Our contributor, Ivan Hartanto shares his story about how he found his calling to start a coffee social enterprise while being abroad as a diaspora working in corporate America. It’s also a story of his experience of living in the United States for 10 years, navigating life through the concrete jungle of chemical labs and factories, wild San Francisco streets full of homeless people, and World Economic Forum’s fancy dinners and parties. This story is a collection of key learnings that Ivan got from living in America, from his experience building a company, and from all the lessons learned in between.
A quick introduction about myself, I was born in Solo as a Chinese-Indonesian and moved to the United States in 2011. I have lived here ever since and throughout my time here, I have clocked in 10,000+ hours working in 10+ different university labs, for-profit and non-profit enterprises, grassroots communities, and international NGOs. The highlights of my career (or at least according to my mom) are my speaking engagement career, my involvement in the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community as a Vice-Curator, and me starting my social enterprise, aimed to empower Indonesian specialty coffee farmers and introduce their coffee to the American market.
Before you read on, please know that this is NOT a story of how one built a unicorn tech startup, developed Big-data-with-AI disrupting technology, or found the latest growth-hacking techniques from the gurus in the Valley. If that’s what you’re looking for, then this article may not be for you. Instead, this is an article about how one can learn to make (and own) his decisions, why slowing down can be good for you, and what you should do when all things go south. If this sounds interesting to you, then read on. I like you already and we might be good friends after you finish reading this. Here are the three lessons I gathered from the brightest minds of the Valley and I hope you can use them to enrich your worldview:
Lesson #1 – Stop listening to your parents (well at least most of the time)
Growing up, I have always been told that the number one rule in my house is that mom is always right – and rule number two is that when mom is wrong then you go back to rule number 1. This is the ultimate reason how I ended up enrolling in the gruesome chemical engineering degree route; that is, to make my mom’s wish come true and to make her proud. Frankly speaking, it served me well. Through hard work and perseverance, I got myself surrounded by amazing inventors and brilliant engineers, and I was lucky enough to work in various cutting-edge industries. I even got the chance to work in a polymer plant in Japan, to complete my capstone in Austria, and to work for a cool bioenergy startup in Wisconsin. All in all, it was a great career, but I was never content with my progress.
This quickly changed as soon as I moved to California and made new friends here (aka the Forbes under 30 alumni, Stanford graduates, or Midas investors). Through their stories, I learned how most of them had to fight their parents’ guidance – whether it’s being a doctor or taking post-doctorate degrees. One important note, however, is that these people never despise their parents’ ideals and instead love their parents even more. They understand that their parents only wish the best for them and it is our job to make our decisions. They further own them wholeheartedly and strive to prove to our parents that the alternative path they take can also end in equally (or more) beautiful ending(s).
Finally, a common rationale I got from them is that our parents simply don’t experience what we experience, and the information gap between the previous generations and ours is simply too large (thanks Internet and globalization) for many of our parents to reconcile. Hence, we should not be expecting them to understand us and you can only tell them that your worldview and aspirations are valid too through time.
Lesson #2 – Start doing morning yoga, taking an afternoon walk, and meditating before you sleep
One of the more common questions you would hear (and ask yourself) about in the Valley is how many hours you spend working per week. Elon Musk, one of the more well-known Silicon Valley heroes, himself is known for popularizing 120 hours work week as his success recipe. This question has almost become a success metric for those who live in the Valley and many of those who prescribe to the Valley lifestyle. Before getting to know a lot of these high-performing individuals directly, I used to succumb to this idea that working hard is the main recipe for success and interestingly enough IT DID NOT WORK. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that hard work remains a key part of who I am but going beyond 80 hours per week every week is just humanly impossible and I only find myself burning out after trying it out a couple of times.
It all changed after I was invited to this gathering by the World Economic Forum in 2019 where I got to meet some of the most talented people in the world and got to hear what they have to say about work ethic. First, they all agreed that hard work needs to be combined with smart work. These people shared that you do want to put in more effort than the average person (40hrs/week) but equally important, you need to put in more time to take care of your body, mind, and soul. Furthermore and somewhat unexpectedly from my end, doing yoga, taking a (long) walk, and doing meditation daily. Some even allocated a good 2-3 hrs/day just to do these activities that have nothing to do with their work. Indeed, this pattern of maintaining good physical and mental health seems to be the hidden knowledge from the Valley but it is obvious to those who live here – since everyone else does it.
Lesson #3 – When things go south, then just go south – what’s wrong with south anyway?
Finally, onto my coffee social enterprise. I built Belift initially with a two-fold mission in mind: one to promote Indonesian coffee to the United States market because I felt that Indonesia has been very under-represented here, and two to create impact for the local San Francisco homeless youth community. We work with local nonprofits who support homeless youth and train them as a barista to serve our Indonesian coffee in the tech offices in the Bay Area.
Having said that, if I can be completely honest, the main reason why I started this business is that I feel I failed horribly in my professional career. Not only that I failed to get a job in the premier tech companies (glossary: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google or their peers), I also feel stuck in my day job as an applications engineer in a mid-size water tech company. I tried to put all the advice I got from my peers (60+ hours work week, meditate, yoga, and such), and yet I receive no positive feedback from the company I work for and never got a single promotion after 2-3 years pulling this crazy work hour. It is almost like your 7+ years of experience learning and practicing chemical engineering does not generate the outcome that I imagined I would have, and everything just goes south as far as my career advancement.
I then proceed to start following what feels right and to stop fighting against the current of my life, which was south then. Through this, I was able to find out my passion for social entrepreneurship, meet the right people that I should be connecting with and have the confidence to build a new enterprise from the ground up. Case in point, I wish you all to follow the feeling and do what feels right to you – and it does not have to be north!
Hopefully, these three lessons can be useful for you, aspiring social entrepreneurs, and I hope that you can relate to my experience. Finally, I want to take this opportunity for you to join me on this journey to do good and grow together (and perhaps collaborate with me in building Indonesia if that is your thing). Please connect with me at my LinkedIn and let me know if you see value in the lessons I learned. Furthermore, if you’re interested in seeing our latest work at Belift, you can check us out at our website (link).