Asih Wulansari, a Laidlaw Scholar at London Business School, on being an ambitious woman in business, the value of a network, and not relying on anyone for your own success.
I grew up in the East of Jakarta, where you still see traditional cycle rickshaws and vegetable cart sellers on the streets. My parents worked for the Indonesian government on modest incomes. At school, I used to make simple handicrafts like bookmarks and letter stationery that I’d then sell to my classmates for pocket money.
To relieve the financial stress on my parents, I worked hard to be accepted to the University of Indonesia - a heavily subsidised government university that accepted only 1 in 200 onto my degree. I was Vice President for the University Senate and the Head of Events, where I was responsible for getting sponsorships from various companies.
I moved from Jakarta to Dubai in 2007, jumping from advertising to in-house marketing consultancy to banking. In my current role as Vice President – Marketing Strategy at Mashreq Bank, one of the UAE’s best-performing banks for over 5 decades, I am responsible for driving digital acquisition and strategic marketing efforts for the retail banking segments. At Mashreq, I was chosen to be part of a young leader programme, a select group of just 2% of all company staff.
I am confident I’ll be able to access bigger roles in the future, especially with the skills, knowledge and network gained from my time at London Business School. I actually had been accepted to the School’s Executive MBA programme in 2018 but had to pull out because of financial constraints. The admissions team kept in touch and, in 2019, they suggested I look into the Laidlaw Women’s Leadership Fund. I am truly honoured to have been selected as one of the first Laidlaw Scholars. I wouldn’t be at LBS without the support of the Laidlaw Foundation.
What is the biggest life challenge you overcame, and what did you learn from it?
My move to Dubai over a decade ago was exciting, but I had no friends or connections and had to rebuild my life from scratch. When I started looking for a job here, companies looked for candidates with local experience and knowledge of Arabic - attributes that I didn’t have back then.
It’s tough being an ambitious woman in business, particularly if you’re from a minority ethnic group. But I don’t avoid the challenge. I got my first job in Dubai at OgilvyOne, then moved for a job at a local advertising agency where there was an opportunity to expand my business development skills. One of my clients was Emirates NBD, the largest banking group in the UAE at the time. After working for them on a project, they asked me to be seconded to them on a full-time basis. That was the start of my career in banking.
I’ve come a long way since then. This made me realize the value of a network and later on inspired me to do an Executive MBA at LBS to benefit from the strong network and wealth of knowledge.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
My mother gave me the confidence to strive hard for what I want to achieve and not rely on anyone for my own success. That’s why I’ve always worked hard and stayed curious to learn new things.
Moreover, both of my parents always remind me to stay humble, even until now. It is important to treat everyone respectfully and not take anything for granted, even when you think you’ve reached a certain position in your career.
What is the worst piece of advice you have ever been given?
If someone ever tells you that you cannot achieve something, do it anyway and prove them wrong. Do not ever let other people’s judgements define who you are.
Top 3 tips that will help someone become a better leader
⚡️ Inspire your team to achieve success
As a leader, you are delivering through others. This means you have a big responsibility to inspire everyone to move together towards a vision. Help nurture them to grow with you.
⚡️ Be a good listener
Empathy is an important skill that is often underestimated. Learn to understand others and see things from their perspectives.
⚡️ Leave a legacy
Decide what you want to be known for and stand for it. Leave a meaningful mark in your domain.
Which leaders in the world inspire you the most and why?
She does not have formal authority, yet she is able to inspire so many people across the globe with her strong voice and meaningful acts.
Joko Widodo – Indonesian President.
He didn’t start as a politician. In fact, he was an entrepreneur, then elected as the Governor for the Indonesian capital before becoming president. His down to earth attitude challenges bureaucracy and fights corruption. He is known for his hands-on style and unannounced visits to the slums with the purpose of listening and witnessing firsthand the issues addressed by residents, such as food prices, housing difficulties, flooding, and transportation.
It is inspiring to see someone who has a strong vision for the country, but at the same time remains grounded and willing to roll up his sleeves.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
As a Laidlaw Scholar, I have the responsibility to bridge the gender gap. The reality is evident especially in the financial industry – women barely make it to executive positions, although this has gradually improved. This leads to very few female role models to follow.
The effort should start with me. As I move upwards in my career, I will be able to bridge the gender gap at the senior management level. I recently joined the board of LBS Gulf Women in Business for the same reason - so that I can introduce programmes to improve the chances of capable women rising.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
The future that I look forward to is one where the phrase ‘women's empowerment’ ceases to exist because women and men are represented equally as leaders across all industries. And children have access to education to shape their own future, regardless of their socio-economic background.
This ideal future would be decades away from reality unless more and more women are able to break through the glass ceiling and in turn help others to rise. Through LBS, I am involved in programmes that help to inspire change and nurture responsible leaders. I am a Board Member of LBS Gulf Women in Business and Head of LBS Board Fellows Programme Dubai.
I also hope to inspire more Indonesians to venture out and make their mark in the global market, and to help improve living conditions for women and children in developing countries.
📺 Currently binging: Although I don’t binge on series, I would recommend Abstract from Netflix. It is a documentary series that features artists from various design fields.
🎵 My quarantine anthem: Rule My World by Kings of Convenience (live at Le Bataclan).
📚 My top book recommendation: How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen. It reminds me to hold my principles, not just sometimes, but all the time.
🎧 Podcast obsession: More Than One Thing with Athena Calderone.
She refers to herself and her guests that she interviews as multi-hyphenates - people who opt for many careers and creative endeavours, instead of just one profession. Something that I aspire to and can truly relate to.
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Joy is in the simple things that I don’t get the chance to do often these days. Whenever I have free hours to do drawings/sketches. Or make a homemade cappuccino with my husband.
❤️ A cause I care about: Kawan Kasih Tumbuh is a non-profit initiative that supports children’s education in Papua, Indonesia. The couple who founded the initiative reached out to the children in remote and inaccessible areas of Papua Highlands where the schools do not function, kids don’t get a formal education, and the villages are abandoned.
Wulan is a Laidlaw Scholar at London Business School. The Laidlaw Women's Business Education Scholarship aims to help build a pipeline of future women leaders through access to best-in-class education, resources and global networks by providing full and half scholarships to women who would not otherwise be in a position to reap the benefits of attending an outstanding school.
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