Our Frontcover caught up with Maria van der Heijden. 55 years of age, co-founder at Women on Wings. She started her career as manager at Randstad, Rabobank and Bloemenveiling Flora Holland after which she decided to start her own company, specialized in business administration, change management and CSR.
Your inspiration to start this venture
I have travelled in India a lot. Not just as a tourist but to understand the country and its people. I have met so many rural women, who though poor were strong and inspiring. They wanted to make a difference, create a better future for their children and families.
I am a farmer’s daughter myself and I had all the opportunities in life. I was happily married and successful in business but something was missing. I felt I had to do something for these women who had no opportunities at all. It’s all about being born in the right place.
10 years ago, I joined a management development program with SharePeople which took me again to India. There we worked with a team of Dutch managers on improving the business results of small social enterprises.
Ellen Tacoma, co-founder at Women on Wings, was also one of the participants. She too had her own company and was looking for a sustainable way to support Indian women. We realized that the Dutch pragmatic and focused way of working really made a difference to the Indian enterprises. After a few weeks we heard that Sadhna, one of the enterprises, saw a huge increase in its turnover because of some changes we had proposed in their way of working.
Sadhna sells beautiful handmade products, crafted by rural women and they needed more products so more women became involved with Sadhna. All the pieces of the puzzle came together and the idea for Women on Wings was born. Sadhna became our first business partner in India. Till today we are partnering with them and they have grown from 100 female artisans to almost 700.
Tell us about your venture.
Women on Wings is a social enterprise, founded by Ellen Tacoma and myself in 2007. Our aim is to co-create one million jobs for women in rural India.
India is a country with enormous potential: it is a large and rapidly expanding global economic power and the middle class is growing along with it. However, the underprivileged class lives on just $2 a day. There is very little paid work in rural India. Families lack income and, as a result, there are high levels of poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy with many people migrating to the cities.
Women on Wings collaborates with Indian enterprises that create employment for women in rural areas. A job means an income, as well as economic autonomy and an escape from the cycle of poverty. It also means their children can go to school, which increases their chances of a better future.
‘Human capital’ is the core of what we provide. Women on Wings provides professional business consultancy to Indian social enterprises – Small and Medium Enterprises (SME’s) – operating in rural India. Our over 50 experts share their time and skills pro bono. These experts have 15+ years of professional experience in e.g. marketing, finance, product development, production, retail, supply chain management.
Through providing business knowledge to Indian social enterprises that create employment for women in rural India, we unlock their growth potential. Our experts work temporarily – on site and off site – with the Indian entrepreneurs and their teams to support develop the business. Through improving their business, more products will be sold, and thus more jobs are created.
Till today, 199.900 jobs have been co-created for women in rural India. Thanks to these paid jobs, almost 200.000 rural families have two meals a day and over 600.000 children can go to (a better) school.
What were the initial challenges?
Funding. We had used our savings as starting capital. Convincing potential funders that our business model was ultimately impacting lives of poor people was quite challenging in those days. We didn’t built schools or kitchens, so we couldn’t catch the impact of our work in just one picture. But we believed in our approach and looked for partnerships with corporates.
Tex Gunning, in those days leading the AkzoNobel group, understood our work and gave us a fair chance to proof our approach. We partnered in a three year ‘paint and stencil kit program’, funded by AkzoNobel. That was the start of more partnerships with corporates, foundations and HNI’s.
What are the challenges now?
Again funds, but this time in India. Since 2013 we have full time presence in India with a team of 14 people as per today. In 2013 we started the transition to change from a Dutch led organization to an Indian led organization. This also means that the Indian team has to find funds for sustaining the organization in India. In April this year, Ellen and I handed over our management tasks to two joint managing directors in India. It’s their call now and we have become non-executives in the board of Women on Wings.
We still work with the Dutch experts but to really grow the organization and work towards our mission, we chose to have a paid team in India.
In India the CSR landscape is changing fast and we do get recognized for our work more and more. But applying for funds in India is so different from the Netherlands. There’s a lot more paperwork involved and it takes forever to speak to the decision maker.
Long-term funding partnerships like we have with Dutch donors are rare in India. It takes more patience, perseverance and persistence to get partners on board in India. But we’re very proud that our efforts have recently resulted in one time funding from Motorola Solutions India and Dinesh Shahra Foundation. And even more proud on our longer term funding partnership with Tata Trusts, one of India’s largest philanthropic trusts. So we are getting financial support in India, but to sustain a growing organization, we need more partnerships.
What do you love most about your current work?
In my new role as Director at MVO Nederland (CSR Netherlands) I have the possibility to scale up the disruptive approach of Women on Wings by connecting the knowledge and activities to mainstream companies and organizations.
Your message to others.
Dream big, believe in yourself, focus and never give up! And I believe in the ‘wet van Sinterklaas’. If you want something from Santa Claus, you leave a little note and a carrot in your shoe. So be clear in what you want, ask for it, but wrap it nicely.
What is your biggest take away from your journey till date?
Who would have thought that Queen Máxima joined us in a business event which marked the 5th Women on Wings anniversary. At the event she said: “If you invest in a woman, you invest in a whole family. Women on Wings starts where others normally stop; sharing knowledge and skills is just as important as micro-finance.” That she believed in our work and came to speak at our event was truly one of the highlights in the Women on Wings journey.
Written byDayeeta Roy
Dayeeta Roy is a Physicist by profession and writer/blogger by passion. She loves to cook and travel. She has two published books based on her blogs. "Family, friends, food and fun--I have everything" is her strong belief. You can connect with her at www.dayeetasworld.blogspot.nl