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Human Resources

Malaysian startups: Mentor worship, sexual assault and sometimes rape

I was appalled and saddened to read a recent article in Tech in Asia: “How to ensure startup mentor rapes don’t happen”. This opened with the lines: “It’s not new. I had heard a few stories here and there, but a recent one that was told to me in private got me really worked up.”

It was written by Maverick Foo, co-founder at KICKSTART.MY and told the story of Siti (not her real name) who was sexually assaulted by her mentor after a startup hackathon. It was based on something the author had been told in confidence.

But how common is this problem? I decided to catch-up with Foo, who is heavily involved in the Malaysian startup scene, to find out: “There is a difference between rape and sexual assault, and for the latter, we do hear about it once in a while. As for rape, this is the first time I heard about it from the victim. Could there be more, I hate to think so.”

The trouble is rape victims find it hard to speak out. “I’m sure victims of rape and sexual assault cases can be found in any industry, but in the startup scene where events, conferences and boot camps sensationalise ‘mentors’, the innocent do have their trust – the same kind of trust of a student to the teacher – betrayed,” says Foo. “Sadly, as long as the victims don’t voice out, the perpetrators will walk free.”  

“The purpose of me writing the article, with the victim’s consent, was to build some awareness so the female co-founders and event participants take note that issues like this exist, and I’m also hoping it will deter the rapist(s),” he adds.

He also tells us that he emailed the Tech in Asia article to the mentor in question for comment and has not had a response.

Of course, with a story like this there are two sides and I don’t know anything about the ins and outs of this particular story. Sitting in an office in London, this could just as easily be unfounded slander as anything else. Yet the reason I wanted to write about this story is that it does seem to highlight some other socially negative things about the startup scene that probably don’t get talked about enough.  

Foo describes “mentor worship” as something that has surprised him in the local scene. “Most startup entrepreneur ‘wannabes’ don’t actually question the integrity, credentials and character of the mentor they pick,” he says.

Also, as an observation, he adds “a few seasoned entrepreneurs, and the Gen-Y and millennials want to have a startup just for the sake of it – as if it’s cool to be in a startup – despite one that is not making money or sustaining themselves.  Many of these founders are still living with their parents. It is as if the dream of fame and glory and the desire to be a unicorn has deluded them from what’s real.”

Part and parcel of this is that “many graduates are now building their startups, often with grant or seed money, and have not joined the workforce for a single day of their lives,” says Foo.

“Now, it’s cool if they are extremely gifted in the basic skills of entrepreneurship, but the truth is, they are often not. Plus, lacking the knowledge in working for corporates meant that they don’t understand the inner workings of organisation structures and behaviours, and usually the basic communication skills needed to navigate through the business world.”

“Personally I have seen some of these startup entrepreneurs dishing out advice during startup events and hackathons and boot camps, which demonstrated their lack of experience in the business world. Can they avoid the experience and exposure and still make their startup a success? Sure, why not.”

The trouble is, he adds, “with the high failure rate of startups, eventually these young adults will hit the workforce later than most of their peers, and having tasted the freedom of ‘entrepreneurship’, they probably will not be so invested in the job they have.”

These are side issues though. As he concludes: “Business failures are usually professionally hurtful, but having one’s dignity stripped, it’s a personal wound that may never heal. Help me and the various victims of rape and sexual assault within the startup ecosystem spread the message of awareness.”

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