This year’s International Women’s Day, we celebrate six women leaders in the impact space. Women who take on pioneering roles and are driven by a sense of purpose of ensuring no one is left behind coupled with their strong sense of defying injustice.
Cheryl was working in a promising career and stable job in public relations. Despite her busy schedule, she made time to volunteer as a teacher giving free tuition to refugee children at her local church. Then, her life reached a plateau when her hectic schedule caught up with her. It was then that she considered a career shift.
She signed up as a fellow with Teach for Malaysia and embarked on a journey that gave her a new perspective on education and poverty in Malaysia. Equipped with plenty of baju kurungs, she taught English at a rural secondary school in Kedah.
In that school, she witnessed first-hand the inequity between rural and urban schools where her students had to choose between school and helping their families out. Cheryl proceeded to innovate and think of ways to make school appealing to the students. She organised a choral speaking team to train and improve language literacy. Her teaching journey was so moving that it caught the interest of a filmmaker who eventually produced Adiwaraku, a local movie inspired by her story.
Cheryl’s teaching stint has led her to greater ventures in improving Malaysia’s education standard. She is currently helming Global School Leaders Malaysia, an initiative that seeks to empower Malaysian school leaders with the vision to see positive school transformation nationwide.
Cheryl finds it encouraging that the youth and community leaders are coming together to dedicate their time and effort towards nation-building. Now, the impact space is full steam ahead with more and more people being involved with a similar aim of shaping a better future for Malaysia.
The work of nation-building doesn’t depend on one sector or on just a few individuals, but it is the collective responsibility of all of us to come together and try to make small incremental changes in the spaces we are in. – Cheryl Ann Fernando, Chief Executive Officer of Global School Leaders Malaysia
In the education space where Cheryl is involved, qualities such as empathy, understanding and leadership with emotional intelligence are required. Cheryl has had her fair share of being called a “weak leader” and “not the smartest”, alluding to her role as a female leader. But she has always taken those comments in a positive light – at times even seeing it as an advantage.
We are constantly being made to feel like we have to pick a side – a good mother or a good leader in the organisation and this can get very frustrating and push women out of the impact space. – Cheryl Ann Fernando, Chief Executive Officer of Global School Leaders Malaysia
In past interviews, she was often asked how she juggles her role as a leader and a mother, a question that irks her personally. To her, a woman can be both at the same time.
We can be great mothers and great leaders in an organisation without having to pick one. Of course, I get lots of support to help me with both my roles but I think ultimately, this narrative still remains as a stumbling block for a lot of us to do what we do. – Cheryl Ann Fernando, Chief Executive Officer of Global School Leaders Malaysia
Her work in the education sector is personal. Being a mother to two children, Leia and Immanuel, Cheryl wants the best possible education for her children. The same hope extends to millions of children in Malaysia who desire good teachers and role models in school and education institutions. The same desire as a parent makes her work incredibly relevant and significant for this specific season in life.
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By ROHINI RAJARATNAM
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