Women Leadership in the Non-Profit Sector Case Study Series: Lili Kasoem

Aceh’s guardian angel

Lili KasoemLily Kasoem is a mother to five children and a grandmother to 6 grandchildren. At 64 years of age, she discovered a renewed sense of purpose. Having seen the catastrophe in Aceh, Indonesia,  Lily decided to use her leadership experience in the private sector to help Aceh’s needy.

“I did not have any desire to be more than I had become after what I saw in Aceh. I became very humble.”- Lily Kasoem

The Tsunami that devastated Aceh had a huge impact on people all over Indonesia. However, Lily Kasoem was one of those people who did something about it – Lily founded the Titian Foundation to help those affected by the catastrophe.

Tapping on business success with confidence

An entrepreneur with a heart, Lily was known for delivering great results without compromising her integrity and empathy for others. These qualities helped her build strong personal and professional networks, which proved valuable as she set up the Titian Foundation. Lily raised funds through her network to build 4 schools and 5 community learning centres and to train 500 teachers annually. Today, the Titian Foundation sponsors 500 children.

“Anyone can do what I can do – but not everyone has the credibility – I have experience, a good track record upon which I have demonstrated leadership and I am not afraid to talk about my dreams and achievements. People have confidence in me.”

Having worked in the private sector, Lily had an appreciation for the power dynamics between the two genders and applied this understanding to her communication with others. With women, she emphasised successful relationship, helping families, offering emotional stability, among others. However, with men, she focused much more on results, outcomes and processes.

Creating a movement

In Indonesia, there is a need for women to step up. While there are many female leaders, they remain restricted to a small sphere of influence – their families and immediate social circles. Lily’s path to leadership, started with a small sphere of influence, but through her networks, and efforts at raising awareness and publicity, she rallied her networks. Recognising that leadership, particularly in non-profit is never an individual effort, Lily invited people to join her on her journey in whatever way they could.

Lily believed in leading by doing. She was not afraid to work alongside her subordinates because she believed in being a role model to those who worked for her. In Indonesia, people respected their leaders more when they removed hierarchies and worked alongside their employees –it demonstrated a deeper sense of respect for employees. The more she connected with people, the more they seemed to appreciate her values and vision equally.

Personal, Family and Cultural Background

Lily was blessed with great role models herself – her parents. While her father taught her mutual respect and perseverance, her mother taught her how to overcome the fear of failure. Family support is a critical element of Lily’s ability to dream. She has become a role model for her children today. Her decision to leave the family business made simpler by her family circumstances. Her children are married and supporting themselves. This made it easier to expand her resources and attention beyond her family.

In Indonesia, women are often able to pursue other interests because they have the luxury of access to domestic help at affordable costs. Society holds women in high esteem as the carers of the family, and the unwavering pillar of a family’s success and happiness. In this respect, Lily’s vision of setting up a foundation that helped Acehnese children was easier because (a) it was nationalistic, and (b) she was a woman. The same dedication and perseverance that she showed her own children was extended to the children of Aceh.  However, she was prepared to take a leap that not many others were brave enough to take. Both men and women had deep admiration for and were deeply humbled by this.

Why Women As Non-Profit Leaders?

Women are naturally inclined to leadership. On a regular basis, they manage their families and are instrumental in molding future leaders. Borrowing a quote from Mrs. Hillary Clinton, Lily believes,” If you give money to men, it’s for him. If you give money to women, it is for her whole family.”

Indonesian women like to work without acknowledgement – that is why female Indonesia leaders remain unknown. Culturally, Indonesian women will never deliberately outshine their husbands – anything they do, they do quietly. Women leaders in Indonesia tend to perform their leadership roles with a bigger purpose in mind. To them, it is less about the fame and recognition that comes with the position. This is why women are less concerned about feminism in Indonesia. They go about their leadership work in their own way. More women need to stand tall and step into the limelight now. It is merely the next step in their journey.


The Women Leadership in Non-Profit Case Study Series is led by the Women’s Pathways to Leadership in Asia (WPLA) and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “Women Leadership in Nonprofit Case Study: Lili Kasoem” authored by Meera Jethmal, an alumni of the Lee Kuan Yew  School of Public Policy. 


Women Leadership in the Non-Profit Sector Case Study Series: Rahayu Saraswati

Opportunity Favours The Bold

Rahayu Saraswati was an upcoming actress in Indonesia. She had the privilege of coming from a high-profile family in Indonesia. As her career grew, Rahayu started to realize something was missing.  Her journey of discovery led to her adventure of leadership in championing anti-trafficking in Indonesia. Rahayu formed the ID4F (Indonesia for Freedom) an anti- human trafficking organization, the first of its kind to raise awareness and tackle human trafficking issues at a national level, run by an Indonesian.  ID4F takes a 4-stage approach to protecting victims (and potential victims) of human trafficking – prevention, interception, prosecution and reintegration.

Finding Purpose

Having learnt about realities of human trafficking through media, Rahayu started looking for places to volunteer in Indonesia. Research into the state of affairs in Indonesia led to the realization that there was (i) no real focus on human trafficking issues (migration and refugee reintegration took precedence), and (ii) no organization that was headed by an Indonesian. Meanwhile, she came across some astounding cases of victims. This frustration of not being able to contribute led to the realization that she had to take control. This realization gave her purpose, and the confidence to start her own foundation.

Role Models to Emulate

When Rahayu met Cecelia Flores Oebanda, who led the Visayan Forum Foundation, focused on human trafficking issues in the Philippines, she realized what the missing link was. Cecelia became an important mentor to Rahayu in understanding the challenges, and what it took to champion a cause she felt so passionately about.

Overcoming Obstacles
(i) Her inexperience was a real challenge. She was taking on human trafficking in Indonesia at a national level. She was knocking on doors no one had knocked before.

(ii) Rahayu was a young, single and successful career woman. On the one hand, she used her popularity as an actress to inspire people; on the other she faced critical judgment at every corner.

Rahayu knew she was stepping into dangerous territory with her idea. Her family had political ties, and were often in the public’s view. She feared  putting her family at risk. However, after much thinking, Rahayu realized that not taking the chance was worse than taking it. She decided she had to be bold.

“But I am fearless. I just have to prod through. I have a supportive family, and I just won’t give up.”

The Foundation of Family

Rahayu’s family had great influence in her growth as a leader. Her parents had different backgrounds. While her father was born with a silver spoon, her mother had no spoon at all. Her mother’s was a Cinderella story. She was born in the slums but married into wealth. As a result, she had the strongest beliefs in idealism and faith. Having seen both sides of the picture, Rahayu, was grounded in her views of reality, and was fortunate enough to have the means to do something about it. Both her parents had foundations for causes they cared about. Her father always said that his stature was a privilege and a very heavy responsibility. That was the environment she grew up in.

Overcoming Colonial Mindsets

Indonesians have become used to living a way of life that is more subservient and insular, a mindset that has its roots in the colonial period. Most people are content with their ways of life. They forget that they have the opportunity to do so much more. As a result, there is no real ownership of anything.

“Our country is so rich with resources. If you plant something, it grows. It’s okay to be content with a simple countryside lifestyle, but it does not work in a globalised state.”

Personal Background

Rahayu_PicRahayu found her background worked against her sometimes. In society obsessed with status and competition for publicity, oftentimes, she had to overcome people who misconstrued her dreams as showing off or being selfish about her needs and not caring enough of the impact on her parents. In this case, her personal background was a reason for a lack of trust. However, she turned to corporations, foundations, and organisations that were globally making a positive difference in human trafficking. They were her champions.

Why women as non profit leaders?

Women are natural social entrepreneurs. A mother’s role is about education, women, children. Home is the realm of the women. These things matter in more non-profit. Poverty is present at every corner in Indonesia. We live our lives watching people struggle. Women are more receptive to this, and automatically desire to make a difference. Even corporate women leaders are active socially.

Focusing on human trafficking, it’s even easier. As a women, what helps is the stereotype that women have more of a feel for the human-trafficking challenge because it is often portrayed as a gender challenge, rather than a human challenge to overcome (although this too, needs to change).

Indonesia culture makes it easy for women to be leaders. North Sumatra has a matriarchal culture. Mothers are the head of households. Javanese culture is patriarchal, but women hold a special place because they are wives and mothers. In Java, we believe heaven is at the feet of the mother.

It’s all a matter of whether you want to lead or not.


The Women Leadership in Non-Profit Case Study Series is led by the Women’s Pathways to Leadership in Asia (WPLA) and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “Women Leadership in Nonprofit Case Study: Lili Kasoem” authored by Meera Jethmal, an alumni of the Lee Kuan Yew  School of Public Policy.  


WPLA’s 2013 Researchers Announced

Women’s Pathways to Leadership in Asia recently launched a Call for Proposals to encourage students pursuing advanced degrees to participate in an upcoming research project by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The selected students include:

Meera Jethal,  Master of Public Administration Candidate, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy 

Edwina Frisdiantiny, Master of Public Policy Candidate, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy 

Hendri Yulius, Master of Public Policy Candidate, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Phuong Thao Nguyen, Master of Public Policy Candidate, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy 

The selected researchers will participate in the a follow up publication to the Rising to the Top?  A Report on Women’s Leadership in Asia. While the first publication “Rising to the Top?” examined a range of available data on women’s leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, identified factors that helped or hindered women in their pathways to leadership, and specified some policy recommendations, the upcoming research will focus exclusively on the non-profit sector in Southeast Asia.

Currently, most of the current literature on the difference female leaders have made address the corporate or for-profit sector (highlighting, for example, correlations between more women senior managers and higher profitability, better governance, and improved risk-taking).  Thus, there is a gap to be addressed in research on women’s impact in the non-profit sector. With this goal in mind, these researchers will interview current leaders in the non-profit sector in the Asia Pacific region.

Their findings will be used to  generate stories and to generalize from these stories what difference women leaders have made and how. These will serve as a source of information to further the research agenda of women’s advancement in the non-profit sector.

Women’s Pathways to Leadership in Asia congratulates the selected scholars!