Indonesian returns home and takes on diabetes

As a child growing up in Indonesia, Jessica Lembong loved American candy bars. Whenever she traveled abroad, stocking up Cookies n’ Crème candy bars was a favorite pastime. Encouraged by her parents to become a global citizen, she went on to study and work in the US for 15 years, obtaining a PhD in chemical engineering as well as indulging a weakness for sugary treats.

Now back home in Indonesia as an associate partner based in our Jakarta office, Jessica has trained her scientific mind on a sticky problem: how unhealthy lifestyle habits, among other factors, could wreak havoc on the country’s healthcare system and economic future. Together with colleagues from McKinsey’s global Healthcare Systems & Services Practice, she was the driving force behind our recent report Tackling Indonesia’s diabetes challenge: Eight approaches from around the world.

Jessica returned home to Indonesia just as Southeast Asia’s largest economy was embarking on a fundamental reform of its healthcare system. With encouragement from McKinsey’s leadership team, she was determined to find a way for the firm to contribute. Diabetes quickly emerged as a topic that was not only important for the country but also one to which McKinsey could bring deep expertise. “Globally we have helped industries and governments to think through how to address [chronic diseases] from a welfare perspective and also from a cost perspective,” she says. “Plus the McKinsey Global Institute had invested a lot of time learning about obesity.”

The opportunity was not lost on Kaushik Das, a senior partner who leads McKinsey in Indonesia: “McKinsey is deeply invested in Indonesia and we want to help shape the future of the country on multiple dimensions. Whether we’re working in the corporate sector or the public sector part of what we bring is an understanding of best practices from around the world.”

Once diabetes had been selected as the topic for investigation, Jessica’s instincts for problem-solving went into high gear. The McKinsey team pursued complex questions in three main areas: What are the persistent factors behind Indonesia’s vulnerability to diabetes? What lessons could Indonesia learn from other countries in addressing non-communicable diseases? And how should Indonesia’s policy makers develop and execute a diabetes-management strategy?

The experience, she says, was exhilarating. While she had enjoyed academic work tremendously, she found her true calling in an environment where she could collaborate with a broad set of thinkers and experts with diverse backgrounds. She recalls: “I enjoyed my PhD years very much. But there are a few things I did not get from it. One is I felt very lonely, being very deep on a specific topic where I could problem-solve really well with my advisor and my lab mates, but there aren’t a lot of other people in the world that I could discuss [things with].”

Jessica also found that she had a deep desire for shaping outcomes with decision-makers. “I longed for a more direct and a more at-scale impact through the things that I do.” At McKinsey she found ample opportunity to talk to “teammates, experts, clients, and bring different perspectives to a problem on a daily basis. To me that is really rewarding.”

At 33, Jessica’s journey of discovery has a long way to go. For now she appears to have found her sweet spot.

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