Our “I Am Her” series features the female movers and shakers of the industry to learn how femininity and power coincide beautifully and seamlessly together.
The world has definitely come a long way in dealing with issues of racism, discrimination, and gender equality. But of course, to say that the fight is almost over would be a lie. We still encounter these issues on a daily basis, and not everyone has the voice or the capacity to address these issues in their own terms. For Emellia Shariff, changing the narrative of discrimination is her goal. Her current venture, Speak Up Malaysia, is a consulting firm that ensures and fights for a "safe, diverse, and inclusive workplace for all".
As a former lawyer and a woman currently in an entrepreneurial role, she's made it her mission to give people a voice and a place to call sanctuary when the system says otherwise. How? Emellia tells us about her work as an equal rights advocate and an inspiring female figure in Malaysia.
Fill in the blank: I’m an entrepreneur, a gender rights advocate, and a ______________.
What led you to a life in business and what are your main motivations in pursuing this career track?
There is just something about the business world that appeals to me. Maybe it is because I come from a very humble, low-income upbringing. My mother worked four hard-labour jobs around the clock every single day to raise us, and for as long as I could remember, I grew up thinking how great life would be if I could work in an office with air conditioning and my very own cubicle. From there on, I developed an interest in corporates and business structures.
When I started my career as a practising lawyer in a boutique law firm in Kuala Lumpur, I asked to be given the opportunity to handle corporate litigation cases as well as advising corporate clients. This is not common, as the roles were in two separate departments, but I had a very supportive boss and he allowed me to explore my interests. I moved on from there to work in a multinational company (MNC), taking on a role which focused on compliance and corporate governance. This experience cemented my general interest in business into a passion of ensuring that businesses are ethical, sustainable as well as responsible to their various stakeholders: from employees, customers, and shareholders, all the way to the communities they work in as well as the environment.
I have moved on from the days where my siblings and I had to wake up at four in the morning to help our mother make kuih (a bite-sized Southeast Asian snack), but everything that I do today is for, and because of, my mother. She is the strongest person I know, my biggest source of inspiration and motivation as well as my biggest fan.
Walk us through your work in Speak Up Malaysia.
Speak Up Malaysia is a boutique consulting firm founded on the passion to help organisations create a safe, diverse, inclusive, and productive workplace for all. We focus on enhancing workplace ethics, eliminating gender and sexual harassment, as well as creating safe spaces through training and various tools to improve compliance, corporate governance and organisational culture.
Personally, I am interested in integrating principles of social justice into the business structure. I believe that a person’s career plays a significant role in their life, as well as in forming a sense of identity, dignity, and belonging within the community. People with good careers and healthy workplaces tend to be happier and more confident in their personal lives. Ultimately, they become more productive employees. It is a continuous feedback cycle.
However, we sometimes forget this and treat employees as if they are machines — ready to go to work day in and day out, performing almost the same routine daily, while shouldering the mental, emotional and physical burden of doing whatever it takes to get the job done. This creates a culture where employees’ mental health and wellbeing are unimportant while pressuring them into taking uncalculated risks or even doing unethical things in the interest of meeting their targets. Often, the management or board of directors are not even aware of these circumstances until they erupt into a crisis.
This is why Speak Up Malaysia was set up. Together with my partners, Animah Kosai and Shakirah Rahman, we believe in a human-based approach in empowering employees at all levels to speak up when they see something that may harm themselves or the organisation, while providing leaders with the tools to listen to these voices and act on the risks identified. This creates a culture where ideas and concerns are expressed, supported and addressed in the best way possible.
Have you personally experienced gender bias and racial discrimination as a female Muslim entrepreneur? If so, how did these affect you?
Gender bias, absolutely. The most common situation I face is when I attend meetings where people automatically assume that my male colleague is the boss. They would pay attention to him and introduce themselves to him until the meeting begins and my colleague introduces me. There was this one time when I attended an event for the Malaysian Institute for Debate and Public Speaking (MIDP), which is another organisation that I own, where the usher hissed at me because I sat in the seat reserved for the CEO. He asked me to sit elsewhere and I had to explain that I am the CEO of the company. But of course, gender bias is something that all minority gender identities face not just in small day-to-day interactions but also through every single structural and systemic hurdle we face to advance ourselves and our careers.
As a Muslim, I must say that I am treated a little differently, especially in the language people use with me or the values people expect me to have. However, in Malaysia, being a Malay-Muslim is a privilege. There are many opportunities and much assistance available for Malays-Muslims in this country which is not accessible to other fellow Malaysians. Therefore, to say that I face racial discrimination as a Malay-Muslim in Malaysia would be insensitive to the challenges and oppressions faced by other races.
What are your hopes for women advocates in the future? How are you currently helping to ensure that women-led initiatives are received and accepted a lot better than it is now?
I hope that advocates for women’s rights and gender equality in the future would continue to work collaboratively towards legislative reforms and structural changes that dismantle the patriarchy. I would love to see a more integrated approach when working on women’s and gender issues because they don’t just affect the day-to-day, but also the bigger picture. Women’s rights do not just improve individual lives but also the community, economy, and nation-building as a whole. And this is part of what we do at Speak Up Malaysia, to operationalise gender rights and empowerment in the workplace by establishing the business case and benefits of empowerment to the organisations we work with, which contribute to the economy.
I would like to think that I am one of the feminists of our generation who are helping to pave the way to prep the country to receive the amazing work that feminists in the future will work on, and the changes they will inevitably fight for. At the same time, I’m also happy to assist, mentor or platform the younger generations using the resources I have now.
How do you remain empowered despite your many roles?
Let my passion drive me to keep working towards my personal growth; give space for my mental health to keep up and take a break if need be; use logic to articulate the value of my work to others; and pray for the strength to not let things outside my control wear me down.
It is also important to realise that everyone has a role to play, based on their unique strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know where you can apply yourself, your skills and expertise most effectively, and focus on that. You don’t have to do everything yourself.
What are your Clozette essentials?
A pair of pants that give me comfort, a pair of shoes that let me move at any pace, and some statement, colourful jewellery to convince others that I have it together.
What’s next for Speak Up Malaysia and Emellia Shariff?
The next thing for Speak Up Malaysia is to just keep doing what we do, and learn how to do it better every single day. We are excited to work with as many organisations as possible, ranging from the ministries and government agencies, all the way to MNCs, SMEs and non-profits. We want to inspire organisations to transform into a safe, diverse, inclusive, ethical, and productive workplace for all, and hopefully, this will have a spillover effect into public spaces and the society.
As for me personally, I am excited to grow into a better person, an effective Managing Partner with an authentic sense of leadership, as well as a great consultant for our clients. I am very sure that I will learn a lot from every single organisation that I work with, and be inspired by the many amazing individuals that I will encounter as part of my work at Speak Up Malaysia.