Karina Akib: Indonesia is a digital powerhouse

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance  

Karina Akib is an Australian business development leader who spent eight years living and working in Indonesia. Formerly working as a Strategic Partner Manager at Google in Jakarta, Karina is passionate about building Indonesia’s digital ecosystem. Prior to Google, she was a management consultant with Boston Consulting Group, working across South East Asia. Karina originally moved to Indonesia to learn more about her family heritage but soon realised how vibrant the country is, and the importance of the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia. Karina also a co-founder of international not-for-profit CAUSINDY (Conference of Australia and Indonesia Youth). 

Currently completing her MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, Karina plans to eventually return to Asia to immerse herself in the growth, opportunity and technology there.

You’ve been in many places around the world; Sydney, Jakarta and now the United States. Can you tell me briefly about your educational/vocational background and what was the biggest driving force for you to move to Indonesia?

I attended UNSW and studied commerce, so I was really interested in how different types of businesses operate and their impact on the economy that they’re operating in. I had a real interest in statistics and mathematics, so that's why I chose to pursue the actuarial side of things. What I learned at universitywas that businesses relied on strategic thinking to be successful, and so I went into consulting in Australia.

I came across a few Australians who were living in Sydney and had spent some time in Indonesia and they could speak more fluent Indonesian than I could. When I dug a little deeper and found out how many people were living there, about all the bilateral trade and government work that was happening, the growing middle class and what it meant for mobile phones, technology and the internet, I started to think that there was more to moving to Indonesia than learning a language. My decision to relocate was a combination of family ties (my father being Indonesian), the connection to Australia, and the transition that the country was going through. That was about eight years ago.

My move was supposed to just be a three-month experiment. While I was there, I emailed a really interesting startup that was doing innovative things with mobile phone technology; enabling the base of the pyramid micro entrepreneurs to gain income through their mobile phones. I never thought the phone could be a tool to alleviate poverty while still operating as a business. I really enjoyed the work, and sort of never left!  

What role does Indonesia play in relation to Southeast Asia?

I think it’s grappling with a kind of split personality. Indonesia now has three out of five of the biggest unicorn startups in Southeast Asia, which are attracting billions of dollars of Chinese investments. But it still has a long way to go. On the one hand, it’s a digital powerhouse, but on the other hand it has systemic infrastructure issues and a large part of the population is living below the poverty line. 

What does Indonesia do well?

Celebrating and being exposed to diversity. Different socioeconomic classes are always intermingling, particularly in Jakarta. It’s also good at just being very optimistic about the future, and always thinking about the bright side of things. Indonesians are resilient, I think I have built up that resilience just by working and living in Jakarta for so long, because everything's a bit of a maze to get through.

What’s the most important reason for Australia and Indonesia maintain a cohesive, bilateral relationship?

More and more, the world is becoming more interconnected. You can see it now with the role that Australia is playing in the conflict in the Philippines, for example. Regional security and climate change are the main reasons why we should all be working together in the region. I would say Indonesia and Australia are working together well on regional security but not yet on climate change. We also work well together on tourism and education. 

Did you set up your job before you left Australia to go over there?

I did. I had many Skype interviews and emailed and met many people generally and some specifically working in microfinance because that was the other industry I was interested in. If people are interested in working in Jakarta, it's good to go there for a week, meet and connect with some of the industry associations and meetup groups and connect with people that way. I think it is very difficult to get a job over the internet – I was lucky!

Your first corporate job was with Boston Consulting Group, and then Google?

Yes. I loved BCG and really enjoyed consulting, but I saw digital as a booming sector for Indonesia about four years ago with significant investment from overseas. In the digital space, there were a lot of verticals that didn't exist in Indonesia that people were building and so I looked into that space. Google at the time also didn't really have its strategy set in stone, and was still trying to figure things out. So I thought that would be interesting to go there and help this huge internet company figure things out in one of the worlds largest, fastest growing markets. Cheap smartphones were coming into the country and more people were coming online for the first time. I wanted to be part of that, so I launched a new business for them that helped small/medium businesses benefit through being online.

And after you finished at Google you moved to the United States to complete your MBA?

Yes. It was something I had always been looking at doing. I thought the United States was definitely the place to go to complete my MBA, either San Francisco or Boston as they’re both tech hubs. It’s great to be here and get that more global perspective. 

What do you think the main difference is studying between Australia and the United States?

Well, particularly in the MBA program, the classes are really diverse in terms of background; there are people here really from all over the world. The classes are smaller, which means you get a more intimate relationship with your professors and your tutors. It's never ending, the opportunities that you get to work with other faculties. I would say in the U.S. there’s a really strong focus on entrepreneurship. MIT believes they can teach entrepreneurship, and so I want to immerse myself in that. It’s something that I haven't been taught or exposed to much, beside when I was working at that startup. I felt like that's not something as learnable or accessible in Australia.

What’s next after you finish your masters?

I definitely want to stay in tech. I’d love to find some of these amazing companies, even here or somewhere in the U.S. that maybe want to expand into Asia. I think I'll most likely end up back in Asia at some point. I just love the growth and all of the different markets and how they're reliant on each other, whereas I feel like the US is actually pretty insular-looking when it comes to business, especially the early-stage company, which makes sense because there's so much opportunity here

AsiaAdvanceBorn Global, Jakarta