By Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun

A visionary leader, Marian has worked with a diverse clientele across the world, coaching, consulting and advising them on a myriad of topics, involving tech, communication, diversity, and inclusion. She is a leading social entrepreneur in the Netherlands, a recipient of Inspiring Fifty for three years (2013, 2017 and 2019), and winner of the EU Business Angel award for her work with TEDxAmsterdamWomen Start-Up Awards.

As COVID-19 swept the globe and confined us to the safety of our homes, the writers at FEM-START spoke with the founder of FEM-START, Marian Spier, via a conference call. We talked about some of the ramifications of the pandemic on female business owners and the efforts of FEM-START in remedying them, the reality and myths of entrepreneurship, and the importance of mental well-being.

Could you briefly share with us your journey into the social entrepreneurship space?
I worked in education at the University of Applied Sciences Amsterdam and started to discover more about social impact and how by doing good you can create a better world. It also happened because of TED Talks. I started listening to them, went to the conferences and also organized TEDxAmsterdamWomen. That is how it started. This led me to make social entrepreneurship a primary focus while starting off my business.

In the beginning, I struggled and thought: what am I doing? Social entrepreneurship was not as popular when I first started. Talking to people helped me gain a better understanding of exactly what it meant to be a social entrepreneur, and through many interviews, I discovered my voice. This gave me focus. Focus helped a lot – focusing on not doing everything, but on doing what I was good at. Also, finding a team of people who were better in other areas compared to me played an important role in my journey.

How did you become the leader you are today?
Reading a lot and listening a lot. You learn from other people. Listen to people who know more than you in a certain field. And write everything down and read back! Lastly, I would say build a strong relationship with people and your clients; do not be entirely focused on what you can attain from the person. You reap what you sow. I am reaping a lot because I sowed a lot.

The spectrum of social entrepreneurship is vast, ranging from technology to sustainability. What areas have you been interested in?
My main focus is on inclusion for women and youth with a focus on entrepreneurship. As an entrepreneur, you must always look for places to add value. I found that I could add value to the female entrepreneurship ecosystem.

What challenges do female entrepreneurs face?
Women usually start a business because they identify a need or a lack of something. The problem they inadvertently run into is in scaling up their businesses. Hence, they stay as small-medium enterprises and people view female entrepreneurship at a micro-financing level. I believe that investing in women-led businesses and helping to scale up will bring about more of a change! I once heard that women “have rights, but do not have the same opportunities.” Indeed, this is a global phenomenon, even in The Netherlands. The inherent bias against women and the lack of confidence in presenting their company are a few challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and they stem from the lack of accessibility to relevant knowledge.

How do you overcome these obstacles?
An entrepreneur must be prepared for whatever may happen to them and their business including a global health crisis. It is important to build a network of mentors, sponsors, and, very importantly, a tribe: people you can talk to about your problems and people who willcontinuously challenge you. Another important ingredient is your mental health. It is imperative because you need the positivity and mental stamina to push forward and come up with creative solutions to solve the problems you may be facing.

The implications of the current pandemic on all facets of society are innumerable; its effects on the female entrepreneurship ecosystem can be anticipated. How is FEM-START going to help mitigate these effects?
In these times of crisis, we will be focusing on women entrepreneurs as they will be amongst the largest group to be affected in business. When things begin to settle down, nobody will have the time to think about the minorities; one of those groups is also women of color.

FEM-START is building a platform both online and offline for female entrepreneurs who are going through the crisis. At the moment we are creating online chapters in Africa and Europe. Traditionally, we are based on events and face-to-face coaching. Now, we are making our services available online. Femprenerhelp.nl, soon to be launched, is going to serve as a coaching platform to help female entrepreneurs navigate through all the necessary information and really cater to their needs. We intend on making information and help accessible to female entrepreneurs in need. People have leaned towards the Internet to help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that we all experience these days. Social media has been an outlet of self-expression for creatives and a platform for growing entrepreneurs.

What role do you think social media plays in business?
Social media plays a huge role. You can make an Instagram account and start a business for free. You can gain global interaction very fast. People of color entrepreneurs have been using social media to start and expand their business. One such example is Huda Kattan,who founded her cosmetics line, Huda Beauty.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to social media, as well. It romanticizes the culture of a start-up. It creates a false image of success and people think it is instant. You may see someone on Instagram one day and the next day they may be successful. However, it does not show you that it takes years of hard work and going through some tough times to be a successful entrepreneur. It also depends on your mindset.

What practices do you engage in to keep up a positive attitude and a strong mindset?
I meditate and I pray. I take my time in the morning to be thankful and happy that I am alive. Mental health and well-being is a huge part of self-care for me. Your surroundings need to be good, or else you cannot function. As I always say, you need to relax. Take this time to relax and think. Go for a walk, listen to relaxing music and do breathing exercises.

If you are stressed, you cannot solve the problem. Now is the time to be creative!

Photographer Jurre Rompa