Originally written for JG Insight. With Joy Muchtar and Cameron Carr.
With only half of Indonesia’s women being economically active, the country is deprived of significant resources to achieve its development goals. But some women are adamant to change this.
Empowered by the digital platform, a few extraordinary women have embarked on a journey for change. Some started with the simple aim of filling a gap in the market for quality goods, while others have found innovative ways to help their fellow women or start a community movement to save the environment.
What binds them together is a tenacity to achieve their goals and prove that in this day and age, gender no longer matters.
Here are their stories:
Claudia Kusuma – Sugarush Co
What started as a hobby eventually became a successful business for 24-year-old Claudia Kusuma, founder of Sugarush Co, an online bakery that specializes in customized cakes.
Claudia first became famous online for her “erotic cakes,” a millennial trend that proved to be a double-edged sword.
A barrage of negative comments – and not a few trolls – battered her confidence for a while, but in the end, they only made her more determined to continue.
Claudia recalled how her decision to open a bakery was met with incredulous and shocked responses from her friends and families, who kept reminding her that she holds a degree in international relations.
Claudia said her detractors were not just looking down on her career decision, but also on her ability as a woman to lead a business.
As a woman in Indonesia, Claudia said she grew up being told by everyone that women are not supposed to be career-minded.
The pressure led her to do the exact opposite.
“I wanted to prove to everyone that women are meant to do something more. And that we are able to work as much, and as well, as men,” she said.
Agustine Merriska and Kaitlin Shilling – Platform Usaha Sosial (PLUS)
As the name suggests, Platform Usaha Sosial(Social Enterprise Platform) provides on-demand services for social enterprises. Built on the values of consultation, connections and community, it provides strategy ideas and connections to business mentors.
It is important to note that PLUS is not focused on helping founders attract investors, but to gain knowledge and expertise.
Kaitlin Shilling, the outgoing director of PLUS, said she is especially attracted by businesses that make a positive social impact in the community.
Finding the reason social enterprises do what they do is what inspires Augustine Merriska, community impact director at PLUS.
In her experience, founders of enterprises usually had gone through hardships on their way to success and they now want to help others who are going through the same predicaments.
Since she graduated, it has been Merriska’s dream to become a consultant for social businesses and be a founder someday, but she did not think this would happen so early in her career.
What makes PLUS unique, is that it has an all-women team.
“I think there are more women in social enterprises; a lot of the founders are women, and many of them have a strong female presence on their team,” Shilling said.
According to her, it can be even harder for women to establish a company, because the risks are higher, especially if it starts doing well.
“People start complaining that it’s taking us away from our families,” she said.
But as Shilling emphasized, women “are not the problem. Women are women. We have problems, but we are not the issue. We all bring values to the workplace, and genders approach things differently.”
Grace Tahir – dokter.id and medico.id
Grace Tahir is a medical and technological professional, with a long family history of entrepreneurship. She is currently chief executive and co-founder of Medico, and co-founder of dokter.id, which allow her to combine those three skills.
“I combined my experience in health care and my passion in technology to found dokter.id and Medico. I believe technology can help improve patient outcomes,” she said.
Created in 2013, dokter.id provides the public with free content on matters related to health and wellbeing, including symptom checkers and access to doctors online.
The main goal of the business, in Grace’s words, is “to educate and raise health awareness for the general public with a focus on prevention.”
While dokter.id is run on a business-to-consumer model, Medico is business-to-business, helping clinics or hospitals establish and manage their health care information systems.
Medico is “a cloud-based health care management system that equips health care providers with a comprehensive, scalable and affordable system that can reduce inefficiencies and ultimately improve the business process flow and improve patient experience and outcome,” Grace said.
“The end goal is to digitize health care providers, so that health care workers can focus more on the patients and the clinical side.”
She claims the most difficult part about running these businesses has been the ability to find the best technical talent, “due to a limited supply.”
“Other than that, in health tech, where the market is wide and fragmented, we need to continue to evolve and be innovative, and even pivot, to address the needs of the market,” she said.
When asked if she struggles more as a woman in her line of work, she said simply, “absolutely.”
“Women juggle many duties at once: a wife, a mother, a boss, a business partner; all of which are priorities in their own terms,” she said.
“In startups specifically, there are not many female founders/investors, but we do have a group of great female founders who really help each other and wish each other the best. I think at the end of the day, I don’t box myself [in] as a female founder, but just as a founder.”
Ultimately, she has the following advice for anyone planning to enter the entrepreneurial world.
“Do work, hustle, and repeat … doesn’t matter what you are.”
Aulia Halimatussadiah – Zetta Media, Nulisbuku and Storial
It is difficult to fit Aulia’s accomplishments into one sentence.
First and foremost, she is co-founder and chief content officer of Zetta Media, a user-generated digital storytelling platform.
She is also the founder of Nulisbuku, an online self-publishing platform, and Storial, an online writing and book-sharing platform. She is an author of more than 25 books, and she is also heavily involved in nonprofit organizations StartupLokal and Girls in Tech ID.
“You can call me Llia,” she said, with an air of humility. One could safely assume that Llia would have a bit of arrogance about her, considering the amount of work she has done.
However, community always seems to be foremost in her mind.
Speaking of her involvement in nongovernmental organizations, she said: “It’s very Indonesian to reach out and make a community, to get together.
Gathering, talking, eating together, whatever – it becomes an entity. An organization.”
These values are evident through her business ventures – especially her most recent, Zetta Media, founded in 2015.
“We’ve been focusing on user-generated content and community building, and we also do education for writers,” she said.
The online platform functions through eleven “lifestyle portals” – essentially, these portals are different areas of interest, from love and relationships to sports and business – which writers can contribute to freely.
The organization’s focus is on content for Indonesian youth, driven entirely by the platform’s community of readers and authors.
Her passion for creating communities for writers feeds into her two other businesses, Storial and Nulisbuku.
“Nulisbuku.com is an online self-publishing platform. My partners and I made it in 2010, because we saw the gap – there’s a lot of people wanting to have their books printed, but most publishers in Indonesia are unable to accommodate them,” she said.
“Now, everyone can upload their content and get it printed when someone buys it – print-on-demand. Then, we share royalties between Nulisbuku and the writers.”
Storial’s subsequent creation was almost natural, as Llia explained.
“After we built Nulisbuku, we realized the process of writing a book is not easy … it’s difficult, because there’s no support.”
“When we are lazy, we become uninspired, and we stop. So, we created Storial, so people can write there. Other people can see the process and make comments, basically cheer them on. Come on, let’s continue! Chapter two, chapter three.”
In terms of her path up the business ladder as a female entrepreneur, Llia feels her gender did not affect her in a negative way.
“Not in my industry,” she said. “I mean, it looks like I’m in technology, but actually, I’m in writing, content, media. In my industry, it’s actually – I don’t face any struggle, gender-wise.”
“Maybe the difference is in the way we communicate; that’s the only thing that I notice. It doesn’t mean that I’m struggling with it, I just notice it. I’m just aware of the difference … that’s usually where the friction comes.”
Llia is currently working on her latest book, a biography of one of Indonesia’s top stock traders, who also happens to be female.
Melati Wijsen and Isabel Wijsen – Bye Bye Plastic Bags and One Island One Voice
What were you doing when you were 10? How about when you were 12? Whatever it was, it likely does not compare to the childhoods of Bali natives Melati and Isabel Wijsen.
At 12 and 10, respectively, the sisters founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags, an NGO that aims to eradicate single-use plastics on their home island.
“We could see that the plastic waste was a real problem. It is just everywhere; in the streets, in the rice fields, on the beach, to end up in the ocean. It is not rocket science to know how bad this is for humans, animals and the environment,” Isabel said, speaking of their reasons for starting the cause back in October 2013.
Just over four years later, the organization now has 17 branches across Indonesia and abroad. They have also started a parallel cause, One Island One Voice, to bring likeminded people in Bali together for a uniform goal.
When businesses in Bali commit to ending plastic bag use, they are given a One Island One Voice sticker to display in-store.
This builds a community among the outlets displaying the stickers, and lets the public know which businesses are more environmentally conscious than others.
“The slogan is strong and has already proven that it is a from-the-ground-up, people-powered movement. Everybody in Bali has had enough of the waste. Urgent action and change is needed,” Melati said.
The Wijsen sisters are now planning to end single-use plastics across the country, having met with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the Ministry of National Development Planning in Jakarta in early February.
“Today, we raise awareness, educate and lobby on a local- and national-government level. When we started, we had no agenda or business plan. Just the pure intention, with friends, to reduce the plastic waste in Bali,” Isabel said.
“Bye Bye Plastic Bags has not only become a movement to say no to plastic bags, but also a well-known youth empowerment body.”
So far, their main challenges have been holding government to account to ensure they will take action on ending single-use plastics, alongside combining their regular teenage lives with running a now-global organization and movement.
When asked if they ever had issues with people not taking them seriously as children, Melati replied: “They might have thought this in the beginning, but we have always been inspiring to many. Now, they know we are serious and persistent.”
In terms of future endeavors, Melati has already started a third cause: Mountain Mamas.
“Women in the mountains of Bali work on alternative bags, made from donated material,” she explained.
“These bags we sell, and 50 percent of the profit goes back to the community in the mountains to make a waste management setup, education for the kids and a health program.”
In terms of what is coming next, well, “you have to keep following us to know! But we always have surprises up our sleeves,” Melati said.
Presi Mandari – Sackai Bags
The concept for Sackai bags was born in 2013, and after two years of planning, Presi Mandari left her full-time job as a journalist to grow the business.
Presi’s goal was to create fashionable canvas bags that are “simple, functional and clean.”
All Sackai bags are designed in-house by Presi’s husband, made by hand and manually screen-printed.
The first line of Sackai bags was released in March 2014, after an initial investment of Rp 5 million ($350).
Presi has a master’s degree in international relations and worked as a journalist at Agence France-Presse for eight years.
She enjoyed being a reporter but needed a creative outlet to help handle the stress of her job.
She taught herself how to sew canvas bags by watching YouTube videos after identifying a gap in the market for good quality, Indonesian canvas products.
Presi then enlisted the help of her husband, a graphic designer and former fine arts student, to help her design the bags.
“I would never have been able to jump into this business without social media,” she said.
Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, Presi was able to grow her business quickly, at little expense.
Presi now has several staff members working under her, a significant online following and her bags are stocked by many e-commerce websites and the duty-free shops at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.
While acknowledging that gender discrimination is still rife in Indonesia, Presi said she has encountered very little of it in her business.
“I’m my own boss, there aren’t any issues [with being a woman], as long as you exude confidence and tenacity,” she said.
You can find Presi and Sackai bags on Instagram @sackaibags.
Fransiska Hadiwidjana – Prelo Indonesia
Fransiska Hadiwidjana is founder and chief executive of Prelo Indonesia, a retail-sharing-economy platform built “for millennials.”
Started as an e-commerce marketplace for preloved items in November 2015, Prelo has widened its service to selling, renting and employing travelers as personal shoppers.
According to Fransiska, her objective is “to solve the problems all female Indonesian millennials have – how to get rid of our unused clothes and makeup, how to rent baby equipment we might want to use again and what to do with all the unused space in our backpacks when we’re traveling.”
Being a techpreneur has always been Fransiska’s passion, but the road to success has not been paved with gold.
“We’ve had struggles, just like any other startup company. My co-founder left for overseas to get her M.B.A. degree, team commitment issues and even negative media coverage,” she said.
But Fransiska’s persistence paid off with the success of Prelo, which she attributes to the loyalty of her current team.
“Some people left in 2015, but the ones who stayed have stuck together until today,” she said.
Fransiska said gender discrimination is rare on the techpreneurship scene.
“Fortunately, the tech/startup scene is pretty open minded on having women in leadership positions. I think people are astonished more because I’m physically small and look young, which makes it harder to make a solid first impression,” she said.