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Jakarta Post

Melissa Sunjaya: Building the cornerstones of good business practices

  • Sondang Grace Sirait

    The Jakarta Post

  /   Sat, August 2, 2014   /  01:27 pm
Melissa Sunjaya: Building the cornerstones of good business practices (Sondang Grace Sirait)

(Sondang Grace Sirait)

Melissa Sunjaya capitalizes on her art skills and laissez-faire leadership style to score success with her production and retail company.

Life is full of milestones, each with its own meaning. The path followed by Melissa Sunjaya, founding CEO of Tulisan, which produces and sells a line of Jakarta-based premium handcrafted products, has seen her put on different hats, from that of a student to corporate consultant to designer.

'€œI try not to go into this idiosyncrasy of art life, business life or student life versus career life. I try not to think of it like that because the most important thing for me is not to be pigeonholed into a certain classification, but to actually do really well with anything I do,'€ said Melissa, a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

Putting her belief into practice, the artist founded Tulisan in 2010 to channel the best of her skills in silk screening and illustration in an attempt to showcase to the world a different side of her home country. '€œIt'€™s a very simple technique that most people here just see as a great, cheap way to do promotion,'€ said Melissa, who was the winner of Ernst & Young'€™s 2013 Entrepreneurial Winning Women Award and is also a writer of short fiction.

Using a series of pen and ink drawings on cotton canvas to illustrate her own short stories and then turn them into home and fashion products, she was able to attract followers in no time. Within its first year in business, Tulisan'€™s company revenues reached US$620,000. Within four years the mother of two had gone from selling her art in local markets to finding customers in the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Switzerland, Germany and Korea.

This international expansion was not easy, but having had experience establishing a design company in the US with her partner/husband Dominic Symons, Melissa knew her way around. '€œThe first thing you need to do is learn the market. For that, I attended a lot of trade shows that specialize in accessories or fashion. You have to find a show that'€™s right for you. One of those giant trade fairs might not work for a small brand like Tulisan. You should find a show that welcomes your idea. That'€™s how we started and spread to the 40 retailers that now carry our brand.'€

Reflecting on the remarkable growth of her company, she confides it is all thanks to her faith in doing good business practices. '€œWhen I first came here about eight years ago and said I wanted to pay taxes people told me, you don'€™t have to pay taxes when you'€™re small. When you'€™re successful, then you pay taxes. I don'€™t believe in that. I believe everything should be accounted for from the beginning.'€

She hired a professional financial officer early on. '€œA lot of friends who have small business ventures like mine questioned my action, but I think that'€™s the biggest problem with many people. They tend to pigeonhole themselves and think, '€˜Oh, when you get to a certain size, then you hire a managing director.'€™ But then, when people think that way, by the time they get a managing director, it will be too late. I didn'€™t care what other people were saying at the time. I feel that my company deserved this and even if I would have had to take a loan to hire this CFO or professional management team, so be it.'€

For the visionary artist, sustainability is just as important as transparency in doing business. All Tulisan products use only low-impact or renewable materials and energy-efficient fabrication methods with a minimal carbon footprint and little wastage.

Meanwhile, within her team, Melissa, 40, works hard to instill a sense of pride and freedom. It is a management style she discovered after years of exposure to the corporate world. The art industry, she said, should not mirror such a mechanical routine. '€œNewcomers to my company always feel a little culture shock because here you'€™re expected to do a lot of things, but you don'€™t really have a boss. Every individual is in charge of his or her own universe.'€

In the eyes of her team members such a leadership style has been much embraced. '€œWhat Melissa does is set a particular goal, a schedule of what she wants to achieve.

'€œThere'€™s a particular theme to the collection. When she shares it with the team we have to propose our own ideas on how we want to achieve this goal based on our own set of standards and how we work and then we propose them.

'€œIn the end we consult and discuss and there'€™s a management team as well, but there'€™s enough room for exploration and to do the work that'€™s interesting to us. She leads the team by guiding, but also gives enough freedom to discover the potential that'€™s actually suitable for them,'€ said Athina Ibrahim, the company'€™s press officer, who works closely with Melissa.

For her part, Melissa always urges her team to go the extra mile. '€œThe thing I always communicate with my team is to do this as a one-shot: pretend you'€™re going to die tomorrow. That'€™s how I always think, like I'€™m going to die tomorrow. If I die tomorrow, I'€™m going to do everything to the best of my ability. I really cherish the fact that I'€™m a human being with a certain intelligence that can formulate things and I believe everybody is like this,'€ she said. '€œYou shouldn'€™t wake up and go around in a daze. If you don'€™t do anything with love, or passion, then you'€™re as good as dead.'€

Melissa Sunjaya

Place and date of birth

Jakarta, July 21, 1974


BA, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena (1997)


Tulisan, Jakarta, founding artist and CEO (2010 '€“ present); Bluelounge, Singapore, brand advisor and founding partner (2008 '€“ present); Bluelounge Design, Los Angeles, art director and founding partner (1999 '€“ 2010); CMG Design, Inc., Pasadena, corporate communication design consultant (1998-1999).

At Ease

Family comes first

My daughters play around me when I work. They grew up in that condition, so they kind of understand. I like to spend time talking to them about things that I care about: human values, or even sexuality. I talked to them early on. I don'€™t find that disturbing.

Self-reliance works

I'€™m currently reading '€œRevolutionary Russia 1891-1991'€ by Orlando Figes. It'€™s really interesting because in those times people needed to believe in a higher supremacy, like imperialism, to make them strong and suddenly, when they were disappointed for not having any breakthroughs in their lives, the revolution started violently and art diminished in Russia. It shows why you shouldn'€™t rely on any belief and should only rely on yourself to do things.

Legacy matters

Before you die you should make a mark on this universe. Whether on Mars or on Earth, you should make a mark. Otherwise your molecules will disperse into nothing and no one will remember you.

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