From a small salon in a garage, Martha Tilaar has built an international beauty company. The business has always been founded on principles of responsibility and giving back to society. Tilaar sees how these values are taking deeper root in business as more leaders understand that they empower their business.
Martha Tilaar
Martha Tilaar Group
“Corporate leaders increasingly see that responsible conduct, sustainabledevelopment and long-term business
success are mutually reinforcing.”
Martha Tilaar

It is not easy to tell the story of Martha Tilaar. How to coin a tale of growing from a small beauty salon in a garage into an international beauty company without succumbing to rags-toriches clichés? Add in a period of babysitting in the US to earn
funds for studying while her husband attended his scholarship doctoral degree programme and it becomes even tougher.

And how to write about a company that describes its values as “eastern” and places great focus on inclusion and empowerment without reverting to overused tales of east-west value clashes?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the story is actually its duality. Tilaar learned the basics of the beauty trade in the US and returned home with an ambition to make beauty products that suited Asian women. Moreover, they had to be based on traditional Indonesian knowledge of herbs and medicines – jamu. At the time, she was probably one of the very few people in Indonesia who thought that was a good idea.

“When I came home from the States, I went to the natural healers and shamans in the villages to study their knowledge. Many people thought I was a crazy woman,” she says with a laugh. ‘Traditional’ has not been an appealing concept in Indonesia since the late 1960s.

“Many Indonesians want to look western but I wanted to easternize them,” she says.

Luckily, her first beauty salon– started in 1970 in her parents’ four-by-six-metre garage – was close to the American embassy. Her American beautician’s licence brought in the first customers from the embassy and the endorsement of the embassy staff brought in Indonesian customers too.

Later when she – inspired by her grandmother, who lived to be 107 – wanted to learn more about jamu, she could not find the resources in Indonesia. She had to attend the Dutch University of Leiden. The irony of needing to go to the former colonial power for traditional knowledge is not wasted on her.

“My challenge was to do something to preserve our country and our own culture as Eastern women. I found that in the University of Leiden,” says Tilaar.

Over the next four decades, her ambition to create beauty – inside as well as outside, true to tradition – has gradually taken root in Indonesia and abroad. The focus on “making local wisdom go global” as it is termed in company brochures has caught the attention of customers internationally.

However, just as crucial to the development of the company has been an understanding – imbued by her father – that when running a business it is necessary to return something to society. Otherwise, the business cannot continue to grow.

“He told me: ‘if you use something, you have to replenish it’,” she says.

This understanding is behind a wide range of initiatives from the Martha Tilaar Group with a focus on empowering women and protecting natural and cultural values. The group has four pillars of CSR activities: green education, green culture, green environment and empowering women.

In 2008, after more than 40 years of coercing by Tilaar, the University of Indonesia finally set up a master’s degree in jamu and she now sees how more businesses, in Indonesia and internationally, are adopting sustainability and responsibility principles. The success of her own business has shown that this is not a cost – quite the opposite, she adds.

“Finally, corporate sustainability has shifted from being driven by a moral imperative to being driven by a material one. Corporate leaders increasingly see that responsible conduct, sustainable development and long-term business success are mutually reinforcing,” says Tilaar.

“As a result, companies around the globe, including in Indonesia, are increasingly putting corporate sustainability on their agendas. This means delivering long-term value in four realms: financial, social, environmental and ethical,” she says.


In the coming years, our corporate sustainability focus needs to move to the empowerment and inclusion of women, says Martha Tilaar.

“I believe we should promote high-level corporate leadership for gender equality. We can start by treating all women and men fairly in the workplace and marketplace and promoting the business case for women’s empowerment to make people aware of the positive impact of the inclusion,” adds Tilaar.