kartini day - denica flesch

To commemorate Kartini Day, we spotlight women leaders and their inspiring journeys of triumphs, failures and self-discoveries, celebrating their efforts and achievements that contribute to women empowerment in Indonesia and embody the spirit of Ibu Kartini.

Kartini Day is celebrated in Indonesia on 21 April to commemorate the life of Raden Ayu Kartini. Born in 1879 into an aristocratic Javanese family in Central Java, Dutch East Indies, Kartini is hailed as the first feminist in Indonesia. In a time where Javanese girls were denied education, Kartini was allowed to attend school due to her social standing. She saw the disparity and used her influence to open the first Indonesian primary school for native girls regardless of their social standing. She continued to make strides towards women’s emancipation through education in the country until her passing in 1904.

In this feature, Denica Riadini-Flesch, founder and CEO of SukkhaCitta, speaks about her mission to change lives with sustainable fashion through her social enterprise.

She works to connect the most marginalised, rural artisans in Central Java, Central and East Java, Flores, and Kalimantan with access to education and living wages. She strives to sustain heritage crafts in Indonesia, namely Ikat, Sidan, Batik, embroidery and natural dyes, building one of the world’s first farm-to-closet supply chain.

Q: What inspired you to act on sustainability in fashion?

As a development economist, I returned to my native Indonesia, searching for meaning. This work was what brought me to the Archipelago’s villages, meeting the women who would change my life forever.

My background has nothing to do with fashion. Growing up in cities, I never realised that there is this journey that goes on behind everything we use every day. For the first time in my life, I realised that clothes don’t just appear in shops. Millions of women whose livelihoods depend on it—mothers make fabrics by hand, using heritage techniques learnt from their ancestors.

It was beautiful, but I couldn’t help to notice their struggles. Without any access, most of these women live in poverty. What makes it worse is that as an informal industry, no regulation exists to protect these women.
I think that was my ah-ha moment, to realise that there’s a broken link between us as customers and how our clothes are made. It was then that I felt the need to build a bridge—a model that invites our customers to be part of the solution to some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems.

Related: Sustainable Matters: It’s important to know your “why”

Q: What makes you optimistic about businesses’ ability to rise to the sustainability challenge?

I started SukkhaCitta back in 2016 with only three women in one village who were brave enough to believe in my dream. Today, we provide access to education and living wages to almost 1,500 lives in rural Indonesia, built four craft schools, and prevented 1,2 million litres of toxic water waste from entering our rivers.

So far, we’ve focused on how clothes are made, making sure each [item] provides a living wage [and] protects the planet while sustaining indigenous cultures. But I believe that sustainability is no longer enough. It’s time to regenerate our world, and this starts with changing how our clothes are grown.

Since 2020, we’ve been working with indigenous women farmers to help them transition from monoculture into regenerative agriculture. The goal is to improve soil quality so it can sequester more carbon from our atmosphere. We do this by planting a diverse mix of plants around the cotton and indigo plants used to make our clothes.

Our unique model proves that businesses have so many possibilities for creating impact. When you can find a market for your solution, you can scale more sustainably. I think this is the power of businesses – and I’m excited to invite others to join this journey. 

Q: What mindset do innovators need in sustainability that is different from those running traditional businesses that only meet the needs of shareholders?

The ‘AND’ mindset. I feel that conventional metrics require us to think of our goals as a tradeoff. Either you save our planet or sacrifice profits, sustainability or shareholder value. Now, more than ever, we need to challenge this.

Think of our organisation’s objectives away from the narrow definitions of success such as growth and profitability, but the legacy we will leave behind. This shift in how we evaluate decisions, in my experience, is the catalyst to building a new organisational culture that is more intrapreneurial and impactful.

Related: Sustainable Matters: How ESG starts from within

Q: What have you learned from the experience of Ibu Kartini?

I have learnt that empowerment comes from making women feel seen and valued. The power of this idea is vast. Your choice to purchase a SukkhaCitta piece impacts real lives. You are not giving them aid – you are giving them a chance to earn a wage that allows them to support their families.
This is significant because it allows these women to keep the one thing that is so often taken away from them: pride.

When someone appreciates your work and you can make a living from it, your pride is intact. Accepting charity means you have to swallow your pride and accept because you have no other choice. Offering people this pride leads to empowerment—and empowerment leads to real change. There’s this sense of pride because ultimately [there is] empowerment that wasn’t there before, this belief in themselves.

During our last field trip to the first village [we worked with], I was surprised to see A4 papers on the wall. [I found out that] the women were brainstorming how they could improve the children’s education in their village through scholarships. Upon hearing that, I nearly broke down into tears.

I think this is the essence of true empowerment: When they feel like they can change their own lives and are taking active steps to be agents of change in their communities.

Q: What is the one piece of advice you would offer to others seeking to create change?

You don’t have to be perfect to make a change. Find your “why” and let it be the compass in your journey. Trust that you’ll learn what you need along the way. Remember, a big change is an accumulation of little acts of courage.

Click here for more stories on leadership. Looking to hire? Request a callback and get in touch with our recruitment specialists today.

Read more:
5 ways to improve equity in the workplace
How to improve your work-life balance in 2022
How to be more confident at work according to Asia's female leaders

Join over 60,000 readers!
Receive free advice to help give you a competitive edge in your career.