Lately, the term “diffable” (a portmanteau of “differently abled”) has been often used instead of “disabled” to engender a positive connotation showing that people labeled with disabilities or physical challenges can actually do things, only differently. Yet for diffables, the current job market remains tough. According to the National Workforce Survey (Sakernas) in 2017, more than 414,000 people with disabilities were unemployed. Unlike in other businesses, however, Dea Valencia (26) employs 60 diffables at her Semarang-based batik clothing business Batik Kultur, which represents half of the total workforce.
Dea Valencia first studiously learned about batik in 2011, at the age of 17, when she was helping her mother sell her rare collection of antique batik fabrics online. Every time there was an inquiry about a certain product, Dea had to ask her mother for the answers. Over time she felt she needed to start learning about batik—by reading books, consulting about its history with people more senior than her, learning how to make, differentiate, and see the quality of batik itself—until eventually she fell in love with batik.
After about a year selling antique batik fabrics, Dea realized that the business was not sustainable, so she initiated the idea of producing batik clothes instead. At first, she took the good parts of antique batik fabrics that could not be sold anymore due to their overall poor condition. However, she saw that eventually even these antique pieces would soon run out as well. So, to ensure that the business remained sustainable, she decided to begin producing her own material, and officially named her business Batik Kultur in 2013. At Batik Kultur, Dea only sells batik tulis, the type of batik that is of higher quality because of the amount of diligence and complexity required for the hand-drawing process.
“I started by hiring a few batik artisans who drew and dyed at my home in Semarang. Every day I studied colors, techniques—what the steps were to create a certain pattern, what the technique was to achieve a certain color combination—those kinds of techniques I learned in three months in 2013,” says Dea. At first, she had a small team of three batik artisans and two dyers, and a few sewers who could produce up to 50 pieces per month.
After seeing that the business was good, sustainable, and scalable, Dea began expanding the team. To produce its fabric, Batik Kultur works with four batik artisan partners who produce solely for Batik Kultur—two of them located in Pekalongan, one in Cirebon and another in Sragen. Each partner leads a team of around 50 people, made up of tracers, batik artists, and dyers. Next to the batik artisan partners, Batik Kultur currently employs 130 people in different roles—50 of whom are in charge of sewing and the rest in at least 10 different roles, making the business labor intensive. Today, Batik Kultur is able to produce 2,000-3,000 pieces every month. A new design is uploaded every day on the website, with an average price of Rp 600,000.
For its market, Dea says that Batik Kultur actually focuses on mature females aged 40-60, who make up 60-70% of its customers. The age range is a little older compared with similar producers, which usually target millennials or Gen-Z. The choice of targeting the specific market is also reflected in the clothes themselves, which mostly have (long) sleeves, friendly minimal patterns, which can be worn for casual or formal occasions. Doing well online, Dea responded to customers’ interest in coming to see the products. She opened the first gallery in Semarang in 2016, and the second gallery in Jakarta in 2018. The online stores, nevertheless, still contribute 70% of revenue.
While Dea started the business at a fairly young age, what keeps her motivated to continue Batik Kultur’s business until now is the people that she works with, particularly the diffable employees. Since hiring the first diffable employee in 2013, the number has grown to 60 today, nearly half the total employees. At that time, Dea was visiting a supplier’s store, where there were several people from Solo undergoing work training.
“At first I didn’t know at all that diffable people trained to work. Since the beginning, Batik Kultur has employed people who are mute and deaf, but sewing is quite a common job for them, because they don’t really need to communicate, only focus on what they’re doing. [...] So I talked to one of them, her name was Tumisih and she had no limbs, and from her I learned that everything is possible. She finds her own way using whatever she has on her body,” says Dea. “She asked me for a job [...] and said she needed to invite her friend too, because her hands can’t reach to tie her own hair, the reason was as simple as that.”
Over the time, more of their friends came from the Prof. Dr. Soeharso Foundation in Solo. This is a rehabilitation center that provides one-year vocational education for diffable people, such as sewing, handicrafts, computing, photography, hairdressing, and so on. Each of them has different stories—from polio, industrial and traffic accidents, to congenital defects, and so on. Since then, the two parties have become very good partners. Almost every year, Batik Kultur will receive five interns from the foundation, and usually three will continue working permanently. For her commitment, Forbes Indonesia named Dea as one of its 30 under 30 honorees in 2019.
This year marks seven years of Batik Kultur operations, despite improved production capacity, and having received decent media coverage and recognition, Dea remains careful and conservative in leading her business.
“Having them [the diffable workers] in my team makes me very careful, in a sense that, when I make decisions, I will measure my risks. If I want to sell something new, or if I want to invest in something like opening a store for example—will this jeopardize anything in my business? Because I really don’t want anything bad to happen and affect this business where I have to lay them off. [...] The current job market is tough, and it will be 50 times harder for the diffables to find another job that not only gives them work opportunities, but also gives them a life,” says Dea.
At Batik Kultur’s production site in Semarang, all employees are treated the same when it comes to doing their job properly. They are supported by an environment where its facilities and tools are adjusted to make their life and work easier, and where they are able to make friends and meet life partners. “I hope that there will be other companies out there that will be able to foster them in the same way. I’m just afraid that they might lose the kind of environment that they have now.”
This year Dea aims to increase sales by 10-20%, along with the number of employees, as she wants to keep its expansion on a safe level. She plans to cross-sell and venture into men’s clothing, seeing how a lot of her customers often ask for matching batik attire for their partners. She will also start selling more batik fabric online, as it is currently only available at the galleries.