Thousands of women and their families thronged the Caring Moms bazaar held at the canteen at SEGi University in Kota Damansara, Selangor, all day on March 26 in conjunction with the WOW – Women Do Wonders Talks and Bazaar helmed by Star Media Group and AirAsia. It was a hive of activity and people milled around, checking out items on sale at over 110 stalls, chatting and purchasing items to help support these small-business mothers in a big way.

Inside the auditorium, a group of formidable women took to the stage, enthralling a pre-registered crowd of 500 participants, mostly female but also with a number of men and a hearty bunch of gung-ho teenagers. Some had come from as far as Penang to attend the one-day event.

The stellar lineup of speakers, led by Star Media Group’s own editor-in-chief Datuk Leanne Goh, AirAsia X Bhd chairman Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and AirAsia Bhd CEO Aireen Omar, inspired all who came with their honest insights, candid humour and laid back style. Then there was the panel discussion by trailblazing women – Enfiniti Academy group president/chief dream-maker Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina, CIMB Investment Bank Bhd CEO Datuk Kong Sooi Lin, PurelyB CEO Jesrina Arshad and Caring Moms co-founder Major Shera Ann Bosco – which was moderated by the lively WOMEN:Girls president Low Ngai Yuen.

But it was Hong Kong powerhouse entertainer Maria Cordero, who truly WOWed the audience with song, dance and her life story of a woman who has striven to rise, and rise again, because of her own self-worth and determination to protect and care for her family. Bursting into song at any opportune moment and sprinkling her speech with Cantonese, obliging fans with wefies, Cordero was the crowd favourite, proving to all present that when positively​ motivated, a woman can truly do anything.

Wow

Maria Cordero captivated the crowd with her candid and humorous sharing of her experiences of hardship and overcoming challenges. Photos: The Star/Sam Tham/Azman Ghani/Faihan Ghani

Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, AirAsia X Bhd chairman

“I’ve always said that there’s nothing in the world that I cannot do if I want to. There’s nothing in the world anyone can’t do if they want to. ‘Want’ being the operative word,” said Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz in a fiery address that was engaging and funny.

“I brought up my children on this principle. I told my eldest daughter (when she was in Standard Two) and she retorted with: ‘Mummy, you cannot go to the moon!’.”

Rafidah continued, “I told her “Eh, if I wanted to go to the moon, I would have continued with my Science studies, I would have worked my way to Nasa and I then would have worked my way to becoming an astraunaut and probably would have made my way to the moon. But I didn’t want to do it.”

The former International Trade And Industry Minister who was known as the “Iron Lady” during her Cabinet tenure said that she never let gender be an edge, nor a constraint for her. “In Malaysia I think there really are no closed doors (for women). People of my generation, and before me, have made sure that doors are open for Malaysian women … some are open really wide and some have to be pushed open but they’re never locked.”

Rafidah pushed on: “Women should not fall into the gender trap. Glass ceilinglah. Weaker sexlah. No such thing. Who told you that? These are all perceived weaknesses. No ceiling, glass or otherwise. That’s rubbish. That must have been coined by by a man,” she said, her frank, funny comments tickling the crowd, and driving her point home.

“Grab opportunities. And we all must kick the ‘buts’. People say ‘but I cannot’ or ‘but we’re the weaker sex’ … What ‘but’? Kick the ‘buts’.”

A wefie for the album – panellists Tiara, Kong, Shera and Jesrina say cheese.

A wefie for the album – panellists Tiara, Kong, Shera and Jesrina say cheese.

Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina, group president and chief dream-maker of Enfiniti Academy

A St Mary’s KL schoolgirl, Tiara happily shared how her school was instrumental in instilling a love for drama, always encouraged girls to be in the forefront of everything and trained them to be all-rounders. “I cut my teeth at becoming a producer at school,” she said. “I directed and produced a play back then, and even went from school to school selling tickets!”

Tiara talked about her early days right up to making the epic fantasy period film Puteri Gunung Ledang movie in 2004. “I wanted it to be the Gladiator of the Lord Of The Rings of Malaysia,” she gushed, and expounded on how being bold has enabled her to succeed at what she does.

These days Tiara spends her time training a new generation of actors at the Enfiniti Academy, which offers lessons in speech and drama, vocal, dance and more. “We are creating a new breed of thinkers for Malaysia,” she revealed. “We want game changers. And through drama you can change people. You can coach a person to think.”

The crowd was delighted with the talks.

The crowd was delighted with the talks.

Jesrina Arshad, co-founder and CEO of PurelyB, Asia’s first health and wellness online portal

“In 2015 the idea of PurelyB came to me. I was suffering from many digestive issues and also from migraines. I had all sorts of allergies – gluten, dairy, shellfish. So I did my own research and found that I could still eat well without having to compromise on my health. And I wanted to share this knowledge with others,” she said, sharing how she was fortunate to find seven other women – some into nutrition, and others digital specialists – to collaborate with on the portal.

“My journey in digital marketing started 10 years ago. Back then it was still a rarity … it was hard to find women studying those things. I began coding, designing and building websites. I didn’t see myself as an engineer but I knew it was necessary to know these things if I was going to be in this industry.”

Jesrina spoke about her early days in Astro’s digital marketing where she was given the tools to move forward in her field. “There was no bias there, it didn’t matter that I was a woman, and I was able to play a part in helping Astro increase its digital footprint.”

Aireen Omar, AirAsia Bhd CEO

The CEO of AirAsia Bhd revealed that she had always longed to work Wall Street because her father was always reading and giving her books to read on finance.

“ I wanted to be in that kind of environment. What do I do to get there? I decided I wanted to learn economics,” she said. “My father’s encouragement played a large part in that but also because of a TV show called Family Ties. I was inspired by the character Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox) who wanted to make it big on Wall Street. In one episode Alex said he wanted to go to the London School of Economics, and so I told my father that I wanted to go there too.”

Aireen added that in the past she would shy away from events like the WOW Talks and Bazaar which focused specifically on gender.

“I never understood why gender had to be an issue,” Aireen said. “After all, at the end of the day, we are individuals making a difference and doing the best we can to contribute to our country, regardless of our gender.”

As time went by however, Aireen realised that not all girls and women had the same life experiences or opportunities that she had growing up.

“Not all girls were brought up in a supportive family like mine, where I was encouraged to pursue whatever I wanted and what I hoped to achieve. I never had any barriers,” she shared. “So perhaps I felt I should be more involved in such conferences to inspire girls.”

Datuk Kong Sooi Lin, CIMB Investment Bank CEO

“In CIMB, more than 55% of our workforce are women,” shared Kong. “But a lot of them drop out along the way because the investment banking industry is very intense and also very competitive. Some find it difficult to balance their priorities.”

Kong feels that this is where seniors like her are essential in encouraging the women around her. “I must be an advocate for younger women to remain in the industry.”

Kong credits her family for where she is today. “My family is my top priority. My parents come from very humble beginnings but they were very progressive in their thinking. They sent me overseas to achieve my dreams and it’s the same with my husband now. Support from family is crucial.”

Major Shera Ann Bosco, co-founder of Caring Moms

In her tenure as an army servicewoman, Major Bosco has led a squadron of 49 men on a 10-day mission, each carrying 25kg of weight through a series of obstacles. She is a headstrong woman who seems unafraid of any challenge, and offers three tips for those who want to pursue a passion.

“First thing I learnt was that the speed of implementation is vital. You must do things like there is no tomorrow,” she shared. “Second, you must take action even when you are not sure of what to do. Don’t procrastinate! If you fail, it doesn’t matter.”

Finally, Major Bosco reckons one must value one’s time. Eleven months ago Major Bosco decided to star the Caring Moms programme and it has grown to be a great success. She finds that one doesn’t have to “chase success”. “If you do your best, you will find that success will chase after you instead.”

The tough-as-nails servicewoman made time to say thank you to her “biggest cheerleader”, her mother. “If I ever hit rock bottom, she is always there to pick me up.”