VULNERABLE LEADERSHIP: HUSH NOW, WE ARE STILL HUMANS
While EWPN is still on its infancy stage as a startup, there are many exceptional lessons I have learned, not just as an individual, but as a woman, a professional, a founder, an immigrant and a human being. Starting and running EWPN has been one of the most challenging, yet rewarding thing I have done in my life. It has allowed to get out of my comfort zone, be daring, fail, start again and continue standing. It has taught me so many invaluable lessons that I would like to share with other women, immigrants, women of colour and other individuals who want to start something, but are too unsure yet.
Clear strategy before getting started
While I knew everything in my heart and mind on how I was hoping to build EWPN, it was a whole different game when I had to put it down on paper. Putting the plans and details one by one allowed me to look at my thoughts from a tangible written paper.
Make use of available tools & programmes through the government or other bodies
I was lucky enough that The Dutch Government has many programmes and help that they give entrepreneurs. One of these programmes is through a subsidy called SIB Voucher. Having access to a business consultant meant that I had someone, apart from my husband, to run ideas through and also brainstorm with. My consultant, Sabine van Egeraat, was able to guide me through the whole process and gave concrete and unbiased advice on what would work and what wouldn’t.
Take time to recruit & bring on board the right team
This is extremely crucial for startups, especially when bringing on board the core team. The team that joins during the start period will be very influential in determining whether your startup will make it or fail. Get people who believe in your mission (not the same passion but same mission). Having the wrong core team is guaranteed to make you fail. I was very lucky to have met and brought in my two Co-Founders in 2017: Nadja van der Veer & Silvia Mensdorff-Pouilly. These two exceptional ladies helped cement the EWPN dream. This was followed by getting more people on board on both executive and advisory boards. Having the right people on board guaranteed the success of EWPN.
No means ‘next’ or ‘maybe next time’
Starting something new means getting hundreds and even thousands of ‘no’. I received so many no’s, that I stopped counting. As a founder, changing my mindset and looking at ‘no’ to mean ‘next; helped me move on and reach out to more people, who eventually said yes. Don’t waste too much time evaluating each and every no you get. While you are allowed, and by all means should take time to feel the disappointment, don’t dwell on it for so long. Keeping a list of potential individuals, organisations or companies to reach out to, will give you a clearer structure and saves you time to ensure that you reach out to the right people. Strike down the clear and strong ‘’no’ and highlight the weak ‘’no’ and mark them as ‘maybe next time’. This will also allow you to go back and reach out again later, to individuals and organisations that were just being cautious because you are a startup that nobody has ever heard of.
Make sure you have enough savings or back-up plan
The first year(s) will mean that you only pump money in and expect zero returns. For the whole of 2016, I personally had to fund EWPN. This was in terms of liquid cash and time, a lot of time. I didn’t expect that EWPN would be self-sustaining within the first year. Being that aware, I also had a back-up plan in case things didn’t go as expected. This reduced the pressure and stress, knowing that at any time, I could go to the back-up plan.
Make sure you are either networked, net worth or know people who are
My strongest tool so far that has helped me drive EWPN’s growth, has by far, been my network. Since a young age, I have been blessed with this gift of bringing people together.
I have no problem reaching out to people (strangers mainly), for a mission. Being intentional in reaching out, meant that I tapped into, not just my network, but their network as well. The biggest and most valuable asset for any founder is their network. If you are a commercial startup, getting access to high net-worth individuals will mean getting funds for your startup. While this might not be easy for every startup, getting access to networked individuals, will open other doors for you. Focus on building and nurturing relationships, and the rest will flow naturally.
Believe in yourself, and I mean really believe in yourself, and your mission
If you can’t buy what you are selling, neither can anyone else. People can easily smell self-doubt. If you don’t believe in your mission, you will have an extremely hard time getting people to believe in you and your mission. You have to be 100% convinced and connected to the problem/issue/challenge that you are trying to solve. You are your biggest champion. Self-belief sends out good vibes and in return, attracts the right people to your mission.
Diversity in your teams
Bring on board people with different skills and expertise than you, especially your core team. Having people who think, act, do and are exactly like you will be detrimental to your organisation.
Getting people that challenge your ideas, bring in ideas of their own, disagree with you, have different ways of doing things etc; will enrich your startup and create invaluable teams. Naturally, I am a dreamer, an idealist and a serial starter. I have hundreds of ideas and things that I want to implement. While this can be extremely good in many ways, it can also be distracting. Having someone on board that is a little cautious and focused, helped me take one step at a time and created focus and structure. The EWPN core team has a very diverse skill set, something that ensures that we can complement each other on different skills and expertise that each individual has. This has been one of the secrets to our success.
Give autonomy to the team but also steer them in the right direction
I strongly believe in hands-off leadership. This will only work if an organisation has the right people. By strongly believing in the goodness, professionalism, expertise and skill that each team member brings on board, every individual has the autonomy and freedom to work the way they do, and knowing that they have 100% support from the executive team and other team members.
This not only creates the best community, but also taps into the uniqueness of each individual. In return, this enriches EWPN in invaluable ways. Same can be applied in commercial startups. As a founder, focus on getting the right people, smarter than you are, different than you are, and then allow them the freedom to bring out the best version of themselves. This not only empowers your team, but also create that sense of belonging and assurance that each team members is valued, respected and equal.
Loss is part of the game..and it can be painful
Realistically speaking, many startups or even well-established companies don’t get to be profitable within the first years, and others never do. Setting realistic expectations will allow you to be prepared when you make loss in the first years. While I knew that EWPN wouldn’t get to self-sustaining within a couple of years, it never occurred to me that we would make a loss in the first years. This came as a total shock to me as a founder and all our team. We hadn’t prepared for this. As a startup with no revenue stream, this threw us a little bit off the track, but we were quick to recover. Being a founder, I was responsible for covering these losses. This meant going back to family resources. While this was a painful experience, it gave us a wake-up and allowed us to focus, recover and bring EWPN to profit within a few months, therefore creating the stability that is needed to run the organisation. On a personal level, this was a very invaluable experience.
Being a founder means that you take responsibility for both wins and losses. Being realistic and having a back-up plan will ensure that you are prepared and finally able to cover the losses should this happen.
Be ok asking for help and accepting it
Starting an organisation means that everything lives in your head and heart. Because the picture is so clear in your head as a founder, it can be extremely hard to accept or even ask for help. Wanting to do everything is not only detrimental to one’s health, but to the growth of the organisation as well. As a startup, EWPN needed as many hands as possible and it was impossible for me as a founder to do everything alone. Getting to that level that forced me to see and accept that I needed help, was challenging. What was even harder was asking and accepting help. It meant giving up control; trusting other people 100% and letting go of the perfect picture in my head. Asking and accepting help will not only free your time as a founder, but also allow your startup to flourish and grow from all the insights and inputs from different people. However, be very intentional, selective and careful on where, how and who you ask for and accept help from. Ensure that these people are aligned with your mission.
Vulnerability is an under-estimated leadership skill
Many leaders and founders are so cautious and afraid to be vulnerable or show any sign of vulnerability. There are unwritten rules that each leader or founder adheres to and one of them is to avoid showing vulnerability at all costs. Sadly, it is still viewed as a sign of weakness. One thing for sure is that founding a company; not-for-profit or commercial can be a very lonely and emotional experience. We have seen cases and stories of founders going through a lot silently. What this does to us, is create this notion that leaders don’t experience pain, disappointment, sadness or loss like other people. In 2016, when EWPN was still a baby, I lost my brother. This was the first loss I had ever experienced in my immediate family. The pain of grieving in a foreign country, without the social and emotional support, was excruciating. Combined with the fact that I had a full time 9-5 job, and many other health issues. The easiest thing would be to soldier one and wear a brave face, but I didn’t do so. Sharing my pain and allowing myself to be vulnerable with my team, not only was it a heavy burden off my shoulder, but it also helped the team have a clear picture of what was going on and what to expect. Knowing that the team would pick up my tasks without even needing to ask, gave me the peace to know that EWPN would continue operating smoothly. Being vulnerable showed that I am human, and that opened up a connection within our community like no other. Vulnerable leadership allows human connection between leaders and teams. It breaks the barrier of isolation and brings everyone to the same level: humanity. Vulnerable leadership also opens up the door to difficult conversation. It also sends out the message to the teams that, they too are allowed to be vulnerable. It creates that safe and humane environment where leaders and founders can connect with all team members.
Restart as many times as you need to
If things don’t work, tear down strategy and rewrite it again over and over if need be until you get it right. There is no shame in changing your strategy, as long as you stay focused on your mission. Our EWPN’s strategy is a living document. Giving ourselves the flexibility to change course, opens up endless possibilities while also considering that the industry is always changing and so is the environment and the needs of the community that we are serving. After the first incident of getting a loss in the first years, we went tore down our old strategy, went back to the drawing board and started all over again, until we got to a stable level. As a founder or leader, be open to restarting as many times as you need to. Don’t shy away from closing shop, stopping production, shutting down a service or bringing in a totally new strategy if need be. Giving yourself and your startup room to make mistakes and restart again, will not only allow your startup to flourish, but you as a founder and your whole team as well.
Be bold enough to walk away from partnerships and relationships that don’t serve your mission
Identifying the right partners can be challenging, especially as a startup. Along the way, you will meet individuals, organisations and companies that have their own agendas and want to partner with you for the wrong reasons. While you might be desperate to nail at least the first partnership, be bold enough to walk away if such relationships don’t serve your mission. Entering into partnerships with the wrong individuals or organisation can be costly. Some large and well-established organisations and individuals can be intimidating and can try to lure you into undesirable partnerships which might cost your startup its reputation and funds. Having the courage to say no will give you the opportunity to focus on few and structured partnerships. As a founder, and as an organisation, we have walked away from such partnerships that go against our main mission.
Know which battles to fight
Startups struggle for resources and time. Starting a new venture might mean disrupting an existing and established industry. This, naturally, can stir battles for relevance, territories and market share. Learning early enough which battles to focus your resources on, will save you as a founder and your organisation a whole load of time, effort, resources and energy; therefore, freeing the same that can be channelled back into creating a value proposition for yourself and your organisation. By focusing inwards, you will have the capability to tap into your uniqueness as a founder and as a startup.
Understand and accept that not everyone will buy into your mission – and that it’s ok
I think this was one of the most eye-opening experiences. The mistake I had made from the start was believing that people would want to get on board simply because they worked in the same industry, or believed in something similar like I did. Facing the public with this assumption created a lot of disappointment and threw me off the track many times. Learning not to take things personal; accepting and respecting people who say no and opening my mind to look at things from different angles other than mine helped me realise that there were endless opportunities and, in many instances, just because people said no, didn’t mean the mission would fail. There are many issues and problems that everyone is trying to solve. We cannot all have the same mission. As a founder of a startup, realising this early enough will save you the pain. Being open to pursuing relationships with individuals and organisations on a different level other than the one linked to your mission will help you broaden your horizons and also open up opportunities that weren’t visible to you in the first place.
Have a lawyer in your team or as a friend
Knowing your legal rights or having someone who has the knowledge of your legal rights is extremely important for a startup. This will not only ensure that you follow the right laws of order, but will come in handy should you get into any legal situations. Disrupting an existing market means raffling feathers, which in some cases might lead to cease and desist, legal actions or senseless threats from established competitors. If you don’t have a legal person or friend who is a lawyer, allocate a budget or purchase legal insurance.
There is an old saying about those who have climbed the ladder of success, which is “The higher the monkey climbs the tree, the more of his/her butt you’ll see.” As your startup grows, so will the scrutiny to your startup and yourself as a founder. Remember to treat others well and with respect; perform your work with ethics and integrity; guard your credibility; be accountable and stay humble. Remember that every individual is doing their best.
''Our industry is going through a huge transformation, and we can only hope that this will lead to a positive transformation and change. A radical transformation is desperately needed to make the industry 100% inclusive, not just in terms of teams, but also in terms of products & services and employment terms & remuneration. A radical stand and transformation are also urgently needed to curb and put a stop to unethical innovations & products; stop transactions linked to modern-day slavery, child prostitution and human trafficking from going through the rails. We can’t afford to be enablers; and by enablers, I mean sitting on the side while doing nothing when such unethical things happen. Not on our watch!''