This article was first published in the February 2018 Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

As Malaysia moves towards its goal of becoming a fully developed nation, educating the next generation has never been more important. Yet according to the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025, one in five children do not complete their secondary education, while 44% do not meet minimum proficiency standards in reading and almost 60% do not attain minimum requirements in mathematics. That’s where leadership development organisation Teach For Malaysia (TFM) – which provides staff for high-need schools – comes in. And Aida Azmi, director of strategy and operations, has a vital role to play.

Aida is part of a team that works for the non-profit organisation whose agenda is to address the imbalance in education by empowering young graduates and professionals to train as teachers and develop their leadership capabilities.

TFM works closely with the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MoE); while the graduates and young professionals who become ‘fellows’ are employed by the ministry, they are trained by TFM through its fellowship programme. They are then offered a full-time teaching employment for two years as secondary school staff. One of Aida’s tasks involves vetting potential candidates, which is done on a regular basis as a steady stream of young volunteers is key to the success of the organisation.

The role is wide-ranging, extending beyond the skills gained from Aida’s accountancy background, which began at PwC in 2006. It entails a great deal of negotiation, discussion, planning and deployment in collaboration with government bodies. A key part of Aida’s job is ensuring that finances are kept lean while locating financial streams to support TFM’s work.

She recalls that her first assignment streamlining business costs and trimming budgets couldn’t have been tougher. ‘I had to make a lot of people redundant,’ she says. ‘It was a very hard decision but financial costs have to be managed even more strictly when you’re a non-profit organisation. You’re responsible to a lot of parties – sponsors, donors – not just the ones you’re trying to help.’

In 2017 TFM had an operating budget of RM5m; the placement of each fellow costs at least RM50,000 per year. While the list of corporate partners and donors is impressive – including Yayasan Hasanah, YTL Foundation, UBS and CIMB Foundation – developing an effective strategy for the future is vital. The challenge is immense, but Aida is quick to add that she is part of a team that works together to drive the organisation’s agenda.

The impact of TFM’s fellows goes way beyond the classroom. Because they are at grassroots level, their outreach enables them to gather data that could help shape future educational policy for the country. Research has shown that just one TFM fellow can have an impact on as many as 150 students a year, amounting to tens of thousands since the programme was founded in 2010.

Currently, the majority of fellows are concentrated in the southern state of Johor. Coverage used to be wider before cutbacks had to be made. ‘It was a matter of cost-effectiveness,’ Aida explains, adding that the programme could be expanded again in the future, if it can be made it sustainable.

Ever the pragmatist, she is well aware that social enterprises need to balance their input with social impact; for non-profit organisations like TFM, striking that balance is an everyday tightrope walk. ‘Sustainable support is not something we come by easily,’ she acknowledges. ‘There is so little of it to go around to begin with, and whatever we have now will get even less in the future.’

Building sustainability

When Aida joined TFM in 2016, she was already very familiar with the organisation, which had been one of her clients when she worked at PwC Consulting, where she spent four years as a management consultant. There, Aida was tasked with creating a financial transformation programme for TFM, which focused on building technical financial capability, developing a blueprint for a knowledge management framework and migrating the organisation’s accounting system, as well as training staff and reviewing budget processes. Now on the ‘inside’, she is building on this framework, developing strategies to sustain and grow the organisation through strategic public-private partnerships while resources diminish with alarming rapidity.

As well as working with TFM, during her time at PwC Consulting Aida took the lead on programme management and business transformation projects for various clients in the postal, plantation, aviation, insurance and oil and gas industries, as well as the non-governmental organisations and the public sector.

Long-term strategy

Looking back over her career so far, a commitment to strategic thinking has been at the heart of Aida’s roles – dating right back to her decision to join the accountancy profession. At the age of just 17, with a natural affinity for maths, she had already reasoned that an accountancy degree would give her an unshakeable grounding in a lifetime career that would not need to be supplemented with subsequent degrees.

It was strategy that led her to PwC in 2006, where she became a senior associate auditing clients in a range of industries, from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to manufacturing. A subsequent careful review of her career pathway made her take a chance on applying to the United Nations (UN), three years after she joined PwC, despite her lack of experience and the overwhelming job requirements. Her curiosity about the non-corporate sector and interest in the UN and its workforce convinced her that there was a place for her. Through her own research she realised that there was an incredibly diverse range of UN work, and that a similarly incredible range of expertise was needed for it. ‘I applied to the UN, but realised I just wasn’t experienced enough then,’ she says. So she bided her time, joining PwC’s consulting arm as a management consultant, taking the lead on programme management and business transformation in a variety of industries, include NGOs.

The opportunity to join the UN finally presented itself in 2014 when, as an independent consultant, she worked on the expansion of the United Nations Development Programme’s global shared service centre; her role included overseeing the recruitment process, internships, staff development, knowledge management, communications and IT infrastructure. She was also appointed to develop a cost recovery framework for the volunteer management process of a United Nations agency based in Bonn, Germany.

Solid foundations

The backbone of her career has been her ACCA Qualification, which she attained while she was studying full time for three years with straight passes at UiTM (Universiti Teknologi MARA) in Shah Alam.

‘ACCA was super-tough!’ she admits, adding that ‘life was nothing but study’. In retrospect, she says she would have stretched the learning out over a longer period but ‘I felt that with a professional qualification I wouldn’t have to do a master’s degree, and I could spend more time concentrating on my career.’

This year will bring new challenges, as Aida’s role shifts to focus more on external relations, bringing together sustainability building and partnership development. And as a member of the senior leadership team, she is also providing oversight and determining the future direction of the organisation.

One thing is clear: Aida’s passion for TFM is only growing stronger. ‘I love being part of it,’ she enthusiastically affirms. ‘It’s very exciting, very rewarding.’

Majella Gomes, journalist