Oct 1, 2013

“Women in Society and Business – Progress, Stagnation or Regression?”

Bismillahirrahmanirrahim. 

At the outset, I’d like to share just a bit of history from Indonesia. Early in 1900, a revolution began in women’s education. A young woman, named Kartini – a prominent Javanese, expressed her idea of how women deserve equal opportunity to obtain high education. She depicted the sufferings of women fettered by tradition, unable to study, secluded for they must prepare for marriage. 

Nowadays, we can see clearly how the thing has changed. Women are making up to half, if not more, of university graduates. Subsequently, the integration of women in economy and government has deepened and reached unprecedented numbers. 

In 2009, Indonesian latest election, the percentage of women sits in the House of Representatives had increased as much as 6,25% from the previous election. In the Regional Representative Council, the figure shows an even higher participation of women, from 18% to 27%. 

In the corporate sector, the number of women entering the workforce shows similar progress, though slower. Over the past 3 years in particular, from 60% to 62%. 

Take a moment to look at the global scale, just for comparison. 

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, almost 20% of the world's parliamentary seats are now occupied by women, up from 17.2% five years ago. 

Within companies that rank on the 2013 Fortune 500 lists, women currently hold 4,2% of CEO positions. Small number? Yes, but the figure has grown from a tiny 0,6% ten years ago. 

Looking at the hard data, it is crystal that the number is on our favor. However, is that good enough? 

Before we jump to conclusion, I would like to share you some relevant stories. 

In 2009, together with two friends, I managed to start two ventures – Wangsa Jelita and another business called Arabian Meal. After about a year, Wangsa Jelita just grew slowly, while Arabian Meal, well, it was on the edge. The joke I told about it was, “It was run half-dead in the first six months, and half-dead in the next, half and half – no wonder, it eventually died after a year”. After much consideration, my team and I had no choice but to put it to an end. I felt terrible. 

One Saturday night, I decided to spend some time hanging out with some friends. During conversations, surprise, surprise, I was asked about my businesses. I told the story of how my team had been struggling to survive, including how we finally decided to end Arabian Meal. One friend tried to calm me down by saying, “You know what?! I think you’ll be fine!” I smiled, until he continued “Don’t worry for not being able to pull off your business, you’ll get married someday and your husband will take care of you!” 

I appreciated his kind intention but I couldn't help but think how faulty his words were. I can never forget that moment, but looking back, I’m glad it didn’t bog me down as much. I couldn’t save one of my babies – Arabian Meal, but Wangsa Jelita has evolved from a traditional profit maximizing business to a social enterprise that empowers local farmers and other communities to work together in producing the true natural Indonesian personal care products. Slowly but surely, we have grown Wangsa Jelita to be one of top 50 SMEs in the country, receiving several awards both in national and international levels. One humbling journey we never thought of having. Yes, I’m glad that for whatever my friend had said at the time, it didn’t affect me and my work.

Another story is of my best friend, who is also my co-founder – Amirah. She was 25 and single when she was thinking to continue her doctoral study. At the time, many reminded her that there was no need for her to rush in to get a Ph.D. Some suggested to postpone her plan until she found the right guy, some even frankly whispered, “aren’t you afraid of not being able to find the guy who, you know, accepts you?” 

I’m glad my best friend knows that the right and good man for her is the one who accepts her with the whole package of her awesomeness. She is now continuing her study in the Netherlands with full scholarship from our Government. She hasn’t found the one yet, but I have no doubt she will. 

Then I asked myself, is this something to do with the eastern value and culture? I've figured out the answer, and no, it's not.

I had an insightful conversation with Sheryl Sandberg – the COO of Facebook early this year at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. She pointed out a good example of this gender specific stereotyping which occurred blatantly on children’s apparel – “smart like daddy” for boys, “pretty like mommy” for girls. Similar thing occurred during the US presidential race actually. While there was a few, if not nobody, talked about Obama’s suits or ties, many discussed how Michelle matched perfectly her manicure to her dress. 

While men are encouraged to be ambitious, successful, smart, and so and so, we, women, are discouraged to live up to our potential, even worse, at some point, not only we are much more correlated to superficial traits, when we try to strive for excellence, some of us are even threatened that they may have to pay a social penalty. 

In brief, yes, statistic-based we have made progress, but evidently, that is not enough. As long as the erroneous expectation of women still exists, I'm afraid our trajectory in society and business will be stalled. 

Anyway, please note that when I mentioned an erroneous expectation of women, that doesn’t refer to women in career per se. I was also referring to women who want to be stay-at-home mothers or wives. While a woman’s participation as a professional is needed for it gives diversity that the world needs, a woman at home plays the fundamental role of building civilization and humanity. And I’m very convinced with what I said simply because I can never imagine how my life would be without my mom, who is a stay-at-home mother by the way. She has always cared for each and everyone in the family and shown true dedication with all her heart. While one of important lessons I learned from my father is to do things responsibly, one lesson I learned from my mom is as indispensable – to do things wholeheartedly. Both remain my values and have made all the differences in my life. 

By pointing that out, I never meant to agree with the infamous assertion “you can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once” – you CAN have it all, full stop. Although it means for those who want both need to struggle just a bit more. I did not reach that conclusion in a vacuum as my argument has been attested by a woman whom I look up to, an Indonesian social entrepreneur named Veronica – I call her Mba Vera. Her life rings true with what I said about the possibility of having it all. I once asked her how she balances all her roles being a CEO, a mother, a wife, a friend to me, a mentor to many mentees, then she answered and I quote, “I have a husband who’s herding me – giving me the space to grow, and I know that whatever happens, he’ll always have my back!” 

So, before I end my speech, I would like to leave you with something to think of. 

First, to all gentlemen in this room. 
Meeting you here, seeing you here, I have no doubt each and every one of you have been the pillar of your organizations and businesses. In your family, many of you, if not all, have been the bread winner, the protector, the decision maker, the one who leads. 

Now I want you to take some time, to think of one woman who matters most to you, and then ask yourself, 

When was the last time you had a real heart-to-heart conversation with her? 
When was the last time you asked her about the thing that she wants to achieve in life – her personal and/or professional goals and dreams? Have you thought of how you could be a part of it? 
When was the last time you asked her about the problem she’s facing – her biggest challenge? Have you thought of how you could help solving it? 

I asked you five questions just now, if you could answer all of them, fantastic! I believe the world needs more man like you. 3 out 5? That’s great, keep on keeping on! None? Umm, okay, I think you have five options on where to start and I really hope you know what to do next. 

And for the ladies, 
I hope you agree that we should be ambitious in every path we choose. Let’s be grateful for how fortunate we are that we don’t live in the era when Kartini lived in, where education and career ladder were not made for our gender. I don’t have much to say but to emphasize how we need to keep supporting each other, regardless which path some of us choose, that doesn’t matter. Because the only thing that matters is that we have each other’s back. 

Lastly, I don’t think we need to take a huge leap changing everyone’s perspective of women in this whole world. It would be great if we could, but I’d rather inviting you to take just a small baby step, 

and together make this revolution happens one family at a time!

Thank you very much.

KL, 1 October 2013

..

Right after the session ended, numbers of people reached out and thanked me for my speech. I couldn't take credit for that as my surroundings have helped me a lot in drafting it.

Without a doubt, it is with love and gratitude that I quote Amirah's story, which has empowered me in so many ways. I admire her for her unshakable "Let go, let God!" belief, as ever. I received loads of kind responses, but the funniest was when a Harvard Professor came to me and said "I wonder how can I get to meet your partner? She seems awesome, though I might be too old for her!"

One of my favorite people in the whole world, Benjie, has been generous with his time for me – making himself available, even at midnight or early in the morning for (Skype) talk. I'm thankful for his sincere friendship as well as his valuable insights in reviewing my draft (again and again). I didn't realize that writing and delivering this speech would become a very personal experience and an important reflection on my own until he told me so. He was right.

Deep thanks, as always, to my girl Nancy for being a constant brainstorming partner. She has always been opinionated and truthful in overseeing and/or countering my idea without being judgmental. Exactly what I need.

My oh my, Mr. Geeky, nerdy, (self-proclaimed-not-so) hearty, unquestionably-smarty Nick! He has been very supportive by sharing his thoughts since the very first day I met him last year. He's the one who taught me one important lesson that whenever I feel intimidated (which happens often), I'll recall his words – "Play your game!"

Didn't I tell you that if you have Yasmin in your tiny tiny inner circle, you already have enough?! I have always loved her for her unflagging supports which never failed to rise me up, for being rational and critical in helping me to see things in different perspective. And more importantly, for her weirdness that matches mine perfectly. My one and only, Maminci.

I've always been impressed by the fact how powerful social media is. I thank those who have shared their thoughts through Facebook, Twitter, and emails. Truly appreciate.

Special thanks
..to my friend/mentor/supporter, Mba Vera, for her kindness. More importantly, for showing me that woman can have it all (full stop)

..to KMF, for having me and giving me the chance to learn myself!

..and finally,
to both of my parents.
For raising and (quoting Mba Vera's word) 'herding' me and my sisters the best they could, providing us an excellent education, supporting us endlessly, allowing us to be the best we can be,
I can go on and on because the reasons are just too many to tell.
So simply put, for everything.

Alhamdulillah.