‘I want to have contributed to a better world. That is what enriches me.’
Ineke Holtwijk (1955) is a long time journalist and consultant. Her speciality is responsible business. She has written books on women and development, child labour, development versus nature conservation. Her last non-fiction book is on the clash with 'civilization' of a recently discovered Indian tribe in the Brazilian Amazon.
Ineke Holtwijk is Dutch and based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
‘A women’s network has a huge business potential because women are more inclined to share their knowhow, time and energy’
by Ineke Holtwijk
Dutch Corinne Heijn (1957) carries the omen of a famous name in her native country. Her family founded a retail chain a century ago that became a huge success in the sector. If you are born into such a family you are educated with a mission: to hand over what you have to the next generation.
Corinne, a joyful, warm hearted mother of two, strongly felt she had another, more urgent obligation in life. She dedicates her inheritance and the best of her energies to an international network for women business owners. Corinne: ‘I want to have contributed to a better world. That is what makes me feel rich.’
How did you get the idea of a women’s business network?
Two experiences opened my eyes. I went to war ridden Afghanistan. I was part of a mission for the Business Council for Peace, a private group founded by successful American business women. We had to identify business women with entreprenerial skills who could be invited for training to the USA.
I went up and down Kabul, interviewing some thirty women. Most of them produced embroidered garments and operated out of their homes. They were hard working, strong women who were putting their communities back on the road but they had no access to foreign markets and lacked marketing knowledge. I was shocked. Kabul was flooded with NGO’s and aid money. Why did everybody overlook these women?
And the other experience that made you aware?
That was a bit later. I organised a trade mission for Dutch business women to South Africa. I tried to match them with South African companies, whether they were owned or directed by a man or a woman. I noticed the natural flow and understanding when the women of the mission met South African female entrepreneurs. Networking was unusually intense.
But why a network exclusively for women? Would it not be better to integrate business women into the existing male dominated networks?
Let me first stress that there is no ideological reason. If a member needs to integrate into a male network and asks us for advice we will help her with introductions or whatever she needs. The ‘only women’ characteristic makes it easier for many female entrepreneurs to join UnitedSucces. The mental threshold is lower than for the ordinary business networks where men dominate. And it pays off in two ways. In many countries belonging to a prestigious international network provides status to the outside world and at the same time a safe internal environment to share and grow.
Can you give an example?
I doubt whether many business women would contact an unknown male collegue in a foreign country to ask practical advice about do’s and don’ts. But if it would be a ‘her’ - another woman business owner - she probably would. Women feel more at ease sharing doubts and positive tips with other women.
But still, the business is done in male networks.
Wait and see. Trust is the basis of doing business. A women’s network, like UnitedSucces, can be more effective since women need far less time to connect with each other than men. Women very quickly - one chat is often enough - identify with each other and are more inclined to share. A business woman wants a peer in her network to have success too. A male environment is much more competitive. So we tap into a very big potential.
Why do you think business women quickly identify with each other?
Whether you like it or not women are different from men. They have been socialised in another way, no matter which country they live in. Being a daughter is something completely different to being the son. Women share a bunch of problems. Trying to combine career with motherhood. Getting around the expectations of the family and the environment. Women in general experience much more difficulties than men to cope with these things whilst sticking to their own inner believes.’
Do women differ from men as entrepreneurs?
Yes. To mention one difference: women are more aware of risks. As a result their businesses generally grow slower but they also have more chance of surviving. That is at least what research shows us.
On the website it says UnitedSucces is the only network in the world dedicated to women business owners. How can you be so sure?
We checked it. There are many business clubs and you have numerous networks for women. But they are all mainly geared to corporate women. The only networks that focus on women entrepreneurs, are for women who have just started a business. You’ll find them for instance in the USA and in India. They work at grass root level and offer assistance for start-ups .Very relevant and well run organisations but of no use to established women business owners. Established business owners have little time and different questions and problems. They want to exchange with peers but there was no forum for them.
You decided to found UnitedSucces as a business. Why didn’t you make it a non-governmental organisation?
Because of what I saw with other networks. A network functions well when it is flexible and keeps focus at all times. That demands fine tuning and an overall view. Both are difficult to guarantee for an international organisation of women business owners who are busy and rarely meet. I was asked some years ago to organise a conference for women entrepreneurs from the USA, Europe and some French speaking African countries. They wanted to establish a business network. They got bogged down with committees and more committees. Ego’s raised their heads. The organising of the network itself absorbed all the energy and it never took off in the end. UnitedSucces will not have that problem. As a business we are lean and mean and can act promptly to the needs of entrepreneurs. Responsibilities are clear and decision making is simple.
Trust and transparency are words frequently used on your site. But how do you guarantee them?
Firstly we know many members personally and our intention is to meet all of them before or after they become a member. We also work with a well known international auditing company with local offices. And there is of course the network itself. In a network the word spreads quickly. You can only do business with a woman 5.000 kilometres away when you can be sure she is reliable. That’s why United Succes has a code of ethics and it is not negotiable. Trust and transparency are vital to operate a quality network. Therefore we take the code very seriously. A network is as ethical as its members are.
Why do you ask for an annual membership fee if the founding costs have been taken care of?
I paid for the founding costs. That is correct. But now the network must be self sustaining. We don’t want to depend on anybody in the future.
It might become a profitable business…
Yes, if UnitedSucces becomes a huge network it will be profitable. But we are not chasing membership, we are selective. Quality is our focus. In a niche market quality and relevance prevail above quantity. And profit is not what I am after. I call UnitedSucces a social business: the profit will be for the members or will pay for extra services.
You are not interested in profit but you do call yourself a business woman. Can you explain that?
Business people have a drive. I too set my goals and am as ambitious to achieve them as they are. I dream of creating jobs. Profit is not the most rewarding gain you can make in business. The most rewarding is making a difference with your life for others. The difference I want to make is connecting and empowering women. I don’t like the word ‘helping’ since that displays arrogance. I am at the most just a facilitator.
What is your golden tip to women business owners?
Stick to your own intuition and truth. Women generally quickly give up their views because they think others are better informed on the subject. That often proves to be a wrong assumption. You are much less of a nitwit than you thought. But you should be aware of what your real weaknesses in the operation are. And don’t hesitate to ask for assistance. Business women excel in perseverance and resilience. But for sustainable growth you need to address your weaknesses.
How did the fact that your family name is synonymous with wealth and success affect your operating mode?
It was of influence but not in the way many people think. Simplicity was what my parents taught us. My father never ever told us anything about company matters. The fact that we were rich was taboo. Nobody ever mentioned money issues at home. My parents had four children and we spent our summer holidays near a lake in Holland as any other ordinary Dutch family. For instance, as a child I had only travelled abroad once in my life with my parents. I had to cycle to school and back. And my father always stressed that knowledge was the best treasure to have. It was only when I became a student at university that the issue came up. Fellow students constantly commented on it. A blind ambition grew in me: I became stubborn and wanted to be purely self made. After I finished my studies at Harvard I earned my own living, paid for my own, little wonky car. I never accepted any help. It may sound strange but that is why I understand many women who struggle on their own.
That Corinne adopted UnitedSucces as her lifetime project and not the family business, is sometimes hard to understand for others. In Africa they were startled: sharing is OK but sharing your money? What about your family? Corinne understands the disbelief but is never tired of explaining. And her two teenage boys? Did they agree with this remarkable capital outflow?
Corinne laughs. ‘I didn’t ask them and I can assure you I never will. I give them an education, warmth, attention and I try to impart important values. Like making a difference. In my opinion this is more crucial than money to become a happy and fullfilled adult person.’