Chasing a crazy dream

Sara Dhewanto’s blood runs UB blue.

Dhewanto, MBA ’02, first came to Buffalo from Indonesia when her parents, Asmir and Irid Farida Agoes, attended UB for their master’s degrees in geography and American studies, respectively. Irid would later earn her doctorate in American studies from UB, and Dhewanto’s brother, Pasha Agoes, completed his bachelor’s in communication and is now working toward his PhD here.

So, when Dhewanto and her husband, Hario, decided to earn their MBAs, it was only natural they selected the UB School of Management. Soon after arriving, they found community with other Indonesian expats on campus and around Buffalo—relationships that became critical when they had their first baby during the program.

“We knew every Indonesian in Buffalo—the community is that close-knit,” she says. “Having that support system enabled us to complete the program with a newborn. If we were in a pinch, we could reach out and somebody would come help us, and we’d do the same for them.”

Dhewanto credits the Career Resource Center with making the connection that led to her first post-MBA job and her MBA with providing the financial skills she needed to succeed there. After graduating in 2002, Dhewanto joined ExxonMobil as a financial analyst and was eventually promoted to manager of its Treasury Department in Indonesia. In that role, she was charged with minimizing risk and overseeing every ExxonMobil transaction in the country.

After a decade with the oil and gas corporation, however, Dhewanto realized something: “I thought, ‘It’s been a good 10 years, but is this what I want to do for another 20 years?’ No, I wanted to make a difference and do something for my country.”

Dhewanto joined the Millennium Challenge Account – Indonesia, an organization created as part of a $600 million grant from the U.S. government to reduce poverty and invest in community health, among other initiatives. As chief financial officer, Dhewanto worked to ensure that every dollar was dispersed appropriately to beneficiaries across Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.

“That was incredibly difficult because around three-quarters of Indonesians don’t have bank accounts, so you can’t just transfer the money,” she says. “We tried everything, and the only way we could actually get the money to people was to have my staff carry around loads of cash in luggage and distribute it in envelopes, one by one. How ridiculous is that?”

She knew there had to be a better way—and quit her job to focus on creating it. With her husband, Hario, Dhewanto co-founded duithape, which enables clients to efficiently and safely make payments to unbanked individuals across the country. For example, for the charity Dompet Dhuafa, duithape helped distribute food to thousands of people in the form of grocery vouchers.

“We adapt our technology to those we serve,” Dhewanto explains. “All people need to do is go to one of the 2,700 stores that work with us and show their ID, and the store’s system can confirm they have an e-voucher. They can choose whatever food they want, when they need it, just a few hundred feet from where they live.”

Since launching four years ago, duithape has won the U.S. State Department’s 2019 GIST APEC Catalyst Pitch Competition and represented Asia at this year’s Seedstars World Competition. For the first three quarters of 2020, Dhewanto estimates the startup helped its clients reach more than 68,000 people in both large cities and remote areas throughout Indonesia, resulting in an economic impact of more than $1.2 million (about 17.9 billion Indonesian rupiah).

“We have a pretty crazy dream—changing the world. I know it’s cliché, but somebody has to be crazy enough to think they can do it for it to even be a possibility,” Dhewanto says. “The government and other companies have tried to do this for years, and they have all failed. But, if we do succeed, we actually get to impact people’s lives and make a difference. That’s something worth fighting for.”

Written by Matthew Biddle