The unexpected entrepreneur

How a labor of love turned this mother into a businesswoman

The fourth installment of our series on women entrepreneurs, features Zahra from Malaysia. This feature is part of a series on women-owned SMEs (WSMEs) in four Southeast Asian countries, focused on how digitalization presents new opportunities for women-owned businesses and how it could help them overcome their gender specific challenges. KAS and Woomentum believe that empowered women in business who are equipped with digitalization and innovation capabilities are able to build more sustainable and profitable businesses, empower other women and communities, and stimulate greater social and digital economic growth.

They say you cannot choose the cards you are dealt, only how you choose to play them. For Zahra*, a 45-year-old woman from Malaysia, the choices she made after the birth of her daughter would go on to change her life more than she could have anticipated.

While the family was based overseas, Zahra’s daughter was diagnosed with autism. Following their doctor’s recommendation, Zahra and her husband enrolled their daughter in therapy, and were relieved at how well she responded to it.

Returning to Malaysia some years later to be nearer her family, Zahra struggled to find the same level of therapy services as she had accessed abroad. Contacting the head of the center that used to treat her daughter overseas, the clinician suggested she could set up her own therapy center, back home in Malaysia. Knowing her girl’s development would directly reflect the standard of her therapy was all the motivation Zahra needed. She took the doctor’s advice seriously and looked into setting up a therapy center of her own.

Start-up funds for the business came from Zahra’s family’s personal savings, with some help from the clinician who encouraged her to set up the center. Zahra knows how competitive grants can be in the healthcare sector, and was worried about taking out a loan when the country was in recession. Her principle has always been to be careful with spending, and to this day all income goes directly back into the business, either in upgrading the center or providing continuing development training for the staff.

Whenever she ran into challenges, Zahra’s first port of call was her former clinician. “He could be considered a mentor, I guess. When I faced any problems, I would ask him and he would give me advice,” she said. “Sometimes, though, I couldn’t apply his advice because the markets are different in our two countries; not everything he suggested could be adopted in my center.”

Zahra’s center, which started as a labor of love for her own daughter more than a decade ago, now employs over 25 staff, offering personalized one-to-one therapy to dozens of special needs kids in the district, from age two to eighteen. Knowing the financial barriers to therapy, Zahra’s center tries to keep fees low and accessible, without compromising the level of care provided. “Some other centers have an old-school way of doing things; we try to take a modern approach and apply the most up-to-date therapies,” Zahra explains.

Zahra oversees strict quality standards in her business, ensuring new staff have a full month of training by supervisors before handling their own cases. As well as providing individual therapy, the center provides advice to parents about moving their children into mainstream school with the support of one-to-one therapy assistants called shadow aides. They also host foreign board-certified clinicians a few times a year who provide expert input to specific cases.

When it comes to technology, the center admits to being rather old-fashioned. Rather than computer databases for their therapy records, everything is still manual and hand-written. Accounting and payroll are outsourced, and they don’t see the need for other human resources software at present as their staff base is small. They have a website and use social media like Facebook and Instagram for advertising their services, usually in the form of videos explaining the therapies they offer.

Zahra is grateful to have staff skilled at website maintenance and social media management to keep this side of things ticking over, as technology is not an area she is comfortable with. Nevertheless, she can see that her business would benefit from digitalization in numerous aspects, from data management to training apps, and while modern technology could help scale her business, she’s not at that stage yet. “For me,” she says, “my motivation was not about making a profit, but about bringing top-quality services to other families like mine. I am a mother first and foremost; owning a business was never my ambition. But here we are!”

The biggest challenge for the center in 2020 was the Covid-19 lockdown. Having to close their doors to patients for the first time, Zahra found an unexpected level of support from the women running other therapy centers in her area. Despite being in direct competition, the women supported each other and discussed the challenges of offering remote therapy and home therapy in the pandemic. Not only that, but as an employer Zahra suddenly found herself having to cross-check contract clauses regarding salary cuts in these unprecedented circumstances. “It was a painful experience, having to become a temporary lawyer: checking, reading and understanding every detail on how Malaysian law would apply to this situation,” Zahra recalls. She is grateful that the business had enough reserves to keep their staff on during the worst months of the pandemic. Zoom meetings played a part in keeping the team connected, but they didn’t find remote therapy worked well for their patients. Since May their services have been up-and-running again, in the form of home therapy implemented in line with health recommendations.

Zahra’s advice to other women entrepreneurs is to be completely committed, and make sure your family is on board. “I couldn’t have done it without my husband’s support. My husband views me as an equal and we share the household chores, which gives me time to tend to the business. As an entrepreneur, you need to have a laser focus on your business for at least the first five years. Make sure your product is good quality, be organized, and treat people the right way; those are the keys to success.”


*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Contact Person

Cristita Marie Perez

Cristita Marie Perez KAS

Senior Program Manager of Regional program Social Economic Policies Asia (SOPAS) +81 3 6426 5041 +81 3 6426 5047