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Digital: Susan Natassya

Winning a scholarship from Tanoto Foundation, serving as the inaugural Secretary General of the first-ever Tanoto Scholars Association, going straight on to work for Asian Agri, the palm oil company set up by Tanoto Foundation founder Sukanto Tanoto, before transferring to a bigger role at APRIL Group – it might seem like Susan Natassya’s career path has been easy. Except that it almost never got off the ground at all.

“The first time I applied for a scholarship from Tanoto Foundation, I was rejected,” she says. “In fact, I didn’t even make it through the administration stage.”

She was studying Communications at the University of North Sumatra in her hometown of Medan, Indonesia. In 2012, her second year of study, Susan applied again, and this time she was successful.

“The scholarship was not just about money. I wanted to make my mum and dad proud,” she says. “I’m the eldest of four daughters and I saw how hard my dad worked to take care of us, so I wanted to try to help them.”

She joined an informal group of Tanoto Scholars and, after being impressed by their proposals for several projects in the local community, Tanoto Foundation management suggested they formalize the group. The first-ever Tanoto Scholars Association (TSA) was born, and Susan was appointed Secretary General.

“We decided to work with underprivileged children to help them learn to read, teach them basic hygiene like washing their hands, and help them with their English. These kids had very limited access to formal education so we had to go to them.

Meeting children with Tanoto Foundation as part of the Tanoto Scholars Association

Susan working with schoolchildren as part of the Tanoto Scholars Association Program

“I remember we had to take a bus and then walk around two kilometres to reach them. We’d teach them in a hot room near the train tracks, and we had to stop teaching whenever a train passed because it was too noisy.”

TSA Medan continued to expand its work, renovating school libraries, collecting books and undergoing training themselves so they could better teach the children they worked with. “I’m quite proud of what we did at TSA,” says Susan. “In our first year we won best project and best art project. After that though we never came first because the other groups tried harder!”

Susan hadn’t planned on joining RGE, but after completing her thesis she had some free time so attended an event organized by the company to help local children. “I went there to read the kids a story and I had no idea that Kelvin (Tio, Asian Agri’s Managing Director) was there. He heard me speak and asked the Tanoto Foundation staff in Medan to hire me.”

Susan joined the company in 2014 as a management trainee, and began work as a guide for visitors to the Heritage House, which documents the history of the business and its founder Sukanto Tanoto.

After four months she was offered the chance to join the Corporate Communications department in Jakarta.

“On my first day Pak Kelvin walked past my desk and he greeted me. I was so surprised that he remembered me.”

Working in Corporate Communications gave Susan the opportunity to learn more about an industry which has transformed the economic prospects of millions of Indonesians.

“I never thought I would work for a natural resources company, but the first time I went to a plantation it was a life-changing experience. I went on a three-day photoshoot and I met one of Asian Agri’s smallholder farmer partners.

“He originally moved to Sumatra after purchasing some land, but when he got there with his family he realized he’d been scammed. There were days when he had nothing to feed his four children. He found some part-time work as a security guard but it still wasn’t enough - then he got the chance to become a smallholder farmer and it saved him. He was crying when he shared his story and I was crying too. Seeing their kids get a better education is every parent’s dream.”

Susan worked her way up to serve as a Social Media Specialist, managing Asian Agri’s social channels and helping explain the company’s work to a wider audience, before transferring to APRIL Group in 2019 to work as a Digital Specialist.

These are roles that have dramatically expanded her knowledge – she had to learn digital marketing from scratch – and also enabled her to repay her parents for the sacrifices they made for her. “One of the highlights for me was being able to take my mum abroad for the first time ever. I took her to KL – next is Thailand!”

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