Women In Tech: Weaving in Data for Change in Asia

In this edition of SGN’s Women In Tech series, we chat with Aparna Saxena, the Chief Executive Officer of TORAJAMELO and Chapter Head of She Loves Data (SLD) Indonesia, on how she pushes to create and find meaning with data to empower other women in ASEAN.

3 September 2020 / By SGN

Having spent most of her childhood in a green township of scientists in India, Aparna Saxena grew up with a love for nature, science and the environment. During her formative years, she learnt key values that shaped her character and passion to make the world a better place for the next generation.

 “My father instilled in me the value of doing the right thing, come what may. And from my mother, I learnt the joy of helping others and living with kindness,” Aparna says. After spending 7 years in Singapore gaining global experience in managing teams at DHL and working in an entrepreneurial setting at a small-medium enterprise (SME), Aparna has since moved to Indonesia, and is an active driver of systemic change within the ASEAN region. These experiences would eventually set Aparna on a path of appreciating entrepreneurship and impact creation.

In late 2016, Aparna joined Angels of Impact, a women-led advisory for women impact entrepreneurs in South East Asia headquartered in Singapore, as its Chief Operations Officer. It was in this role when Aparna met with Dinny Jusuf, the current chairwoman of TORAJAMELO, an Indonesian social enterprise that uses traditional hand-woven textiles made by local women and joined the enterprise as its chief executive officer. The enterprise currently works with over 1,100 weavers across five communities based in Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara, and Nusa Tenggara Barat in Indonesia.

TORAJAMELO had even produced four custom tailored dresses for Maya Soetoro-Ng (pictured), the Indonesian-American maternal half-sister of the 44th United States President Barack Obama, for his 2nd run swearing-in ceremony in 2012.

Empowering communities with data

“Our reason for being is to collaborate and, with that, enable women to run businesses sustainably wherever they reside within their respective communities,” Aparna says. She explains that when TORAJAMELO engages in partnerships with the weaver communities, the brand is dedicated to maintaining a closed loop to gather feedback to aid a cohesive working relationship.

Further to that, the enterprise also collects meaningful data to continuously improve its impact and reach. Its recent Impact Assessment Report of 2019 saw findings that validated the positive impact TORAJAMELO had created, showing a positive effect on uplifting the economic status of weavers and reviving traditional motifs.

“My aim is to now make impact measurement a regular feature of every project we are involved in and to use that to continuously improve. Of course, we will need to allow the change – training, design workshops, new product design collaboration, and more – to set in before we start measuring the effect it has,” Aparna says.

TORAJAMELO produces traditional hand-woven textiles weaved by local women across communities in Indonesia.

She shares that as technology advances, users are beginning to realise the importance of recording, analysing and managing data to make better decisions, improve efficiency in work processes and impact lives. Aparna notes that the past decade has seen tremendous growth in technological advancement and internet penetration across the ASEAN region. She believes that “we simply cannot exist without data” and that “data has been, is and will be an integral part of our lives.”

Aparna reasons that businesses can get so busy managing the day-to-day activities that they lose sight of optimising processes, projects and systems based on existing data that they have already been collecting. She believes that all businesses will need to have a data strategy in today’s digital landscape – and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be complex.

“The moment you start operating, you must focus towards creating simple processes where you can record data on what you do, results of what you do (what worked and what didn’t) and then use that to make informed decisions on what you should continue and what you shouldn’t,” she stresses.

Championing gender equality and activism

On top of championing women with skill sets at TORAJAMELO, Aparna is also chapter head at She Loves Data (SLD) Indonesia, a social enterprise that has trained over 8000 women globally on data skills and continues to inspire women to become active participants in an increasingly data-driven world. The enterprise organises events and workshops that empower women to become more data-literate and provides mentorship, soft skills development and networking opportunities.

Aparna (pictured) wants to use her position in the right way to help more women find their voice, achieve what they would like to achieve in life and to be happy in their skin.

 “My work with She Loves Data exposes me to challenges faced by working women in career transition, development and in the field of technology and data. I also get the opportunity to access talent across genders and interact with so many inspirational women in Indonesia and beyond and that drives me to do more and create networks amongst similar minded people,” Aparna says.

As a young woman who pursued a career in a male-dominated industry, Aparna has faced challenges with gender and racial discrimination and stereotyping. “These obstacles have shaped my life and helped me mindfully manage everyday challenges – it’s a process involving continuous learning,” she says. Aparna believes that the best way to deal with these issues is to

“start by acknowledging that biases exist within all of us due to thousands of years of conditioning that our society has imbibed in us.”

“Once we know that these biases exist, then we need to find ways to challenge them, and in that process, enable pathways for others. True success is when you use your experiences and mistakes to support others and make things better for them,” she says.

Change starts from now

“Being a leader is a lonely space and being a woman leader can be even more lonely as there are not so many of us around. I have been lucky and privileged in many ways and I want to use my position in the right way to help more women find their voice, achieve what they would like to achieve in life and be happy in their skin,” Aparna shares.

Her advice to women pursuing careers in male-dominated industries: you cannot learn to swim without being in the water. In the face of change, someone must take the first step. “I was the first female Mechanical Engineering student from out of town in the history of my engineering college and I did fairly well. This opened pathways for other girls to join.”

She stresses the need to create a sense of sisterhood and partnership with both men and women joining in to uplift each other. “We need to evolve as that’s the only way we can head towards a balanced and brighter future.”

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