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A Diverse Team: The Secret to HiGi Energy’s Success

July 26, 2016

According to the World Health Organization, 4.3 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels (2012 data) for cooking.

HiGi Energy is a Malaysian-based startup that converts invasive water hyacinth and other agricultural waste into an affordable, environmentally friendly, smoke-free cooking fuel. The company took home the 2nd Place Startup Stage award at the 2016 Tech-I competition.

HiGi Energy attributes much of their success to the team’s diversity. Team members are based in Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. We spoke with Jackie Yap Chee Wei, co-founder of HiGi Energy about the challenges and opportunities of working with a diverse team.

How did the HiGi Energy team form?

HiGi Energy formed when Malaysia chaired the ASEAN Summit in 2015. The government put a lot of emphasis into entrepreneurship, especially at the regional level. The founders of HiGi Energy had the benefit of connecting with the ASEAN youth network. The team shared the same mindset and enthusiasm.

HiGi Energy began by wanting to address a problem: the rapid and aggressive overgrowing of invasive plants called water hyacinth. The sheer abundance of this plant in the water system causes many problems.

The founders spent time with the local community to experience the issue firsthand. One day the founder was cooking with the local host. He couldn’t stand the smokiness and dust during the cooking process. He thought, “Can we address two problems at once by converting the invasive water hyacinth into a clean, affordable cooking fuel for rural people?”  That’s how HiGi Energy started.

Did you face any obstacles at the start of your collaboration? How did you overcome the challenges?

It’s taken some work to create a company culture. The team members come from different countries with different philosophies, working attitudes, values, and so on. We’ve also faced workflow challenges. Most of us work remotely. We don’t spend much office time together. That makes it difficult to spontaneously brainstorm, motivate or check in with one another.

That’s why we’ve adopted a positive mindset around challenges: if one way doesn't work out, there must be 10 other ways to address the issue. That attitude has helped us turn our virtual office into a fun, interesting experience. We’ve created some great activities that encourage us to interact with one another. Since we’re a team of diverse individuals, we’ve started taking cultural sharing and language classes every month to help the team embrace our diversity.

What are the benefits to having a diverse leadership team?

It’s fostered an open-minded worldview that’s proven useful in many ways. Our team members come from Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. We’ve had to develop common protocols. There isn’t one single cultural norm that governs team behavior. As a result, our team dynamic – especially conflict resolution – is much more harmonious.

Understanding different cultures has also been valuable in networking with other entrepreneurs and investors. We build relationships and connections much easier. We also better understand how other political, educational, cultural and economic systems work. Those insights help us design effective marketing strategies for different countries.

How did the GIST Tech-I program help develop your team building skills? 

GIST has taught me how to communicate my passion and drive to my team. The trainers showed me how I can talk with people from different backgrounds without my passion getting lost in the translation. As a leader of an early stage startup, sharing your passion with your team is crucial. Passion helps people focus on and commit to a common goal.

[Photo: HiGI Energy Core Team: from the left, Hazel (CFO), Ryle (Production Manager), Jackie (CEO), Leon (CTO), Zherluck (CMO)]

Based on your experience, what team development advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs?

Building a startup can be both scary and fun. You can learn so many new skills in a very short period of time. Team development is one of the most important skills leaders should learn quickly.

People are working quickly – often without a roadmap. Mistakes happen. It’s easy to blame others for making errors, but that damages a team dynamic. As the saying goes, "Good decisions are made by making a lot of bad decisions first." Encourage the team to keep an open mind when it comes to solving problems. There’s no one right way. Help team members learn from their mistakes. Teams learn more when they’re willing – and supported – to try new things.

How did HiGi include investors into the team dynamic?

We have several investment and funding partners including, myHarapan, Cradle Fund, and American Councils. We’re fortunate to have supportive partners that are aligned with our mission to build a long-term profitable brand with a social impact.

In our experience, involving our investors into the team dynamic has been very beneficial for all parties. They’ve taught us how to properly think about and document business plans and strategies.  One investor provided a team mentor to help guide and supervise our day-to-day process and offer motivation.


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