From school dropout to MIT student


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  • Thursday, 30 Mar 2017

I HAVE a friend. His name is Eizaz Azhar (pic), 31. I think you’ll like his story.

He was recently in Myanmar, and next month he’ll be going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for classes, and thereafter he will stay on in the United States for an internship.

Eizaz is currently studying for an MBA at the Asia School of Business (ASB) in Kuala Lumpur, set up by Bank Negara Malaysia in collaboration with MIT Sloan Management School.

Oh, yeah, there’s one more thing. Eizaz left school at 14.

No PMR (now known as PT3). No Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM).

“As far as society is concerned, I’m a school dropout”, says Eizaz, a self-professed kampung boy who hails from Langkawi, Kedah.

Eizaz Azhar

Having enjoyed his primary school years as the teachers would layan (pay attention to) his curiosity, Eizaz felt that secondary school was rigid. Feeling uninspired, he told his father he wanted to drop out.

His father agreed. I asked him, “Wasn’t your dad concerned his son wouldn’t have academic credentials?”

“Nope. He’s unusual like that. I guess I have it too, whatever it may be,” replies Eizaz with a laugh.

Over the next four years, Eizaz learned about business by observing his father – how he managed his staff, spoke to his clients and signed cheques.

“He would talk to me about strategy. When he wrote letters to his clients, he’d ask me, a 14-year old, to proofread them. Imagine that!”

Most of Eizaz’s friends were older.

“I observed how they talked, presented themselves, and the things they focused on. This contributed greatly to my understanding of how people behaved”.

At age 18, Eizaz, together with his friend and business partner Ray, started a small music rehearsal studio with RM4,000 from their savings.

“Back then, jamming was the in-thing. We didn’t have any money for furniture, so we’d sneak into a nearby junkyard, wait for the guards to be distracted, and pick up old furniture. We’d repaint and fix it up”.

“I learned that when one starts a business, there’s usually not much money, but you must put in time,” stresses Eizaz.

“With the income we made, we’d bring in guitars to sell. People were buying and the business grew.”

The turning point was in 2007 – 2008. Eizaz received an order for 400 violins from a private school. Unsure where to source such a big order, Eizaz turned to Google.

By chance, an online forum pointed Eizaz to a musical instruments shop in Guangzhou, China. In a leap of faith, Eizaz and Ray bought two AirAsia flight tickets to Guangzhou.

“We found the shop. It wasn’t convincing. It was dusty, cramped and there were spiders all over the violins.

But suddenly a guy walked in with a bag of money. The owner took out a money counting machine. I said to Ray, “This must be the real deal. Even we don’t have that machine”.

In yet another leap of faith, Eizaz made the order for 400 violins and wired over about RM180,000.

“In life, you cannot get rid of risks. If you forfeit risks, you forfeit progress. What’s vital is processing and mitigating risks”.

Over the next six years, his business grew, earning millions. Along the way, Eizaz taught, wrote, and produced music.

Sometime in 2015, Eizaz dabbled with the idea of an MBA.

“Around the time, a newly appointed chief minister was being condemned by the public for only having a PMR-equivalent certificate and no university degree”, he said. This struck a chord with him.

Eizaz believes that education should not just be about a piece of paper. It did not impact his ability to crunch numbers, analyse data, learn how to code, pick up several musical instruments, run a business, have a decent command of the English language, and relate to different people.

A friend shared a link on ASB with him.

“The link said, MIT in Malaysia. I thought this was interesting. Then I found out that they had an unconventional candidates track.

“They said essentially that my education background didn’t matter. What they wanted to see was something I had done that impacted the nation and society in a meaningful way”.

Eizaz only had two days before the deadline to submit the ASB application but managed to get an interview, after which he had to pass a few MIT tests.

“I actually hired a tutor – a friend of mine who was a physicist. He taught me calculus and algebra from scratch”.

Four months later, Eizaz was offered a spot in ASB, together with a full scholarship. Eizaz also got an Accreditation of Prior Experien­­tial Learning certificate from the Malaysian Qualifications Agency, which recognised his business experience so that he could enter university.

The inaugural ASB class had 47 students, 16 of whom are Malaysians with the others from all over the world – the United States, Mexico, Russia, Brazil, Peru, Australia, India, Pakistan, etc.

“One of my classmates has a PhD in music and plays for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. And he is a Microsoft Excel whiz. Another was a US Marine and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He eventually left and opened a gym in Cambodia.

“A Malaysian, from UiTM, was offered a place in MIT’s engineering postgraduate programme but couldn’t go. Now he’s with ASB”.

“MIT professors were flown in to teach us at ASB. What they teach in two months is taught in one week here.

They give us homework, between three to five case studies a day. If you’re not prepared, you’re dead”, says Eizaz excitedly.

“I’m loving every minute of it – the people, the business challenges, the knowledge.

“I accept that not everyone is like me or would have similar opportunities. Staying in school is important for most people.”

As for the future, Eizaz hopes to use the ASB experience to expand his business.

“I’m glad the Malaysian education system provides opportunities for people like me,” he said.

  • Danial Rahman has education close to his heart and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.


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Opinion , Danial Rahman , columnist

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com.

   

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