Indri Gautama had everything one could ask for in life. After studying biochemistry and business in Australia and the United States, she returned to Indonesia and became a successful businesswoman. But she soon realized that something was missing in her life. "All those achievements meant nothing," she recalled. "They made my life empty."
On Christmas Eve in 1984, Indri had what she describes as a supernatural personal encounter with God, and life has taken her down a completely different path ever since. "I'm no longer thinking about me, myself and I, but try to show compassion towards other people," she said. The change in Indri was obvious to the ones closest to her, who often remarked that she somehow looked happier and more cheerful. She left behind a successful career to fully dedicate herself to doing good. The first thing Indri did was travel Indonesia to spread the word on her newfound love for God. "I had not seen much of my country yet," she explained, referring to her time abroad. "I only knew my house, and my office, and that was it."
Indri explored the most remote places in Indonesia, including Kalimantan, Papua and Sulawesi. While traveling made her feel joyful and content, she also realized during her missionary trip that the country is extremely rich - but so many of its people remain poor. "I was thinking - life is not supposed to be like this," the businesswoman turned Christian leader and humanitarian said. Indri's head was spinning, pointing her towards one question: how can I help my country emerge from this poverty? To find a solution, and to get people to snap out of their "poverty mindset," became Indri's mission and vision.
"This country is not poor, that's for sure," she said. "So what can I do? Give the people money? They just spend it. Teach them how to make money? But how do you teach someone who is illiterate and lazy? Lazy in the sense that they just accept their fate living in poverty. So how to make that switch? How to turn them into people who have hope and dream of a better future? Someone has to create this dream for them." Indri became determined to become this person and had the opportunity to do so in late 2006.
"One day, some of my friends called me and asked if I want to donate money to the people in Manggerai, East Nusa Tenggera, after many died because of the long drought, " she recalled. Indri was more than willing to help out, but after a while it turned out the plan couldn't be executed, since the food and other supplies couldn't reach the remote villages in Flores. "That was just another silly statement to me," Indri said, not willing to accept that it was impossible to help people in need. Without further ado, she packed her bags and traveled to Flores herself. When she arrived, she was greeted by little children who led her to the poorest village - and the first thing that entered her mind was, why aren't these children at school? "'We don't have a teacher,' they said," Indri recalled. There was no infrastructure at all, no roads and in the village itself, Dusun Koko, there was no electricity, not even water. "We met children and old people with scabies on their skin; they smelled because they don't take a shower regularly, the water is too precious there," Indri said. "Children don't go to school because they have to collect water, they carry it in gallons on their head." There is no time for school in a village like this one. Or at least, this used to be the case before Indri set foot there.
She immediately began to plan establishing a preschool and primary school. Construction of the building was challenging to say the least - all the materials had to be brought in from Surabaya, and the Javanese carpenters and craftsmen had to teach the locals how to erect a building from scratch. But when the school was finally opened in 2008, it was an immediate success. At 6 a.m. in the morning, the school is full with children," she said. "For them it's like going to 'Timezone' - they have no other entertainment."
Working together with the local government, Indri said the foundation has recently received another piece of land to continue the work they have been doing. "We want to eradicate illiteracy and educate Indonesian children," said Indri, who had since established the foundation Yayasan Tunas Mulia, through which she aims to facilitate social and health education activities.
Two years ago, Indri brought all the students from Dusun Koko to Jakarta to perform at a charity concert, where she raised funds for her foundation and school. In the end, it wasn't the well-known musicians performing at the show who left the biggest impression on the audience - instead, it was the song performed by the kids that left everyone with watery eyes. "Those kids had never been out of their village before, but looking at them, I thought, I can do more of this," Indri said. "If I have a prototype like this and copy it in other places, I don't see why we cannot improve the living standards of this country. What is a country without its people?," she added. "My investment is not in the business sector, or the land - it's in the people."
In the meantime, Indri also opened a school in Jakarta, the "Royal Academy." "I can't use the same curriculum here that I use back in the village. I want to produce city-quality, international-minded students," Indri explained, adding that this is the reason for employing expatriates as teachers. "Compared to the children in East Nusa Tenggera, many kids here are spoilt brats," she said. "While in the village, the children depend on what we give them, here, they have so much material wealth. So I try to help a lot of people who are not well off here in Jakarta, and I subsidize." Those subsidized students, she added, often appreciate the chance at education more than the others, and become team leaders and captains in their class. "Again, I thought, are the poor people stupid or are they simply not given an oppotunity? So I want to give them an oppotunity," she said.
It was one of her subsidized students who one day came to Indri's office and gave her a book as a thank you gift. Through this book called "The Leader In Me," Indri learned about Muriel Summers who transformed an almost bankrupt school, the A.B. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina, into the top magnet school in America by implementing business guru Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" into the curriculum. "I thought if you can do this in a public state school in America that was actually poor, every state school in Indonesia can do this too," she said.
The ramifications of Indri's work can already be seen in her students, starting on the smallest scale. "At first, when we started the school in East Nusa Tenggera, we'd ask the kids, what do you want to be when you grow up," Indri recalled. "Their answers would most likely be 'robber,' of 'their.' It's the only thing they knew and they thought it would gain them respect." Things have changed now, she added. "Now they say, 'I want to be a pilot or a journalist,' or even 'I want to become Indonesia's next president.'"