What the CEO of This Multibillion-Dollar Indonesian Start-Up Learned From Leading Through Crisis


Rachmat Kaimuddin was not even 100 days into his new role as CEO of Indonesian e-commerce marketplace Bukalapak when the pandemic hit.

It marked a crossroad for one of the country's leading start-ups, which had to act fast to support millions of family-owned street stalls for whom it provides digital services. But it was a turning point, too, for the newly installed leader.

Fortunately, Kaimuddin had prior experience.

"I don't know whether it's lucky or unlucky, but I got to be quite close to a few major crises, economic crises," the 41-year-old told CNBC Make It.

Learning to navigate crises

An Indonesia national, Kaimuddin had just graduated from high school in a small city on Central Java in 1997, when the Asian Financial Crisis hit.

Four years later, as he was leaving Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a major in engineering, the dotcom bubble burst. Then, in 2008, as a newly-minted Stanford MBA graduate, the Global Financial Crisis erupted.

However, those experiences, and the resilience earned through them, have stood him in good stead to navigate the ups and downs of business — and help others do the same, he said.

"I've seen what it was like to see some crises unfold before your eyes," said Kaimuddin, who has a decade's experience in management positions across a range of industries including aviation, construction and finance.

"But I also saw that typically these crises happen (because of) something that is not reasonable," he continued. "The law of business or mathematics at some point will prevail."

Leading through the coronavirus

In 2020, Kaimuddin was served his greatest challenge.

He replaced Bukalapak co-founder Achmad Zaky as CEO, and began managing a network of thousands of employees, millions of merchants and tens of millions of customers amid the coronavirus.

But the leader said his primary role was to reassure staff and customers that this crisis, too, shall pass.

"That is something that I think I need to keep telling people: 'Look, just try to do the right thing and this crisis will end,'" he said.

Now, under Kaimuddin's charge, 11-year-old Bukalapak is juggling the still-escalating global health crisis with the economic fallout from the pandemic, which badly hit developing markets like Indonesia. The company is also facing surging demand for e-commerce and a potential public listing later this year.

But Kaimuddin said he intends for that mentality to remain, and urged others to adopt the same — drawing inspiration from business book "Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek.

"The premise is that the path of a leader is to provide that circle of safety to the people beneath," he said. "If that leadership path comes to you, try to provide that circle."

Don't miss: How 3 friends made a multibillion-dollar business of Indonesia's street stalls

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