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Does University/College Experience Make a Difference?

Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash

The University of Malaya’s Convocation Festival would always be an exciting time for all graduates and their families. For the newbies it was a time of festivities with hundreds of food stalls scattered around campus versus a normal day where good food was scarce.

Back in 2000, I was voted in as an Exco for the Tamil Language Society of UM (TLSUM) and was given the task of leading two projects. One was the annual Gerai Konvo (Food Stall) where TLSUM would rent a space from the University to set up a food stall serving Indian food. This is a three to five day event that was extremely taxing, as it was fully operated and managed by the students, including the preparation of food. This was also a project that was run at a loss due to the inability of our food stall to make profits within that short period of time. So, there was no pressure on me to deliver profits, and in fact the whole Gerai Konvo could turn out bad and no one would have blamed me.

Fast forward to 2018, I am walking through these maze of food stalls and I notice that almost all operators were external, meaning the stalls were rented out to food vendors and not operated by students. The food looked delicious and I observed a long wait at this stall selling ‘nasi goreng ayam kunyit’ (rice with deep fried turmeric chicken) which was a traditional Malay dish, but the long waiting line consisted of mainly Chinese students. Food in Malaysia transcends beyond race and religion.

This was exactly how I managed my Gerai Konvo project in 2000. I appointed another friend of mine to become the Project Director and I became the Adviser – maybe it’s cronyism? Hahaha. I had bigger things to focus on and my primary goal was to deliver a successful Projek Malam Anugerah (Awards Night), which was halted for a few years due to lack of funds and support. I loved the big stuff and I always had great passion to deliver in grandeur, hence I set myself a goal to have this Malam Anugerah at a leading Hotel in Kuala Lumpur; set standards so high that people will remember it for years to come. And yes, I did eventually pull that off in spectacular fashion, but the credit goes to the amazing team I had back then.

Now back to the Food Stall that we operated during the UM Convocation Festival… This is what my team did back in 2000 :

The students are not experts in cooking. It was messy, energy-sapping and the food obviously was not that great. So, we decided to leave that to the experts and for the first time we subcontracted the entire food preparation to an external caterer. Later, when I started working, I realised this was called Outsourcing. 

However, we decided to prepare the drinks ourselves. The effort and skill required was minimal and the cost was much lower too. We guessed we could make more money by not outsourcing the beverage department. This was Rationalising our Product Offering by Focusing on High Margin. We also worked on our Pricing Strategy to ensure we were gaining higher margins to Drive Business Profitability.

Next was to think of what else we could do to increase sales. Our team came up with additional activities at the food stall to generate revenue (song request, sales of bookmarks, flowers, greeting cards, etc). These were actions that maximised selling space, diversified revenue streams and increased the range of merchandise by leveraging branding. Our bookmarks and greeting cards had the UM Logo on it and that strong brand helped boost sales.

Since graduating in 2002, I have been attached to several MNCs in Malaysia with international assignments as well. Reflecting on what have I been doing at work for the past 18 years; building external business partnerships locally and globally, hiring and developing team members to deliver organisational goals, setting priorities and outsourcing low impact tasks that require long man-hours but still important; applying LEAN principles to drive efficiency and reduce wastage, demonstrating process leadership, reducing cost and improving margins to drive profitability, etc. How different is this from what I did in the University?

The Gerai Konvo 2000 was just a simple university project that could not have mattered in the bigger scale of events that unfolded in my academic journey. But today I realise it was actually a giant initiative that set in motion my thought process and it was also officially my first entrepreneurship endeavour. The experience and the know-how of running a business can never be fully understood if not indulged personally and where else would I have ever had the opportunity to run a business with zero investment and no expectations from stakeholders to deliver profits?

This is what Life in a University/ College can give you. Yes, the excellent grades make your resume look amazing and stand out. But real-time experience and exposure that you can gain on campus would eventually surmount those collections of A’s that you have accumulated. To go the distance, you need to stand out and you need to hit the ground running. The workplace today is ultra-competitive. Without real industrial or corporate skills, you face the risk of being swallowed whole. But as a student, you do not need to wait for educational reforms to make a difference for yourselves. All it requires is perseverance to stay in the system and a little initiative and perhaps creativity to make it work in your favor.

I have always been an average student, but I have learnt to survive with the little that I was provided with. Life in university was beyond just books; it opened windows of opportunities for me to build a certain skill which is crucial at the workplace today – To Deliver More with Less.

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Written By

Lingesh Lechaman is a Retail Specialist with 20 years of experience covering FMCG, Fuels & Non-Fuel Retailing in Malaysia, Oman & Singapore. Currently the Head of Marketing for Shell Oman, he manages Brands & Communications, Digital Marketing, Real Estate & Leasing, Convenience Retailing, Lubricants & Vehicle Servicing, as well as building partnerships with International & Local Brands. Follow Lingesh on LinkedIn.

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