Don’t be completely rigid and think that if you have a plan, just sticking to that plan because the best opportunities and the best things will come unexpectedly. For me, for example, no idea that I wanted to go to Indonesia, yet I ended up here and it’s the best decision. So, take opportunities as they come and don’t limit yourself to just what you think or what you plan for yourself ‘cause you’ll really close a lot of doors if you do.-Gabby Wantah
Gaby is the cofounder and CEO of Bolu, a Jakarta-based social enterprise that empowers MSMEs in Indonesia to sell online by providing them the education, mentorship, and support they need to grow their businesses through WhatsApp courses, webinars, and mentorship sessions. She is passionate about education and sees its potential to help overcome socioeconomic inequality, especially in Southeast Asia countries like Indonesia.
Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi, Gaby, I’m so excited to have you on the show.
Gaby Wantah: (00:32)
Hi, Jeremy, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Jeremy Au: (00:35)
I’m really excited to have another UC Berkeley alum who also worked in Bain, and built up a social enterprise in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Gaby Wantah: (00:52)
Yeah, fellow bear and Bainee. Go BEARS!
Jeremy Au: (00:58)
I think the first time we met we were reminiscing about the Indonesian food next to campus. That was the hangout spot for Asian students.
Gaby Wantah: (01:18)
Yeah, unfortunately, it’s no longer there, but it was nice while it lasted.
Jeremy Au: (01:23)
For those who don’t know you yet, who are you?
Gaby Wantah: (01:29)
So I’m an Indonesian American and also an ex-consultant who’s very passionate about education and how it can be used to level the playing field specifically in Indonesia. For those who don’t know me, I’m currently building a social enterprise startup. We empower MSME’s in Indonesia by helping to teach them how to sell online and giving them the resources to be successful. We are currently a community of about 50,000 MSME’s and growing. Majority are women and it’s been a great, great journey so far to be able to help them out. Especially during this coronavirus.
Jeremy Au: (02:13)
You grew up in Indonesia, America, etc, so, what was that like?
Gaby Wantah: (02:20)
I was born in Jakarta and was here up until the ‘98 riots and it was about then that my family decided to move to the United States. So we all packed, headed over to LA and spent the majority of my childhood in Los Angeles. For university, I moved up to the Bay not too far, to UC Berkeley where I studied sociology and also economics and that was where I fell in love with education or the idea that education can really help to level the playing field and allow for social mobility. It was there in Berkeley I also got very involved in the Indonesian community. I met some of my closest friends who are also Indonesian and also during my time there I had done a few internships back in Indonesia too, so that was what made me start thinking about moving to Indonesia, especially seeing as how there’s huge talent gap at that time. I decided that, after college, I was going to start a career in Southeast Asia. Luckily, I managed to get a career in Bain, became part of the Jakarta office and I left about a year ago right when COVID started to pick up to start or to join this this social enterprise with my co-founders with the dream to help MSME’s during that time.
Jeremy Au: (03:47)
Amazing. It’s a quite common story for a lot of Indonesians to have been impacted by the Jakarta riots. What was that like? Do you remember much about it?
Gaby Wantah: (04:03)
To be honest, I don’t remember much of it, but I do remember when I moved over, I knew no English at all. When I started school and everything, did not even know how to communicate, how to ask where the bathroom was and so embarrassing store, but I ended up peeing in my pants because I just couldn’t speak the language. So it was a rough move, but my parents went over, they moved over. My dad actually started a business too, so come from a family of entrepreneurs and from there we were able to grow the business and now my parents, my family is all there with no plans to move back to Indonesia actually. So it’s only me back here now.
Jeremy Au: (04:42)
What was it like growing up in America with those Indonesia roots?
Gaby Wantah: (04:53)
Growing up, it was quite interesting. I think I was very grateful because my community is very Asian. So my school, my high school, at least we were predominantly Asian, 70~80%. Most of my friends came from immigrant families. And so we all kind of had similar upbringings. I didn’t feel very uncomfortable at all there and it was really great being able to share kind of that Asian American background with all of them in terms of like a specifically more Indonesian background, didn’t have too many Indonesian friends growing up. I remember coming from schools of about 3000, we had, I could count like 10 Indonesians in the entire school, which is quite…I guess you could say that it’s not a very small number, but compared to all the other ethnicities, we’re very outnumbered. But growing up, I think it wasn’t uncomfortable, but definitely was not in tune with my Indonesian culture. Of course, my parents did speak it to me at home, but I would always respond back in English. So the move here was what solidified that heritage and culture in me.
Jeremy Au: (06:04)
You’re saying, OK, my parents have migrated to America. I want to work in Southeast Asia. How does that process happen?
Gaby Wantah: (06:23)
To be very honest, it was a long process. If you had asked me when I first started university, whether or not I would move back to Indonesia, my first immediate response would be no, never. No way, it’s hot, lots of mosquitoes, you don’t have Chipotle there. But for me, it started off with my involvement in the Indonesian Student Association actually. Had a lot of friends during college. By chance, my floor mates were Indonesians. So they had exposed me to the whole Indonesian community and year after year in college, I started to get more and more involved to the point where I considered interning in Indonesia and which I did for three years, actually. I came back to Indonesia and at that time was really great because Grab or Uber and Gojek were picking up so it was extremely easy to get around. I started considering the possibility of moving back to Southeast Asia, especially towards the end of my college career, things were starting to pick up here. There’s so much growth and so much potential, even now. It just made a lot of sense after college for me to move here. It’s a lot more exciting, especially in the tech industry and compared to I think “home” where everything was a lot more structured, a lot more established. Everything here is a lot more exciting.
Jeremy Au: (07:51)
You then decided to go work at Bain and move to Southeast Asia. How did that happen?
Gaby Wantah: (08:05)
Yeah, I knew in college that I wanted be in Southeast Asia, and I knew Bain was heavily recruiting for their Jakarta Southeast Asia office because it had just opened up. I saw that as a huge possibility. When I had gone through applications, job applications, I had applied to consulting, I actually applied all of those jobs in Southeast Asia, either Singapore or Jakarta. To be honest, it wasn’t too difficult of a decision, especially knowing that my experience in Indonesia had been so positive. Also, I did have relatives in Indonesia, although not immediate family, but I had people who I could ask for help. If I needed it, if I did come back and I needed that support.
Jeremy Au: (08:58)
The thing is you also made a geographic decision as well. Was it hard? Was it easy? What else were you weighing at that point of time?
Gaby Wantah: (09:22)
Maybe I have to leak a little something to make things a little more understandable. At that time, I had also started dating my boyfriend, who is Indonesian, and he is also a Bain alumni. Actually, he had gotten an offer at Bain before I did and in the Jakarta office. When I was recruiting, I was like, OK, you know what, I’ll also apply and I knew I wanted to be in Southeast Asia. So that’s when I started applying everything. I think having him in the picture really made the decision a lot easier ‘cause having him was also a big support system too. Maybe I should have mentioned that earlier.
Jeremy Au: (10:02)
Now this is very understandable. What a power couple…I’m assuming still going strong?
Gaby Wantah: (10:19)
Yes, still are. He’s also doing something social too. He’s currently in Quito visa now. We’ve moved on from consulting to do some good.
Jeremy Au: (10:28)
Oh, this is sweet, what a power couple. So there you are. That makes a lot of sense. There must have been some culture shock. Tell us more about what that was like.
Gaby Wantah: (10:46)
The culture shock didn’t come specifically from the Bain office, but it came more when after I left Bain, actually. So when I first moved to Indonesia, I didn’t really experience too much of the culture shock just because I feel that Jakarta as a whole, is very westernized and also need having grown up in a very Asian American culture. We kind of met in the middle. It wasn’t too difficult to get accustomed here, but it did come once I left Bain into Bolu, actually, because a big portion of my team, they didn’t come from universities overseas and they didn’t have that Westernized culture that I grew up with. It came as a bigger shock then. I think I had to start using a lot more Indonesian, which is really great because I feel like my Indonesian has improved greatly since I left. In addition, the biggest shock for me is more from the cultural level. In terms of speaking, I have been told that I’m very direct, though I would argue otherwise. So I’ve learned on that aspect as well to be a little bit more toned down with my words. I think that was the biggest change that I’ve had to make.
Jeremy Au: (12:04)
That’s a big tip, actually, for a lot of people. What did you learn while at Bain as a management consultant?
Gaby Wantah: (12:16)
Lots of things. I would highly recommend become a consultant once you first start your career. I think number one, definitely the data analysis side before going into Bain, I knew nothing about Excel, knew nothing about PowerPoints or communicating using data. That was a huge last point for me joining. I left Bain with a very solid toolkit in that aspect. Number 2, I learnt how to communicate my thoughts in a way that is a lot clearer. One thing that consultants really emphasize is communicating for results and making sure that you’re able to put everything in a succinct way but at the same time creates a good impact. Number three, I think what I really learned in Bain is kind of more on the client management aspect as well so being able to see them build relationships with clients. One thing in Indonesia, very thankful that I got to be a part of the Jakarta office ‘cause I was able to learn the whole Indonesian client culture. I don’t know about Singapore, Jeremy, but in Indonesia, there’s a very thin line between like friends and clients and that was one thing that Bain really taught me also and very thankful for that.
Jeremy Au: (13:41)
What was the reason why he decided to build Bolu?
Gaby Wantah: (13:46)
I knew coming into consulting that I didn’t want to stay for long. I knew that I wanted to come in to build that toolkit and to learn but I knew that I was very passionate about education. I wanted to do something where I could teach people and give back to other people, not just build my own skill set. I left Bain around June 2020 when COVID was still growing or picking up. Even at that time I saw the impact that it made on Indonesians especially in the MSME sector and I had been in touch with my co-founders at Bolu since January I was already thinking about leaving once COVID started picking up and peaking. I decided that rather than stay in Bain and make slides or continue on my career, I think it would be a lot more meaningful for me to leave and actually help people during this time. Help them get through this pandemic, help their businesses through. It just felt like the right time and the right moment during that time and that was what pushed me to leave.
Jeremy Au: (15:02)
What was it like to leave?
Gaby Wantah: (15:27)
Before I left, I weighed the pros and cons. I had talked to a lot of people too and a lot of them told me – Hey, are you sure you want to leave? COVID isn’t going anywhere. There’s a huge risk factor this could fail. Also, you won’t get the same learning. You won’t get the same mentorship, the same cushion in Bain as elsewhere. What really helped me make the decision was asking myself if I didn't take this opportunity would I regret it and the answer was yes. At the end of the day, I took it, sent in my resignation letter and the rest is history.
Jeremy Au: (16:06)
Wow, what a jump. What was that transition like?
Gaby Wantah: (15:27)
It was a big jump. Big difference, actually. I think the first thing that I think was the biggest shock to me or the biggest hurdle that I had to overcome was the mindset because I think when you’re in consulting a lot of it is very cushioned, very safe. Every decision that you make, you’ve already either taken experience from elsewhere and so you know it's going to work 100% of the time but for entrepreneurship, for creating something new, it’s all about failure and testing and being able to learn from all your mistakes and so I had to really be able to learn how to be OK with not being right and how to just keep going. That’s not something that they teach in consulting, unfortunately, and something that I had to learn outside. The second was managing and hiring a team. Yes, in Bain, I was somewhat part of recruiting, trying to convince great young talent into Bain, but not in a way where I had to actively reach out to people and negotiate salary, convince them to join my venture that may or may not succeed. I think those two were the biggest thing that I had to learn right off the bat.
Jeremy Au: (17:45)
That feels tough. How did you cope with that, personally?
Gaby Wantah: (17:48)
To be honest, it was very difficult. It was a very difficult first three to six months. I think, personally, during that time, I had a lot of self-reflection, I also reached out to a lot of people I read a lot of articles too and having that support really helped, actually. A lot of people always say that it's lonely at the top and having a good strong support system and people to ask questions to or ask experience from, is key to success. Especially in entrepreneurship. Like they say in Bain, we always have mentors in Bain to reach out to like whether they’re informal or formal, they’re always readily available and provided to us right but once you’re outside, once you’re in entrepreneurship, you kind of have to make those connections and reach out to those people on your own and that, I think, that support system outside of Bain and within Bain also, was what got me through those three to six months.
Jeremy Au: (18:50)
How does a founder build their own mentor network?
Gaby Wantah: (17:48)
I think a little bit of everything here and there. I consider the term mentor…I consider not just…anyone can be mentor, right, Jeremy? For me, I find my mentors anywhere. Anywhere from old bosses that I’ve interned for, to people that I’ve been introduced to by mutual relationships, even kind of like family friends or even family. My mentor network, my mentor board of directors is a little bit of everyone ‘cause I think, at least, for me, I learn different things from different people and I try to build my experience from different people, so from a more professional standpoint or from how to build a team, I’ll lean on one mentor, but if I want to work more towards culture then I’ll ask another mentor. For me, I’ve built it from all over, not just from one source. I do recommend entrepreneurs to have that way of building because then you get to take from people who come from multiple different backgrounds and not just one
Jeremy Au: (20:02)
When you’ve so many different mentors, how do you decide whether something is good advice or bad advice versus what you actually have to decide for yourself?
Gaby Wantah: (20:11)
Good question. I think that was something I struggled with early on because I used to take everyone’s advice at face value, but I learned from mistakes. I learn from just following right from what they say and applying it into my life, I learned that that’s not always the best advice. I guess you could say that I learned from trial and error. Applying and then seeing if it works for me. If it doesn't, then I set it aside and then try to apply it with my own twist. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way. I think I’ve gotten better in the past year, sifting through what is relevant and what’s not, but, still, for me, it’s a learning experience and I’m still learning from trial and error.
Jeremy Au: (20:02)
I like the phrase you said - Don’t take advice at face value. How does that actually work?
Gaby Wantah: (21:21)
For me, I know that, as a founder, I’m the person who knows my company best. No matter how much explanation that I give within one hour, my mentor or whoever I’m speaking with will never know what I know and they’ll never have as much back story as I do. At the end of the day, they may be able to give me the right feedback for that specific amount of information that I give, but maybe for a lot of other situations it might not apply. I think when I’m in this situation, definitely, I absorb everything. I sit there and I try to absorb as much as I can and learn from them and then it’s not until after the conversation then I’ll sit down and go through my thoughts, go through notes, and try to see what is applicable and what may not be as so.
Jeremy Au: (22:13)
What advice would you have to give to mentors who give advice?
Gaby Wantah: (22:29)
Do, you feel attacked, Jeremy? I’m sorry if you do.
Jeremy Au: (22:33)
No, I’m just feeling curious now.
Gaby Wantah: (22:38)
No, actually, that’s a great question. What advice would I give to mentors? Listen as much as you can, but at the same time understand that maybe their circumstance may not be one on one to yours. One example for this is I’ve talked to a lot of mentors who are in the edtech space, so, Bolu, you could think of it as somewhat of an edtech social enterprise in a way. For them, they may know what works well in other countries, more developed countries, right? But when you apply it to a more Indonesian perspective or culture, it doesn’t always work. Especially with the circumstance of the technological infrastructure, the culture of not appreciating education just yet. Sometimes when I get feedback or tips from mentors who are more used to an American culture or an American perspective, I learn to take what they say with a grain of salt, but then at the same time like apply it to an Indonesian lens as much as I can. Understand the differences and if we don’t apply your feedback, it's OK. We listen, we absorb everything, but, sometimes, certain things just can’t be applied as easily. That is what I would say.
Jeremy Au: (24:07)
OK, got it. If you’re American, don’t be too American.
Gaby Wantah: (24:16)
Yeah, because I’ve had multiple people, Jeremy. They tell me. Oh no, you should push it more from a tech standpoint. But to be very honest, Indonesia, yes, we’re very…we’re a lot more technologically advanced than we were five years ago, but there’s still a lot of Indonesia that isn’t able to keep up with the development. I feel that the infrastructure still needs a lot of work and at the same time, like just the culture and the habit that you need to build. It’s not there yet. As much as we would like to push for tech advancement, the demand isn’t quite there yet and the education isn’t quite there yet either. This is more from an education standpoint.
Jeremy Au: (24:07)
That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. You’ve been helping a lot in the Southeast Asia and Indonesia context, helping a lot of small sellers and kind of get online. How has the pandemic been for them and for your team?
Gaby Wantah: (25:22)
It’s been very rough, a lot of our sellers are still micro and many of them are offline. Having to teach them how to go online has not been easy. First of all, their revenues have been hit. A lot of them, before the pandemic, relied on their daily profits to keep alive and because of the pandemic, they’re offline sales have completely been shut off. We specifically have been trying to reach out to as many people as possible through both online and offline means to teach them how to go online. So for us, the very minimal is just knowing how to sell through WhatsApp because as long as you’re able to sell through WhatsApp, you can sell to previous clients or previous customers and still be able to have some cash flow. It’s been difficult. Unfortunately, there’s some people who haven’t been able to take on that “I have to sell online” mindset until much later and a lot of them, it’s been very difficult, but for others I know for some of our sellers actually they’ve seen a huge uplift since the COVID situation. But for the majority, like 90%, I would say it’s hit them quite hard, but in terms of my team, luckily enough, we started out during the pandemic and so for us we’ve had no layoffs. But last week, actually we did have our first death in the team, which has hit our team quite hard, but I’m very fortunate to have a great team who is very strong and very positive thinking. So, we’re learning to cope and get through this together as best as we can.
Jeremy Au: (27:10)
Yeah, I think pandemic’s been terrible and condolences to obviously the team and your teammates' family. it’s been interesting time for everyone just trying to build and survive through this pandemic, both on a personal basis as well as a company basis.
Gaby Wantah: (27:25)
Yeah, it hasn’t been easy for anyone.
Jeremy Au: (27:28)
For sure. I would love to start wrapping things up here. Could you tell us about time that you personally have been BRAVE?
Gaby Wantah: (27:35)
I think the most recent situation for me is definitely my career move. I know that especially amidst the pandemic, my parents, my relatives, even a few of my personal and professional mentors mentioned to me - Hey, are you sure? Are you sure you want to leave in the midst of the pandemic? You won’t have that solid pay. You won’t have that strong backing, even for a career as well. But yeah, at least for me, the most recent time, that was really a huge jump for me was switching careers and switching from having a more corporate role into becoming a founder. Yeah, it’s been a journey, Jeremy.
Jeremy Au: (28:20)
Do you feel like you really understood what it meant to become a founder before you became a founder? Or is it something you realized later?
Gaby Wantah: (28:29)
No. No. So, yeah. That. No, no, no, no, no. I think it’s a little bit a mix of both bravery as well as ignorance. I feel like with a lot of founders, you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into, but you really don’t know until you get in there and start building it from scratch. Yeah, you really don’t know ‘cause people will tell you all these stories. You’ll read all about these things, but once you’re in this situation, it’s easier said than done sometimes. And whatever you learn in the books is sometimes thrown out the window, and sometimes you just have to keep going. Keep at it. So, to be very honest, no, not at all.
Jeremy Au: (29:13)
What do you say that you didn’t know then that you know now?
Gaby Wantah: (29:18)
That’s a very good question. One of the things that I’ve learned, and I think I mentioned earlier, is the Founders mindset is probably the most important ‘cause that will really drive you and your ability to keep your key team going. Also knowing that it’s OK to not have all the answers sometimes. That’s why you have your board of director or mentors to reach out to, and know that it’s OK to ask for help. I think Google and YouTube have become my best friend in the past year. In addition to my venture. It’s OK to not know everything and it’s OK to just do things while not knowing 100% that things are going to go well as someone who came to consulting, that’s something that I had to learn and I wish that the old me knew. It would have saved me a lot of time, a lot of anxiety, a lot of frustration.
Jeremy Au: (30:18)
Yeah. I think lots of people learn via Google and YouTube. So, there’s really no shame.
Gaby Wantah: (30:27)
Exactly. A lot of what you learn is actually not in the books. Sometimes the best teachers are those you find on YouTube.
Jeremy Au: (30:39)
If you had a time machine and you travel back ten years ago to 2011. Where were you and what would you share with yourself?
Gaby Wantah: (30:53)
Oh wow, 2011. So, I think probably during that time. Oh, I was probably still stressing out about jobs and college. I would tell myself back then - Work hard, do as much as you can, but, sometimes, life will play out in ways that you don’t expect and you can’t control. So do your best. Do everything that you possibly can do, but don’t spend too much time stressing about things that is out of your control ’cause luck, timing has a big factor, and you just have to roll with the punches sometimes.
Jeremy Au: (31:34)
What does rolling with the punches mean to you?
Gaby Wantah: (31:36)
Oh, for me, it’s, number one, taking opportunities as they come. Don’t be completely rigid and think that if you have a plan, just sticking to that plan because the best opportunities and the best things will come unexpectedly. For me, for example, no idea that I wanted to go to Indonesia, yet I ended up here and it’s the best decision. So, take opportunities as they come and don’t limit yourself to just what you think or what you plan for yourself ‘cause you’ll really close a lot of doors if you do.
Jeremy Au: (32:14)
Amazing. Thank you so much, Gaby. I’ll love to wrap things up by sharing the, like any good consultant, the top three things I learnt from this conversation. The first is thank you so much for sharing about it was like to grow up in Indonesia and America and your journey on a personal front about getting comfortable and re-immersed back in Indonesia culture to actually make the decision to move back to Jakarta for professional reasons as well as personal reasons. That’s a very fair way to think about it. The second thank you so much for sharing, I think, a lot of the learnings that you’ve had as a founder and as a Bain consultant, especially regarding like what you took away and what you got trained on at Bain, but also what you learned was different about Indonesia, what’s different about being a founder and what is needed to have and receive good mentorship advice and the final decision is yours, right? Like you said, the founder knows best. And lastly, I think thank you so much for exhibiting the spirit of what you described as rolling with the punches. I think there’s so many tough times that you’ve gone through both personally as well as professionally as well as your team during this pandemic. I think you really embody that spirit of bravery and rolling with the punches.
Gaby Wantah: (33:28)
Thanks a lot, Jeremy. That was very good. Thank you and thank you for providing the platform also for me to share and also not just that, but learn from all the others who’ve been on your podcasts as well.
Jeremy Au: (33:41)
Gaby Wantah: (33:42)
Very, very happy, very happy.
Jeremy Au: (33:44)
I’m happy to share your story as well, so thank you so much, Gaby. I’ll see you.
Gaby Wantah: (33:48)