/Smashing the glass ceiling in Asias telco scene

Smashing the glass ceiling in Asias telco scene

Dian has chosen Henshin for its vicinity to her office – and because she likes Japanese food. The restaurant and bar buzzes at night, but lunch trade is slower. With a midday booking, we have the place to ourselves.

The telco exec is impressed the menu is on an iPad. We quickly decide bento boxes are the way to go. I like the sound of the Bento Nikkei, Dian opts for the Henshin Bento and asks for some additional rice. It would seem she’s a believer in “no rice, no glory”, a dictum so widely shared here it’s almost a religion.

Back in the early 1990s, when Dian started her first job and climbing those satellite towers, she couldn’t have foreseen how much smart phones would come to dominate everyday life. But she did know that even then, the rate of change in telecommunications outpaced that of other industries. That’s why she chose to study telco engineering at the prestigious Institute of Technology in Bandung, a few hours north of Jakarta.

Unlike many men, I don’t feel like I have to be the smartest person in the room.

Dian Siswarini, XL Axiate chief executive

Fast forward to 2020 and Dian is still fascinated by how communications can change lives. Mobile access is not a given for many Indonesians and with networks still being built, those providing services get to see the before and after.

“The satisfaction comes because you don’t just connect people with people but you also connect people with information. It can totally change a community,” she explains.

Gone fishing

A couple of years ago XL Axiata, working with Indonesia’s maritime department, built an app for fishermen that has not only changed lives but probably saved them.

“Most fishermen live in remote villages. They don’t own much, just a traditional boat and they navigate by the moon. So we give them a handset and the app. For the first time, they can check the weather forecast, and where to go because the app has information on where the plankton is.”

About 25,000 fishermen are now using this app after Dian’s company teamed up with an NGO that sent volunteers out to the villages, and even on the boat, to help fishermen become familiar with the phone and app.

“Previously all they knew about the internet was Facebook. So that was all they used their phone for. Then we started assisting them and they came to learn about other benefits.”

Of course, getting mobile service to fishermen is not always an easy task.

“We are the biggest archipelago in the world,” she says. “Some say Indonesia has 17,000 islands, but I think they are still counting. Connecting islands is expensive and often basic infrastructure is not adequate. Power blackouts happen even in Jakarta, so you can imagine what it’s like in other places.

“Now we are also reaching some of the most remote areas and that means transporting equipment first by plane, then car, then boat and finally horse or buffalo. Because there are no roads.”

Our bento boxes have arrived, beautifully presented with an array of bowls and ceramic dishes. Mine is groaning with fish, meat, tofu, pickled veggies and an entree of mushroom in what is romantically called tiger milk – a tart custard that tastes better than it sounds. Dian’s tray is less cluttered with a serve of chicken along with her rice and a couple of side dishes that she picks at delicately with chopsticks.

Talk turns to family and Dian reveals her daughter has lived in Australia for the past seven years, studying data analytics at the University of Sydney. When the-then 16-year-old (brains clearly run in the family – special dispensation had to be gained from USYD for such an early start) first told her mother how much her mobile bill was, Dian was aghast.

“‘How come you pay $60? $60 a month!'” Dian remembers saying. XL Axiata’s average customer pays $3 a month. And for that they get 10 gigabytes of data. “I said to her ‘Can you change to a lower package?’

“‘No, no,’ she said, ‘I cannot.'”

‘Brutal’ competition

Customer numbers in Indonesia are big enough to sustain such a low average revenue per user – but only just. Competition in this market, Dian notes, is “brutal”. Until registration was tightened a few years ago, one quarter of the customers would change networks every month.

The market leader is the state-owned Telkomsel, which got an early advantage thanks to the 1997 financial crisis. The subsequent collapse of the Indonesian rupiah meant XL Axiata couldn’t borrow sufficient money to find its network build. So it stopped for five years. Telkomsel kept going and now controls 70 per cent of the market. Competing with a government-owned company is not easy, especially in Indonesia when your majority shareholder is Malaysian.

“Our challenge when dealing with government departments is that they prefer to deal with other government institutions. As a private company, we have to prove our intent is genuine.

XL Axiate chief executive Dian Siswarini knew telcos were going to be big, so she hitched her career to the industry from the get-go. Achmad Ibrahim

And then there is the the Malaysian ownership to overcome. XL Axiata is listed on the Indonesian Stock Exchange but it’s main shareholder is the Malaysian telco giant, the Axiata Group.

“Indonesia has always had a rivalry with Malaysia so every time we want to work with government, they say ‘You are owned by Malaysians so we are afraid the information we give you will go to Malay’. We have to convince them that as a listed company we have certain governance policies that we have to observe.”

Our bento boxes have been whisked away and a complimentary dessert served. It’s the frozen equivalent of a bubble tea, citrus flavoured and absolutely delicious. Dian takes a few small spoonfuls and then lets it rest. I scrape the dish clean.

We’ve been chatting for 30 minutes longer than our allotted hour when Dian takes stock of her career as a female executive.

It is not that unusual for women to advance in business in Indonesia, she says, acknowledging this may come as some surprise to Westerners.

The plentiful supply of affordable domestic labour is also a big plus for professional woman in this county. “We are lucky because it is easy to get a support system. Cooks, house assistants, drivers – and often extended family help out as well.”

And, she says, on the job there are some advantages in being a woman.

“Men don’t usually see you as a threat and that makes it easier to compete with them. Unlike many men, I don’t feel like I have to be the smartest person in the room. I am comfortable asking questions and it’s easy for them to share. By the end though, I know more.

“Of course there are challenges; people’s expectations for a woman are much higher. And society expects you to be a success on all fronts. It’s okay for a male leader to be not successful in their family but if a woman has problems in her personal life people say it’s because of her career. There is a double standard; you have to prove yourself to everyone,” she laughs again.

One gets the feeling that Dian hasn’t had any trouble proving herself.

The bill

Henshin, The Westin Jakarta
Jalan H.R. Rasuna Said, Kavling C-22, Jakarta, Indonesia

1 Bento Nikkei 540,000 Rupiah ($57.39)
1 Henshin Bendo 320,990 Rupiah ($34.08)
2 Mineral Water 180,000 Rupiah ($19.11)

Total: 1,040,000 Rupiah ($110.58)