By: Paola Hasbún
Lotte Engels is a corporate communication expert with years of experience in operations management and market research. After working as a Communication Officer at Océ Technologies and Operations Manager at Hewlett Packard, Engels ventured into business and became the Director of the Netherlands Business Support Office (NBSO) in Barcelona, a Dutch governmental trade promotion network that enhances the trade between The Netherlands and Spain. Committed to promoting the connection between Dutch and Spanish businesspeople, Lotte is also the President of ‘The Circle,’ a very dynamic Dutch business association in Barcelona. In this interview, we talked about the Spanish market, the importance of building strong business relationships, and the opportunities COVID-19 might bring.
As the Director of the NBSO in Barcelona, I understand you are connecting Dutch companies to the relevant people in Spain…
Yes. At the NBSO, we assist Dutch companies that want to start their businesses in Spain. It can be either exporting, opening a factory, or setting up a branch office. We facilitate this process in many ways: we provide them with information about the market, inform them about the rules and regulations applicable in Spain, and most importantly, we can provide them with the right contacts and networks to break into the Spanish market.
What would you advise Dutch entrepreneurs who want to scale-up their businesses and launch them in Spain?
I would advise them to come to our support office or connect with the Dutch Government’s economic network in Spain. We are an external part of the embassy in Madrid, focusing on the regions of Aragón and Catalunya. I think it is a perfect entry point because whatever your business model is, we can help you to explore the market, the opportunities and to put you in contact with the right people; it is all for free since it is a service from the Dutch government to promote the export.
Often, there are fewer female-founded businesses, and women are less represented in startup ecosystems. Is there a special focus or program for female entrepreneurs?
Not per se, but I have a broad network of female entrepreneurs and people working to promote gender equality in business, so I can also connect women entrepreneurs with the right people. After I started at the NBSO, I soon noticed the gender gap, especially in the tech sector. You can see it at the events and congresses; fewer women participate. Luckily there are many local initiatives, like, for example, a professional women’s network and the STEM Women Congress in Barcelona. Many different people have contacted me regarding this topic, so I have been connecting them to promote gender equality.
So there are good opportunities…
Absolutely, and hopefully, more Dutch entrepreneurs will internationalize and open their businesses in Spain. A colleague of mine at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs focuses on female entrepreneurship. She often mentions there is a huge potential for young female Dutch entrepreneurs who are not yet internationalizing. There is a big opportunity for Dutch female founders to take that step and to take that leap into internationalization. Whatever they do, they should be aware that there is a very interesting network of the Dutch government outside of the Netherlands. They can reach out to us, and we can help them with information and join events and connect them with the right people. I have an overview of Spain’s networks; relations and business connections are essential in this country.
Which markets are growing in Spain?
The tech industry is so broad; it can be Fintech, e-commerce, digitalization of events, etc. With COVID-19, digital transformation has become really important; many companies will have to do a digital transformation because of the current situation, so there is a good opportunity here. Moreover, the Spanish government is strongly focusing on digital transformation and putting many resources and efforts into it to be a good opportunity for Tech companies.
And besides Tech, are there any other markets growing?
I would say everything related to sustainability. Whatever is going to be restructured, it will have to be done sustainably. From a government perspective, there is a strong focus on the green economy, circular economy, and sustainability in Spain. This means companies will have to comply and adjust their policies. Due to the COVID-19 situation, Spain got extra funds from the European Union, and they need to plan and spend it sustainably. This is a great opportunity, and it can be comprehensive, from the cancellation of electric vehicles to water management.
What challenges do people change when investing or launching their businesses in Spain?
I would say to manage their expectations. An essential element is to build a network and have a strong business relationship with companies to be successful. It is important to invest in this business relationship and to understand that it can take time. It does not happen from one day to another. It’s not like you will enter the market one day and start having turnovers immediately… it will depend on the business model and how you want to approach your market.
Do you have any tips for approaching the market?
We see a big tendency in Dutch companies approaching the market with local business partners, who are already settled in a specific sector. It is beneficial for both parties: the foreign or Dutch companies can bring a lot of added value by bringing a new product or service -which is good for the business portfolio -, and the Spanish business partners add the value of being already present in the market. By partnering with a local business, Dutch companies do not have to start working on entering the market by themselves. Many Dutch companies enter the Spanish market this way, and I think it’s a good and recommendable choice.
It makes it easier…
Yes. Of course, you can still enter the market by yourself if you have a good product and a good team, but you need to be aware that it will take time to build relationships and make people trust you; you need to put time into it.
Are there any cultural differences in how to build that network and business relationships?
I think Spain is a bit more hierarchical than The Netherlands, so you need to have the right people at the table to make certain decisions. It is important to know this. Otherwise, you can spend a lot of time networking with people, but you need to have the right person in front of you for things to happen.
Another difference is that in The Netherlands, we are used to people working part-time. In Spain, most people work full time, the whole part-time culture is not really present yet, and it is important to be aware of this. Before COVID-19, the flexible-hours and working from home once a week culture was not fully established in Spain. I think things will start to change now.
Let’s hope so…
Yes, I think this would help women’s role in business, not only entrepreneurs, in adapting and managing their work-balance life better, because if you have stringent working rules, you have to adapt the personal part. That is not the way for me. One of the most important elements in a workplace is flexibility; to have the possibility to work from home and be more flexible so I can pick up my children from school. I think this flexibility is also important at a personal level.
In what sense?
In the sense of having a supportive partner who is willing to give you the right to have the same opportunity to grow and develop yourself on a personal level… a partner who is also willing to take a step back and not just say: ‘this is my working schedule and you have to adapt to it.’ It’s about putting two working schedules next to each other and seeing how you will adapt to it together. These were the most important elements in all the roles that I have performed so far. This flexibility, balance, and equality helped me take the steps that I have made, which helped me develop in the roles I have performed. To have a flexible work environment can be as important as the salary, and on both sides, you need to have the flexibility.
– by S.Cannegieter
Karmijn Kapitaal is an investment fund founded in 2010 by three women, whose admiration and perseverance in entrepreneurship lead them to invest in gender-neutral Dutch SMEs.
Building and growing companies are Désirée’s forte, and this is a peek into getting to know ⅓ of the growing forces behind Karmijn Kapitaal.
What was your journey leading up to being the founder of Karmijn Kapitaal?
After +15 years of private equity and entrepreneurship experience, I thought it was time for a new leaf. I started my career at ABN AMRO, worked independently, became an entrepreneur, and then sold my (interior design) company successfully in 2007, and now I am ⅓ of Karmijn Kapitaal since 2010. I met Cillian and Hadewych during our tenure in banking. I joined forces to do it differently, not the status quo differently but differently in all aspects of the business. From leadership skills, people, perspective, priorities to diversity, in who we are, personality, and what we bring to the table differently. We all have a shared goal and vision. We believed we could, so we did, and with the help of a mentor together., I am a true believer in having a mentor in your life. I admire FEMpreneurhulp, the initiative of FEM-START, and the reason we partnered with the mentoring program. I believe in having different mentors in your life. You evolve in thinking and hearing different perspectives and experiences as the phrase goes in Dutch Durf te vragen!
What is Karmijn Kapitaal’s core value for SMEs’ investment? Our industry is a very high risk, short term, high returns, value ganache, money-driven with sparingly gender diversity, and equality in the industry. Our two-way goals are to make the world more gender diverse and a sustainable one and make an excellent return for our investors at the same time. We want to invest private equity as it should be. We want to change and balance and bring about actual gender diversity change versus just saying it and leading by example. Investors trust us with millions of their funds to make a ROI for them, and we, in turn, critically look at SMEs that we can invest capital in to make them scale-up and grow faster but sustainable.
We make a difference in the way we invest capital. We look at the company’s person, the sustainability of their service and product, and how that will mitigate and aid sustainability and gender balance in the future and the world.
How did you hear about FEM-START and FEMpreneurhulp? What was your first thought and impression? I saw a post from Marian on LinkedIn and sent her a message. Dare to ask, back to my motto. We at Karmijn Kapitaal believe in diversity. We believe our investors, who trust us with their money, do not want us to be activists. They want us to make sage investments for returns on investments. However, as women founders and entrepreneurs ourselves, we have a keen interest in making it easier for female entrepreneurs to get funding/investment for their (start-up/scale-up) company. Because we strongly believe in helping each other elevate professionally, and we women need help. Hence, with that notion, every potential investment in a female-founded company, we want to actively act as a catalyst if we can and are keen to help as it’s always in the back of our minds, albeit we are a gender-neutral firm. We are creating a more positive narrative versus the negative in the world. Therefore, these two initiatives’ existence and cause spoke to us in all these aspects.
Do you believe there is the slow progress of women in private equity? YES, it is moving forward, quiet, and steady. Like in every industry, we have to keep moving forward and not go two steps back. But always be one step forward and not stagnate.
What are the challenges you see women entrepreneurs encounter more compared to men?
The biggest pitfall is wanting to do everything by yourself. If you don’t have the skillset for something, ask for help, hire someone better at it, and where it comes easier. This way, you can focus on what you are good at instead of creating a prototype yourself. You have the idea, get someone to create the prototype. It is also partly due to the network, men tend to have a broader network than women, and your network makes it so much easier, honestly, just as with anything you do. Ask yourself the first and challenging question. ‘What do I want with my business? Do I want to grow and scale up my business or become an entrepreneur? When you know that answer, everything will come naturally, or it won’t. It’s a personal decision everyone has to make. Nobody is good at everything. Ask for help, and focus on what you are good at.
How do (start-up/scale-up) entrepreneurs combat this current crisis of not being able to network face-to-face, attend events, and get face value?
We have a lot ‘more’ time (minus the zoom online calls) than traveling, so see it as an opportunity. The majority of the world is operating from their home base, so this is also an opportunity to strategize and start sending emails to people you admire and would like to know better! A busy person would now be more approachable for a 15minute pick your brain call/virtual coffee than meeting in person. It involves fewer logistics, but it can also mean they are snowed in with emails, concise, explicit with focus, and your why and how.
What are exciting businesses that Karmijn Kapitaal are open to explore and invest in? We believe that everything can be interesting. We have an unobstructed view of all industries and business concepts. Our added value is not in the entrepreneurial area of business. Our expertise lies in the blueprint of a start-up and existing company.
Female entrepreneurs tend to be more socially-conscious and gravitate towards solving real-world problems than their male counterparts. It is not appealing to investors as it can bring less profit. What has your experience as a founder of an investment fund been like?
I am not sure if we would agree with the statement. We feel that we can’t generalize women and men. Everybody is different. We know, and research has often shown that good gender-balanced companies create more value, including profit. We focus on proving that point.
How can we attract more investors to tech companies seeking to create social impact and solve real-world problems?
Tech is becoming more and more mainstream. That does and will attract more mainstream investors too, including social impact-oriented ones. The sector could help itself by presenting itself less ‘technical.’
It has been suggested that men and highly patriarchal build the tech industry. Women “wedge” themselves into these spaces to fulfill the diversity quota. How can we bring about a radical, systemic change? How can women “run tech” and not “work at tech patriarchy”?
I am not very familiar with the tech sector. In general, though, I believe that everybody is ‘afraid’ of what one doesn’t know or understand. I think that part of the answer would require to train men to understand how unconscious bias works and how diversity could add value. Visionary male CEOs, investors, and the like need to stand up and are required to install programs for inclusion training in their companies.
Gender diversity is a core value of Karmijn Kapitaal. In what ways does bringing men on board with the issues faced by women help bring about change?
We see and know that most entrepreneurs see precisely the same, that the combination of diverse leadership styles (‘male’ and ‘female’ if you want) or skills pays off in companies. For example, the combination of people taking risks and other people who want to manage them, result-oriented people (sales, sales, sales!), and managers that are people-oriented, long term and short term, etc.
What inspires you most to continue to achieve what you want?
My admiration for people that can create to envision an idea and pull through. The sparkle in their eye, their eagerness about their passion, product, service, or start-up. Their entrepreneurial spirit. Every meeting with a potential startup or entrepreneur, I am enthralled by their motivation and dedication. It is very inspiring, and that fuels me in my core as a critical, creative thinker.
Last takeaway for women (tech)preneurs, entrepreneurs, and the community?
Continue to speak up and take the lead, look for help, and dare to ask questions!
By Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun
Kimberly Ofori is a wonder-woman who defies convention and goes after what she wants. Started as an insurance advisor at a tender age of 16, Kimberly is a consultant at ScaleUp Company, Business Mentor at Founder Institute, and now, a FEMpreneurHulp mentor who is helping female entrepreneurs navigate the challenges of COVID-19 using the lessons she’s learned along her extraordinary journey. We spoke with Kimberly to talk about her story, business endeavors, and FEMpreneurHulp.
What inspired you to volunteer as a mentor in FEMpreneurhulp?
In my journey, I have seen that some of the unsuccessful endeavors happened because I did not have access to the right information, resources and people. I do not wish that upon anyone. I believe that if your business is going to fail it should be because there was no product market fit or the market was not ready. It should not happen because you did not know how to do something. My motivation to do this is the women who have found the sweet spot of having a good product and found a market vision, but are not able to come out of a situation because of a certain circumstance, maybe the pandemic or they were in trouble a long time ago. I find it immensely rewarding to help those women grow their business or keep their business, especially in times of crisis.
What are the main struggles you see in female entrepreneurs face during COVID’19?
A lot of entrepreneurs struggle with deciding whether to pivot or not. There are several stages in entrepreneurship that will make you doubt whether to continue or not, but the pandemic has really exposed all the imperfections within your business that you should’ve fixed a long time ago. In this climate, a lot of entrepreneurs are debating whether to invest again in something new, or pivot in a different direction. I think this has to do with stepping out and being bold in your decisions. If you are an entrepreneur, you are intrinsically motivated by risk-taking. At times, these entrepreneurs need to hear that their idea is valid and they just need that external validation from a mentor. There is a lot of volatility in the market right now. Businesses are moving online. It is a conscious decision that you have to make- and it can be very scary.
You mention in your blog that women often struggle with positioning themselves, or tend to undervalue themselves. How do you suggest women can boost their confidence?
It is hard- I still struggle with it every day. It is something that is deeply rooted in our society, that women are expected to be humble and not voice our opinion- it is seen as being aggressive. It starts with yourself. Every time I feel like that I ask myself if I am going to get what I want the way I am approaching it, if the answer is no, then I have to do a mindset shift. I am going to do what is necessary to get there. Sometimes that means disagreeing with the rest of the team.
What do you do to keep balance and mental health in these times of crisis?
Every day I prioritize. I schedule every hour in my calendar, meticulously. I know what I am doing every hour and why I am doing it that way. I hardly deviate from my schedule, I have a very demanding private life as well, so I can not afford to “go with the flow”. Preparation and planning ahead helps me keep sane. Give yourself some room to breathe. As women, we think we must be present for everybody, every time; you can not pour from an empty cup. To rest and refuel is a must.
It is amazing all the wonderful things you have achieved in your career. Do you want to share something about yourself that not too many people know?
Thank you very much! Naturally, I am an introvert. When people see me, they are surprised to find out that I am shy. That is because I really trained myself to get out of my shell, but before, I was struggling with a lot of things. I think a lot of people don’t see how much effort was put into getting where I am right now in my career.
I was born and raised in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, to my Surinamese mother and Ghanian father. When I was 16, my mother had lost her job during the crisis. I quit school and worked for an insurance Company because I felt it was my responsibility to help my family financially. I was the youngest insurance advisor at the firm: in the interview I convinced them to hire me in spite of my age, I had removed my age from the resume. It was the first bold step that I took. That experience opened my eyes to the numerous possibilities that come with stepping out of one’s comfort zone and simply asking for what you want.
People have that one defining moment in their lives, which shapes them into the person they are. What was that moment for you?
Years ago, I gave up everything I had in the Netherlands to move to Dubai for a job as a business manager at a Global Company. On the first day, my manager informed me that they were not opening the Dubai branch anymore and handed me an envelope with one month’s salary and wished me good luck.
I made the decision to stay back and make it work. After a long six months of job hunting, it occurred to me that the reason why I am unable to find a job is that as an introvert- it is hard for me to ask for help. Nobody knew I was struggling; I was keeping up appearances. That moment really pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and start reaching out to people on different platforms, until I found a job at a prominent talent management company.
During my time at this company, I was fortunate to work with great companies like Shell and Emirates Airlines as a consultant on their HR planning and strategic mapping. That was probably one of the best experiences in my career, including the six months of searching, which really built and shaped the things I do now, in terms of perseverance and not giving up. In addition, working at high profile positions despite not meeting the job description, really helped me understand that what I am capable of is more important and the skills I have to offer are equally as valuable as the credentials stated in job descriptions.
You say that you are an entrepreneur at heart, having founded a number of brands and companies. What inspired you to venture into these businesses after working in the corporate world?
After working in Dubai, I moved to Spain, and I could not get a job because I am not proficient in Spanish. Instead, I started three online platforms: one was a job recruitment portal that did not do so well, a fashion platform called Doll House, and Fab Lane where I sold hair extensions. Both Fab Lane and Doll House grew into successful businesses. During that period, I was constantly teaching myself everything: how to set up and grow an online business, and building a community. After reaching a certain level of revenue, I sold them.
After a while I became very interested in learning about the business climate in Ghana. There were many businesses and start-ups being set up, but there was a lack of the right platform to grow these businesses, and that is how Aprenuer came into being. Unable to sleep one night, I decided to teach myself how to code a little bit on CodeAcademy. Using that knowledge, I started building the Apreneur website, it was a cross between Linkedin and Facebook. I envisioned it to be a space for African founders to connect with each other. It would provide them with opportunities to learn from each other and collaborate. I remember when the website went live, it crashed because there were 6000 applications and that was too much traffic for the web host, which I had poorly built myself. That is how the journey began.
What is your motivation for starting a new project?
I am still trying to figure it out myself! I feel like I have been through certain things in life that have pushed me to see what is out there, what is possible. I have seen my mother come out of certain struggles, which removed the limitation of things from my mind. I aspire to be as strong as her. My mother went back to school because she had us when she was a teenager and got married at 18. She got her bachelor’s degree at 48. That was such an inspiration for me. She went out there and chased her dreams, which is what every woman should do.
Thank you very much for this wonderful interview, Kimberly!