Sintesa CEO on breaking barriers at the top

She's petite and feisty, clenching her hands into a fist when making a point. "There's a very big opportunity for the middle class and for middle-sized companies to grow," said Shinta Widjaja Kamdani, the CEO of Indonesian conglomerate Sintesa.

She knows this from her family's own experience. Sintesa is an Indonesian conglomerate that is made up of 17 distinct companies: consumer goods distribution, prefab concrete, energy production, steel manufacturing and real estate. The business took root three generations ago when Kamdani's grandfather started a rubber plantation.

As we stood on the roof of the Sintesa headquarters in downtown Jakarta and looked at the skyline of office buildings, 48-year old Kamdani described what the city was like just a few decades ago. She remembers the area as farmland. Today, a major portion of the buildings was built using her company's concrete. "You can really see true development….from nothing to something," she said.

High Expectations

Kamdani always knew she would be handed the reigns to the family business which has grown to 6,000 employees. Her only other sibling, her sister, is an artist with no interest in running operations. Kamdani was given full control of the company in 1999 after the Asian financial crisis. She shook things up by not only changing the name of the company from Tigaraksa to Sintesa, but also changing the corporate structure.

Shinta Widjaja Kamdani, CEO of Sintesa Group.
CNBC
Shinta Widjaja Kamdani, CEO of Sintesa Group.

"This is quite a challenge. What I am trying to do is to get away from the focus of a one man show, or what I call a 'family business,' just around one owner," she said. "So we have now an organization in which it's run by an executive committee…This is a team of people."

Kamdani's father is still involved with Sintesa as chief commissioner. She goes to both her parents as a sounding board on business decisions.

"I still find that I want my parents to be proud of me….So there is always that big push (inside me). I want to prove that just because they don't have a son, that doesn't mean they don't have anybody to continue the business properly," she said.

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In the corporate world, Kamdani is breaking just about every glass ceiling. She was recently asked to be an adviser to Indonesia's vice president. She says it's a huge honor especially considering who she is. "People say I am a triple minority in Indonesia. I am a non-Muslim. I am a Chinese. I am a woman. That is an important journey for me."

Nurturing Other Entrepreneurs

While Kamdani manages her own business, she also has her eye on the landscape for Indonesia's entrepreneurs. She doesn't want to be alone at the top. She wants others to join her – especially women.

"Actually a woman entering the labor force at the moment has been progressing very well. The problem is they don't want to go into the leadership positions. And why is that? It's because they don't want to impact their family life," lamented Kamdani, a mother of three. "We need to create more women leaders. Women sitting on boards right now (are a) very small (minority) in Indonesia. So we are trying to create a network and support system."

Kamdani believes there are three major obstacles for entrepreneurs: access to markets, access to financing and limitations to building out their ideas. Several years ago, Kamdani and other business leaders started an angel investment fund in which they listen to start-up business pitches and decide which entrepreneurs to fund.

Kamdani has also focused on helping women in rural areas. She says it's often difficult for poor women to get personal financing because they need their husband's formal approval. Essentially, it's a cultural mindset that needs to change.

"That is a very big issue for a woman wanting to start their business. They have to rely on their husband so they can never be independent on their own. It's not just about empowering the woman but also educating the men."

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Kamdani's desire to help entrepreneurs stems from a traumatic time in Indonesia's recent history. Inflation, food shortages and a banking crisis all contributed to the May 1998 riots that ultimately targeted Chinese Indonesians. When the violence was over, more than 500 people had died with hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed. Kamdani worked with a priest to help identify families who needed to build up their businesses again.

"I started micro financing with them. Instead of just giving money, we started developing some of their business. Something that is lost completely can be rebuilt," she recounted.

For more on Shinta Widjaja Kamdani's interview, tune in to Entrepreneur Asia: Power Players on CNBC. The first airing will be on May 21, at 5:30pm sin/hk, with repeats over the weekend.