By Muhamad Al Azhari
Fifteen years later, the man who was born in Medan, North Sumatra, on Oct. 15, 1979, became the 74th president of the JCI, a global network for professionals and entrepreneurs aged 18 to 40. Unlike most other organizations, the JCI elects its president annually, as it seeks to offer leadership experience to its members in 124 countries.
In a recent interview with GlobeAsia, Alex enthusiastically shared the core values of the 104-year-old organization, founded by prominent American banker Henry Giessenbier Jr. in St. Louis, Missouri.
“We have had many famous people join our causes and become members. Leaders like John F. Kennedy and Al Gore were members,” said Alex, who holds an executive master of business administration degree from Beijing’s Tsinghua University and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Indiana University Bloomington.
From Local Community to Global Network
The JCI, which is now a global movement engaging young people to become active citizens and create global impact, is rooted in Giessenbier’s ideal to create a social outlet for the community in which he lived.
It started off with 32 men joining what was then called the Young Men’s Progressive Civic Association (YMPCA), before gaining more support and going through several transformations, eventually turning into the influential organization it is today.
“There is a famous quote by John F. Kennedy about us: ‘Harvard gave me an education, but Junior Chamber gave me an education for life,’” said Alex, the first Indonesian citizen ever to lead such a historical global organization.
Alex joined JCI Medan in 2004, later becoming more active in the organization, which states as its mission, to provide development opportunities that empower young people to create positive change. In 2009, Alex got the chance to serve as executive vice president of JCI Medan and he became national president of JCI Indonesia in 2013.
A year later, he started playing an even more influential role in the global arena, as vice president of the JCI, before his election as JCI executive vice president for Asia and the Pacific in 2018. According to the JCI website, Alex attended 15 area conferences and eight world congresses before he was chosen to lead the organization, which now boasts about 200,000 members and support by 5,000 communities across the globe.
“We believe faith in God gives meaning and purpose to human life. That the brotherhood of man transcends the sovereignty of nations. That economic justice can best be won by free men through free enterprise. That government should be of laws, rather than of men. That Earth’s great treasure lies in human personality. And that service to humanity is the best work of life,” Alex said, presenting the organization’s creed off the top of his head.
World’s Best-Kept Secret?
The JCI has had a presence in the archipelago since 1971, which means it is older than the well-known Indonesian National Youth Council (KNPI) and Indonesian Young Entrepreneurs Association (Hipmi). However, it took a backseat to the local youth organizations, at the request of the country’s political elite.
When Alex became president of JCI Indonesia in 2013, it only had about 300 members. “I had two options at that time: become a popular leader, or become a leader who makes impactful changes, even though many people disliked it,” he said.
Alex made radical changes to the Indonesian chapter, amending its memorandum and articles of association. One of his infamous decisions was to impose membership fees, as he believed JCI Indonesia should be financially sustainable and provide members with training and various activities.
“At the time, I thought I would waste my year if I was to go with the status quo. Ten years down the road, nothing would change. Then I decided to fight against the status quo, believing that it was the right thing to do. Many said I was like a Hitler, an authoritative dictator, but six years later, our financial situation had improved a lot,” Alex said.
JCI Indonesia now has about 1,200 members belonging to various local chapters. The national organization does not establish chapters based on territory, but on communities. Jakarta, for example, has four chapters: JCI Jakarta, JCI Batavia, JCI Jayakarta and JCI Jakarta Raya. Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono is a member of JCI Batavia.
Alex said the JCI offers leadership training to young Indonesians. “For example, our guidebook on meetings is the famous Robert’s Rules of Order,” he said, referring to a famous book that serves as a guide for groups to conduct meetings and make decisions.
“Many also don’t know that President Joko Widodo was the founder of JCI Solo. During 2009 and 2010, while he was still the mayor of Solo [Central Java], he wanted to move the youth. Somehow, he came across the JCI. So he asked us to establish a branch in Solo.
Coincidently, I served as national vice president for Solo in 2011. I met him when he was still the mayor. He now has the title of senator in the JCI. It is a lifetime membership of the organization,” said Alex, who is also a JCI senator.
“Our global network is actually strong in the Philippines, where many mayors and governors are members of the JCI,” he said. “Our joke is that we are the world’s best-kept secret. In Indonesia, we may be an underdog, but we have proven ourselves; when the country needs us, we are there.”
He shared a story of how former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urgently needed to invite young leaders from the Asia-Pacific region to attend the APEC Youth Summit in 2013. The JCI was asked, in cooperation with the Asia-Pacific Youth Organization, to bring 42 of the world’s most promising young leaders from the 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation member states to the six-day conference in Bali.
“The deadline had to be met within six months. It may have been a tough job for other organizations, but since I had been active in the JCI, I could easily call our members to participate. Some even paid for their own flights to Bali. The event was successful, as we brought the best young leaders to attend the event. This is really the quality of the JCI,” Alex said.
While leading JCI Indonesia, Alex said he also pioneered a movement to save the children of Indonesian women working abroad, many of whom domestic workers who are raped by their employers.
“The government helped in 2013 by providing better communication equipment to the families of Indonesian migrant workers. But from our observations, we saw that their children were often left and sold at Soekarno-Hatta Airport, because they were afraid to bring them home. I even took a deep dive into the situation and learned that the children are often priced based on market demand. It is a very sad situation, so we, together with the Home for Children of Indonesian Workers [RPA TKI], initiated a project to establish a care facility for children at Soekarno-Hatta Airport,” Alex said.
“At the time, we managed to raise up to Rp 1.5 billion [$106,000]. What I learned from this activity, is that it is not about how much money you can raise, but how much of a change you can make. In total, the facility has taken care of 75 children. At the JCI, we believe the community’s contribution is key, success is automatic and money is a bonus,” he said.
Alex also spoke about some of the radical changes he has started to make in the JCI since his election as president at the organizations’ world congress last year. He said he was keen to create a sustainable organization with healthy finances.
“I fired our secretary general and some executive staff in the United States, who I believe were getting paid salaries for doing nothing,” he said.
The JCI’s memorandum and articles of association require its president to visit at least a third of the countries where the organization has a presence during his tenure.
“That means about 40 countries. There are also four annual conferences, one congress meeting, one board meeting – usually in January – and one mid-year executive board meeting. I must be in the United States to take care of the finances. I once calculated that I would likely spend 240 days traveling abroad in a year,” he said.
Time is precious for Alex. “I calculate every second, every day, every week of my one-year presidency. Many previous presidents thought that leading a nonprofit organization was about spending the budget. I said it would not be like that this year. We must save money, or there will be no sustainability. I made many changes; I changed the structure, the activities, et cetera. Many people may not like what I do, but 10 years on, people will probably remember Alex is the crazy person who changed everything,” he said.
Alex said the “JCI spirit” is also present in his business, PT Fuji Elevator Indonesia. “I have been doing this business for about 16 years. I started the company from scratch. Honestly, there were times when I burnt out and thought of selling the company,” he said.
“But then, I looked at the impact my company makes. My long-time driver told me his child was about to go to university. At that time, we had a program to help fund our employees’ children’s university studies. Then I thought that if I fell, what would happen to them, to the people I led? It has been my motivation to ensure this company survives,” Alex said.
He said Fuji Elevator currently employs about 300 people and that it survives as the sole distributor in Indonesia for the Japan-based Fuji Elevator Co. Ltd. The company is engaged in procurement, sales, installation, maintenance and modernization of vertical transportation equipment, such as elevators, escalators and travellators.
“It is a long-term business. By nature, it takes up to 40 years in the elevator business to get a return on investment. It is capital intensive; it requires 24-hour maintenance and profit margins are thin. I am not even reaching my break-even point yet, but I believe I am making an impact here, at the very least for my employees,” Alex said.
His survival instinct has brought him some success. Fuji Elevator won the project to provide escalators at the stations of Jakarta’s two new light rail transit systems. The company currently has clients in various cities in Indonesia. It has branch offices in Jakarta, Medan and Surabaya, East Java, and service and parts depots in several more cities. Fuji Elevator Indonesia faces stiff competition from big multinational companies, such as Hyundai, Sigma, Mitsubishi and Otis.
“If my motivation was purely profit, I may not survive,” Alex said.