Ubud, 30 May 2016 — Meet Ketut Sulistyawati (Sulis), a free spirit with a passion to find her independence who researched fighter pilots and founded a user experience consultancy. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Born in 1982 in Denpasar, as the youngest of four siblings, Sulis grew up in a family where both parents were lecturers at Bali’s prestigious Udayana University.
Her father is a medical doctor, now retired from public service. He inspired her with his entrepreneurial spirit.
“Dad is a hard worker. He can’t stay still. I learned from him about the courage to take your chances, with a business sense. He took risks to enter new business areas. One day he decided to build a hotel, and he did. That still inspires me. He had the guts to do that."
Her mother was a lecturer at Udayana’s business school, and is now also retired.
“Mom was the financial controller at home. Mom and Dad were balanced as a team. Where he took risks, she would manage how much risk to take. I learned from her how to apply caution and to limit spending to what is really needed. She loved cooking for us, and she was always a source of news."
Sense of independence
Sulis recounted how she felt a sense of independence since she was very young. She did not stay at home much, and was given the space to go out and meet with her friends.
At school, she did well, and was recognized to be in the top of her class.
“I don’t remember having a particular passion for something when I was young. I liked to play outside with my neighbors and our dogs, and going out on our bikes. I loved comics, particularly Donald Duck. I learned to play piano, however I didn’t like my teacher, and I would prefer learning from my sister with a more individual approach, learning to play songs."
Spending time going around her neighborhood was a favorite, as was going to the beach to collect sea shells. Soon her radius expanded when her father took them on trips to other islands in Indonesia, like to Lombok, Sulawesi, Padang, and Dili in faraway Timor.
Using public transport
During her junior high school (SMP), she went on her first overseas trips, to Australia, and then to Singapore. What she remembers from those trips is the freedom to go around with her brother and sisters, using public transport.
“We could go out on our own, walk and use a tram. In Bali, we were limited to using our car. Overseas I was also forced to use my English. I was nervous about it, and then I forced myself to do it, so that I could at least buy food."
In primary school, Sulis had many friends from privileged rich families. Moving to a public junior high school was a big change for her.
“I was assigned to a class with the naughtiest batch of students. And for the first time in my life, I realized that there were so many people who were economically less well off."
Jumping over the gate
It was then that she decided that she wanted to cycle to school rather than be driven. Although she did not get permission, she went ahead and did it anyway. And then her parents let her, and she started using public transport too. For someone who had always been driven to school, it felt like liberation.
“I needed that to balance my life. If not, I would have stayed in a rich circle. I still keep in touch with friends from SMP. I remember how I skipped school with them sometimes, jumping over the gate. Through them, I got to see different points of view how they looked at things. My parents were very strict, and looking back now, I was not courageous yet in primary school to go my own way. In SMP I stepped out. That was a good thing."
As her perspectives widened, Sulis also became more tolerant when dealing with others.
“I discovered that people always have reasons for doing what they do. I learned not to judge them. I brought friends home and welcomed them regardless of their situation. Some came from broken homes. I got to know their story, and didn’t judge them."
Exploring to lead
When Sulis started her senior high school (SMA), she joined OSIS, a student organization, and became their secretary. She could give dispensation for students to leave class when they attended an event. Everyone asked, and she felt popular.
She could also skip classes when there were events to organize, and she discovered how she loved organizing the logistics and mobilizing sponsorships for sports and art competitions and talent shows. She would coordinate for students to rotate in various tasks, including making backdrops and organizing radio coverage.
At that time, Sulis did not have a clear idea for her future.
“I didn’t have a dream or plan for choosing a profession. I thought about business school, because I admired how Mom could do her work from home. My two sisters were already in medical school, and my Dad asked me to join too. I did not feel comfortable about that, also considering that he was the president of the school. I did not want to feel pressured about being the president’s daughter there."
Taking her chance
As she continued her struggle for independence, she saw her chance when staff of the Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University visited her school. She sent an application to NTU without her parents knowing, and was accepted for mechanical engineering.
“I wanted to escape home and Bali to see the world and broaden my horizon. I wanted to experience living overseas on my own. My parents did not allow me at first, until my oldest brother convinced them to let me go."
Arriving in Singapore in 2000, she discovered that many fellow Indonesians studied there too.
“What I realized quickly was how far the education in Bali was behind compared to Jakarta. I also had a challenge with English. It was tough, and I felt depressed, and came close to giving up. Then my brother in Australia told me that wherever I would go, it would be tough."
Her Dad weighed in too, saying “the higher you go up, the stronger the wind gets" and advising her “to get used to it."
After her first round of exams, she was surprised to find out that she had done well, and better than many of her batch mates from Jakarta who had seemed to be ahead of her. The good results boosted her confidence to keep going.
In her second year, she chose to specialize in product design, and learned about process engineering, managing product development, and prototyping. She particularly liked the hands-on classes for making products.
In the final year of her four-year bachelors course, she realized that her classmates were performing better than she did, and this led her to think about her job prospects, and if she needed to make adjustments in her strategy.
After graduating in 2004 with a bachelors degree in product design, mechanical and production engineering, she decided to shift her focus and joined a new program on ‘human factors in design', which combined the psychology of human behavior with product design.
“I liked the idea of studying how people behave in relation to products. I also had a chance to join a joint program with MIT focusing on manufacturing, but my heart was not in that, so I decided to go for a combined masters and PhD in human factors at NTU in Singapore. I went with my intuition, even when people told me that job prospects would be better if I got the joint degree with MIT. My thinking that it would be better to choose something I liked doing."
Pioneering a new field
It turned out to be a good choice. With only 4 students in her batch, she became part of a pioneering group for the new discipline of user experience (UX). It was a tough challenge.
“Once again, I almost gave up, this time in the second year. My professor was very strict, and my Dad reminded me to persist with the choice I had made. I was lucky to have a professor from the US who liked my thesis topic and helped me a lot."
One of her teachers at NTU remembers her as a brilliant student. She took classes in psychology, anthropometry, safety engineering, accident investigations, and human-computer interactions. These would give her the basis she needed to research and work in the field of UX.
“My research topic was on team situation awareness, exploring how teams can make decisions in situations of risk and with limited information, looking at what happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen into the future."
Researching fighter pilots
For her research, Sulis worked with a team of Singapore’s fighter pilots, studying their innate cognitive abilities for situational awareness, and their team communication, with the help of a flight simulator in her lab. She discovered that their self-awareness of their knowledge had a higher impact on their performance than their cognitive knowledge. She felt in her element as a UX researcher.
In 2008, after three years, her NTU scholarship stopped, and she went looking for a job to support herself while she finished her thesis. She received an offer from Dell's Experience Design Group, and worked by day and studied in the night until her graduation in 2009.
“In Dell, I learned about working in the industry. It was so fast compared to university, and I enjoyed that. I had a lot of opportunities to work with user experiences and come up with new concepts."
In 2009 she was headhunted by Hewlett-Packard’s Global Design Studio, to work as a senior user experience designer on new products for a worldwide market. This involved a lot of travel to Europe, the US and Asia, and she enjoyed those opportunities to broaden her horizon.
Becoming a top performer
During this period, as she developed the ‘experience journey’ of users of her company’s products, she emerged as one of the top performers in her design team. Her leadership qualities were noted by the company’s management, especially for her work in executing plans with good communications and teamwork.
She also made a life decision during this time, to marry I Gde Ngurah Widiadnyana, a fellow Balinese and childhood friend she had met again when she was in Singapore.
In 2012, Sulis and Widi decided to move back to Bali, where Sulis started freelancing as a UX expert. Requests for her services came in, first from Hong Kong and then from within Indonesia.
“As UX was still very new in the region, and even more so in Indonesia, I started by giving training in companies, followed by consultancies for projects.”
Founding her company
After 1 year, she hired her first staff and moved on to found her own company, called Somia Customer Experience, with two partners.
“In Bali, the word Somia reminds us of a ceremony that lifts us up to a higher level, to a better place. That seemed an appropriate name for our team, because the field of user experience work can help companies to bring their corporate performance to a higher level."
With increasing demand, her team soon expanded to 6 experts, including Sulis. Most of colleagues she attracted were UX designers like herself.
“Our work has now grown, to help many companies with research to develop new products and services, or to improve existing ones. We use mostly qualitative techniques, both to evaluate what is going on, and to generate better solutions, using a wide range of methods."
What is her leadership style now that she has become managing director of her company?
She explained that she likes to work closely with her partners and staff as a team.
“My favorite leading style is by working together, shoulder to shoulder. I work with them, and I get my hands dirty and show them how to do the job. We are a small set-up, so everyone helps and jumps in. I like to keep it transparent and open. And in working with them, I have also learned to trust my feelings and intuition, especially for my managerial responsibility, which is new to me."
Gaining recognition in Asia
Her business has grown fast. I asked her how she leads with clients.
“First, we make sure that they respect us for our expertise. This is essential for success. Once we establish trust in the beginning, it works well, and we can support the company together and get them to the next level."
In 2016, with 9 years of UX experience under her belt, Sulis was named as one of the top 27 entrepreneurial women who have catapulted Asia’s tech ecosystem to new heights. A27 recognized her for leading international user research and design activities, and for contributing to award-winning products and websites.
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia
So what are Sulis’ three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, to listen to your intuition.
“When something does not feel right, and you force it, it often does not end up well. We need to listen to our intuition, which holds the answer how to proceed."
Second, to just do it.
“Do not think too much. Things can grow organically when we experiment. It is good not to know everything in advance, otherwise you might feel stopped. We can solve problems one by one as they come."
Third, listen to others, whoever they are.
“I always listen carefully to clients. What they want to get done. Why they want that. What is their experience. Then I can make sure that the solutions we generate will be a match with our client’s values in life. We need to discover first what motivates our clients, the people we work together with. Listening first is always the key to success."
As we sat together in Hubud, a collaborative workspace in Ubud, I saw her shift her gaze upwards when I asked this question.
“I just love our work, and I want to build our team to be strong enough to come up with new things, especially for Indonesia. We are working with a lot of Indonesian companies already, however the sector is so far behind in my country."
Now her passion showed.
“I want us to bring Indonesia’s performance in user experience design much closer to international standards. Catching up is a huge job, because UX needs a culture that enables it. We can train people in companies, but when the culture of the company is not yet focused on supporting customers, it needs organizational change, and that can take a longer time."
Sulis explained that large companies often struggle to create the necessary openness to new ways of thinking.
“What I see is that many big companies are held back by their bureaucracy and the mindset of their management. Changing a big organization is hard. In contrast, I see how the founders of smaller companies and start-ups can embrace innovation effectively with a culture of change."
It comes down to creating the right culture, she reflected.
“Rather than being more competitive, we need to learn to have more empathy in our companies if we want to be successful, by reaching out more to their clients. Culture plays a big role, and we can see that for example in Japan, where customer service experience is taken seriously at all levels and where people want others to feel well."
Local experts who are educated overseas have a unique advantage to deliver success, she underlined, since they know the local culture best.
“We now choose our clients carefully, to make sure that we can help them. We don’t accept all the offers we get, and we listen to our intuition in the process. When we find a good match, we are confident that we will discover the insights about their customers and their business that allow them to craft new products, services and user experience that are meaningful."
During our discussion, it became clear how Sulis had succeeded in claiming her independence, and that she had discovered a passion for lifting up her country’s expertise in the field that she helped to pioneer: to support companies in designing new levels of user experience.
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