Sonita Lontoh is a multifaceted woman: from juggling jobs as the Vice President of Marketing at Siemens to leading talks about Internet of Things (IoT), this graduate of the venerated Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is always passionate about all things related to technology.

Not only does Sonita love to share her passion about technology (she was invited to President Obama’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Silicon Valley), but she is also keen to connect Indonesian diasporas worldwide through Indonesian Diaspora Foundation (IDF) as well as push global cross-collaborations between United States and Indonesia. It should come as no surprise, then, that Sonita Lontoh was also recently inducted into the national Asian Hall of Fame— a US national honour to recognise individuals with Asian descent who have excelled in their professions.

Read on to learn more about the world of technology, Silicon Valley and tips to be a successful entrepreneur. Get inspired!


Tell us about your position in Siemens?

I lead Strategic Marketing for Siemens, in the Digital Grid business unit. As you may know, Siemens has been a partner for the energy industry in the last 100 years for electrification and for automation in the last 20-30 years. Now as we enter the 21st century, our energy system will become more distributed, digitalized and customer-centric. Hence Siemens Digital Grid’s aim for now is to become the trusted partner that helps guide the energy industry to succeed in the next decades of digitalization.

What can you tell us about Internet of Things (IoT)?

When I give talks about the internet of things (IoT), people often ask: “Is the internet of things a smart car, a smart city, a smartphone?” The answer it’s all of those things and more. In its simplest term, the IoT is the application of sensors, IT and networking technologies to connect billions of devices around the world.

These will enable new, smart applications, analytics and business models that result in a cleaner, more efficient and sustainable way of living. Just like the internet have connected billions of computing devices and created new applications and business models, such as search engines, emails, e-commerce and social media, the internet of things will advance humanity in ways we can’t yet imagine.

The IoT stands at the intersection of innovative technology, business and public policy, and new regulations are needed to ensure that it is creating more good than bad. Unfortunately, the hype surrounding the topic has created an endless stream of “smart” conferences, gadgets and campaigns, which focused on the technology itself, and not on the massive, systemic changes it will bring. Also often missing from the conversation is the need for a new set of public policies that will help realize the IoT’s full potential that can create fresh business models and new jobs that require specific skills and types of knowledge.

In order for us to achieve this, there are three steps to design a system that will help the IoT benefit everyone: 1) Develop a long-term, comprehensive and sustainable policy that should channel resources to where they matter: research and development, funding, incentives for deployments, manufacturing and human-capital training; 2) Build a strong ecosystem that will ensure that solutions can securely and easily interoperate with one another; and 3) educate consumers about the benefits of this systemic change in a language that they’re familiar with.

At the end of the day, technology is only a means to a set of ends, but the goal is for it to achieve lasting benefits: to create a cleaner, more efficient and sustainable ways of living not only for our generations, but for the next ones, too.

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How has the Silicon Valley change in the recent years?

In terms of spirit and mindset, I don’t think Silicon Valley has changed that much. It’s still arguably THE place for truly disruptive and scalable innovation and entrepreneurship in the world. What have changed, however, are the hot ideas. In the beginning, it was all about semiconductors; then, it was all about the Internet during the dotcom boom in the late 90s. Next came social media and now it’s the IoT and the sharing economy. I think that fundamentally Silicon Valley still has its magic combination of ingenuity, collaboration and not-afraid-to-fail culture; however, the challenge is how do you parse through the hype and actually find true innovation and disruption?

This is where high-impact entrepreneurship comes to play. As of late, I have been noticing many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Marc Benioff have also been focusing not only on profit but also on social impact and sustainability. These high-impact entrepreneurs are people who have launched and grow companies that have above-average impacts on job creation, wealth creation, and societal impacts in their communities and improve standards of living.

Not only did their companies grow faster and create more jobs, they also grew aggregate revenues of almost US$100 billion by 30 per cent annually when the overall US economy grew only by less than 3 per cent annually.

Has it been a challenge to work as a woman in the tech industry?

Personally, I have never experienced challenges as a woman in the tech industry. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the challenges that other women, especially young women who are just starting up in their careers, may have experienced. The media has reported many instances in which Silicon Valley has relatively few women in leadership positions, though there are some notable figures, such as Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Meg Whitman at eBay. Some research also has shown that women are more likely to stay in a technology career when they feel they’re contributing something more to society and making a real impact. I encourage all woman to keep these as their guidelines in when entering the tech industry.

What can Indonesia’s technology industry learn from Silicon Valley?

Indonesia has a lot of potential with its growing economy and young, productive population. Technological entrepreneurship is still an emerging concept in Indonesia, but it has a lot of potential. And to take it even further, Indonesia should improve the quality of its human capital, and its technology talent pool. For example, Silicon Valley thrives in a knowledge-based economy partly due to its proximity to world-class research universities and R&D centres. However, looking at the QS World’s Best University Ranking, compiled by Thomson Reuters, none of Indonesia’s universities appears on its top 100 list.

In addition, the country should create a strong ecosystem of mentors, advisors and financiers. Many accelerator programmes in Silicon Valley aim to empower entrepreneurs with seed funding, creative workspaces, tools, distribution channels and networks that can help move their young businesses to the next level. Finally, a successful ecosystem requires a strong culture of risk taking and entrepreneurialism, where failures are seen as a badge of honour. Silicon Valley is a confluence of cultures and attitudes that accumulate over time and creates that powerful mindset. Indonesians should embrace this type of mindset.

Tell us about the keys on becoming a successful entrepreneur.

There is really no sure formula but I think there are some guiding principles:

1) Your company’s products/solutions should address a real market need.

2) Be flexible. You have to be ready to pivot. Your first idea may not work, as you further refine your executions, know that you’ll have to adjust as you go.

3) Have a vision, but also be relentless in execution. They say that a vision without execution is hallucination. While it’s important to have a strong vision, nothing replaces great execution, especially for new companies. One of the mantras in Silicon Valley is execute, execute, execute.

4) Don’t be afraid of failures. Fail fast, learn from it, get up and do it again. Many successful entrepreneurs have failed many times, but what separates the great from the good is their perseverance.

5) Be ready to work hard and be stressed out, but enjoy the journey.

6) I also think successful entrepreneurs should find good partners, or at least ecosystems that can support them through the thick and thin of the journey

What is your take on the growing numbers of entrepreneurs in Indonesia?

I think it’s a great thing that Indonesia has a growing numbers of entrepreneurs, but it’s also equally important to produce more high-impact entrepreneurs who can create not only wealth for their companies and employees, but also for their communities and country.

What has the experience in Indonesian Diaspora Foundation (IDF) taught you?

It has taught me that Indonesian diasporas are a talented group made up of a very diverse group of people from different backgrounds and professions, which enables an ecosystem with a rich perspective and experiences. I think Indonesian diasporas need to connect more with each other and to leverage the collective strengths to spur more global cross-collaborations between their new countries of residence and Indonesia.

Explain your desire for “global cross-collaborations”. What does this mean and how do we execute it?

Perhaps I can give you an example. As I really wanted to help spur more global cross-collaborations between Silicon Valley and Southeast Asia, a few friends and I have started a non-profit organisation called the Silicon Valley Asia Technology Alliance (SVATA). Through SVATA, we have brought numerous young entrepreneurs and companies from regional countries over to experiential learning boot camps in Silicon Valley where they have had the opportunity to learn first-hand about the Silicon Valley ecosystem from the experts. Through SVATA, my goal is to spread the knowledge, mindset and spirit of ingenuity from Silicon Valley to enable more economic growth, opportunity and sustainability in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia.

What’s your advice to anyone out there who wants to find success like you did?

Just do it! Really, I think many people think too much about their plans, but don’t have the courage to do it. My motto is to just do it. If you fail, learn from it and get up fast and get going again! [Smiles]

(Photo Credit: Maarten van Dijk Photography) 

Tags: Society, Indonesia, Interview, Entrepreneurship, Technology Industry, Diaspora, Silicon Valley, Sonita Lontoh