LEADer/ Connecting Through Language

Ubud, 7 November 2016 — Meet Yoshida Chandra, a copywriter and feminist who baked cookies and then founded a language school. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

Starting out

Born in 1982 in Padang, as the second of three siblings, Yoshida (Ochie) grew up in the world’s largest matriarchal society, the Minangkabau in Indonesia’s province of West Sumatra.

Ochie’s father worked in a bank. She also remembers him as a musician, and that she learned about the arts from him. He also encouraged her to read.

“Dad taught me how to read, write, and draw. He bought a lot of books for me, and I used to read one book a week. He inspired me to write about what I read, and to make a drawing about it also.” 

From early on, Ochie’s days were filled with study.

“Every day, including the weekends, I had to review my lessons and prepare for the next day’s lessons. I was studying throughout the day and evening, with only very short breaks.”

When her father wanted Ochie to follow in his footsteps to pursue a career in banking, it did not go down well.

“I hated numbers, even until now. I was good in math, but I did not enjoy it. Finally Dad let me focus on other things.”  

Ochie’s mother came from a fisherman’s family, and found her entrepreneurial passion in baking and selling cookies and cakes.

“My Mom’s background was the opposite from my Dad’s, and she struggled through life until she found her passion in cooking and setting up her business from home. I learned from her that if you really want to learn, you can find a way.”

Her mother inspired her to earn what you get, and to manage your money carefully after you worked hard for it. 

“Life is not free, my Mom told me. I remember how, when I was six years old and had fallen down, my Mom said that she was not going to pick me up and tell me that everything was OK. Life is like that, she said, you have to stand up again and go on. There was no hug.”

Ochie has a twin sister, Yolanda, and they were separated after birth when there was not enough money in the family to raise both. Her sister was adopted by an aunt in Jakarta, and Ochie remembered meeting her for the first time when she was three years old, and infrequently after that until she had finished college.

Drawing flowers

Starting in her primary school days, Ochie made her mark by being a top student.

“I studied hard every day, and the teachers liked me. They loved my drawings. During break time, I would eat my snack fast and then go to the teachers office to draw flowers on their board.”

Her mother enrolled her in many classes after school, whether she liked it or not.

“My Mom was so ambitious, and I found that I loved language, could conquer math, and was a bad singer. She would enter me in cultural competitions, and I won many, however I hated singing. In the end, I feigned forgetting my lyrics on stage, and after that Mom did not enter me in singing competitions anymore.”

During junior high school, Ochie’s life was still scheduled by her parents. She was always a top-ranked student, and that is what counted most to her parents. 

Then, as she progressed to senior high, her parents spent more time on their own businesses. 

“For the first time in my life, I had freedom to do whatever I wanted. They gave me more space. I was unused to that, and I jumped at the opportunity and had a rebellious phase. I started skipping classes and my grades went down.”

After a while, Ochie picked up her serious learning habits again and started focusing on what she liked most, which was writing, drawing, and language. 

“As I got out of my low period, I started writing short stories for local newspapers, wrote poetry, and joined the theatre club for some plays, also for radio.” 

A defining moment came when she led her school group in creating their own contemporary dance to perform at Padang’s Cultural Center.

She also remembers when Ali Akbar Navis, a prominent Indonesian author, poet and humorist, came to speak at a writing workshop she had been chosen to join.

“I was so excited by those opportunities. We made plays, and listening to my author idol A A Navis was a dream come true. I have my Dad to thank for encouraging me to combine writing with drawing in my journal since I was very young.”

400 Cakes a day 

All through Ochie’s school days and later during college at Andalas University in her province, she earned money by working for her mother’s baking business, to support the family.

“I was told that I had to work. And I learned how hard it could be to work for your Mom’s business. Chefs always cook in their own way, and I had to do everything exactly as she told me. We would work in a team of five, from after I finished school until 2 a.m., baking more than 400 cakes per day.”

When she entered Andalas University in Padang, she chose her major in English literature.

“I enjoyed college, even though I was still living at home and had to work for my Mom’s business every evening. I was curious about university life, especially about culture and the theories of language and how people use language in society.”

Her favorite college teacher was Diah Tyahaya Iman, who taught culture, gender and migration.

“I learned a lot about feminism from Prof Diah. She influenced me by the way she thought, talked, and dressed, with a smart and neat look. I emulated her thinking and behavior. She taught us how to be proud of who we were as women in my province, regardless of skin color and background. We discovered that we could choose to develop our own power without being dependent on men. We learned that there was more in life than getting married and having babies. Professor Diah challenged us to leave our comfort zone, telling us that we needed to travel and see the world.” 

On her own feet

After graduating from Andalas University in 2004, Ochie decided to join her twin sister in Jakarta and look for a job there, without her parents’ consent.

“My parents told me to use my own savings if I wanted to move to Jakarta. If I chose to stay in Padang, they would have still supported me there. So there I was, arriving in Jakarta in 2005 with 2 million rupiah* in my pocket, to be reunited with my twin sister, with both of us standing on our own feet.”

* About USD 200 at the time.

Her sister helped Ochie to find a place to stay and to look for jobs.

“My sister Yolanda changed my life. She told me that I did not need limit myself to employment in the traditional way. She encouraged me to become an entrepreneur, initially as a freelancer. With her support, I got my first job as a junior copywriter for an advertising agency. I learned from zero how to be successful in that work, in design, advertising and marketing. It was exciting because I felt that I could use my creativity in writing and drawing in that work.”

After three years, she felt that it was time to move on to get more experience, and worked for three other advertising agencies in succession to expand her skills into desktop publishing and TV commercials. 

After a few years of working to deadlines with little social life, Ochie became a lecturer at the Bina Nusantara (BINUS) university, teaching advertising classes using the working experience she had gained.

As her experience and contacts grew, she was asked to edit for a banking magazine.

“The language they used there was more formal, and they required a higher grammatical standard in Indonesian. My first work for them was rejected, and I was told that I needed to invest in relearning my written Indonesian.”

This became another defining moment in Ochie’s career.

“I thought that I was already good at what I was doing, and when someone told me that I was not, it was an eye opener for me. I realized that I had to bring my competence in my own national language to a new level.”

Challenge in transition

It was a transition point. I observed during our conversation how Ochie was keenly aware of such transition points in her life, and how committed she was to make the most of them, to move forward with her career.

“Fortunately I was given another chance at the banking magazine. After a week of intensive study at night to take my Indonesian to the next level, I resubmitted my work and it was accepted.”

As she continued her work for the banking magazine, and maintained her teaching engagement at BINUS, she found that the pressure of her working life in the capital city was starting to take its toll.

“I became stressed. At a certain point in 2009, I knew that I had enough of Jakarta. The pressure of working late every night and the traffic jams were getting to me. At that time, a friend mentioned the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival to me, and I decided to take a break, head to Bali, and volunteer to help in the festival as a writer’s liaison for several Indonesian authors, including Seno Gumira Ajidarma.”

She fell in love with Ubud, and with one of its international residents, and explored how to make Ubud her second home. 

“After returning to Jakarta, I thought it over, and decided to take the gamble to move to Ubud without a job. Once I got there, adjusting to the local pace, the environment, and the culture was like a culture shock after life in Padang and Jakarta.”

As she found her feet in Ubud and started work as an English teacher in the local Campuhan college, Ochie discovered that many foreigners living in Bali did not speak Indonesian, and socially congregated among themselves. She asked why this was the case.

“The answer I heard was that while they were interested to learn Indonesian, they would have to travel to the cities of neighboring Java island to attend a language school for a course in Indonesian. That started me thinking about a business opportunity.”

In 2010, she took two major decisions. She married Stephen DeMeulenaere, who had already lived in Ubud for a longer time, and together with him, she decided to start a language school for foreigners in Bali and beyond. Classes started at Campuhan College in 2011, and in 2012 her language school Cinta Bahasa (Love the Language) was registered as a business. Online course were added a year later.

“From the start, we attracted many students. It helped that I had contacts with several foreign embassies in Jakarta from my previous jobs. They were ready to send staff from their embassies and consulates for up to three months to learn Indonesian. During this time I found that the available books for foreigners to learn Indonesian were inadequate, so my team and I decided to design our own method and materials.”

The school expanded rapidly, and soon opened branches in Sanur and Canggu, popular coastal resorts in the South of the island.

 Photo by Janita Himawati

Photo by Janita Himawati

Leadership style

I asked Ochie about her approach to leadership.

“I believe that leadership goes beyond leading other people. It is about sharing what you know and letting others learn and apply what they learned. Leadership for me is not about being the boss. Many bosses are, in fact, not leaders.” 

She continued explaining.

“I follow the golden rule. When I was working for other companies before, I paid close attention how I wanted my boss to treat me. Now I apply that to my team. For example, when there is a deadline, I will check with my team first if they are up to it. I learned earlier in my career that when staff were not happy, the results would often be unsatisfactory. It actually pays to consult your colleagues first. We get the best results together when the team is happy to do the necessary extra work.”

So what is Ochie’s favorite leadership style? 

“I like leading as if we are a family. In our team, we have a lot of discussions, and I make sure to get their ideas. I don’t like drama, and I am a solutions-oriented person. When we have a problem, we don't whine about it, we find a solution. I remind my team that they can speak up and should not remain quiet. And I make it clear that I will listen to their responses to the question how we can do better.”

Outside her business, one of Ochie’s formative experiences in leadership came from volunteering in the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, now in its 13th edition in 2016. After starting out as a volunteer in 2009, she took on the management of the volunteers in the next year, and ended up leading 180 Indonesian and foreign volunteers this year.

“How to lead so many volunteers? With a huge diversity of personalities, I found that having the same goal is not enough. Over the years, I learned that three things helped me do the job. First, to give a good example. Second, to focus everyone’s attention on clear communications. And third, to give good feedback through evaluations.” 

Happiness for success

What did she learn about herself from her experiences with leadership?

“I discovered that I have a different lifestyle from many other people. I want to balance my work with my life with my husband and my friends. Happiness is very important to me, and I see it as a condition for success. Happiness comes first, and I need it to create a productive working environment with others. If you’re not happy, whatever you do, and wherever you go, will not work out in the best way.”

She also learned to let go.

“As I moved forward with my career and life, I understood that I had to forgive myself for mistakes made in the past, and to let go of guilt. In 2010, a big earthquake devastated my hometown Padang, and my family house collapsed completely. It was hard for me, and yet I had to let go and move on. What mattered was that my family was safe.”

Another side of letting go concerned an arranged marriage.

“After my parents had made an arrangement for me to marry a man, I discovered that my future husband expected me to focus on being a mother and buying diapers. My answer was a firm no, and with the help of my twin sister who came over from Jakarta, the engagement was canceled.”

What came after letting go, I asked Ochie.

“I encouraged myself and my team to take Cinta Bahasa to the next level, again. I believe that there is no dream small enough to be discarded. Every small dream matters. When we work at it, we can influence others to improve, even if the improvement starts in a small way. For me as director, I keep asking people around me if they are happy, and if not, how we can make that happen. Happiness is what makes the difference in generating better results.”

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Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia

So what are Ochie’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

First, be oriented to solutions.

“Leaders should focus on solutions in stead of pointing out blame. They can invite their team to study the problem, and guide them in solving it. Finding fault doesn't work. Even when a mistake is clear, there is no point in going on about it. Move to the solution.”

Second, make a positive impact.

“Leaders should be ready to make a contribution to society. Make society think about something they are not aware of yet. Something positive. For example, in the case of our school, how to bridge the gap between locals and foreigners here in Bali. And we have to feel happy about doing that.” 

Third, see obstacles as challenges.

“The biggest task of leaders is to turn obstacles into challenges. This is very important, because every challenge has a door that leads to a solution. In our case, we used to have lots of challenges with government bureaucracy, and we have dealt with these by going for solutions and by winning their support to help us. That has worked, and we are fortunate to receive a lot of support.” 

What’s next?

As we wrapped up our conversation on the balcony of the Cinta Bahasa school, I asked Ochie what was coming up next in her life. She replied that she frequently thought about her professor in university.

“I want to help my women colleagues see that life is about much more than finding a boyfriend. For women who want more than being a housewife, there is so much more we can do nowadays. I encourage them to set goals in their life. Happiness is important, and how to find support for their career. I found that many men have become supportive of that, and have changed their way of thinking. Empowering women is a discussion that everyone can join and contribute to.”

What has been her toughest challenge?

“With my participative and family-oriented leadership approach, the hardest for me is to let a team member go when their attitude or performance keeps falling short of expectations. Particularly in the case of attitude problems, I learned that by taking out the thorn that hurts the flesh, everyone in the team benefits.” 

What is she most proud of?

“I am very proud of the achievements of our students in Cinta Bahasa! And I treasure my colleagues in the business. I am proud that I could make our team into my second family. If I see any unhappiness, I go after it, to sort it out. Most of our team members are working here for a long time already, and are getting closer.” 

In conclusion, I asked Ochie about her vision to move forward.

“I want Indonesians and foreign visitors and residents to develop a good understanding of each other, and for Ubud to be a place where expats can be local too. When they learn Indonesian and can speak with Indonesians in their language, they will get a different response, and they will appreciate that. I believe this can be a life-changing experience for both sides. As international travel and tourism are still growing in our Asian region, we need to manage the relationships between visitors and locals. I can see that it needs work on both sides to bridge that gap. Through language, and by being proud of our language, we can build the bridge to make the connections happen.”

 Photo by Janita Himawati

Photo by Janita Himawati

Yoshida Chandra’s  profile 

Cinta Bahasa School

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