Sonia Ayesha always gets asked about her ethnicity, so it's probably a kind of icebreaker when she socialises. “People always think I’m of mixed parentage and with Indian blood because of my name,” said Sonia, a businesswoman of Malay descent.
“When I was younger, people would ask my mum about my name. She would tell them that I was born close to the year that Rajiv Gandhi, who was Sonia Gandhi’s husband, had died. That was how she discovered the name Sonia,” she explained via e-mail.
Some people want to know why she chose a career in business. Truth is, she didn't set out to be an entrepreneur even though her parents are business folk. She only thought about it during her four years as a student in the United States.
But she feels lucky that her parents, Datuk Rashidi Saidin and Datin Faridah Iriani Tahir, are strong role models. They founded BDEC Resources Malaysia, a management consultancy, and upon Sonia coming on-board, she expanded the company with a new office in London.
What made her decide to work with her mum and dad when they ventured into training programmes for youths. “That caught my interest,” said Sonia, director of the international programmes under BDEC.
“I’m in charge of marketing, sales and execution of the programmes. I oversee our training programmes in Oxford University (in England), which includes mastering leadership for youth, and female entrepreneurship.
“My father has always encouraged us (children) to land ourselves jobs in the corporate world. My mother had the charisma of a businesswoman but never had her own business until BDEC was set up five years ago. She wanted her children to work with distinguished organisations and climb the corporate ladder.
“My husband, who is in the corporate sector, supports my interest in business. We have plans to venture into something together one day, but we believe it’s best if only one of us takes the risk of running a business,” she said.
She loves her career, she added. “It’s satisfying to see the results of my own efforts. When doing business, results are often based on how hard you’re willing to work for it.”
Sonia studied in SK Subang Jaya and Sri Cempaka school in Kuala Lumpur before going abroad. In December 2014, she graduated from Syracuse University in New York, where she obtained a double degree in finance and management from the Martin J. Whitman School of Management.
At university, she was involved in the youth entrepreneurship community. Her first exposure to them was when she joined the Creative, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) learning community in 2011.
At the time, she wasn't so passionate about the business world but participated in the CIE to get free room and board by being a resident adviser at her hall of residence. However, the experience made her aware of her desire to be an entrepreneur.
In her final year at Syracuse, she interned for two weeks with Double Dutch International, a distribution company for the Cannes Film Festival. Later, she interned at TalentCorp Malaysia for two months where she was placed under the diaspora outreach department and handled summer boot-camp programmes for college-bound students.
She said, “Both internships have been rewarding, especially at TalentCorp, which dealt with event management and youth programmes, which is similar to the business I’m in.”
The road ahead
After graduation, Sonia returned to Malaysia and spent five months doing some “soul searching”. During this time, she was in Beijing for two months to attend a Mandarin course before joining CIMB Bank as a management trainee.
After eight months at CIMB, she realised that she didn't like banking and left to pursue a career in entrepreneurship. She set up her hair salon SoBlow in Bukit Jelutong, Shah Alam, which is still operating.
She was also a participant with Tube 2.0, a Bumiputera youth entrepreneurship programme organised by SME Corporation Malaysia. Out of the 500 participants, she was shortlisted among the top 10 to be in TV3’s The Entrepreneur, an eight-week reality show.
“The shooting was in December 2015 and the first episode was aired in March 2016. My partner Ayla and I won third place,” she said. “We’re not required to set up an actual business as the business set-up was only required for the final stage. Hence, for most parts of the TV show we had to present our business ideas and collaborate with existing start-up companies.”
She has a long list of goals for the future, including going to graduate school and venturing into other businesses.
“I realised that it should not just be about myself but what I can do to help other people as well. I aspire to be the female version of Khairy Jamaluddin – to represent our youth community and to solve issues among the youth by shaping and inspiring them to be the leaders of tomorrow,” she enthused.
She has two mottoes in life. “The first one which is my favourite is based on Nike’s motto, 'Just do it'. It serves as an important reminder to all of us that we should never delay or hesitate to reach our goals. When I feel unproductive and uninspired, I always tell myself to stop having negative dialogues with myself and to just do it.”
Her second is, “Live life with no regrets”. Regrets, she explained, are probably the biggest fear in anyone’s life. “We should make the most of life and seize every opportunity that comes along. Carpe diem!”
Sonia’s hobbies include the piano and ice-skating when she has time. She enjoys working out at the gym, going to the spa, cooking and travelling. To handle the stress from her job, she treats herself to a massage after a long day. Exercising three days a week also allows her to cope.
Travelling is also good to recharge oneself, she said. “Travelling makes a difference even if it’s just for a day or two. It does not only help you to recharge but to see the world from a different perspective. Travelling is also a source of inspiration. Sometimes, I also get cool ideas for my business!”