my stanford experience

August 30, 2017

“You shouldn’t be nervous, you should be excited!” my dad reminded me at the dinner table before my flight.


I had mixed feelings going to a graduate programme in Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Paid a lot of money to enroll and was going to take in all that I can, but I still felt a little nervous. Leaving the kids left me with guilt but I’m pretty strong in that department. My issue was more on the actual course and flashbacks of shy undergraduate Vivy came to my present mind. What if those matsalehs speak better than me and I get embarrassed? What if they ask me to get up in front of hundreds of students to give a presentation? What if they realize this woman actually doesn’t know much and I tarnish Malaysia’s good name? And the golden question of all, what if they can’t see me because I’m so tiny? I mean, I’m already short in my own country. Now, imagine a country where people are double the height of that tall Malaysian friend of yours. Gosh, they’re going to literally pick me up and put me in their pocket, aren’t they?

I don’t want to change a lot of things in my life. But if I could, it would be how I lived my academic life in uni. I went to LSE, a great uni (best uni in the world, way better than that Imperial College place *looks at Fadza*), I graduated and flew back home. Did I study hard? Yeah I guess. Could I have maximized my potential there? Absolutely. I hung out with Malaysians, traveled with Malaysians, went to Malaysian restaurants with Malaysians…. I was intimated by the matsalehs because they’re bigger, smarter (arguable statement here), and sure knew how to milk the confidence. Have you ever been in a class where the teacher asked something and you were too shy to answer and some other person answered the exact thing you wanted to say? Like dude I thought it first, how dare you. Have you ever had that one matsaleh guy who was at the bar last night taking tequila shots and comes up to class the next morning saying all the right things to the professor with confidence? I used to look at them with envy. I totally blame (oklah partly blame…) our education system for the passive learning and never letting the students speak up to think and argue. I mean, we’re Asians – our culture itself is so ingrained in values of respect and humility. There we were back in school underlining things that our teacher asked us to, memorizing for exams and afraid to question our teachers, and there they were in the West being taught how to do public speaking and creative thinking. Don’t even get me started on our education system, I just hope a lot has changed since my days.

Anyway, years have passed since uni, 8 to be exact. I’ve matured, I’ve gained confidence, I’ve gained experience in business, I’ve grown a bit taller (no I haven’t but let’s just say I have), I’ve evolved as an adult. Sure, I could read the news a bit more than I should, but hey I think I could stand up and give opinions without doubting myself anymore. And I did just that at Stanford. And guess what, no one judged anyone. Everyone had valid opinions in class, everyone respected each other no matter where you came from, and it was such an awesome experience. I talked to the professors, I talked to other students, I was really into it and so were they.

Stanford was a one-week intensive course about innovation and growth, hosted by Endeavor which is the network of mentorship that Fadza and I were selected to be in, among 11 companies in Malaysia. We learned so many things; from challenges businesses go through while scaling, how to make decisions, how to empower and incentivize your team, how to evaluate partnerships, how to expand, how to do design thinking and brainstorm, so many useful things. None of the classes gave conclusions at the end, they just gave case studies and it was up to the individuals how they want to decide on their own real-life decisions. What was amazing about this course was that they gave such credible lecturers and speakers. Each of the professor that taught us were millionaires who had done startups before or are investors or both. So when they spoke, you really wanted to listen because they knew what they were talking about. The guest speakers were also amazing; a guy whose invested into Uber and many other high profile businesses, a guy who turned down the offer to invest into Google when they started and why he (wrongly) didn’t see potential, and so many more. Even the students were remarkable. There were about 60 people from all over the world at different levels in their business (some just started and some were at $100m annual revenue) and 7 girls only (me included)!

One of my favorite sessions was one that talked about failure. It was on the last day and I thought it was such a nice wrap up to the course. Because everyone looks at successes and the glorious shiny companies, but no one really pays attention to the ones that failed. The guest speaker was the former CTO of NASA who felt he was ready to do his own thing, he was very credible and had all the good billionaires investing in him. And the business failed. We were given the scenario of the company by the entrepreneur himself, and for 20 minutes we all had to predict why the company failed. One said “failed leadership and hubris” and I was like woahhh the guy is sitting right there! *knife in heart* But they were all so cool, these Americans. They just took it in and shrugged. Anyway, while we were doing that, we didn’t realize it but we were picking up tips on what we shouldn’t do in our own businesses. I might write a blogpost on this alone because we can all learn from it, just need to find the time.

We had loads of smaller group brainstorming sessions and study groups at night after dinner (I know right?! Hardcore these Stanford people, I mean I just wanted to eat maggi at that hour….). We were given tasks, we had to built prototypes to solve problems (it was hilarious – I put two playdoh tubs on a ruler haha I swear there was a reason to it), we even had a real-life play of a pitching session where the VC told us exactly what he thought while the company was pitching to him. My fav was the half-day business challenge where we presented our business challenges to each other to solve. It was really nice bouncing off ideas and challenges with strangers, but strangers who could contribute because they know how it feels or they have been there before. When people have never heard of you, they give unbiased opinions and could potentially point out something you’ve never realized in your business. I had a few of those moments during these sessions and it was just mindblowing.

Ah and the room! We each had our own room with ensuite bathroom and a sharing pantry. It was super clean, I loved it! And we had a TV each too. #2brokegirlsmarathon! Fadza and I had own rooms but of course being the clingy couple we were, we snuggled up at night together.

Scuse the mess, ladies and gentlemen. I was packing to go home and wanted to quickly snap before the Fadza leaves me with the Uber.

As good as that course was, I’m now on the plane back to Malaysia and boy does it feel good. Had loads of fun there learning and networking, but nothing beats the feeling of coming home and hearing “To all Malaysians, welcome home” on the flight. I’ve gained an abundance of wealth in knowledge but I’ve also gained realization that I will never be able to live in San Francisco. They have dinner at 6pm, everything closes by 9ish, and you get hungry at 10 (because you had dinner – most probably a salad – 4 hours ago!!) walking aimlessly looking for a vending machine…. that only sells organic water. Ok la fine, I exaggerate but really, they eat so healthily (would you like a salad or a salad?) and they bike everywhere. Sounds good if you’re outdoorsy and like to live life on two wheels.

This little girl from Malaysia can’t even climb on them. #bicyclesmadeforgiants

Good to be home, Malaysia. Just in time for Merdeka!