Josette Dijkhuizen is a woman full of energy, with a strong-held belief: that entrepreneurship can be a tool for social and personal development. This belief has accompanied her through her extraordinary and variegate career, ranging from entrepreneurship consultant, teacher and social entrepreneur. In 2013 she was UN Women’s Representative and in the same year she started her social enterprise ‘ENPower’ to assist vulnerable (wo)men from shelter homes, refugee and human trafficking. Now Josette is expanding her activities in Lebanon, where she plans of helping refugee women to start and develop their own business.
Through the programme ‘Selling Strength’ you have visited Lebanon in order to promote entrepreneurship among refugee women. Can you describe the programme and your experience?
Last summer was my first time visiting a refugee camp in Lebanon, and the aim of that visit was to document women entrepreneurs and their stories. I went with a photographer to interview them and take pictures; I wanted to know what the situation was like in the camp before I could start the programme. Normally in Western Europe, and I add myself to this, we have a mentality that we need to teach other people how to do things. I wanted to get the other way round, by seeing from them what they need and then finding possible solutions to help. There are already organisations in place helping women establish their business, so my next step will be to go back to Lebanon, continue ‘Selling Strength’ and partner up with these already existing organisations, to give them the knowledge from my network they need, which is mainly marketing knowledge. I see that also in other countries I visit, like Pakistan, and Peru, and I have a marketing background. So, I can help them with that and with professionalising themselves by getting a more entrepreneurial mindset.
This is not the only programme of yours that has to do with woman entrepreneurship: another programme you started is ‘ENPower’.
As I was the Women’s Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands at the United Nations, two years ago, the theme of the UN was ‘prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls’. I was shocked about the figures: even in Holland it is a very serious problem. I thought that if I was able to join my experience in entrepreneurship with the UN’s theme, I might be able to do something valuable. So, I launched ‘ENPower in Holland’, which is a programme of workshops and individual mentoring for abused women. This was my first idea to help people in a vulnerable position to realise their dreams and build their life. Currently, there are a lot of Syrians and Eritrean refugees coming to Holland. Therefore, in two weeks’ time I am starting to run the same entrepreneurship programme for this group of people in the south of Holland, Noord Brabant, my province of residence. We have received funding from the province to start with eight refugees and see if it works. Holland is very organised country and we have a lot of regulations, so it is not at all that easy to just run a programme.
What are the limitations and prejudices that make it difficult for women to become entrepreneurs, here in the EU? Why do we need to focus especially on female entrepreneurship?
We have a long series of problems to tackle in this world: ecological, social, emotional. And women entrepreneurs have different kinds of businesses. In Europe, for example, most social enterprises are run by women. They can have really large impact on this planet. That is one of the reasons why we should promote women entrepreneurship. Furthermore, it gives women more freedom, since they get more confident and financially independent. There is a lot of inequality in this world: for instance, in Pakistan only 1% of entrepreneurs are women, which means that a lot of people do not even get the opportunity, due to issues of access to capital and markets and lack of education. There are a lot of barriers of women, even if there is huge social and economic potential. Gender equality is a core problem worldwide, and I cannot change that. What I can change is the obstacle of giving them the right entrepreneurial education and make them visible. These are all external aspects. If we look at the internal ones, I think we can be our own barrier as well: sometimes we as women underestimate ourselves, we lack conviction on our means and capabilities. As a consequence, we are not making ourselves visible towards the market. That is something we can change: we must be more visible, we must go more into media, jump on stage and develop ourselves.
You mentioned the idea of tutoring perspective entrepreneurs as an important part of your projects. Is it possible to teach entrepreneurship?
I wrote a book on the topic, The Entrepreneurial Gene, because I was interested in the topic. We know from literature that there are a few qualities that are very important to be successful entrepreneurs: vision, courage and perseverance. If we look at the possibility to develop them, the answers are surprising: from 40 to 50% of our personality is genetic. There is a high percentage of qualities that can still be developed. This does not mean that if you are not good at risk-taking, or you do not like it, you will become the best risk-taker after taking a mentoring programme. But it means that, through a lifecycle, you can even change your genetics and definitely you can improve your skills. I am an advocate for developing entrepreneurial qualities, I believe in it, as I believe in becoming happier with the things you do. I even worked on my PhD on the connection between stress and success in entrepreneurs: for instance, you can reduce your level of stress and thus become more successful. There are really things you can do to develop yourself as an entrepreneur.
From your experience, what are the main difficulties that keep people from becoming an entrepreneur?
First, let us take the example of women. What we see is that women tend to be less risk-taking and more perfectionist, so they have to check everything all the time. This is a barrier, because there is always something that you can view as an obstacle. Second, people have more things in their heads about all the things they have to do while starting and make them bigger than they really are. That is why I suggest them to write them down, because if you have them on paper you don’t need to remind them all the time. Then you see that people have the feeling they are taking huge risks, and that the risk is a lot bigger financially and emotionally in their heads than it actually is. It would be good, for starting entrepreneurs, to have people around to whom they can ask things and who can give them the little push they need. Finally, normally people have an idea arising from themselves, but they have no idea of what the market actually needs. They might say, ‘I like painting, I will start a painting business!’. But does the world need another painting business? What is your unique selling point? That is something that takes a lot of time for people to know.
In all your activities, you seem to possess the belief of a social and redeeming value of entrepreneurship. What are these values?
There are a few values created by entrepreneurs: economic, social, personal and ecological. You can differentiate these four between two groups, immaterial and material values. For instance, social value is an example of immaterial value: entrepreneurs work and act in a community, and thus create knowledge and build networks. On the other side, entrepreneurship also gives its community money, by creating employment, which is very material. Furthermore, also some personal value is created, because individuals are able to gain income and knowledge. More and more often, also some ecological value is emerging: there are entrepreneurs doing good not only for society, but for the wellbeing of this planet.
What would your suggestions be to a young girl who wants to become an entrepreneur?
I would react enthusiastically. If a young girl tells me she wants to start an enterprise, I would support her in her dream, because all good things start with a dream. I would first ask her why she wants to become an entrepreneur, because motivation is important. If you are externally motivated, you have to know that it is not easy to start an enterprise: it asks a lot from you, from your free time, money and knowledge. If, on the other hand, you are intrinsically motivated, you want to be independent, that is a lot better. Then, we are going to look at the idea, because a lot of young girls normally are insecure: they believe they have nothing to offer to the market, they have no experience. But then, you ask them what their talents are, what they can do. And every person has qualities in their backpack. The thing is to look in that backpack and see what it already has inside: dreams, competences and ambitions. From there, you take the business idea and see how it can be made viable. Because in the end, everybody needs to make money. So what is needed is a viable business idea that people want to pay for. It is about dreams, ambitions and competences and seeing how you can combine them with your business idea. It is about what makes you a good business owner. So, if a young girl comes to me and tells me, ‘I want to sell embroidery work’, and then another one comes in and tells me the same thing, they are both different entrepreneurs. It is a matter of knowing about your added value to the market and how you can take an advantage of being young. Because it really is an advantage being young: maybe your hourly rate is lower; maybe you are very innovative. Everybody has a backpack, look for the best things you have inside.
This interview was originally published on the print edition of The New European magazine, issue 7. You can read it here.