Habitat’s Susanto Samsudin turned a career in global business into a life doing good

It’s not uncommon for a Habitat for Humanity project to be supported by a group of volunteers from an alumni organization. Friends and former classmates often take time to step up and help build a house, creating a home for people in their community.

What is unusual is what one Thunderbird graduate did after volunteering to build those first few homes.

Susanto Samsudin, then based in Jakarta as chief commercial officer at Etex Group, had worked with his Thunderbird alumni chapter to help build several homes in Indonesia. Then he decided it was time to have what could have been a difficult conversation with his wife.

After 30 years as a business leader in large corporations throughout Asia and the Pacific region, Susanto was hooked by a new vision. After a lifetime of doing well in business, he had decided it was time give back … time to just do good. 

“It really felt like it was time for me to give back,” says Susanto, who earned his MIMat Thunderbird in 1997. So, he gathered the family and asked what they thought of him taking on a full-time leadership role for Habitat for Humanity. The job change would mean smaller compensation. Susanto’sfamily offered him their full support in turninghis attention to doing good work for others, and so after spending 30 years in the business world, Susanto took the leap into nonprofit charity work. His family, he says, was happyabout his decision, and now Susanto is happy also, having left the corporate world to work in what he calls social business. Since November 2018, Susanto has been president of Habitat for Humanity Indonesia

A life-changing moment

Asked what was so powerful about volunteering for Habitat, Susanto remembers that as alumni chapter leader he gathered a team of about 20 members to raise money for one house. That first house cost 36 million Indonesian Rupiah (about $2,600 US). 

“The day that we came and built and then gave a good, decent house to a family—well, that was a turning point in my life,” Susanto says. “I always took it for granted that I lived in a very good house and my parents had a good house. I could even have a second house, if I wanted. Before that day, I took houses for granted.” 

Indonesia is the world’s most extensive archipelago with more than 17,500 islands. Despite significant economic growth, about 26 million Indonesians are living below the poverty line, according to the country's Central Bureau of Statistics. The two regions that Habitat serves in Indonesia have a concentration of what the United Nations categorizes as extreme poverty – people who earn less than $1 a day. 

“Imagine, in one month, they earn less that $30,” Susanto says. “They are focused on getting enough food to eat. How can they care about housing?”

Susanto explained that people living in extremely poor conditions can’t even dream about having a decenthouse. “They really don’t even have dreams. They are too busy living day-to-day.” 

But when Susanto and the other T-bird alumni gave that first Habitat home to its family, he felt the beginning of a spark that would change his life also. 

‘I need to do more’

Thunderbird Dean Sanjeev Khagram focused on cementing a wall in a Habitat for Humanity Indonesia community.

“When we gave them that house, a decent house, it was really touching,” Susanto remembers. “They were crying. I was crying. It was very moving, but more than that, it made all of us think, ‘we need to do more.’”

The first team of 20 participants turned into 30 volunteers. The next year, they raised enough money to build two houses. Three houses the third year. And they built four houses the next year. When the alumni chapter hit that total of 10 homes, Susanto began helping Habitat, advising them on fundraising and ways to run their organization more efficiently. 

However, that wasn’t enough for Susanto, who had been fundamentally changed by the experience of giving. It was time to leave private industry and dedicate his time to a job in which he was working for others. “I was amazed at how Habitat transforms people’s lives. Habitat gives them dignity. And hope.”

“Today, I'm working to serve people,” he says. But he’s not just donating money and wielding a hammer. Susanto is putting his 30 years of experience in business to work on behalf of Indonesian families. 

Using business skills to save people

Soon enough, Susanto’s business acumen helped him turn Habitat for Humanity Indonesia around. By identifying ways to be more efficient, a significant deficit has been turned into an excess fund, but he is quick to explain that saving money is not the goal in itself.  

Habitat for Humanity started in Indonesia in 1997 and currently works through branches in Jakarta, Surabaya, Yogyakarta, and Batam. Habitat aims to galvanize resources to help more than 76,000 families improve their housing conditions and provide access to housing in the next two years. By 2020, Habitat Indonesia aims to reach 100,000 families served through support for housing, market development, water and sanitation, and open defecation-free programs. 

Susanto regularly taps into his 30 years in business, like introducing the use of Integrated ERPs (Enterpise Resource Planning). “Where we are efficient, with the same amount of donations, we can serve more people.”

Susanto stressed that this story is not about him. It’s about the good work that corporate veterans can do in the world, and it’s a perfect example of how Thunderbird alumni continue furthering the school’s mission of creating sustainable and inclusive prosperity worldwide long after they graduate. There are many other organizations that could benefit from collaborative experiences like Susanto’s. 

He hopes his story inspires others to explore ways they can also help people in need—as he puts it, “help people who may not have had the kind of luck that we have had.”

“My goals for Habitat are to generate more revenue to help more people,” Susanto says when asked about why this new job is so satisfying. “I’m not looking to save money. I’m looking to save people.”

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