In this far-reaching and diverse interview, NOW! Jakarta publisher Alistair Speirs talks about enterprise in both the cosmetics and jamu businesses with a lady who is a New York-based Indonesian, but really beginning to go worldwide, entrepreneur. Her name is Metta Murdaya and she has recently published a great book called Jamu Lifestyle, which attracted our attention because we think jamu is an important part of Indonesian culture as well as health. But we’re also going to ask her a little bit about her background and how she got into this whole area and see how her business is going now.
NJ: Welcome Metta. Can you please tell us a bit about your background? I presume that you were brought up in Indonesia, but it seems that you moved to the USA for part of your education and have made roots and businesses there too. So let’s, let’s look at your background and how you became interested in the Jamu business because it wasn’t a very “sexy” business until recently. Now it’s become kind of the go-to health thing.
MM: Yes, I am from Jakarta. I was born here but moved to San Francisco when I was around seven years old. My parents and my family stayed here, so I did the commute, school years there, summers and winters in Indonesia. I did that for quite some time, so after university, I came back and lived in Asia for a couple of years – right in time for the financial crisis!
But I moved back to New York in 2000 for my business degree and that’s where I’ve actually stayed since. And for the last nine years, I do about 50% in the US for my company, which is Juara Skincare Company, inspired by Indonesian botanicals, but you could say it’s really inspired by Jamu. I founded that company in the late 2000s after I was a little bit burned out in the American corporate world.
NJ: Indeed there’s someone mentioned that there was an influence on your starting your business due to a car crash. What was that all about? Did you have something that really affected you physically and you were looking for a way of getting better? Is that something like that?
MM: Yes, it’s interesting because sometimes we ignore signs, like if you should take a break, to stop, take a moment, and take care of yourself. So I was just coming back from work and it was normal that we would run a crazy work schedule. It was about being the hero in the fast-track management program. You know, you work hard, you’re like, “I can do this” and there’s some sort of victory in how hard you could push yourself and I was missing doctor’s appointments and just dismissing everything related to taking care of myself. Especially in your twenties, you don’t think you need to because you’re invincible! And it was just one day I was coming back from work and you know, famous last words, drive safe, one moment I’m driving safely in the rain and the next hydroplaned, hit a truck and flipped over.
It was literally like a movie scene, traffic stopped for hours, but by some crazy stroke of luck, I don’t even know how, I managed to crawl out of an upside-down car, on a rainy freeway in New York, like relatively okay. Even the doctors were completely shocked. They did all sorts of x-rays and stuff.
And so I really took that as a message that I needed to slow down and that’s the trigger that got me thinking that perhaps the way we are living our lives back then was not the optimal way. Perhaps waiting until you see the red flag is not the time when you go, you know what, maybe I should take a vacation!
And when I was at home, I looked in the mirror and noted, wow, you don’t look that great and if you don’t look good now how are you going to look when you’re 40? Now I have crossed the 40 barrier many years ago, so I think I’m doing something right because I don’t look as miserable as I was back then!
So that’s kind of how it all started. This thought that if you push yourself too hard, other signals in the world will stop you and sometimes it will not be for the better. So I feel like I got really lucky and so began to really rediscover what self-care and preventative health were. And if you think about the way we were all living in our early mid-twenties, that’s not what life culture was like, it wasn’t about holistic health, and feel good, stay balanced. That was not the trend.
NJ: Well, first of all, I’m glad that you got out unharmed, wonderful. Secondly, you are right, you don’t look 40! So the inspiration came from desperation and now you’ve gone into the business and you said, “I’m going to make this happen”! And, despite the fact you promised to slow down, you actually speeded up!
MM: Oh, absolutely. I think what I landed on was looking around for something that could solve the problem or the need of wanting to have a life that sort of maintains health along the way. But I couldn’t really find anything in the US so I started thinking about jamu – this tradition that we all know and take for granted because if it’s in your backyard, it’s not as cool as the McDonald’s across the street that’s shiny and flashy, kind of like, the west is fast. You know, back in the eighties, the culture that we grew up with as Indonesians who were sent overseas, everything that was shiny and brightly coloured and they had preserved for long periods of time was technology. And what is this jamu thing, how special can it be if it’s just something that grows in the backyard?
Boy, that’s not right. So it was really rethinking, hold on a second, this is plant medicine but this is also a lifestyle medicine. It’s not just plants, because if it were, jamu wouldn’t really be distinguishable from any other tradition that uses similar ingredients, Indian, Chinese even Jamaican, they all use turmeric and ginger. But what is it that makes Jamu unique? And for me, I started a skincare company because I wasn’t just in this space to be making it and drinking it. So the thought of using a topically appealed to me. And that’s where we sort of backed into and landed on, launching Juara, which means winner. It’s about championing your natural beauty, your destiny, but really infusing it with ingredients of jamu.
We have canna, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon for skin benefits, but also the philosophy, which is what I call “the pursuit of wellness, but with a mindset of joy”. If you think about it, in Indonesian culture, we don’t pursue health by being miserable and that’s not to be taken for granted. Growing up in the US it’s very puritan, you’re healthy if you exercise. And the more you exercise the more you can brag about it. I don’t eat this, I don’t eat that. I’m so strict. And it’s like victory and, but it’s miserable. It’s not a joyful path. Whereas in Indonesia we’re very like, does this taste good? Can we hang out with our friends? Can we share it together? Even jamu is drunk together with friends, there’s such a wholesome approach to plant medicine, it’s not just an ingredient story but kind of a lifestyle story.
Everybody’s got a story of their Grandmother or their Mother, even if it’s joking, like, “oh my God, it was so bitter, I hated it”. But it was never, “Grandma tried to poison me!” It was always “she knew it was good for me” So that’s what I think was so special about that entire philosophy. That’s what we need in our own daily lives to take care of ourselves so we don’t have a metaphorical car crash! And it just manifested itself in the form of a premium skincare brand because I wanted something to feel good. So we feel good, but also work well powered by the ingredients and the inspiration of the jamu tradition.
NJ: So how did you start Juara? You’ve got this concept, you’ve got this idea and got a philosophy. So you’ve got a purpose-driven business. But how did you start? Did you get in the kitchen and make some ingredients and go, “that’ll work”. Or was it research-based?
MM: I think a bit of splashing around and a bit of strategy and a whole lot of ignorance, which is probably not the best way! No, I knew there was an idea that was percolating, so the first thing was to figure out who I wanted as partners in crime, and I started talking to people who became my business partners. Ran the idea, “what do you think of this Indonesian tradition”? And they were like, “what is it “? And once I explained to them that “it’s kind of a natural medicine that is more than just ingredients, but it’s got an indigenous cultural story. Hence a lot of indigenous, holistic, traditional medicine which is connected to the societal aspect of it.” They’re saying like, “wow, I’m into this. I can relate to this. I could use it in my life”. So what’s interesting is it wasn’t, “I could use it for my skin, but I could use a philosophy of wellness in my life”. Cause we were all sort of burned out, high-achieving performers in our late twenties.
The other thing was just actually doing research. So none of us were at skincare. One of us I think worked for L’Oreal, but she wasn’t an expert, I mean it was new. We were all new. Uh, it wasn’t like, “well I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’m an industry expert”. I did come from retail, so I did have the bones of, “if we make a product, here’s the cost structure, here’s kind of how we should work backwards”. And I did come from manufacturing as well.
So in terms of the cost structure and the bones for that and how we need to do things, in retail, I knew. But everything else was serendipity. When an idea is ready to be born and you talk about it, the right people show up. It’s kind of a weird thing. Turns out a good friend of ours, whom we never talked to about her work was like, “I’m in cosmetics. I formulate for Bobby Brown and Estee Lauder”. It was really because we just have drinks with her, but this was great. So she became our in-house chemist and honestly, it was just doing research. Six months of proof of concept: does this work? Can we do it? Is there an audience? Very preliminary, none of the big consumer studies people talk about now. And then just sort of swinging through the trees and going for it with pocket change and a bank loan out of an apartment. So fantastic. I mean that’s pretty much how started.
NJ: The name Juara. What was your thinking? Why did you choose that?
MM: So, we were a few weeks away from production. We had our design, and we had progress, but we didn’t have a name because nothing stuck. We wanted something to be Indonesian because it would be silly to use an American word for an Indonesian product. And if we’re going to be making up letters that nobody understands anyway, might as well be an Indonesian word that’s meaningful, but I couldn’t find anything until one day I was bending to tie my shoelaces to go for a run. It was literally like one of those commercial moments where the word, you know, just came up. And then it just hit me, because you know, I’m about to run, go for a jog, exercise, be a winner!
And I’m like, “that’s it, that’s the word because this is for us, we want to feel like winners”. And that was pretty much it. it was kind of like our packaging couldn’t figure out what it was going to look like. Dark brown with a batik-inspired pattern. That was a 2:00 AM inspiration. I shot up in the middle of the night and turned on the lights. I was on a travel trip with my new business partner. “Wake the hell up, I’ve got it”. So the name was kind of the same. And as soon as I told them and I said, “guys, Juara…champions, the product’s going to be a winner, it’s about us. It’s about people, people we need. You know? And then they were like, “let’s do it”. So it was actually quite fast after too long.
NJ: Well of course nobody else in the world understands what Juara means and in fact, it doesn’t have relevance to skincare. So it’s quite an interesting juxtaposition?
MM: I think it’s part of the perspective of someone like me who’s literally 50% in 50% out of Indonesia. The roots and familiarity are still with Indonesia, but a lot of my daily life is outside Indonesia. And I think that the crux of why the book was written and why it was written the way it was, and what our product is. I guess I’m kind of bridging what is by purpose authentically Indonesian by nature but also explaining to people who are not familiar with the language that they understand with the perspective of both an outsider but validated by insider gut instinct. So that balance is what made it suddenly sound like a perfect word because I knew what it meant in Indonesian and that’s what came out. But I knew exactly how that philosophy would land when you talk to people who’ve never heard the word before. A lot of people call it huara because they think it’s exotic and Spanish is a second language, so we spend a lot of time saying it’s not, but you know, whatever, that’s what works! It doesn’t matter as long as the people know it
NJ: So look, we’ve got your background in Jamu and your inspiration from the whole Indonesian health and cultural background, which I really appreciate and I know a little bit about it, because I also spoke at the G20 wellness conference in Solo last November, knowing very little about wellness, I just did my research. And I came up with a whole series of recommendations for the Indonesian government, which can be a basis for a huge tourism industry. The Government haven’t quite grasped yet that this mixture of culture and history and adding in art and traditions and architecture and lifestyle, we have got the power that’s behind this whole wellness thing. So with your background, why the book?
MM: For the reason that you said, wellness is such a big word that’s like, “ooh, it’s great”. But humans are complex creatures but simple really, but we’re made up of a lot of parts and everyone’s different. So when we talk about wellness, it’s, you know, ”I define it as”. People talk about mind, body, and spirit. But what about it? For me, it’s about the alignment and the balance of your physical body to your emotional body, your mental body and even spiritual body, so that it’s alignment and resilience. So no matter what comes good or bad, you’ll be okay. So it’s not that you sit in a tree and you’re zen and you’re happy all the time, but you at least maintain that sort of healthy, I can go with it mindset regardless of what comes at you.
Whether it’s a vacation – it’s not hard to be happy on a vacation – or covid where it’s not easy to be happy during those stressful times. The way I think that there’s a huge opportunity, but also hard to define is because it’s a wellness of difference for everyone. And wellness …I think of it as a circle and it has all these entry points. If you are a food person, you will approach wellness from a food angle. If you are into beauty, like health, physical health, and appearance, the beauty angle will fit in. If you’re a touch-oriented person or movement, the yoga or the massage angle comes in. If you’re a social person, your social health and social relationships are the crux of the element that you need to keep healthy. And the jamu tradition actually addresses each of those.
I tried to break it down in the book into three pillars of physical health and preventative health. The nature of jamu, taking care of yourself, being aware of your senses if you like jamu or not if it’s enjoyable. That’s very much n line with the concept of mindfulness and also community in doing things together. So the Venn Diagram of what constitutes activities or aspects or things that we can do in practice that contribute to one’s well-being in this circle. And then you’ve got jamu and the tradition to the lifestyle that it offers. Like that Venn diagram I think is almost a direct overlap. It’s just when you’re swimming in it, it’s hard to articulate, and it’s hard to ask a fish. What’s your favourite part about the wetness of water? I mean it’s like asking somebody in Indonesia, what’s the most satisfying aspect of the jamu traditions. I’ll be like “what”? It’s great. So they don’t recognize the implicit other things like the social aspect. You don’t thrust jamu at someone going like, “here’s your Coca-Cola.” There’s a whole ritual around it that we don’t even notice because we’re swimming in it!
NJ: Well, that’s absolutely right. So, in making the book, you’re stepping further and further back so you can see more of the aspects and deciding to put them in a better and easier perspective. And so you chose your participants in that spectrum, to fill those different aspects., I’m answering your question now. That should be a question rather than, than speculation. But that’s what seems to me how you seem to manage to do this.
MM: Yes, I did that for two reasons. One, I wrote the book, to answer that question because I really got tired of explaining to people in the US. I mean, I joke, but I’m dead serious when they go “what is it about this tradition called Jamu? What’s Jamu like? “ Well, I’ve got my elevator speech. “It’s an Indonesian wellness tradition inspired by botanicals and traditional beauty rituals.” It becomes that quick, what’s your 32nd thing before people’s eyes glaze over? What’s a short tidbit you could put for a Google search? So it’s the thing that comes up, what goes on your website? And that wasn’t doing it justice. It’s a three-dimensional thing: it’s visual, it’s sensorial. So even the book, the way it was designed, published, photographed, and Martin (Westlake) did an amazing job with the photography. It makes it come alive. So even if you don’t like words, you still feel good holding the book, flipping through the pages, sort of digesting the images and getting hungry with the recipes and food.
So that’s why I wrote it. But you can’t separate culture from its people. It’s really important. I thought we were not to only include people because I’m inspired by the jamu tradition and lifestyle, but I don’t consider myself a jamu maker because I make beauty products that were standing on the shoulders of The Jamu Giant. So having them in the book is an absolute necessity because it brings humanity into the tradition. Often we say it’s a tradition, but where is humanity? You can’t separate jamu’s people. And I brought them in to show that everybody can have a different approach and a different reason. Like Nova’s (Dewi ) backstory is different from Vanessa’s backstory. And it was also if you notice they’re not reports of their business in the interviews with them, but reports of ‘this is who they are’.
It felt like a LinkedIn profile. And I was like, I am bored reading their own stuff. So I said, screw it, I want the heart. Tell me something that makes you, you. What is the thing that identifies you and makes your heart pound? And that’s what ended up coming out. It’s that aspect I think is the kind of critical aspect that has to be included when you’re talking about John Mu when you’re sharing his story. Because I’m not the owner, I’m not the singular authority on this thing. I just want to be the bridge, to curate something, to bring it to life so other people can easily digest, and learn about it. And Indonesia too, actually outside Indonesia, develop an appreciation that something that has been in existence for a long time and that we as Indonesia should be proud of. And foreigners should really check out!
NJ: Very well said. Couldn’t agree with you more. When we create a platform, we’re doing something very useful for other people as well. And that’s what I was really excited about because I’ve been preaching culture and tradition as the backbone of Indonesian commerce. How do you bring people here, tourism and culture and education it still is the fact that the “McDonald’s excitement” is greater than the jamu excitement. We got to get rid of this “ foreign is best mentality”, Indonesian is best, and you’ve just given these people a platform, each of them, and I know some of them quite well and I was delighted to see the fact that you have brought them in.
But what’s, what’s next? How do you take this forward? How do you sell a book like that when book sales are down? How do you get people to pick it up and go, “wow”. And I agree the photography is great and Martin’s an old friend of mine as well. I mean, fantastic stuff. Just going through it makes you feel good, as you said, never mind the information. It’s therapeutic in itself. So, how do you get that into people’s hands to read and digest and inwardly learn That’s difficult.
MM: Yes, this is the first time I’ve gone through the publications route. I think part of why I wrote this book is my North Star. I go into it knowing I’m not retiring from book sales. However, I do know that it is something that can sell, and does move. Afterhours Books has been doing the distribution of it. So in terms of placement, they get it out there. But really a lot of it has been me. A lot of what is in the book is what I talk about. So far what has been done as a result of this book is we’ve got this book and this whole story. It’s a great platform to be featured. We, I just had an interview with a couple of international major American magazines specifically because of this book.
I just came back from Bali with four senior editors from these international publications, and we were talking about Jamu to them, and when they see it presented this way, it’s like, oh, “ding, ding, ding. I think we have a story”. And four of them, I took to Bali, one of them, I took to Solo actually to meet some of the deep, deep end Jamu community. And I think that when it comes to sales, I just kind of go with the North Star, which is the objective of sharing the jamu wisdom, but also the “fun-ness” of it. That’s why I talk a lot about, that it’s got to be with a mindset of joy. Like the people in the book, we have fun, they have fun with jamu. It’s supposed to be fun. So it gets passed down, it’s empirical. If it’s miserable for everyone.
NJ: Of course, everything is driven by the entrepreneur and it seems you’re taking the lead in distribution and publicity, and because of who you are, you’re going to get much more and You’re going to get a lot of attention and that’s great. And I have no problem with you mentioning names of publications anywhere that’s fine by me because we want to show how popular this is. And people get impressed by how good your connections are. So let’s impress them!
But I’ve been in publishing for a long time, and of course now everyone says, “aren’t you in digital? Are you not in this? Are you not in that? “ So how do you take Jamu Lifestyle and create the bite-sized bits that people are going to digest? That you’re going to be moving into the digital sphere, a TV program. I mean, every chapter could be a TV program?
MM: No, it definitely is what I consider a content source in that sense. This book is literally in the hands of the people who do our SEO. It is with our social media content team. It is with everybody that does everything from bite-size pieces to blogs. It’s almost like an encyclopedia of knowledge, of inspiring bits that have to meet the medium. I even think of ways of where can this actually be a story that’s told, whether it’s like a visual TV series that then begs the question, what is it that people want to see? I think where there’s a huge opportunity like kind of like the core, the foundation of the material.
It has so many hooks, that I think people are concerned about nowadays. Like right now I explain to people, if you think about it, that we have a sort of mental health anxiety, like a crisis, we could say that. And in the enjoyment of being part of the jamu tradition actually takes the edge off just going through. And I’ve run this through multiple times in my head. I critique my own work pretty hard. Am I in my framework? If you hang out with your friends in your community, if you stay aware of your sentences, if you have a daily or at least regular practice, not even daily, the discipline of feeding yourself with nourishing food and taking care of your skin with healthy ingredients. That alone helps with calming your sense of down. Positive affirmations while you’re doing beauty rituals, sharing, and drinking with friends, all of these little things almost become packed in a way that is very bite-sized content to people. So what we do I guess suggests anybody who’s got a thick piece of content is to tease out what aspect that could be. A few sentences long are really things that meet what the world wants today, what people want to hear about and what adds value.
And I think that’s the key thing. If it adds value because we can still sniff inauthenticity and fake even though there’s like boom scrolling devices and we’re overwhelmed with so much content. You kind of know when you feel that something is authentic and it’s adding value. And I think this is a book, a culture of tradition and even through our skincare line tries to really push forth that authenticity factor, even if it’s in 15 seconds or you know, a feature article. And hopefully, people will get it, but those who want to be well will get it. I think that’s how it works.
NJ: I think what is very good is that you’ve put authenticity at the centre of this. I am a real cynic about some aspects of the wellness industry the hippie wannabes who make it kind of unappetizing for so many people. And the other things I discovered when I was doing my research is that a lot of the verbiage that people come up with leaves people not understanding what you’re talking about What the hell is deep forest breathing when it’s at home or these new concepts, they’re not founded in authenticity and tradition. And what you’ve done is based everything on authentic traditions, which means it’s real rather than made up for the jet set crowd.
MM: I think a lot of the traditions that are new age or very new, hopefully, maintain their roots, like breathwork does have roots, but where do people take it? Jamu is so grounded in a way that it is what it is because it is an empirical tradition. So everyone has their own home story which I think keeps it grounded. What’s nice is that it allows room for modification. So like, like Vanessa or Nani can have their own take on it, but she’s got four generations that are the roots for her story in it. So when she makes like passion fruit, turmeric latte’, like what? But on the other hand, if you get into how it’s made, this is where I think the grounding helps and, and I think under the bucket, if it works for you, it works for you.
So who am I to judge where people’s connection points are with things? But I do feel that in order for something to stick and not be as woo over woo woo grown, everyone has their own opinion on that, so I’ll just leave it to that. Wellness meets people where they need to be met, and sometimes it’s grounded and sometimes it’s where they’re at. But I do like that this is something that has to be able to be explained by common sense because this is a tradition that is available for everyone, you don’t have to be rich, and nobody should ever be priced out of getting jamu.
When I went to Damo and he said that some people come and they can’t afford it for whatever reason, so he gives it to them for free. It’s about serving the community. And I think once we keep in mind that this is a tradition that is available for everyone, it balances authenticity and heritage with people’s interpretation to make it their own. The fact that Jamu has space to allow for all that, I think is what makes it particularly special and also resilient. I honestly think that someone who’s actually Indonesian writes about it, it’s great. And if I see hashtag jamu juice, that’s how they view it in America. They don’t know what it is but it’s liquid – juice! Right. I’ve seen some brands by Americans going to Indonesia, falling in love and making another Jamu, J A H M U, what? They make their own thing, but we really could do a better job ourselves from inside Indonesia. Like us, you, me, those of us who’ve been here to communicate about it more.
NJ: So what’s next? What’s your future? You’ve done the book, what’s next? Have you got a plan in place? Are you going build on the book or are you going do another book? I see you’ve already introduced the whole point of Indonesian wellness as being a much bigger culture than just jamu, but surrounded by the spirituality, the tradition, and the religious aspects of it as well. And it’s got everything and the physical aspects. That’s got to be part of the plan, hasn’t it?
MM: No, absolutely. I think 2023, um, and it’s been moving this way, especially after the pandemic. It’s the era of experiences, it’s not just about products, it’s about absolute experiences. I don’t put a single drawer of products in the book. People ask, “why didn’t you put your own products in the book?” And I said, well, because it’s not about me, like, you know who the author is, you draw the thread “why she’s writing this?”. It’ll come out eventually. This is not about the promotion of my products at all. It’s about celebrating the thing that hopefully can come to life. So when I say experiences, what I invite, I know what we are going do. We will be doing wellness retreats that do take aspects of the book and make it come to life.
So don’t just read about it or see it come to feel it, you know, places where you can’t experience, like here’s a beauty ritual, but let’s combine it with a learning, educational aspect to it. And what you ingest now moves from the inside out. Now that you’ve read about it, now experience it. Like if we do it in Bali, it’ll be tinged with cultural influences from Bali. If we do it in Jakarta, even in smaller modules we could collaborate with others, like you guys, and do a wellness experience kind of inspired by the book for readers, for audiences. It’s really to get people engaged and being activated in their own wellness. And then just, having events and collaboration and activations based on creating wellness experiences that more and more people can enjoy who might not be book people but then get that there’s a red thread. It’s just something that can come to life. And I think that’s definitely what’s on our plate this year.
NJ: We’re going to leave it at that because we could go on forever and I encourage you to become a regular and inspirational speaker on this subject around Indonesia. Congratulations on a fantastic book based on reality, an inspiring author who pulled it all together, and a successful business behind it, which will enable it to take place.
‘Jamu Lifestyle’ by Metta Murdaya is available across major bookstores in Indonesia Periplus, Kinokuniya, Books & Beyond, Alunalun, and more. Orders are available online through Afterhours Bookshop on Tokopedia.