Stranded in Bali – Mariheca Otto is running her business on a cellphone

Dr Mariheca Otto is the Managing Director of Motto Business Consulting whose plans to have a bit of mom time at a retreat in Bali, went horribly wrong when all flights to South Africa were cancelled. Otto is stranded on the Indonesian island and is trying to run her business with only a cellphone at her disposal. She has managed to adapt how she works and has realised that many of the changes that businesses have to undergo, are going to be permanent. Her message to her clients is that she remains open for business; she even went ahead with the launch of a Gender Measurement Perception Tool and is working on a book. Bali may not be the worst island to be stranded on; it is not quite Tom Hanks alone on an island with a ball he called Wilson, but Otto is separated from her four children. – Linda van Tilburg

I thought I was really clever. We booked a fantastic mama break away just for 10 days to a yoga retreat and everything seemed fine – I checked with the travel agency and I checked with the people in Indonesia. And then about a week after – the wheels started coming off. It started going really south very quickly. I was here for about a week doing the normal touristy and normal relaxation types of things that I thought I would do. And then we got notification that things are changing rapidly in South Africa – the schools started closing, flights got cancelled and then it was a lockdown. So, when I wanted to come back on the second flight that I booked -lockdown happened and we couldn’t land.

This was not the Balinese – it was not from Indonesia. This was because of the South African lockdown. Were they prepared to let you go?

Yes. They were absolutely fine and they still are to let us go. It’s not being able to land in South Africa that’s the problem.

How long have you been there now?

Today, it is three weeks. So what was meant to be 10 days is now a lot longer. So I’m quite ready to go home now.

So how are you coping?

I must tell you – the place that I’m staying in – the people are really kind and very generous and supportive and my family is incredibly supportive. I miss my kids terribly. But, it’s amazing how – in really tough times – your friends really show up and they support you. But, it’s very lonely and it can be very hard at times. It’s like the waves of the sea – the one moment you feel like, ‘I can do this, I can do this’ and the next moment you think – ‘this is the worst thing that could have happened!’.

Bit of a rollercoaster. So, are you still staying in the same retreat – do you have to keep on paying to stay there?

After about a week here, the owner said to me, ‘you know it’s so weird – I’ve had so many cancellations of people coming’, and and so they started realising what was going on and then Indonesian Bali also had to start closing the restaurants and the lodges – all the touristy places. So they started realising what was going on – that we’re basically trapped here. I’ve got to pay but they are accommodating in a way. But, it’s still money that we didn’t plan for – I didn’t plan to stay in a foreign country and still pay everything at home at the same time. So the budget is a bit of a bugger up.

What is at home – you’ve got children at home?

Yes, I’ve got four kids at home. They’re with their dad at the moment, still – so that’s probably the hardest part for me. I think the work is tough because you’ve got to still do what you need to do and reinvent your whole business. But, missing the kids – if you’re a mother you know what I’m talking about – it’s terrible. It’s really not the fun part.

Mariheca, how are the Balinese handling the pandemic?

Very differently from what I’ve been perceiving the world to be doing. And I think that’s also why it was such a massive shock on the system when I realized that I’m not going anywhere, because here – the vibe has been completely different. It has been so calm and so relaxed and people are self-isolating but they are not hectic on it. So, people can go to a shop between 10:00 and 2:00 during the day because it’s so hot – no virus will survive and neither would you – but, that’s why it’s open during those times. But otherwise, people are incredibly calm and the Balinese society is very much a Hindu religion based society – they believe in reincarnation – so they believe this is full on a survival of the fittest thing, it’s an evolution thing that’s happening. So, if you didn’t look after yourself -there’s lots of healthy fruits and vegetables around, if you didn’t do your prayers and you didn’t do what you meant to do and it’s your time to go – then it’s your time to go. So they don’t necessarily go to a doctor when they get sick. So the stats and the data that we’ve seen in the news of Indonesia is incredibly low – so there’s a perception that not many people have it. But, what is really going on is – that they just don’t report it, because people die in their own homes. If they’re old and they get sick – it’s like any flu – then you pass away and you move on. So, people are wearing masks and they really try to keep a distance and all their social events have been cancelled. But there is no panic! It’s completely calm – it’s just quiet, especially because they aren’t any tourists.

So is there enough food available?

It looks like that – I haven’t had one situation of a shop not having food. I’ve seen photos of shops full of fruit and veg and things supplied, so here – I haven’t had one issue to find anything that we need. And even the pharmacies – they’re not stocked in the way that we’re used to – but they’ve got stock and the only people that I’ve seen in the pharmacy are tourists. So it’s just a completely different way of looking at this whole pandemic.

Are there any South Africans with you – at your retreat or near you?

No, none whatsoever. I haven’t seen a South African for three weeks.

So you’re having your Eat Pray Love moment?

Exactly, I was meant to write this book on the gender perception and it was about – how do you help women to work through their own things that are holding them back. So I started working on this slowly – every week I would write a little chapter, and now that I’m here – I’m so inspired that I phoned one of my girls that work for me and I said this one project that you were meant to work on has been cancelled, so guess what we are going to be doing – we’re going to be writing this book now. So that Eat Pray Love Story is very much front of mind for me at the moment because you realise – you’ve got to be very quiet to be able to go inside and deal with your own things and whatever is holding you back.

So how are you managing to run a business while you’re there?

That is the really tricky part because I realised very quickly – after really mourning for about a week and realising I’m not going anywhere – that I’m going to stay for quite some time and it’s completely uncertain – I realised I’ve got to pull myself towards myself and I have to just start thinking about how to change the way I do business. At the moment, what really works for me are a few apps that I use to work because I only brought my phone – I don’t have a laptop, I don’t have anything here. And, we’re six hours ahead of South Africa – so it’s a bit of a challenge because I work during the mornings and then South Africa starts waking up – and they really want to get going – and I’m exhausted. So the day is much longer.

So no laptop – only a phone?

Only a phone – me and my phone on my island. And it’s tricky, but it works in a weird way because I’ve had to adapt. So, I use a lot of voice notes and the app where you can listen to long documents – because it’s so hard to read on a phone, and Otter – the app where you can talk and it types it for you. So I’m adapting, slowly but surely – that works so far. It was very interesting – especially the way we deal with our clients because the first client we spoke to said, ‘you know what – don’t worry, we will wait for you – once you’re reunited with your family – we can continue the process.’ I almost had a mini heart attack because we don’t know what’s going to happen, so no – this is not how it’s going to flow – and we’ve said to our clients; ‘this is going to be a permanent change – we have to rethink the way we travel, the way we engage with each other, when it is really necessary to have an in-person meeting and when it can be done on zoom or Skype or whatever platform, because that’s going to be your new reality. I’m also working very hard with lots of clients to tell them that we have to get very, very good at working remotely and working online, because it’s going to be the new norm.

You’ve been launching this gender perception tool while you were there in Bali. What is that about?

We developed this tool because last year there was a massive wave of people saying to us; you’ve got all these wonderful perception tools on self perception and leadership perception – how people perceive their climate, their culture, the individuals etcetera. So we’ve got these wonderful tools, but we’ve got a big issue in terms of gender equality in the workplace and purely because of a business that says – if we can get a diverse team that’s fully functional with men, women, different races – the chances of them being more successful, and then being more productive – is double what it is when you’ve got the homogeneity. So, that has been part of the reason. Also, in South Africa – we’ve got our BEE scorecard – that’s critical that women start being empowered and the problem was that a lot of large organisations started struggling to get women and to keep women that are skilled, and they started saying, ‘what is this about? Why is it that women are leaving our organisations – why don’t they want to stay with us? We try and we try – but nothing is happening.’ And then we developed this tool. So now, we’re launching this tool specifically to figure out – how do we truly empower women, what’s holding them back on an individual basis from really stepping up and being part of a team in a larger organisation and really delivering, and how do we get the culture of the organisation to allow this to happen. So, as a woman, if you walk into an organisation that’s very male dominated and is very much chauvinistic (doesn’t really recognise the accomplishments or achievements of women) – you’re going to struggle to keep talent. This is why there’s such a massive need. So we use a dual approach; we use a fully individualised approach to help the women to get stronger, to deal with what’s holding them back in their struggles and learn to confront, step up and help curb in the environment that they’re in. At the same time, we’re looking at the organisational culture and engagement levels and seeing how we can help the entire organisation to allow more inclusivity. That’s really what it’s about – it’s about inclusivity to create a diverse environment.

So is this only for South Africa or would you like to roll it out further?

No – definitely. This is part of the issue; that initially we saw it as a South African thing and the moment people started talking about it – we realised it’s a challenge all over the world. And because organisations and business leaders have realised that there’s a massive business case for this and it’s now a political agenda – it’s a total turnaround strategy for organisations.

Good luck. I’m just hoping that you manage to get back to your children – what ages are they?

Thank you so much. My youngest is a little girl – she’s 8 years old now, and then I’ve got three boys; 10 years old, 13 years old and 15 years old. Those teenage boys are giving me so much grief about this whole situation, and it’s a remote grief. But yes, I can’t wait to see them and I really hope that we can – as a country – figure out this problem. I understand it’s a very difficult situation, there’s a lot of diplomacy, political agenda – all sorts of things at play – and it makes it very hard, so I understand why it’s delayed but I’m desperate. I really would love to get home now. The way I see it is – we’re learning new skills. We are really killing ourselves in different things; whether it’s mood management, negotiation skills or whatever. But, I hope and I believe that – as a world, as an environment that we live in – we’re going to walk out of this stronger. And I think we are most likely going to be set up in a complete new way of looking at the world and the environment. Because if you can see what is happening in nature – just because people stop polluting and stop making such a mess – it’s phenomenal. So, I really hope that this is the start of a turnaround strategy for everyone – or organisations, for individuals, for families and the whole environment. That would be absolutely fantastic.

Well, and discover our common humanity. I agree.

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