Johary Mustapha founded Forest Interactive, a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) provider for mobile network operators, in 2006. The company now operates in 39 countries. Johary is also involved with the National Tech Association of Malaysia (PIKOM), Consumer Forum Malaysia (CFM), and Communications & Multimedia Content Forum (CMCF). Additionally, he is an honorary advisor of the Malaysia Mobile Technology Association (MMTA), and sits on the board of the University of Computer Science and Engineering’s Industry Advisory Board and board of MDEC’s Digital Expert Panel. In 2018, Johary was named EY Technology Entrepreneur of the Year.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
KrASIA (Kr): What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as a founder?
Johary Mustapha (JM): It’s an ongoing educational process. A lot of the talent that has joined the organization since its inception have shaped my thoughts and beliefs. As a leader, it’s essential to communicate the rationale behind decisions to the people you work with.
Kr: How did you formulate Forest Interactive’s philosophy for workplace diversity?
JM: We started with local talent in Malaysia. There were little conversations taking place about what was happening outside of Malaysia. When Forest started to grow regionally, we started to diversify. People from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam joined us and they each brought a different perspective on how technology and culture shaped their careers. That’s why we opened up job opportunities to anyone who fits our scope, as opposed to simply looking at local talent.
Kr: With a presence in 39 countries, how do you maintain a shared company culture?
JM: It was a challenge initially. We’re not looking to change individual cultures. Rather, we’re about opening up our mindset to accept other cultures. One initiative we took was to educate our teams about why we’re growing in this way, which eventually led to organic, diverse growth for our corporate PR team. About 5% of our workforce is part of the corporate PR team, which is much larger than most companies this size.
Kr: What are some of Forest’s initiatives that ensure diversity and inclusion are always on people’s minds?
JM: Having a group of people from different parts of the world working together helps a lot. The step that we take to understand each other goes a long way. We also have events where we celebrate each country’s national day, and people act as ambassadors of their respective countries and tell us fun facts about their home country. We also have a Q&A session, where we can ask questions safely. What shouldn’t be said, how can we avoid offending someone—these are all topics that are discussed. What unifies us is the tech industry. Tech involves new knowledge and breakthroughs. It naturally generates a culture of wanting to know more.
Kr: Can you tell me more about your social initiatives, like your involvement with the United Nations Global Compact?
JM: We started to understand the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when we became a part of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), which is the biggest association for mobile operators. We participated in SDG-driven events with GSMA. We look at the SDGs as CSR, and a way to develop talent while meeting company targets. It’s not just about profit and loss when it comes to a business. It’s also about bridging the gap between technology-empowered business and outreach to communities and customers. We do so by looking at our business operations and company goals, and then try to see how it could relate to key targets of every sustainable goal.
We started an initiative called #ForestCares that brings educational programs to schools. Giving back to the community is not easy. It requires all your employees to be on board with you, and we had to educate them about this. Now, as a team, we want to get other corporates involved too, but we can’t wait around for others to chip in. With the help of our production team, we have created digital assets to make it easier to pitch our initiative to other corporates.
Kr: What was the motivation behind setting up the Forest Interactive Gaming Habitat Team (FIGHT)?
JM: We are involved in the mobile games ecosystem. While promoting and marketing games, we realized e-sports was becoming popular. We started FIGHT due to this. We’re latecomers compared to most other companies, but our objective is to host smaller tournaments to get communities started on social and gaming platforms. In countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, there’s a lot of stigma around gaming, especially from the perspective of parents. According to them, it’s a waste of time and effort. We want to change that misconception. The Malaysian government is communicating with us on how they can develop these communities to include youth-based programs. We’ve seen a change; some parents now do see e-sports as a career path for kids. It helps that universities now have gaming courses.