By Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about an array of challenges for businesses worldwide, disproportionately affecting women-led businesses. From working remotely to losing revenue, running a business during a pandemic has not been easy for women. To support them, FEM-START launched its latest initiative, FEMpreneurhulp, an online platform offering mentoring and community network to female entrepreneurs in the Netherlands. We spoke with Sandra van de Pal, the co-founder of FEMpreneurhulp to discuss how this platform is helping women weather the unpredictable obstacles of COVID-19.
You went to Utrecht University and studied Public Policy and Administration. Between graduating and co-founding FEMpreneurhulp, you have been working in the entrepreneurial scene. Did you always picture yourself doing this?
No, I did not! As a child, I do not recall thinking: this is what I want to do. However, I was always driven by the idea of making the world a better place, and I often found myself organizing events for my friends and family, constantly trying to bring people together, connecting and helping them.
After high school, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a school in Ghana for three months. During my time there, I wondered: how much do these type of initiatives actually help? The school had teachers, but sometimes they did not feel like teaching and let the volunteers teach instead. I came to the understanding that some development projects are quite futile as they do not really focus on what people need, and the impact of the initiative is often not measured.
After this experience, I decided to study Public Administration and Organizational Science because I was distinctly interested in making policies that actually help people and achieve the impact desired. I focused on International Development and realized that I wanted to combine a business way of working with reaching development goals. That is why I leaned toward the start-up world. I really like the energy, and the lean start-up methodology of ‘build, measure and learn’ is my motto.
The city of Amsterdam conducted a survey in April 2020, which focused on the impact of COVID-19 on female entrepreneurship and women in tech. According to the survey, women face challenges while juggling both professional and personal demands. In your experience, what are the challenges female entrepreneurs face during the pandemic?
Maybe women in general do more things next to their work, often women have more household commitments like taking care of their parents or their children. But also, in general, men have more access to money and funding than women, which is also part of the bias. Men reach higher positions in big companies than women, they earn more, and almost all Dutch VCs are white males. Another problem is a lack of representation of women in start-ups; there are not a lot of female role model figures, for example. Now with the pandemic, many businesses are struggling to move their business online; to keep up the sales, and to manage teams working from home. I think it is really important to build a strong community of women to support each other.
Along with Marian Spier, you co-founded FEMpreneurhulp, an initiative by women for women providing support during this pandemic. How did the idea of FEMpreneurhulp come to you?
Initially, we worked together on FEM-START NL which is going to be a physical hub, where women-led startups can grow in the accelerator. However, due to COVID-19, the physical hub cannot happen yet.
When we were hit with the pandemic, Marian and I started to discuss the ways we could offer help to female entrepreneurs who were reaching out to Marian asking for advice regarding their business. Likewise, in my close circle, I saw my friends and family were struggling with their businesses. A majority of businesses have a hard time moving their business online; and the new circumstances can be very tough also mentally. FEMpreneurhulp was born from the very need to offer help by matching entrepreneurs in need with our network of successful women and experienced mentors.
We know that FEMpreneurhulp is providing a mentoring service and a community in the form of a network. Could you comment on this?
In our mentoring service, female entrepreneurs can sign up online and get three free mentoring sessions to deal with certain business and mental related difficulties they might be facing due to COVID-19. Next to that, we want to build a community. We ask the entrepreneurs to share their story and their experience with other women. We want women to know that they are not alone and that they have a community to lean on. Moreover, in September 2020 we will host an in-person FEMpreneurhulp event. Of course, in accordance with the COVID-19 measures.
What are your plans for FEMpreneurhulp after COVID-19?
The plan is to continue to help women entrepreneurs who could benefit from this program. FEMpreneurhulp is focused on all female entrepreneurs, including those who have already built their businesses. We are also working hard to build FEM-START NL which is more focused on start-ups. The target groups are different. We intend on keeping the two next to each other as we want women to continue to benefit from the mentoring and to belong to a larger community of entrepreneurs.
Thank you very much for talking about FEMpreneurhulp!