Our annual homage to the Women We Love features six women who have dazzled in their determination to succeed in life.
Text by Farrah Darma
Tengku Zatashah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah spent most of her childhood at an all-girls boarding school, an experience she loved as she often reminisces on the fun times she and great friends she made then. She remembers joining many volunteer activities hosted by her school, which undoubtedly impacted her philanthropic journey today. Of course, observing the importance of her mother’s charity work up close was also significant.
After 15 years in the UK, she spent two years in Barcelona, dabbling in the world of advertising. Having found her passion for writing early on, Tengku Zatashah came home to spend her early career on the desks of the New Straits Times, on the Life & Times desk. Not long after, her interest in picking French saw her move to Paris, where she studied French Language and Civilisation. Despite discouragement, Tengku Zatashah was determined to continue her studies in France, and even landed a job in L’Oréal’s Paris office – all while not once leveraging on her royal status.
“I’d always just gone by Zatashah Idris. No one knew who I was and I enjoyed being incognito while on assignments. I wanted to be judged based on my work and what I deliver, not because I am a princess,” she says. In the five years she spent working in Paris, her colleagues only found out of her royal when she got married.
It was not easy balancing a full-time job while having to commute daily for two hours just to get to classes. “I worked in L’Oréal’s international corporate communications division. I did that during the day and then travelled all the way back to South of Paris to attend classes in the evening. People doubted me but I graduated magna cum laude and was also promoted to manager within six months. Hard work pays off.”
Her husband, who had fallen in love with Malaysia, eventually decided to pack up and leave everything they knew in Paris, to start a life in Malaysia, where the couple ventured into business.
In time, however, Tengku Zatashah decided to shift her focus to sustainability. She currently juggles multiple roles within the social and environmental space. On top of being on the Board of Directors for InNature Bhd, a company that encompasses all values she believes in, she also kick-started national programmes and campaigns, most notably the #SayNo2Plastic and #ZeroFoodWaste campaigns that started in 2016 and has made remarkable progress since. She considers these campaigns some of her proudest achievements as she started them with the intention of seeing concrete positive action.
The #SayNo2Plastic campaign involves the reduction of single-use plastics and Tengku Zatashah herself often leads by example through her own practices. She recalls: “Back in 2016, no one was talking about plastic pollution. I thought to myself, why should I just talk about it? What can I do to inspire people to actually get on board? Ever since the launching, there are definitely more people catching on and being mindful of their habits.”
Tengku Zatashah on Advocating For Change
With her #ZeroFoodWaste campaign, hundreds and thousands of food products have been channeled to the needy. The campaign does not just encompass saving surplus food but also addressing the nation’s food security issue. Through her determined and persistent attitude, Tengku Zatashah successfully convinced hypermarket chains Lotus’s (formerly Tesco) and AEON to come on board. If not for their participation, all food waste from these giants would have found themselves in landfills to rot away.
Besides speaking at universities, Tengku Zatashah was also the Malaysian representative at the Change Now International World Summit 2019 in Paris. She shares about these campaigns and the impact they are having. “It was rewarding to be recognised on such a scale, and only within two years of inception, and it reinforces the hard work we do.”
Though she makes it sound elementary, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Tengku Zatashah. It took her over two years to gain support from AEON to be part of the #ZeroFoodWaste campaign. One of the campaign’s goals involved channeling surplus food from these hypermarkets to the needy. And, at the time, AEON’s headquarters in Japan had strict food health safety regulations that did not permit this.
“We finally managed to partner with them in 2018 after multiple rounds of discussion, and Malaysia is the first country that AEON has such an initiative with. Sometimes, when someone says no but you know it’s for the better, you have to go for it and find a way to get it done. It’s okay to feel like a broken record sometimes. That’s why they call me the persistent princess!”
Yayasan Food Bank
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As Chairman of Yayasan Food Bank and other charity boards, Tengku Zatashah actively works with corporate sponsors to assist those in need, be it B40 families, children or victims of any emergency situation. As the Royal Patron of Make-A-Wish Malaysia, Tengku Zatashah spends her days focused on granting and creating wishes. This typically involves granting wishes for children with critical illnesses, and seeks to bring hope, strength and joy to them. Through community support and corporate partners, Make-A-Wish Malaysia has produced multiple success stories for children to receive their dream gifts or even meet their favorite personalities.
While ensuring steadfast productivity with her work, she brings a calm balance to the table by prioritising her own health. “Every day looks different to me. What I am consistent with is my workouts. At the end of the day, before you contribute, you need to be healthy. I practice daily meditations and I read a lot of books. I’m very target driven and read 122 books last year.” If you’re lucky, you can catch Tengku Zatashah’s Instagram Lives with bestselling authors, where she discusses and reviews some of her favorite books.
She continues to inspire people through action. Not just through small, daily practices like carrying her own tiffin container for food. But also through larger-scaled activities, like beach clean-ups, and coral replanting and tree planting initiatives. Her active involvement in these have encouraged younger girls to participate and understand how polluted our beaches can be. Microplastics, for example, are not always visible to the naked eye.
Tengku Zatashah Making A Difference
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“I see lots of young activists and I hope there can be more initiatives from schools or universities to encourage active participation in making positive changes. It can be as simple as influencing your friends. That sounds better than just staring at your phone and being a keyboard warrior on certain issues.”
It’s been a tough but rewarding journey for Tengku Zatashah. For her, seeing her visions turn into reality is what truly makes her feel fulfilled. “Everything took time, but seeing even the smallest change is the most rewarding part of what I do.” When reflecting on what she might have done differently, Tengku Zatashah wishes she had started her journey sooner. Either way, she is grateful for the work she can do now and the areas she contributes in.
Tengku Zatashah says that the top three qualities any aspiring activist or entrepreneur should have are determination, persistence and confidence. “There will always be times where people won’t believe you. There will always be naysayers and even those who tell you you’re over-dreaming. You need to know that, even if you take two steps forward and 10 steps back. You have to keep going. Because the more steps you take, the more that self-esteem grows.” She remembers the times when she also faced doubts regarding the choices she made. “Even my choice of university was criticised as it was not considered a top-tiered one. I have always believed that if you have a dream, go for it. My attitude was always, I’m going to make it work, watch me.”
More personality stories here.