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.

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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.