Monica Oudang - Investing in people to help achieve a nation’s ambitions
Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest nation by population, but when it comes to GDP, it ranks just 16th on the global list. This discrepancy is something Joko Widodo, who has served as Indonesia’s president for close to a decade, has vowed to change. In 2017, his administration put together a roadmap that would apparently see the country leapfrog its rivals and become the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2045, in time for the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of its independence. The plan would also see GDP per capita climb to USD 25,000, more than five times the current figure.
To achieve such rapid growth will require investment across the board, not least in human capital, in the skills and talents of the workforce – a workforce which is, by global standards, a young one. Tens of millions of Indonesians will need to be educated, trained-up and reskilled to meet the requirements of a 21st-century digital economy. This enormous challenge is one that Monica Oudang has spent her career tackling.
Monica set up her first company back in 2008, a recruitment consulting firm then known as Staff Search (now called People of Manuka). The goal of the company was to support Indonesia’s burgeoning start-up sector with consultancy focused on, among other things, HR operations and strategy.
It was while she was running Staff Search that Monica first met Nadiem Makarim, an entrepreneur who was then building his own fledgling technology business, the on-demand transport start-up Gojek. “We hit it off, because we have a common belief that technology can be the enabler to help a country leapfrog, especially a developing country such as Indonesia,” says Monica. “Also, we believe that people are the foundation in actually enabling this to happen.” After a few more meetings, Monica was persuaded to join Gojek as its Chief HR Officer, attracted by the opportunity to, as she puts it, “make an impact and transform the livelihoods of millions of people”.
Gojek would go on to become Indonesia’s first so-called “decacorn”, a private start-up with a valuation of over USD 10 billion. In 2021, the company joined forces with Indonesia’s other biggest start-up, the marketplace Tokopedia, to form the country’s largest technology group, GoTo Group. Two years prior to that merger, Makarim stepped down from his position and entered politics; he now serves as Indonesia’s Minister of Education, Culture, Research and Technology.
During her time at Gojek, from 2015 to 2021, Monica saw the company scale rapidly and disrupt industry after industry using the power of technology. From her seat in the C-suite overseeing HR, she cultivated what she calls a “culture that can drive innovation”, learned first-hand about “the power of collective problem-solving” and how it can accelerate change, and discovered the vital importance of talent, the benefits of a highly skilled workforce.
However, it was really the pandemic which changed everything. “We had millions of partners on our platforms and the majority of them were dependent on day-to-day income,” Monica says, using the word “partners” to refer to, for instance, the scooter drivers who found work through Gojek’s ride-hailing service. “When Covid hit, we had strict social distancing rules, which meant they were basically unable to leave their houses. They lost their incomes in the blink of an eye.”
The company acted swiftly and Monica was at the heart of the response. Within the space of just three days, she helped set up a charitable foundation, then called YaBB (which stands for Yayasan Anak Bangsa Bisa or The Foundation of Capable Children of the Nation in English). Two weeks later and the team had raised over usd 10 million in order to begin mobilising. “We wanted to bring the ethos of entrepreneurship and combine it with philanthropy,” says Monica. “To take all the learnings that we had around how to create a business at speed and at scale, and to apply them to the philanthropic side and how we can accelerate solutions to tackle complex issues.” The foundation distributed millions of meals and hundreds of thousands of staple goods, without breaching any social-distancing rules. “We also realised that one of the biggest issues during Covid was a lack of oxygen,” Monica adds. “So in 2021, we set up mini oxygen plants in 30 of Indonesia’s 38 provinces.”
From its inception, Monica was the chairper- son of YaBB, and she has continued in that role while stepping down from her position overseeing HR at Gojek. Today it has been renamed the GoTo Impact Foundation and, as the pandemic has abated, the organisation has pivoted to tackle all manner of challenges facing Indonesia, from environmental break- down and the climate crisis to digital inequality and talent development.
The foundation has a unique model. It builds what it calls Innovation Ecosystems, which adopt a collaborative “co-creation” approach to challenges around the country, while ensuring economic sustainability, understanding that in a country made up of over 17,000 islands and with 700 different languages, a one-size-fits-all solution is rarely right. Each consortium works closely with local communities and experts to tackle issues in a holistic and sustainable way, ensuring economic benefits extend to everyone, including local communities, because, as Monica puts it, “without economic benefit or empowerment, any effort would not have any sustainability.” At heart, what the foundation wants to do is “empower people to have the ability to solve the problems themselves,” she goes on, describing co-creation as a “process in which ownership and accountability can actually be held by the local community.”
The GoTo Impact Foundation has three discrete umbrellas, under which its activities and initiatives are organised. First, there is the Catalyst Changemakers Ecosystem, which aims to empower climate tech founders to tackle Indonesia’s waste problem, improve water access and help build climate-resilient communities. Then there is the GoTo Impact Lab, the research arm of the foundation, which seeks to understand the best ways to build, strengthen and mature ecosystems. And finally, there is Future Ready Talent, an education and human development initiative centred around technology, which develops programmes to reskill and upskill individuals and communities, with a view to reducing inequality and unemployment, and modernising the Indonesian workforce.
It’s arguably this third challenge that Monica has spent the majority of her working life trying to fix. So much so that in January 2022, she co-founded a new business venture, Atma, which describes itself as “a social job platform powered by community” and which is focused on solving the challenges faced by workers in Indonesia’s lower and middle-income job segments, which have historically been underserved by existing careers platforms and job marketplaces. It was, for Monica and her co-founders, one of the key missing pieces in Indonesia’s human capital jigsaw. “Indonesia has such big aspirations,” she says. “The number one thing that can actually help transform that is people.”
With Atma on the one side and the GoTo Impact Foundation on the other, you might expect Monica to feel that her time and attention are pulled in a few too many different directions. But for her, there is no clear dis- tinction between her entrepreneurial activities and her altruistic work through the foundation. “When you’re really passionate about solving a specific issue, everything becomes interconnected,” she says. “The foundation tackles an issue from one angle, and the entrepreneurship side tackles the same issue from a different angle. I look at it as one cause that I’m trying to solve and I just use a different hat every time.”