The Indonesian Global Hero


Through practice on a local-scale, Martha Tilaar has received recognition at a global level. This dynamic entrepreneur from Gombong, Central Java, is making waves in the United Nations.

Interview by Andre Syahreza

That day, at the UN headquarters in New York, Martha Tilaar appeared on the podium to receive one of the most prestigious awards of her life. She had launched her beauty business back in 1970, and this day was one of her best, when the world acknowledged the environmental and social impact of her work.

Martha was presented with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Pioneer 2018 award from the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), one of the most prestigious awards for business leaders who are also environmental heroes.

Every year, around 200 business people from around the world receive an invitation from the UNGC to be part of the selection process. Afterwards, the UNGC selects the best 20 submissions to become candidates for the award. In the final stage of selection, the UNGC includes assessments from UNGC representatives of all member countries. Based on this assessment, the top 10 candidates in the world are chosen as the winners of the SDG Pioneer award. Martha was listed among this global top 10, and is the first Indonesian woman to receive the award.

Zero to Hero

The moment that Martha received her UN award was previously unimaginable for an entrepreneur who started her business from nothing. However, since the beginning of her career, Martha has been focused on much more than corporate kudos. She has continually instilled the traditional Balinese values of Tri Hita Karana in her business activities, namely the philosophy of harmony between people, nature, and God. By running her business based on the Tri Hita Karana concept, the corporate culture that she has built can never be separated from fair-minded human, environmental and economic elements, an ethos which eventually led to her recognition by the UN, a peak achievement on a business journey that began from zero.

Since she founded her business, Martha has focused on the development of natural beauty products based on a high level of environmental and social responsibility. She has championed women’s communities in Indonesia, encouraging more women to embrace their independence and contribute to the economy. With her programme ‘Beautifying Indonesia’ and its four pillars, namely Beauty Green, Beauty Education, Beauty Culture and Empowering Women, the Martha Tilaar Group has helped to raise the profile of Indonesia’s beauty industry on the international scene.

Empowering Women

Of her many environmental and social contributions, the SDG Pioneer award focuses on Martha’s services in ‘Advancing Sustainability through Community Engagement’. Among other contributions, Martha is considered successful in promoting women’s empowerment in her business practice, an effort that has widespread social benefits, such as helping to reduce the scourge of human trafficking. For decades, Martha has recruited women from disadvantaged families to be trained as beauty therapists.

“Economic problems, a lack of education, and low views of women cause a lot of human trafficking to occur,” says Martha, who has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the World University in Tucson, Arizona. “I set up a training centre so I could give opportunities to female teenagers from disadvantaged families to become beauty therapists in salons and spas. The Martha Tilaar Spa beauty therapist scholarship programme has trained more than 6,000 women who now have specialised skills to achieve independence as professional beauty therapists.”

“I believe that women must be empowered and have good skills and character to be able to build a family and educate their children. This motivates us to spend time and money on their education. And over time, good HR investment will be beneficial for the company’s progress,” she continued.

On the day that she appeared proudly on the UN podium as the first female winner from Indonesia of the SDG Pioneer award, Martha’s image was displayed alternately with the other nine winners over 10 days on a giant screen in New York’s Madison Square Gardens, and also in London. A group of Indonesian statesmen were present, including the Vice President Jusuf Kalla, to convey their pride in this achievement by an Indonesian businesswoman.

“I hope that this award can inspire other national-scale private companies that are perhaps much bigger to implement business methods that are more inclusive and not to just continue with business as usual. I also hope that many other Indonesian women can work and excel even more and make Indonesia famous at a global level,” says the unstoppable Martha, who turns 82 this year.