How an entrepreneur broke the glass ceiling to take over and expand an Indonesian family business
As a child, Shinta Widjaja Kamdani was steeped in the family business. Her father would talk constantly about the successes and struggles of his company over the dinner table, and Sintesa Group’s factories and offices in Jakarta were the young Kamdani’s second home. By the age of 13, while her peers were jetting off on summer holidays, Kamdani was spending her school breaks working in different parts of the family business.
The business was a significant one. Sintesa Group formed in 1919 and is now a huge conglomerate, with investments in property, energy, and industrial and consumer products.
Kamdani says she was never specifically told she was expected to take over the family business, but as she was the eldest child in the family, with no brothers, it started to happen naturally.
After those early years, which provided the kind of childhood work experience that many family business owners have as children, she studied at Columbia University in New York, where she also worked at a number of internships. When she graduated in 1989, Kamdani began working in entry-level positions within Sintesa Group. The first task was selling books door-to-door within the company’s educational division.
She did not have any illusions that she would be given an easy ride. “I thought to myself: you just have to go and hype yourself and prove yourself to be a worthy employee,” she says. Indeed, at times her family connection proved to be a challenge. “The process was sometimes even harder, because I needed to really show that I deserved a certain promotion: not because I was part-owner, but because I worked hard.”
There was an additional challenge, though: being a woman in a male-dominated sector, in a male-dominated society. “They always say that in Indonesia, as a woman, you need to know where you stand,” Kamdani says, with a smile that speaks volumes. “The culture remains male-dominated. That's a perception that needs to change.” And it’s one that she was willing to change through challenge. “I think I struggled for acceptance even in my own organisation,” she continues. The company had many long-tenured staff, who knew that her father didn’t have any sons. “It was hard to accept this young woman as their leader.”
Kamdani’s father had led Sintesa Group to great successes – but had also spread the business thinly. “He would take it where he fancied; it was scattered all over the place,” she says. The group needed rationalisation, she decided quickly, a coherent expansion strategy and a more professional structure "to consolidate and understand what businesses we want to focus on”.
After 10 years working for her father, Kamdani approached him in 1999 with a proposal: she wanted to work with him. And she wanted to modernise Sintesa Group with a focus on sustainability – groundbreaking then, for an Indonesian conglomerate. She wanted sustainability to be more than just lip service, but to be a "a big part of what we do in the business”, she says. That was a significant step – and not an entirely welcome one. “My father was not very keen on that,” she says with understatement. “There are a lot of things where I felt the future would go that I had to convince him to see.”
Kamdani also had to convince the rest of her board-level colleagues and employees about the change. She says she met with resistance, but that she turned adversity and sexism to her advantage. “Sometimes I use the fact that people are undermining me as an asset,” she says – including when making deals. Driving a hard bargain is something Kamdani relishes, using her perceived weakness as a woman in Indonesia’s hierarchical society as a strength.
The company has grown with an annual turnover rate of 4.23 per cent, and launched an ecotourism division, an extension of Sintesa Group's interest in green energy. Given that Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world, with about 17,000 islands in total, it boasts awe-inspiring biodiversity and many opportunities. Alongside ecotourism and green energy, Kamdani has reshaped Sintesa Group to be entrepreneurially minded, and keen to give back to society. “Indonesia cannot create enough jobs, so we need to support and create more entrepreneurs,” she says. “Entrepreneurship is key for our future economic development.”
The Sintesa Group has set up the Angel Investment Network, which supports companies that struggle to find financing elsewhere, alongside a fund for female entrepreneurs. It’s a role that’s led Kamdani to join the World Economic Forum in supporting women and in meeting those SDGs (sustainable development goals). She has promoted education initiatives within her company – both for women and men – to assure them of the importance of gender balance.
For Sintesa Group now, with its 2,700 employees, Kamdani's priority is not growth for the sake of it, but sustainable growth: “If I can create more renewables, if I can do more ecotourism, if my supply chain can be all on the green side – that's what my dream is."
Biography / key highlights
1989 Graduates from Columbia University, New York, and begins working within Sintesa Group’s educational division selling books door-to-door
1999 Takes full control of Sintesa Group as CEO, and begins to shift its focus to sustainability
2002 Graduates from Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts
2012, 2013 & 2016 Named by Forbes among Asia’s 50 Most Powerful Businesswomen
2018 Founds the Angel Investment Network Indonesia (ANGIN) and Indonesia Business Coalition for Women Empowerment (IBCWE)
2019 Joins the board of the United Nations' Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance
2019 Named as the Asia Corporate Excellence and Sustainability (ACES) Woman Entrepreneur of the Year
2022 Appointed Chair of the B20, the international business community's support organisation for the G20