Rolex 2023 Laureate Denica Riadini-Flesch of SukkhaCitta on Changing Women’s Lives in Indonesia

She's also on to leave a legacy beyond sustainability.
Rolex Winner Denica Riadini-Flesch at one of SukkhaCitta’s craft schools.
Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Denica Riadini-Flesch talking to women at one of SukkhaCitta’s craft schools. Riadini-Flesch is passionate about empowering women in rural Indonesia by giving them access to training and equipping them with the skills they need to earn a living wage.

Sukkhacitta—a wordplay on sukacita, which means “joy” in Bahasa—was founded on heartbreak. When Denica Riadini-Flesch returned home to Indonesia in 2016, she was despondent about the reality of the way development aid was structured in a country where opportunities remain dramatically unequal for women.

When she left Indonesia to study as a development economist in the Netherlands, she “felt guilty, knowing it’s not an opportunity most women in Indonesia have”. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers, but fewer than two percent of its garment and textile workers, the vast majority of whom are women, earn a living wage. Disillusioned with the reality, Denica decided to put these women back in the driver’s seat to change their own lives. Not through aid, but fair work.

She started SukkhaCitta, a “farm-to-closet” social enterprise that goes mud-deep to stitch a positive impact onto what we wear. Denica describes herself as a nerd who cares, and this nerd surely cared a lot. But she cares a lot about things most of us take for granted, like a genuine connection with your garment, the ecosystem and empowering women. In a world where most of us are driven by numbers and rapid growth, Denica chooses to focus on what she can contribute to the world, and how she can be a part of something bigger than herself.

(Left) Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Denica Riadini-Flesch, CEO and founder of SukkhaCitta, is changing the way that clothes are made and sold, down to how the materials are grown, whilst empowering the rural craftswomen that help to create them. (Right) Ibu Srikanthi drawing batik patterns in her home near one of SukkhaCitta’s craft schools, Rumah SukkhaCitta, East Java. SukkhaCitta supports artisans who work from home so they can earn a living wage while caring for their families.

GRAZIA (G): Tell us more about your SukkhaCitta journey. What was it like when you first started?
Denica Riadini-Flesch (DRF): In the beginning, when we were doing pop-ups, people would walk by and laugh at us for caring for the poor. That motivated me to keep learning and improving our model of change so that we could create a different kind of beauty that could inspire people, making the clothes a conversation starter. Then, it leads to real discussions, awareness, and touchpoints. That’s ultimately what we want to do—it’s never been about the clothes. It’s about redefining the supply chain in ways that can regenerate the ecosystem, sustain indigenous cultures, and empower women at the same time, through what you wear.

G: What is your relationship with clothes and fashion, then?
DRF: When I started learning about the power of fashion, I found that it could be transformative. Meaning, through clothes, you can become whatever you want to be, and thus change how you feel. My goal now is to make sure that people can feel that way while also transforming the lives of communities that made it—and at the same time, our biodiversity and soil health.

G: Tell us more about the SukkhaCitta model and why you find so much joy in it.
I think this is my life’s purpose. It gives me so much joy just finding problems and better solutions. That is really what SukkhaCitta has been like. It’s not like I came up with this amazing idea of having a farm-to-closet brand. First, it was about how we create an ecosystem in which we can ensure living wages for all women. Next, we started tackling the issue of toxic chemicals, and how we use plants to create colours in such a way that we can protect our rivers from toxic chemicals. That’s really when I realised the connection between what we wear and the climate crisis. I’m sure after this, I’ll find an even bigger problem; and I’m going to be focused on that next.

Ibu Sri and Ibu Muntiani prepare a bath for dyeing fabrics in one of SukkhaCitta’s craft schools, Rumah SukkhaCitta, East Java. The textiles hanging behind them have been decorated with a floral batik design.

G: What are you focusing on right now?
Regenerative farming. I think the last thing that we think about when we wear our clothes is the soil. Our choice either restores or degrades it. Unfortunately, at the moment, we are mainly degrading it. That’s one thing that I’m now particularly focusing on. How do we change that? How do we change the materials that are being grown, so that we can actively restore life to the soil? That’s the sad thing about conventional agriculture is that if nothing changes, we continue to turn soil into dirt like now, through the use of excessive chemicals. We only have 60 more harvest cycles. Why soil? You know, our coffee comes from the soil. The breakfast we had this morning came from the soil; the food we eat, the clothes we wear, it all brings us back to the soil. I hope that more people will stand up and reclaim our connection to the soil in the countries where you work so that we can start changing that.

G: What are the practical implications of winning the Rolex Awards for Enterprise?
We will be able to create another school. That’s a big part of what we’re doing: in each of our villages, we build a school where the women can come and learn skills from the older generation. At the same time, we’ll also digitise our curriculums, especially in regenerative farming. It will be an app that will be able to help us train in more remote areas in Indonesia and ensure that regenerative farming continues as we can reach even more women.

(Left) A woman prepares cotton threads for embroidery. By offering a living wage to rural craftswomen, SukkhaCitta has encouraged a younger generation to take up these traditional crafts. The average age of the women has gone from 60 down to 28 years old since Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Denica Riadini-Flesch started the company. (Right) SukkhaCitta’s Ibu Kasmini, an Indonesian farmer who has inherited her farming practices from her grandmother, using a spinning wheel to turn cotton into threads while Ibu Karmini prepares the cotton behind her.

G: What’s the most rewarding aspect of SukkhaCitta?
I would say it’s seeing the transformations of the Ibus. When I first started, it was very difficult for them to look me in the eye because all their lives, they were told that people from the city are superior, and people with white skin are superior. They felt inferior. And now, my goodness, they bully me all the time [laughs]. It’s seeing that transformation that is only possible because of our community. At the end of the day, it’s for us to be able to better the livelihoods of the Ibus.

G: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from working with them?
I would say, the generosity. I grew up in the city where we built walls between each other. In the villages, they have such a different sense of community; what they have they share. It’s not like they have millions of dollars, but they would save up what they have to donate and give back to the children in the school. It just shows what’s possible when you empower women in that sense as they start having that pride of solving issues by themselves. That is the most powerful part of our model of change. It’s not just about the economic part. It’s about changing mindsets and how women can feel pride again.

G: Would SukkhaCitta ever be a global brand?
At the moment, we’re selling in 32 countries through our website. From the beginning, it was always a universal project, a project for happiness. But for us, we will always only work in Indonesia. It’s because I feel that the best for the soil are the people living on it. It shouldn’t be me going to Thailand and doing this; it should be someone from Thailand who perhaps got inspired by this. At the same time, the farm-to-clothes blueprint can be replicated in Europe, America, and Southeast Asia and it is completely beyond borders.

Denica Riadini-Flesch, founder and CEO of SukkhaCitta, talking with Ibu Tun and Ibu Dair in a cotton field near Central Java, Indonesia. Ibu is a term of respect used for elder craftswomen in Indonesia, and SukkhaCitta offers them the support they need to earn a living wage through their traditional crafts.

G: What is your advice or message to the younger generations who want to build an environmental business?
First of all, you need to ask yourself: do you want to start a business? I feel like our society glorifies this idea; you have to be a founder or startup founder, you have to be a unicorn. You don’t need to do all that to have an impact on your life. You can also work for a company that you believe in, and you can achieve change so much faster that way. I wish that more people would take the time to get to know themselves, and ask what it is that makes them happy. What is their definition of success? Too many of us never get the time to ask that question. Only once you ask that question, will you be on that journey. We forget that sometimes meaning comes from the journey of really understanding who we are, and what it is that we want to do in this world. We get trapped in what society thinks we should do and become hamsters on a wheel, always striving but never arriving. Why do you want to do that? What is your definition of enough? I think we need to ask ourselves that, now more than ever.

G: What does success mean to you, and how do you feel about your success?
To me, success is in the lives of those I got to change. Success is being able to pursue what I believe is right—the gratitude of having the rare opportunity to impact millions of lives through my work. Through my work, for instance, I became interested to learn more about what goes on behind their clothes and how they can be part of the solution. That is success to me.

Rolex Winner Denica Riadini-Flesch at one of SukkhaCitta’s craft schools.
Denica Riadini-Flesch with the batik craftswomen at one of SukkhaCitta’s craft schools Rumah SukkhaCitta. Women are not only taught traditional crafts in SukkhaCitta schools, but the business skills they need to monetize them.

G: What’s the legacy you hope to pass on?
I would say it’s a different way of thinking. I hope that my legacy will be that other women at least get permission to do what they want, to do things that society thinks are what success is. Because that, for me, would be the greatest success. At the same time, a world where women can be whoever they want to be and not have to compromise and conform to what society thinks they need to do.

G: What does it mean to have won the Rolex Award?
It’s so special because these women have been invisible for far too long, and now their story is being heard, it’s being celebrated all around the world. That’s why the Rolex Award is such a special thing for me.

All images courtesy of Rolex/Sébastien Agnetti.