Adzmel Adznan: Engineer to VC Partner, Malaysia Roots & Processing Grief - E154

· VC and Angels,Malaysia,Southeast Asia,Purpose,Podcast Episodes English

On reflection, I would say do more research into who will be your boss. People really make your career, not so much the company. The company may have great systems in place for your growth, but you don’t interact with your company. You interact with the people in the company. Be conscious of what does joining a big company could look like and mean for you.- Adzmel Adznan

Adzmel is one of the Co-Founding Partners of Piva Capital, a venture capital firm based in San Francisco investing in deep tech and climate tech companies across North America and Europe. The firm is currently investing from its inaugural $250 million fund, backed by PETRONAS.

As one of the founding Partners of Piva, Adzmel was instrumental in setting up the firm’s investment strategy. Piva focuses its investment activities in early stage breakthrough technology companies that are changing the way the world works and consumes energy; companies at the intersection of product-market fit and demand inflection for faster scale-up. Prior to his investing career, Adzmel spent more than a decade in the energy sector across various engineering, technical and business management roles. His experience managing capital projects for oil & gas companies gave his firsthand perspective of the complexity of the energy industry and our dependency on hydrocarbon; a unique perspective that help informed his investment decisions in new startups that are commercializing technology to decarbonize the economy. Before he left for San Francisco, Adzmel was instrumental in launching PETRONAS Ventures, the corporate venture arm of PETRONAS.

Adzmel grew up in Malaysia, spent 7 years of his early childhood in boarding schools before going to read Mechanical Engineering at University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland where he graduated with a MEng. He also holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and is currently completing his Kauffman Fellowship under the mentorship of Robert E. Siegel.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, Adzmel, so excited to have you on the show.

Adzmel Adznan: (00:34)
Thank you for having me here, Jeremy. So good to be able to speak to you again even though we’re in different parts of the world.

Jeremy Au: (00:40)
Yeah, it’s been so many years since Harvard Business School. I’m so excited to share your journey from Malaysia to Petronas to Harvard to being a VC in SF investing in climate and deep-tech and saving the world.

Adzmel Adznan: (01.02)
Yeah, I’m happy to be here. Just like old friends catching up.

Jeremy Au: (01:08)
For those who don’t know you yet, how would you introduce yourself?

Adzmel Adznan: (01:13)
Grew up in Malaysia, born in the smallest state. I enjoyed my childhood, went to two different boarding schools. Like any Malaysian, the choices I had were – I had to be an engineer, a doctor, or an accountant although I actually wanted to become a lawyer. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship from Petronas and they sent me to study mechanical engineering in the UK and that started my journey with Petronas. I went back to Malaysia to serve with Petronas and really started my career as a project engineer. One of the most exciting things was going to fabrication yards and watching the construction of this big oil and gas infrastructure. Quickly after that, I realized that my interest lied beyond engineering. I dabbled in technology development and more general management. At some point in my career, I started thinking about post graduate studies, researching MBA programmes and thinking about what are the best schools and what programme I want to go to and was lucky enough to be accepted in the same class which was a very transformative experience for me that gave me a broader perspectives of the different industries. I think taking that break from work for two years gives you an appreciation of what is going on out there. My two years in HBS was more experimentation with what I want to do. After graduation, I went back to Petronas because they also graciously decided to pay for my MBA. I was given an opportunity to lead an internal project to set up the corporate venture arm of Petronas. That’s how I got into the VC space. Then pivoting out of that to Piva Capital where we directly invest in breakthrough energy and industrial company.

Jeremy Au: (05:18)
What was it like growing up in a place known for fishing in Malaysia?

Adzmel Adznan: (05:26)
Interesting. I compare my childhood with nieces and nephews’ childhoods. I could go out camping and hiking although my mom and day would be worried sick…I think there’s that sense of adventure, trying new things. I’ve lived in so many places now and I bring that spirit of adventure. I think that social behaviour is important for kids growing up.

Jeremy Au: (06:47)
Yeah, definitely. Was there any key moments that helped you change your trajectory of where you were going to go?

Adzmel Adznan: (07:02)
From childhood, I think my mom and dad are my driving force for my value in education and knowledge. My mom started making us read English newspapers since I was 6 years old. All my brothers ended up in boarding school, there’s a real appreciation for knowledge. I’ve met mentors who introduced me to other successful people. I’ve also had relatives who were in the academic profession who were good sounding boards. I grew up in a family that never said no to me where learning was concerned.

Jeremy Au: (08:40)
Going to the UK, what changed your life outlook?

Adzmel Adznan: (08:47)
Funny story, I arrived a day earlier than I was supposed to and the person who was supposed to pick me up at the airport wasn’t there. Called his office at 8AM, he told me to get to Piccadilly. I got there and I heard this aunty scolding her daughter in Malay, in London. I was thinking to myself why am I hearing this aunty speaking Malay in London. It was a good reminder that I’m so far away from Malaysia, but Malaysia will always be with me.

Jeremy Au: (11:14)
Ah. Aunties, the rallying cry of home, I guess. Petronas and engineering. Very Malaysian. Was that the default route? How did it happen?

Adzmel Adznan: (11:43)
I was working for KPMG in 2008 after graduating, doing financial consulting and there was a lot of uncertainty around job security. I went back to Malaysia and Petronas offered me a position. Petronas will never guarantee a position even to their own scholars, so you still have to go through the process and everything. I joined and for the first few years did project management wherein I got to see how prospects get evaluated, how many wells to be drilled, what facilities to install, etc.

Jeremy Au: (14:26)
You took on multiple different roles. How did that transition from engineering into the business side happen?

Adzmel Adznan: (14:50)
By chance, my head of department was looking for a chief of staff. It was also a very technical department so they needed an engineer to do that. I wanted to do offshore work and my head of department said he’ll let me if I was his chief of staff for some time. Eventually, I did the offshore work, but most of my day was spent in front of my supercomputer doing my simulations. I felt I could do more than this. I still needed that interaction with people. I then went to do strategy planning within Petronas and from there got to work with Exon, Shell, big names. I found that more engaging because you’re learning something new every day.

Jeremy Au: (17:21)
That’s one heck of an experience and you decided to top it all off by doing a Harvard MBA. What made you decide to do that?

Adzmel Adznan: (17:36)
I don’t really tell a lot of people about this, but I have a good friend who is a doctor and we both studied in the UK together. We were watching a movie called Legally Blonde. We were thinking what’s stopping us from applying to this prestigious school. I felt like why it’s such a special learning environment was because of their case study methods. Visiting it did not disappoint. It exceeded all expectations I had.

Jeremy Au: (19:31)
I loved that Legally Blonde story there for sure. For me, it was the Social Network. What were your takeaways from the Harvard MBA programme?

Adzmel Adznan: (19:55)
I made a switch into VC and the HBS network is such a supportive network. Classmates are always willing to share. There’s also the trust because I’m also learning and they created this safe environment for me to ask and share. The professors are amazing too. The thing I really appreciated about HBS is the late night conversations that help build genuine connections. I guess it’s two things I took away there – the excellent education and the amazing people as well.

Jeremy Au: (22:43)
When you left Harvard, then you went back for a bit then you’re a VC now. Walk us through that.

Adzmel Adznan: (23:14)
Going back was obviously a choice and I thank Petronas for all the opportunities that they’ve given me and I knew that I didn’t want to be in the traditional oil and gas industry anymore. I could have joined other firms or I could go back to Petronas and become an agent for change internally. In conversations with my mentors, they gave me an offer that was hard for me to refuse because when I went back, I joined the office of the group’s CEO and to be in direct access to the CEO, you know what’s going on with the company, it’s a very compelling value proposition. At any point, there’s just five or eight people working with the CEO. In 2014, they were thinking of embracing new ways of working and my mentor was given the responsibility to think about investing in technology. So, I approached him and said there’s a few ways we can invest. Petronas has a big R&D centre in Malaysia and around the world, but they have always been reluctant to embrace venture capital as a source of new innovation which is perfect because I think this is the segment that I think will be disrupted. I could finally bring my education to the fore and it was an interesting time to be in the company because I got to be in the driver seat with two other colleagues in Petronas. A few months later, they announced the formation of Petronas Ventures and looking into startups and inviting innovation and all that thing. This got us thinking that if we wanted to have closer relations in Silicon Valley, we needed to have plans in Silicon Valley. We needed those people who could make decisions without having to go back to corporate office to seek permission and what not. So, we created a separate fund where Petronas is still the limited partner of this fund and they have all the rights of setting up all the fund strategy, but after we define the fund purpose, we want the experienced venture capitalists to run the fund independently. So, I started all these and transitioned from Malaysia to San Francisco where I’ve been for the past two years now.

Jeremy Au: (29:22)
What a journey. You’re now investing in the future of energy. Why not more coal and gas? What’s the thinking behind that?

Adzmel Adznan: (29:51)
When we set up Piva Capital, we thought of the future in three buckets - what are the technology that can make our existing operation greener, the idea of cleaning up the dirty industry. The second is if we want to reduce our dependency on petroleum, we have to find new ways of producing materials. The world is not just addicted to cheap energy from coal or gas, everything around you is made from petroleum. The third is about energy mobility – Petronas is providing the funds and they are now an energy company. They’re looking to get new innovation around renewables, battery technology. So, who’s the next innovator that’s making batteries better than lithium ion or who’s producing the next fusion reactor that can make energy accessible for all.

Jeremy Au: (32:34)
If a university student were to ask you today if they should join Petronas, what advice would you give them?

Adzmel Adznan: (33:13)
On reflection, I would say instead of thinking of joining Petronas as a company, do more research into who will be your boss. People really make your career, not so much the company. The company may have great systems in place for your growth, but you don’t interact with your company. You interact with the people in the company. If you are adventurous, you should be asking how their way of working will overlap with your interests.

Jeremy Au: (35:10)
Amazing. Wrapping things up here. Was there a time when you had been BRAVE?

Adzmel Adznan: (35:16)
Walking around the streets of San Francisco during COVID. One of my brothers was diagnosed with cancer when he was 22 years old. Having faced mortality at a young age and processed grief, that kind of bravery took me awhile to admit that I needed help to process grief. What it means to me the loss of a brother at a very young age and not be afraid to go and seek help especially when Asians have this taboo around mental health kind of thing. We don’t want to admit we’re struggling and there was an incident when I broke down in front of an interviewer that made me realise that I needed to get help and the death of my brother that I needed to process properly. That was my brief moment of admitting to myself that I needed help.

Jeremy Au: (36:28)
That was rough and I’m proud of you that you did that and got help. I shared with you that my girlfriend passed away in high school. I crashed out of high school. Took me a long, long, long while to acknowledge that I was grieving which sucks in retrospect to not want to get help because you did not know you should get help.

Adzmel Adznan: (36:55)
When you’re younger, you don’t think about dying. You just need to process that.

Jeremy Au: (37:05)
One thing I realise as I get older is everybody understands that grief because they’ve had somebody die as well. As a kid all these old people saying “Oh, I understand” and I’m like “No, you don’t understand”. What advice would you give for people who are processing grief?

Adzmel Adznan: (37:38)
One of the most meaningful conversations I had with my dad actually. If you lose someone close to you, it’s usually your family members. There are a lot of mental health startups out there and resources are better now. So, just reach out and schedule something. You’re not forced to talk about it, but if you want to, know that there’s resources for you to talk to people and these are amazing resources. It’s just that first step of making that call or reaching out to people…is something that you have to wrestle with yourself.

Jeremy Au: (38:20)
I agree. Getting help anywhere is better than not getting help from anywhere. On that note, I would like to paraphrase the three big themes I heard from this discussion. The first was thank you so much about sharing about growing up in a small state of Malaysia and how you learnt with the influence of your parents, the points at which you made decisions to keep going and growing and I think that’s an amazing journey from not just to boarding school to being an engineer to Petronas to learning business to a Harvard MBA and then to Petronas again in a different role to VC. The second thing is thank you for sharing the insider story of someone who grew up in Malaysia and Petronas, a lot of dynamics there because a lot of government linked companies have a similar dynamic as well in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, a lot of companies have a similar dynamic. What advice you gave is not just true for Petronas, but also true for many folks in different situations. The third thing is, thank you so much for sharing about processing grief and thinking about how that is a deeper understanding and deeper layer of work that needs to be done and bravery seems like these big things that you have done. You’ve done your MBA, chief of staff…but what I really appreciated was the getting help for your own grief and helping you process that into who you are today.

Adzmel Adznan: (40:04)
That’s a perfect summary. Thanks, Jeremy.

Jeremy Au: (40:07)
Thanks, Adzmel.