eyeing strong growth in the coming years.Future opportunities
While the plan to aggressively open more physical centres has been scuttled, Sarina still has big dreams for SRGC. One of the plans that will be realised over the next few months is the setting up of a gymnastics league – the Princess Cup.
“I’ve been working on this project for two years. It’s a talent identification programme for gymnasts, where there will be inter-district competitions and then maybe go on to the national-level competitions. It will have a tier-system to rate gymnasts so that they can further compete overseas,” she says.
This, she hopes, will also raise the profile of the sport in Malaysia.
Along with the league programme, she is also in the midst of kicking off a web-series under the Princess Cup umbrella, which will document the competition’s behind-the-scenes. The series will also dispense tips and advice on related topics such as nutrition, building strength and health.
“This will help educate parents about the right way to go about it. It will also help create awareness and branding for the Princess Cup, and definitely help with enrollment in our classes,” she adds.
SRGC is finalising sponsorship deals for the first web-series, but Sarina expects the show to be profitable by the second year. And after this web-series takes off, it will be followed by a movie and a musical, perhaps?
“Who knows, right?” she says.
She also hopes to capitalise on the upcoming SEA Games and Olympics 2020 to raise interest in gymnastics and build a substantial following for the Princess Cup.
“There is usually a pick up in interest after a big sports event. So we are establishing a lot of plans to grow properly and sustainably over the next few years,” she says.
Sarina intends to build a strong brand for the Princess Cup so that she can franchise the programme in other countries by the fifth year. This will not only help SRGC expand into other countries but also ensure that there is greater sustainability for the Princess Cup as league winners will be able to compete internationally.
Another potential area that the company could tap is the e-sport space. Sarina is hoping to develop a programme that would enable kids to take up dance and gymnastics on their own.
“It will be like a Wii Sports. So we can create a programme for, say, a three-year-old based on our classes. We can have a short routine on the screen which the child will have to imitate. Then the movement will be captured, and using artificial intelligence, it will tell you how much you have scored and whether your movements were accurate.
“This can spark interest among girls. A lot of girls like to dance. Gymnastics can be technical so this e-sport thing will make it fun. It’s a game and you can compete with others,” she explains.
Should this take off, Sarina foresees competitions on a larger scale, which could eventually drive membership for SRGC.
While Sarina has a strong interest in technology, the development of this programme would, notably, be out of her range. But she has connected with the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation to get some pointers.
As with her other plans, Sarina is excited about how this could potentially play out.
She notes that by raising awareness of a sport through multiple approaches, it is easier to raise the profile of the sport. Not only would this boost SRGC’s business in the long run, it could also attract more corporate sponsorship to the sport, thereby providing more support for the athletes.
“A lot of the athletes that become professionals find it hard to get sponsors. So it is not easy for them to go for training. We need to raise the profile of sports, in general, make sure the clubs are governed well and make sure that there is transparency and professionalism so that they can attract more sponsors. There is also a need for proper incentives for clubs to groom more athletes,” she says.
Sarina also hopes that SRGC will grow into a strong platform for female empowerment.
“I want the sport to get more exposure, which is why I want to have the web-series, the movie, the works, because that was how I started as a gymnast. I saw Dr Farrah-Hani on television during the 1991 SEA Games and thought, ‘I want to be like her’.
“And my journey in gymnastics has truly moulded me and helped me become the person I am today. So sports is a perfect avenue to empower girls and I hope we can provide that platform to empower more girls and women to be confident and to know that, if they work hard, they can win,” she says.
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