“When you find your passion, then you can live your life with purpose. But that means nothing unless you have the perseverance to handle the difficult times,” says Veronica Colondam, founder of YCAB Foundation, in an interview
with Chris Hanrahan.
“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint,” Oprah Winfrey has said. “And that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service.”
The legendary television talk show host and actress could easily have been describing Veronica Colondam. “Bu Vera”, as she’s known to those who know her and love her, has spent the past 20 years changing the lives of millions through her YCAB foundation.
Veronica tells her story in Journey to Impact: Bringing hope and change to Indonesia’s youth through social entrepreneurship (Editions Didier Millet, 2018). It’s an absorbing account of her struggles and triumphs as, from almost nothing, she built an organisation that has reached more than 3.3 million young people and mothers with its programmes, notably HOpE, a microfinance scheme that lends money to female micro-entrepreneurs on condition that their children remain in school. She launched the Bahasa Indonesia edition of the book on February 22.
What stands out for the reader are the mother-of-three’s humility, her deep sense of spirituality and tolerance, and her uncommon reserves of perseverance and resilience. “The book took me eight months to write,” she says during an exclusive interview with Prestige at the Akili Museum of Art in Kembangan. “I worked on it at weekends and when I was travelling. The writing was the easy part. It was the editing process that was painful!” She pauses, and adds:
“Looking back, it doesn’t seem like 20 years since my mum and I started YCAB. It feels like yesterday.”
Veronica is so modest about her extraordinary achievements that it’s easy to forget that in the world of social entrepreneurship, she’s an international superstar. YCAB (Yayasan Cinta Anak Bangsa) is ranked 35th on the 2019 list of the world’s top 500 NGOs, as determined by NGO Advisor in Geneva.
In many ways she’s like a corporate CEO. Her foundation’s partners include some mighty names from the business world: HSBC, Citi, Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung. Moreover, YCAB is quite the job creator. Its four business units, independent enterprises all, are key to the sustainability of the YCAB Group. Their earnings help finance the foundation.
Yada Indonesia, incorporated in 2000, manufactures robotic animal rides for export and employs more than 300. Terrazone, founded in 2011, is a family entertainment provider that has more than 100 outlets across the archipelago. Beauty Inc., founded in 2007, is a clinic that employs graduates of YCAB Learning Center who have learned salon and home spa skills. Flip is a human resource consultancy established in 2013.
YCAB itself has a team of 928, up from just four in 1999. The foundation’s footprint extends across the archipelago and beyond Indonesia to six countries: Uganda, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, Myanmar and Laos. In Hlegu, Myanmar, YCAB’s Wonderful Garden Learning Center has signed up 1,062 students. In Vang Vieng, Laos, the Sae Lao Learning Center boasts 258 students.
A born leader with a natural gift for organising people and events, Veronica was only 29 when she received the UN-Vienna Civil Society Award in 2001. She remains the youngest ever recipient of this prestigious United Nations honour.
Even today, she still pinches herself when reflecting on the past. Of attending the awards ceremony in Vienna, she: “I tried to enjoy myself, but the whole time I was there my mind raced back to my earlier train of thought. I couldn’t shake the nagging question of why I was there in the first place. So why me? For the other awardees, it obviously means a lifetime achievement award. But for me, I’ve only just begun. What qualifies YCAB Foundation to receive such an honour?”
Veronica could take life easy these days, but she seems to be working harder than ever. She travels 200 or more days a year. What motivates her to put so much effort into helping others? “When I celebrated my 26th birthday I realised that everything was futile,” she replies. “I needed meaning, I needed a purpose in my life and I needed to do something greater than myself.”
These thoughts were in Veronica’s mind last year, when she participated in the social enterprise and social entrepreneurship programme at Harvard Kennedy School led by Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer in public policy.
“We were broken up into small groups and asked to tell our stories,” she says. “I told the group about my 26th birthday and my thoughts then about the purpose of my life. They asked me about my childhood and then I recalled that when my father died, I was facing a final exam in my third year of high school. He had a brain aneurysm on the Monday and died on the Friday – it was actually Good Friday – and the following week I was facing my final exam.
“I just didn’t have time to grieve because I was thinking about the exam. But I hadn’t put that process together as my own story until I attended that course. My father’s death was like a dream to me it happened so fast. So that morning I drove my mom home, and we were just trying to digest what was going on when the telephone rang. The University of Vancouver called and they told me I had been accepted. But I told them that my dad had just died and I didn’t know if I could actually go. In the event, I took a gap year and found a job so I could enable my two older brothers to go to university.
“At this point the facilitator told me to stop. She pointed out: ‘Do you realise that you’re a school dropout, now helping school dropouts?’ I thought: ‘That’s a really easy angle to have people connect to my story. I know how it is to be the only one in high school who did not go to university that year. I was the only one who had to hide because of that shame.
“Nobody was putting me down, my friends were very supportive. But I just felt like I was not worthy. Then I started to recall those feelings, that pain, and how 19 and a half years had gone by and now I’m actually trying to change the lives of millions. So I’m making all these connections, and I don’t know if this was the Marshall Ganz magic but
I was glad that I participated in that programme because it was very meaningful for me.
“It made it very easy to talk to everybody about why I do this work. I would say there is a spiritual dimension, there is a calling, and there is also an experiential side of it – while my experience is being a dropout manifested into what I do to help dropouts.”
In a foreword to Journey to Impact, Roro Risnawati, who studied at Rumah Belajar, a school established by YCAB, writes: “In 2008, when I was still a new student, we held a play at Rumah Belajar and that was my first time meeting Bu Veronica Colondam. My first impression of her was how beautiful she was. And I was surprised to find out how young she was! I recognised her instantly because I had always been curious about her as the founder of YCAB Foundation. Little did I know that she would be the person who would turn my life around.”
Veronica can’t deny that she appreciates it when people thank her for changing their lives. “Praise like that is an addiction, but it’s a good addiction!” she smiles. “It definitely gives me joy and fulfillment. This is why I’m doing this. I keep telling stories (about the achievements of the families YCAB helps) because I’m very proud of them as well.
“So that’s amazing and it’s addictive. Sometimes I just really have to look into my heart, because sometimes it seems like a selfless thing that I do, but it also does have an element of selfishness. And then I have to step back from it and say: ‘Hey, this is not for your own pleasure.’ There’s a very thin line between the selfless and the selfish.”
Why is it important to support female micro-entrepreneurs? “The problem is that going to school was never free,” says Veronica. “There is transport money, meal money. We thought that we had to empower the mothers, to stabilise their home income so that they could send their kids to school, and that’s why we launched micro finance. Our programme is unique because it is conditional on the education of their children. The goal is education for all. We believe that education is the basis of the creation of welfare.”
Finally, we ask Veronica for her definition of a strong woman. “They should be on the side of being tender-hearted, resilient,” she replies. “Gritty – I love that word as well. Angela Duckworth’s book (Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance), I think that’s powerful – one of the best books ever written about when you find your passion, then you can live your life with purpose.
“But that means nothing unless you have the perseverance to handle the difficult times. If you leave everything behind when you have a problem, everything will collapse. For me, being strong is also being smart, because coping both ways at a personal level and the organisational level, and spiritually too, that’s the challenge.”
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