Josette Dijkhuizen is an entrepreneurship consultant and international speaker. She combines her work with science as honorary professor in entrepreneurship development. Her link between science and practice has led not only to different books, like ‘The Entrepreneurial Gene’, but also to inspiring presentations. In 2013 she was UN Women’s Representative and in the same year she started Krachtbedrijf Foundation to assist survivors of violence, such as abused women and refugees, to start-up their enterprise in The Netherlands. This program also brought her to visit women entrepreneurs in refugee settlements in the MENA region over the last few years. She received many awards for her work.
So how did you come up with the idea of starting the Krachtbedrijf Foundation?
In 2013, I was the Women’s Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands at the General Assembly of the United Nations. The theme of the statement I addressed was “women entrepreneurship” and in that year the UN focused on prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. So, I combined both my specialization in entrepreneurship and the topic of ending violence against women and girls to start Krachtbedrijf. From that moment on I am helping women from shelter homes which is the place that they go to when there’s a crisis. Then the idea grew to include both men and women who are survivors of violence. This is the first program of its kind in The Netherlands.
Are there any other similar programs in Europe?
I know of a similar program in France for abused women, and usually if you have a program for women entrepreneurs you would find a percentage of women in the group who were victims of abuse at some point of their lives. But a program focusing on all survivors of violence is not known to me.
Name something that guides both your personal and professional development and helps you regain focus during challenging times.
Having self-confidence, being ambitious, believing in what I’m doing and being passionate about it. Also, being open to criticism is very important as not everyone will support your idea or share the same vision that you have. All you need to do is keep going in the direction that will lead you to your goals and desired destination. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult, if every time someone criticizes your ideas or doesn’t like them, you give up and stop pursuing your dream. You will always be stuck in the same place!
If you want to proceed pursuing your dreams and goals you need to build up self-esteem and self-confidence. This is not an easy thing to do as I know being a visionary and very optimistic entrepreneur. There is always criticism as most people are not fond of change and doing things differently. So, I try to learn which advice is to my benefit and which ones I need to kindly ignore. I hope for everyone that they will find their purpose in life and have the guts to stay on track. Otherwise, you would derail on the way to your dreams. In my mid-thirties, I realized that I am passionate about entrepreneurship and that I wanted to be an entrepreneur myself. The freedom and independence appealed to me and at the same time I realized that I want to help other people in more difficult circumstances to do the same.
Thinking of all this and my curiosity to see the world and travel, I figured being an entrepreneur would allow me to do all these things. So, you have to find your place in this world which will be different for each one of us and remember that with the help of others, life becomes a bit easier.
So at what age do people usually realize what they want and who they really are?
Well, this really differs from one person to another; some people might find their way when they are 18 while others know what they really want in their 40s or 50s. But I think that our brains and personalities keep developing as we grow up and our perspectives can change along the way. Nevertheless, you can still see people at an older age who don’t know what their passion is. Fortunately, I stopped working in the corporate world at a young age because I knew that this is not something that I would want to do until I retire, just to say that I made a lot of money and had a nice job in the end. It didn’t give me any satisfaction at all.
Some people take this step after considerable thinking and reflection while others have a wakeup call after a certain event that takes place in their life, whether it’s a disease that hits them, a burnout, a death of a close friend or simply hitting a certain age. At moments like this, some people change their lives drastically while others decide to stay in their comfort zone and carry on.
Living in The Netherlands allowed me to take that step of leaving my job to become an entrepreneur and made it possible. While maybe it would have been much more difficult if I was living in another country with no social benefits, or where I could be, by the age of 13, married off and expected to follow certain traditions and societal rules. While here I can do whatever I want and I realize every day that this is a privilege which also brings responsibilities.
What do you believe is at the core of women’s hesitation to step out and pursue leadership roles where they are?
One of the things that you’ll find in research reports is that women have a lower perception of themselves and their qualities than men. Men usually jump immediately into challenges with a very confident attitude even if they have no experience at all. Women are more reluctant and doubt if they have the competencies to do so. Also, women pay more attention and take into consideration what other people say and think about them. But women should realize that they should live their lives and not somebody else’s life, so they must take charge and choose for themselves. Women should be more self-confident to be able to pursue leadership roles if that’s what they want and collaborate together.
We are different from men but equal; we have so many good and unique qualities which should allow us to get over the shyness and hesitation that some of us feel. We are the agents of change and should not be reluctant to take up that role.
Just jump on that stage if you have something to say and tell your story!
Another reason why women hesitate to pursue leadership positions is that for example in The Netherlands there is a bad perception of very successful women and sometimes even men. Among each other women are not always the nicest creatures, so it is important we are more supportive of each other. In addition, some women don’t want the responsibility that comes with being in a leadership position such as international travels, working more hours, actively networking and having less time with their children. In the end, pursuing a leadership position is a choice; a decision that a woman needs to take and it takes brains and guts. I chose my career and I fought for it all the time but I love it and I’m very happy with my choice.
Tell us one of your greatest professional accomplishments, and why it meant so much to you?
As an entrepreneur, I am very proud that I managed to do my Ph.D., from my own office independently and alongside my business and being the UN women representative at the same time. After receiving my Ph.D., I was appointed as a professor within two weeks, which allowed me to be the voice of a lot of women and to show other people that they can also do what I did and achieve whatever they want. Also, being some sort of a role model to other people by doing what I’m doing is a great source of happiness to me. I see this in the eyes of people and their reactions when I’m travelling to countries like Jordan, Lebanon or Pakistan where women and men see that it is possible to do a lot of things. Also, the Krachtbedrijf program is a proof that you can, as an individual, change the lives of others. In my case by developing entrepreneurs and helping the participants find their passion and know what they want to do in life. I am very happy if someone tells me that he or she regained their self-confidence and knows better what the next step in his or her life will be. That’s all that matters and I just use the tool of entrepreneurship.
We know from research that doing something for somebody else and helping other human beings is one of the main sources of happiness. Also, being grateful for the things you have in your life and I know from experience, this is absolutely true.
The world is a scary place – how do you manage fear and anxiety in both your work and personal life?
Well, fortunately, I’m very optimistic and I’m always open to new opportunities. I hardly notice obstacles, but I see a whole bunch of challenges every day. So, I’m opportunistic which helps me find my way, although I sometimes have to many nice ideas. I usually jump into projects that I find interesting and feel well, without putting too much thought into it. In general, I’m not easily scared, I have my moments of hesitation and doubt, but they don’t last for too long. Also, I always think about the worst that could happen then picture it and feel it, and normally things are not so scary then I imagined at the first moment.
Moreover, I always believe that if someone could do a certain thing then I can also do it, regardless of what it is. It just requires a lot of learning and practice which is something that everyone can do. You just need to have the motivation and drive! For example, I used to be stressed and anxious about stepping on stage and presenting to people, but I learned tricks and ways to handle this throughout the years. I also think that practice helps a lot. So, people just need to find their own ways of dealing with things.
Also, preparation is very important, whether it’s for a presentation, for a meeting with highly ranked officials or a visit to a refugee camp in a country you’ve never visited before. Moreover, being genuine and being you make these situations easier and less scary.
What do you believe will be the greatest benefit to having more women as leaders in the world?
Men and women are equal yet different, which means that we need both in order to have a balance. Research shows that teams with more diversity (different age groups, genders, and nationalities) are more successful and effective. So, I believe that we need each other; we need both the feminine and the masculine ways of thinking and dealing with things.
Tell us what your greatest personal challenge is, and how you’ve achieved success in spite of it.
I get very excited about ideas and start running fast before getting everybody I need on board. Also, being impatient is another challenge. But I’ve learned to put myself in other people’s shoes to understand how they think and what needs to be done to make them join in, and work with me on my ideas. I still learn to communicate my ideas in a better way to make sure that everybody understands my vision. Finally, I asked for help from some experts in strategy put my ideas into a plan and achieve success in a more efficient way. In the end, I keep learning from my successes and failures and I find the best ways to turn my ideas into reality. But that’s nice about life, you learn every day…
What role should men play in supporting more gender diversity?
They should just be more supportive, helpful and understanding toward each other. Women think in a different way, so men need to put more effort to understand them which is difficult. Sometimes I even don’t understand women. But a better way of communication and asking more questions would help. I also believe that men should participate more in taking care of the children and doing chores so that women can have more time and energy to also focus on their career. Also in some countries and in refugee camps which I visited, women entrepreneurs need more recognition and support from the men in the community. It is very important that these women see and feel that their husbands are proud of them and what they’re doing.
How do you see gender diversity in The Netherlands?
It’s not very good and it is reflected in e.g. the gender index. The pay gap is still considerable and we have fewer women on boards of directors than we used to have before. So we are not improving at all. This can be partly attributed to the fact that a lot of women prefer to work part-time and do not take the step to try to get a promotion.
I believe there’s a lot that needs to be done in regard to gender equality and everybody needs to participate in this: individuals, companies, institutions and the government. We need to have more women in leadership positions. It is better for all of us.
You mentioned that women sometimes doubt themselves. In your opinion, what can be done to empower women?
Being more proactive in asking women to participate in conferences, committees, and different industries. Maybe have a quota for women like in Norway, it worked there but I’m not sure if it would be the right solution in other countries. Also asking women to share their stories with other women is a great way of empowerment. Moreover, women participating in candidate selection in application procedures can lead to more diversity within companies. Finally, being part of business groups that constitute of men and women working together and supporting each other.
If you could know the answer to only one of the following, which one would you choose, and why?
- What happens after death?
- What is the meaning of life?
Well, I would choose the second one; what’s the meaning of life. I believe that we are all living on this planet to achieve something, we all have a purpose in life and each one of us can have a different meaning of life. I don’t know what happens after death, but I know that as long as we are here we have to make the best out of it. We have to find our way and contribute to this world in our own unique way.
And what advice would you give to young women around the world.
Find your purpose, put on your boots and walk your way! It’s not easy but you have to decide and choose for yourself. It is even more difficult if you are living in an environment where it is not acceptable to have a voice and to be whatever you want to be. You either choose to conform to the rules of the society or break free from all the chains, find your ‘running mates’ and walk in the direction of your dreams. Always remember that the road can be lonely sometimes, but you will find more partners in crime along the way. Also, be honest with yourself and bear with the consequences of your choices. Stay strong and be sure that it gets better and better with time. Finally, choose your happiness but don’t forget to help other people reach their goals as well.