Obiter Dictum

Notes on the adventure of life.

Posts Tagged ‘Inspirational women

Gradberry: An Innovative Career Portal For Young People, by Young People

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There is an old saying that goes “necessity is the mother of invention”. It is a saying that still holds true for today’s young entrepreneurs.

Before me sits Iba Masood, a twenty-three year old Dubai-based entrepreneur and finalist of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award who, together with her co-founder Syed Ahmed, has developed an web-based career portal that helps address one of the world’s most worrying trends: rising youth unemployment.

In 2011, Iba founded Gradberry, today the leading careers portal for student internships and new graduate jobs in the Middle East. ‘We focus exclusively on internships and vacancies for students and fresh graduates with zero to two years of experience,” explains a bubbly, energetic Masood during our interview at the Women’s Forum in France earlier this month.

With over 10.000 unique viewers and 300.000 pages views each month, Gradberry clearly addresses a burning need among recent graduates in the region. And if this early success (the Beta-version of the site launched in November 2011) is a sign of things to come, the site’s future looks bright, also in other parts of the world.

Iba, an honours graduate from the American University of Sharajah (UAE), learnt the harsh difference between student life and the working world even before she left the cocoon of campus.

“As we entered the final months of our studies, we had two ways of trying to find a job: via the big multi-nationals that came to campus to court final year students – but let’s face it: how many students could they employ; or by trawling job sites in search of internships and entry-level positions that all demanded “3 to 5 years experience”. Not only did we not have the experience employers demanded, I was also lost for direction in finding jobs that I could apply for, and I was wasting time that I simply did not have in the lead-up to my final exams,” Masood explains.

Tough economic times weren’t making matters easier. When her class graduated in 2010, economies were shrinking and unemployment rates rising, which also meant plummeting job opportunities throughout the Middle East.

The region today faces a whopping 24% youth unemployment rate.  “These are tough times for young graduates, I can tell you. Here I was, graduating at the top of my class and yet I couldn’t find a job,” sighs Iba.

The child of two entrepreneurs (her parents run a diesel supply business), the last thing Iba was taught to do was sit still and do nothing. “Everything becomes outdated so quickly these days… I realised that every day I sat at home waiting for the perfect job to come along took me a step further away from the ever-changing realities in the job market. The best thing I could do is get a job as an intern so I could learn and apply what I had learnt at university to stay up to date.” 

Iba didn’t let the grass grow under her feet. During her studies, she had already spent time as an intern at McKinsey & Co and Dubai Islamic Bank. Soon after graduating she started as financial analyst trainee at GE Healthcare.  But her entrepreneurial roots soon pulled her to what she knew best: starting her own company. After a short stint at a local public relations firm, Iba approached Syed Ahmed (Gradberry’s co-founder and current CTO), with the idea of a graduate careers portal. “As a fresh graduate of Mechanical Engineering, with some serious talent in design and project management, Syed was facing similar issues with the graduate job market. He loved the concept and came on board as a co-founder. We set up the initial domain, registration and design, and created the website with $200.” 

“The reason behind the site is obvious. Looking around me I saw so many young people fresh from college or university struggling to find a job – any job,” says Iba. “With Gradberry, our aim was to connect employers, graduates and universities through a single website, and allow students to find internships and entry-level positions that require no experience.” 

“Things are moving fast,” smiles Iba. “We’ve had over 8,000 students register on the site and over 150 employers, ranging from Google to Philips, are using it to hire interns, student freelancers and new graduates.” 

Our next goal? “To become the Linkedin for students and graduates globally, the primary method of finding fruitful working opportunities for the youth through social networking.”

Written by sabineclappaert

November 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Profile of a revolutionary: Maryam Al-Khawaja

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Image via The Atlantic: Maryam in Manama before leaving the country / Twitter











Earlier this year a wave of revolutions rolled across the Middle East. Orchestrated via text messages  on BlackBerries and call-outs on Facebook and Twitter, many of the uprisings were driven by young  people no longer willing to tolerate their country’s repressive politics or flagrant disregard for basic  human rights.

One of the most vocal proponents of human rights throughout the region is 24-year old Bahraini  woman, Maryam Al-Khawaja. In a region where women are still expected to defer to men, Al-  Khawaja refuses to go quietly. The daughter of Bahrain’s most famous human rights activist and the  current head of foreign relations for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the organization founded  by her father, Al-Khawaja travels the globe demanding attention for her cause.

But the life of a human rights activist is never easy, nor without danger. Returning to Bahrain to  participate in the protests earlier this year, the threat of arrest forced Al-Khawaja to flee the country in  early March.
A few weeks later, her father was sentenced to life imprisonment for anti-government propaganda, a fact she learned when a journalist called to get her response.

She receives regular death threats.

She has not seen her family since early March and heard her father’s voice for the first time since his arrest last Friday, when her mother put him on speakerphone while Al-Khawaja called her sister, who sat beside her mother.“I only heard his voice for a few seconds but that gave me so much strength,” she told me on the phone from the US, where she continues to fight for the rights of the Bahraini people.

I wanted to know more about the woman behind the revolutionary and caught up with Al-Khawaja recently.

Your family is Shia Muslim but you grew up in Denmark. How do you reconcile an upbringing in the West with your Muslim heritage?
Even though I was raised in the west, I was brought up with the values of Islam. What many people don’t know is that Islam is a religion that allows you to ask questions, so my parents encouraged us to question things and investigate other religions before making a choice.
Reconciling my upbringing in the west with my Muslim heritage only became difficult when I returned to Bahrain in 2001.
Going from Denmark, a society that is very focused on the rights of the individual, to Bahrain, a society in which the family unit is the main focus and where everyone wants to know where you’re going what you’re doing, that was a real culture shock.

You are the daughter of one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activists. Your father is often described as “very courageous and very outspoken”. What are the most important things he taught you?
My father raised us to have a strong sense of right and wrong. But he was always very clear about what that entailed: ‘Never hate the person, hate the act.’ he said.He taught us that if we hated the human being, our job ended with that one person, but if we hated the act, we truly fought injustice. That is a powerful lesson to learn.

We don’t know all that much about your mother Khadija. Tell us about her. What defines her?
I think my mother is as much a freedom fighter as my father. She is the backbone of our family, especially in difficult times.
I remember a time when my father, who was in prison at the time, went on hunger strike. Knowing that my mother was the only person who could truly affect him, officials asked her to talk him out of it. She refused. ‘I would rather bury my husband with my own hands than ask him to give up what he believes in,’ she said. I know how much my mother loves my father and how difficult it must have been for her to say this. This courage and strength of conviction defines her. Having her husband involved in a struggle for human rights and her daughters scattered all over the world isn’t easy. But her sense of doing what is right far supersedes her desire for a comfortable life with her children gathered around her.

What is your father’s point of view, as a human rights activist, about women’s rights?
Both my father and mother are strong believers in women’s rights. I think that is obvious when you consider the fact that they raised four daughters, always instilling the importance of a good education, encouraging us to travel and see the world and advising us not to marry too young but to wait until we were sure we’d made the right choice. I don’t think you can be a human rights activist without also fighting for women’s rights.

Do you think it is possible to be both a devout Muslim and a feminist?
I think being Muslim automatically makes you a feminist. Many people don’t realize the rights women are accorded in Islam, such as the right to inheritance or the right to make choices at a time when that still seemed impossible. Of course, there is often a vast gap between the teachings of a religion and its implementation in a society, but that is not limited to Islam.
It is a universal problem across many religions. Yes, I still have questions and things I am figuring out about women and Islam, but that’s part of the process.

You choose to wear the hijab (hair-covering veil). Why?
Wearing the hijab is a personal choice. In my opinion it empowers me. As a woman it allows me to be heard before I am looked at. Wearing a hijab also ensures that people will consider my personal space before touching or hugging me. Of course in a society in which men treat women as perfect equals wearing a veil would not be necessary. But that is not yet the case, neither in the west nor in Muslim countries. People have more respect for the hijab in western countries than they do in many Muslim countries. In many Muslim countries women now wear the hijab because they think it is expected of them. Men therefore often think women wear it ‘because they have to’ and they no longer respect it for what it is trying to convey, which is simply: ‘Respect me. Respect my space’.

How will Bahrain have to evolve to empower its women?
I think the question extends beyond Bahrain: the entire region has its work cut out. But first we have to make sure that basic human rights are respected.
Once human rights become part of a citizen’s constitutional rights we can begin to question women’s rights our societies. Without respect for basic human rights how can we even begin to ask these questions?

[Published on Women’s View on News, August 2011)

Written by sabineclappaert

August 23, 2011 at 5:56 am

Interview with Baroness Haleh Afshar – Muslim feminist, professor, British politician

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“There are so many prejudices that cover the words ‘Muslim woman’ that a Muslim woman must always begin by saying who she is not before she is able to explain who she is and what she does.”

Haleh Afshar is so tiny that I almost trip over her the first time we meet, in the bustling lobby of the British parliament as I swing my bags off the security scanners a little too enthusiastically. “Being small is an enormous advantage,” she says, waving away my apologies with a mischievous wink as I follow her along dark carpeted corridors. “People always underestimate me,” she adds over her shoulder, nodding a friendly hello to a passing colleague, a looming Brit in linen jacket and matching tie who shuffles by, dwarfing her in his shadow.

Named one of the twenty most successful Muslim women in the UK, Baroness Haleh Afshar – author, journalist, professor of women’s studies, politics and Islamic Law, British parliamentarian and founder of the Muslim Women’s Network – is as short as her CV is long.

Haleh is a self-described Muslim feminist born in Tehran to a liberal, privileged Iranian family of academics and politicians. Her grandmother refused to wear the veil and her mother campaigned for a woman’s right to vote. “Being a feminist comes with the blood,” she smiles as we settle knee-to-knee in the deep blue two-seater couch in her office. I remark that, to many westerners, the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘feminist’ seem rather contradictory, perhaps even mutually exclusive.

“That’s because generalisations always hide the truth,” she shrugs. “Generalisations close the mind rather than opening it. Defining someone as Muslim entails many hidden generalisations that prevent you from taking the next step. It is interesting: there are so many prejudices that cover the words ‘Muslim woman’ that a Muslim woman must always begin by saying who she is not before she is able to explain who she is and what she does.”

Photos by Jillian Edelstein

Haleh’s razor-sharp intellect and eagerness to learn has defined her life from an early age. At fourteen, emerging from a luxury childhood of nannies, private schools and servants while growing up in France and Iran, she asked her parents to be sent to boarding school in England. “I’d read the book Jane Eyre and realised just how unrealistic my life was. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted; I wanted to stand on my own two feet. So I told my father that I wanted to attend boarding school in England. He agreed, and that summer my parents drove me all the way from Tehran to England. When we got here, my father put the money for my return flight in an account and told me I could return whenever I wanted.”

Haleh didn’t return. She made England her home, first studying at the University of York, where she met her future husband, the New Zealander Maurice Dodson, and later at Cambridge University, where she obtained her PhD.

And even though she now calls England ‘home’, it is clear that Iran is never far from her mind. “I went back to Iran in my late twenties for a while and worked in Tehran as journalist and civil servant in the field of land reform.”

But Haleh was critical of the Ayatollah Khomeni’s view on women, calling it “unIslamic” and has written extensively on Iranian politics, Islam and feminism. She admits that it is no longer safe for her to return to her country of her birth.

Still, Iran continues to define her. “As a teacher of Islamic law, I can tell you that Muslim women have many rights that are embedded in Islam, but which they did not exercise because they did not have access to education – Islamic education – for so long. The moment the hierarchy began to build, after the death of the Prophet, men began to claim the right of interpretation and analysis of the teachings, and women were excluded.”

Her eyes light up with a mischievous glint. “Since the nineteenth century, however, Muslim women have become increasing agitated about their rights. The most wonderful thing about being born in the twentieth century is that men now accept it as part of life that women will be troublesome,” she laughs.

Women’s rights run a red thread throughout Haleh’s life. She had the courage to forge a path beyond her own culture and country; she negotiated with her father to avoid and arranged marriage while studying and she famously declared motherhood to be ‘de-skilling’ and difficult to combine with a career.

Yet Haleh now sits before me a proud mother and doting grandmother who talks passionately about the joys of her large eclectic family and their chaotic Sunday lunches.

“I didn’t plan to get pregnant,” Haleh admits. “I was seven months along with Molly before I even realised I was pregnant. So there I was: I still wanted to do all the things I was committed to, but I had to find a way to make it all work.”

And she did. Having just given birth, she taught from her hospital bed. “One of my students had a van, and he would round up all the others and drive them to the maternity ward. I’d teach them while they sat around my hospital bed. I was simply multi-tasking,” she grins. “Once we had one child, I wanted another, so I had my two children within three years.”

Combining motherhood with a career, as she already knew, wasn’t easy. “One of the reasons for the inequalities in today’s labour market is that housework still isn’t recognised as work,” she points out.

“A couple of years ago I asked the British government, in the House of Lords, which is lead by a woman, ‘why don’t you pay wages for housework?’ to which I got the usual reply that it would diminish women. She frowns dismissively: “absolute nonsense!”

What was most difficult about motherhood for Haleh? “In Iranian culture, your mother is your mother, and you are proud of her. When my own children became teenagers and began to reflect on my ‘oddness’ as their mother – this foreign, outspoken woman – I couldn’t cope with that. I always told them: ‘I am the best mother you will ever get’.”

Afshar admits that if she weren’t married to a Westerner who understood how Western teenagers behave, she couldn’t have coped. “My students were never rude to me, ” she laughs, “so I thought ‘I know the younger generation; they’re lovely!’”

Her laugh fades, and she stares into the distance. “The adjustment to the way in which teenagers rebel here was very difficult. But I never pretended to the kids that it was easy or that I had all the answers. Sometimes we just fought like cats and dogs, but we always kissed and made up afterward. It was never a permanent state of being angry.”

At sixty-seven, Haleh now calls herself ‘a little old lady’, although I suspect that if we were having this talk walking along a country road, and we happened to pass a muddy puddle, she would be the first to jump in. Her exuberant energy always seems just about to burst the surface.

“I’ve always loved old age!” she exclaims. “I’ve done extensive research amongst women of the ‘third age’ here in the UK. Not about the usual stuff like poverty or health,” she says, waving away the topics like pesky flies, “but about kinship, family and relationships. It was an extremely moving experience. I spoke to an African-Caribbean woman who told me: ‘I now have roots in this country. I came and had ten children!’ She obviously felt a great sense of belonging and contentment here.”

The conversation turns to Haleh’s extended family, and she is clearly a great believer in the importance of these relationships and her sense of belonging.

“In our family, we are completely recreating the old tribal Persian culture. Every Sunday we all have lunch together – brothers, in-laws, children, grandchildren…it is absolute chaos! But it’s great – they’re all growing up together, the way we did as children. Of course being part of an extended family requires enormous commitment, but sharing the sadness and happiness of a bigger group means it is not only more demanding but also more rewarding.”

“People who have experienced this deep connectedness between generations are very different people to those who have only heard or read about it,” Haleh points out.

I see don’t see a little old lady in Haleh but a mischievous girl and wise matriarch, I tell Haleh, to which she replies with her signatory booming laugh: “But I am a little old lady! I’ve never had worries about being old,” she shrugs. “You see yourself aging, you see your face crinkling, and you think, ‘ok, so this is the pathway’. But I’ve never been beautiful, so my wrinkles don’t bother me. Now I think: ‘old people are like me and I like it.’ Some of my friends are fighting age – as an active occupation – but that’s just not what I want to spend my time on.”

Does she have other advice to share?

“This whole love business is overrated,” she states without a second’s hesitation. “There is this whole ethos surrounding romance that I think is very counter-productive to women because it assumes, almost from your school days, that you must have a lover.,” she frowns, “It starts very young, this whole idea that not having a boyfriend is a terrible thing. Girls and women define themselves by whether or not they have a lover. It’s terrible.”

But what should we do about it? “Learn to say no, to whatever it is you don’t want to do. And that holds for men as well as women,” she points out. “But more so for women…Learn to say ‘these are the boundaries, take it or leave it’. Coming to the UK as a young Muslim girl taught me to set and respect my own boundaries – maybe at a much younger age than I would have done had I grown up in my own culture.”

Haleh grins. “I didn’t have a boyfriend or go to bed with anyone at university, and by what I heard from my friends, the boys were rather incompetent anyway.” She winks as she jumps off the couch, slapping my knee. “Come on, let’s go! There’s a bill under discussion and I want to make sure I know what is being said,” the little old lady in Haleh nowhere to be seen.

Haleh Afshar
DOB: 21.05.1944
Date of Interview: 16 May 2011
Location: London, UK

Written by sabineclappaert

August 20, 2011 at 7:34 am

Sex and the sea.

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In a sleepy coastal village in the far-flung Western corner of Belgium runs an exhibition that has everyone’s talking. An exhibition about eroticism and its link to the sea, curated by a young Polish woman. We went to investigate.

The National Fisheries Museum in Oostduinkerke: not exactly a concept that sparks the engine of imagination or makes the blood run wild, yet ‘Zeerotica’, the newly opened exhibition about ‘love and lust at the seaside’ does exactly that.

Maja Wolny, the exhibition’s thirty-four year old curator and director of the museum since September 2010 tells how a young Polish immigrant came to be the head of a fisheries museum and host an exhibition on eroticism the sea.

“I actually had the idea for the Zeerotica exhibition before I even had the job at the museum,” she begins. “I’d seen the position of Museum Director advertised and thought to myself ‘there’s no way as Polish-Flemish woman that I stand a chance of getting this position’. But I have a great love for the sea, so I applied anyway,” she adds in perfect Flemish.

It’s easy to see why Wolny got the position she thought she could only dream of. A warm, fashionable brunet with curious hazel eyes, Wolny is no cultural lightweight. She speaks five languages, holds degrees in communication and European Culture Management and started her career as journalist and later cultural editor at one of Poland’s leading weeklies. Since arriving in Belgium in 2001 she has worked as guest curator and consultant for the ‘Vlaamse Erfgoedsector’ (Flemish Heritage Sector) and is part of the board of directors of the museum ‘Huis van Alijn’ in Ghent.

“My work means that over the years I have got to know many Flemish museums very well. I remember seeing the National Fisheries Museum here in Oostduinkerke for the first time: it was love at first sight. The space, the story of the fishermen and their horses – that is really unique in the world. So I applied for the job.”

And then they were two…

Soon, she was one of the final two candidates competing for the position. “We were each asked to give our vision for the future of the museum and what we thought needed to be done to make it flourish.”

Wolny penned her vision, developed a multi-year plan for the museum and, although it wasn’t expected, included her idea about an exhibition on the link between eroticism and the sea.

“I’d just read the book ‘Vissen Redden’ (Saving Fish) by my good friend Annelies Verbeke, a book about a female writer whom, after a failed relationship, leaves her old life behind to become an activist who wants to help save the world by joining the fight against overfishing. In essence it is a novel about self-discovery, love, salvation and facing the truth in which the sea plays a central role.

I remember thinking: an exhibition about love and lust at the sea, that’s an interesting concept. The name Zeerotica popped into my head. It was a gut feeling. When I had the idea, I just knew: Yes! This is it!” she exclaims, stabbing her finger in the air.

Maja got the job and Zeerotica opened its doors to the public on June 17th to visitor numbers never before seen at the museum.

“The relationship between man and sea is a very intimate one,” says Wolny. “And I’m not just referring to fishermen. It holds for all of us: our earliest childhood memories of sunburnt shoulders after a day at the beach, a first stolen kiss in the dunes or a long lonely walk along a windswept coast. The connection between man and sea is universal, very primal.”

Wolny built the exhibition around four themes. ‘Sensual Sea’ delves into the erotizing aspects of oysters, caviar, crayfish and other sea creatures. It shows us the ‘Shokushu goukan’ or ‘tentacle erotica’ of Japan and makes us spectators to the love lives of giant shrimps.

The second theme, ‘Mermaids’, follows the wake of the seductively finned mistresses of the sea.  Collaborating closely with Wolny, singer-songwriter An Pierle composed a haunting interpretation of the siren’s song; the dangerous bird-women portrayed as seductresses who lured sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.  The audio fragment, sung by Pierle in ancient Greek, can be heard as part of the installation. Interpretations of the goddesses of the oceans, girls whom with their heavenly bodies and sweet songs lured men from their loved ones, from as far afield as Africa and Japan, complete the installation.

“My soul makes love to the sea”, said the artist Johan Tahon. In the third theme ‘Eros and the Fishermen’ visitors are given a glimpse into the love lives of fishermen. Long forgotten love letters, audio fragments with intimate revelations of longing and lust at sea, even a ‘Literary peepshow’ with an erotic text from Annelies Verbeke’s ‘Vissers Redden’, the book that started it all, hidden behind a red velvet curtain.

The fourth and biggest theme of the exhibition is “Naked at the Coast”, in which visitors can look back upon a history of erotically laden images spanning more than a century of life at the beach, including the evolution from knee-to-neck bathing suits over bikinis to monokinis and nudism.

Big names populate the four themes, with works by Paul Delvaux, Leon Spilliaert, Alois Boudry, Edgard Tytgat and Johan Tahon.

“For those that haven’t seen the exhibition it may sound unlikely, but there is really nothing obscene about it. We didn’t use any pornographic images, and it is certainly an exhibition the whole family can attend. Yes, we played with boundaries, but we also wanted to keep it playful and unexpected…isn’t that what’s most fun?” she winks.

Wolny stops before a small, understated lithography of a bathing couple by Leon Spilliaert (pictured): she clinging to his back, legs wrapped up against his flank to avoid the waves, his arm protectively cupping her hip, both gazing out to sea. “Love was born from the sea,” remarks Wolny. “Aphrodite, the goddess of love, arose from the silver foams of the ocean, more than 200 000 years ago, in a deep mythological past. Eroticism and the sea; the idea behind Zeerotica is simple, beautiful and pure. Like the sea. Like love,” she smiles.

(Published in Flanders Today, July 20th, 2011)

Written by sabineclappaert

July 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Mother Knows Best.

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Mothers on their Mums, motherhood and what they want to teach their own children.

(Published in De Morgen Wax & Flanders Today. Photos by Carmen De Vos

Photo by Carmen De Vos

Fatima Rafiy (40), Antwerp

Mother of Yassira (17), Ilyas (15), Yassin (12), Yasmina (11)

Which are the most important lessons your mother taught you?

My mother raised us according to the values of Islam. Although she wasn’t particularly authoritarian, she always made sure we knew which values were important. The biggest lesson my mother taught me was to respect everyone, regardless of his or her culture, religion, beliefs or the colour of their skin. She also taught me the importance of being true to myself and of being able to integrate in a western society without loosing my own values.

Today, my mom is my best friend. I can discuss anything with her and I know I can always turn to her for advice

How has motherhood changed your life?

Being a mother has brought an enormous sense of responsibility to my life, both toward my own children and to society as a whole. I have learned that everyone wants to live happily, regardless of who they are. I want to contribute to a society where people can live in freedom and I want others to give me the room and respect to be who I am.

What are the most important things you want to teach your children?

I want to pass on the lessons my parents taught me to my children: to have respect for everyone, to develop your own opinion and have the courage to express it, and to believe in yourself. I think those values are very important in helping you to build a happy, fulfilled life.

Photo by Carmen De Vos

Bieke Vanassche (31) and Sandy Van Robays (31), Gent

Mothers of Felix (11 months)

Which are the most important lessons your mother taught you?

[Bieke]: My mom was a teacher and she placed great importance on always being there for her children. She even came home to cook us warm meals over lunchtime. Being there for our children is now also important to me.
[Sandy]: My mom taught me to be independent. I was given a lot of freedom to explore the boundaries of what was acceptable and what not.

How has motherhood changed your life?

[Bieke]: Motherhood has changed my life fundamentally, both physically and mentally. Suddenly, everything takes second place to our son.

[Sandy]: Our routines have changed less dramatically than I thought they would after the arrival of Felix, but as Bieke says, what does change dramatically are one’s priorities in life.

What are the most important things you want to teach your children?

[Bieke]: Self-confidence and respect are very important values to both Sandy and I. To us it is important that our children will have respect for everything and everyone.

[Sandy]: …I also want them to be able to stand their ground, and to come up for what they believe in.

[Bieke]: Most importantly I hope that he may become who and what he wants to be, without having to conform to the pressure others may put on him to perform to their norms. We want him to be happy, that is what matters most.

Photo by Carmen De Vos

Francine Hardeman (57), Sint-Pieters-Leeuw

Mother of Elisabeth (32), Christina (27), Viktor (22) and grandmother of Anna (3 ½ years)

Which are the most important lessons your mother taught you?

My mother is a very generous person, everyone was always welcome at our house and nothing was ever too much trouble for her; helping others was something which clearly gave her great pleasure. It’s not surprising then, that she always told us to use our talents to help others and make a meaningful contribution to the world.

How has motherhood changed your life?

Motherhood makes your life so much richer, both in the pleasure it brings but also in the worry or pain one carries on behalf of your children. Helping a child grow from a helpless infant to a well-balanced, happy adult is not only an immense responsibility but also a great privilege. Not least, being a mother also drives home the fact that just as we educate our children, they educate and shape us as parents too.

What are the most important things you want to teach your children?

I want my children to stand strong and solid in the world and to live their lives to the full. I want them to remain true to who they are, regardless of what others may think. And I hope that they will become the best they can be and use their talents to make a positive contribution to society.

Photo by Carmen De Vos

Goedele Demecheleer (42), Galmaarden
Mother of Altaseb (15), Bertucan (14) and Ferre (10)

Which are the most important lessons your mother taught you?
We had a lot of freedom as children, both physically and mentally. We were allowed to choose what we wanted to study, our friends, our partners – my mother never tried to influence our choices. She was always there for us and even today she puts her own needs behind those of her children and her grandchildren. Sometimes I want to tell her that she should think about her own needs more often, relax and enjoy life.

How has motherhood changed your life?
I’m a real mother hen. I had to wait so long for my children that when they finally arrived, I gave up everything for them. Some people may find this strange, but I don’t understand people who put their own needs before those of their children. I also absolutely don’t mind the fact that children ‘restrict’ my life, in fact I find it normal. We did all our travelling before the kids arrived. Now, we concentrate on them.

What are the most important things you want to teach your children?
I want my children to think very carefully about having children; they shouldn’t have them just because everyone else does. I want them to make a very conscious choice. Apart from that I want my children to be open and respectful toward others. And I would love a whole spectrum of colours and nationalities amongst my sons and daughters in-law, so that I’ll have lots of different grandchildren. But most of all I wish them love. Lots of love. All the rest will follow from that.

Photo by Carmen De Vos

Kim Leysen (31), Meerhout

‘Plus’ Mother of Ruben (15), mother of Jef (5) and Abel (1,5 years)

Which are the most important lessons your mother taught you?

My mother is very orderly, punctual and quite reserved and I am the complete opposite. In some things I wish I was more like her (having a fixed cleaning day and always knowing where I left things would help) but in others I’m happy to be the opposite. My mom always told me that I should act normal, not be arrogant or conceited and never to look down on others. That’s an important lesson.

How has motherhood changed your life?

I don’t think motherhood has changed me as a person, but it has made me experience emotions that I didn’t know existed. I do worry a lot more now, and I sometimes even catch myself envisaging doom scenarios when, for instance, I can’t hear the kids anymore, which is so unlike me. My kids are also still young and I spend all my time with them right now, so at the moment I feel more ‘mother’ than ‘woman’.

What are the most important things you want to teach your children?

I want my kids to grow up to be open-minded adults with a sense of humour who don’t always take themselves too seriously. I believe being able to laugh at yourself is so important in life.

Photo by Carmen De Vos

Kelly Quaghebeur (29), Wevelgem

Mother of Iele (2 years and 3 months), Ditte and Mare (5 months)

Which are the most important lessons your mother taught you?

I had a strict upbringing and my mother had very clear rules, not like some parents today who want to be their children’s best friend. Rules were rules and they had to be obeyed. To have good manners, to be respectful and honest, that’s what she drummed into us.

How has motherhood changed your life?

Motherhood has changed my life completely, both in positive and negative ways. I never imagined just how much joy and fulfilment one could get from loving children and on the other hand it’s also extremely exhausting and I have absolutely no time for myself at the moment. I’m also surprised that I enjoy my children more as they become toddlers, which is interesting considering the fact that I am a midwife and work with babies all the time!

What are the most important things you want to teach your children?

Just like my mother I want my children to be well mannered and respectful. Apart from that I hope they will grow up to be calm, tranquil people who know how to enjoy life. And I hope they will be able to do that which they love doing and that they will be happy; the wish of every mother I guess.

Written by sabineclappaert

May 7, 2011 at 8:46 am

Leading by example (Flanders Today)

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Martine Reynaers became CEO of the family aluminium business when she was just 29. Today the business turns over more than 280€ million.

Martine Reynaers obtained her MBA long before it was trendy for women to do so. She graduated from Insead business school in Paris in 1977. About a decade later, she took charge of Reynaers Aluminium, the company founded by her father in 1965.

“I was 29 when I became general manager, but back then we were only a small team of 120 people,” she shrugs, as if leading 120 people before your 30th birthday is no big deal at all.

“The way I manage the company has evolved over the years. At first I was very hands-on; I had daily contact with almost everyone in the company. But it was easier back then; we were only present in Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland.”

As the company grew, going from a local family concern in Duffel, south of Antwerp, to a multinational with offices across Europe, Africa, India, China and Australia, so Reynaers changed the way she managed it. “Growing the company meant I needed to delegate,” she explains. “I have always put great importance on setting clear objectives and regular, detailed financial reporting. Guided by these parameters, managers were then expected to develop their own strategies and make sure they realised their objectives.”

Much has changed since Reynaers (pictured) first took charge of the company, which specialises in architectural aluminium systems, back in the 1980s. She married a Frenchman and has had four children; in 1992 she became the first female director of the business owners’ organisation VOKA; and in 1999 she was appointed to the board of the GIMV, Flanders’ foremost private equity and venture capital concern.

From 120 to 1,200
Today, Reynaers heads up a multinational with offices in more than 30 countries, 1,200 employees and a turnover of €280 million. “As the company has evolved, so have I,” she says. “I think I am now entering my third phase as leader. My aim today is to inspire and motivate people rather than lead the company operationally. I’m surrounded by a strong team with excellent strategic decision-making capabilities, which enables me to move on in my own development as a leader. Now I want to take time to listen, to inspire people, to give them room to grow and to cultivate talent.”

Realising a career as Reynaers has done is no small feat, and having great leaders as examples helps, she admits. “Frans De Roovere, for many years technical director of Reynaers, taught me to give people room but not to leave them rudderless to do just anything.”

Reynaers ticks off many leaders that she has found “inspirational” over the years: Herman Daems, former business consultant and current chairman of GIMV; Eric Van Zele, CEO of Barco and current chairman of the Reynaers board; Jos Daniels, former chairman of KBC Insurance and the Reynaers board.

“The most important lessons I learned from these people include the importance of being able to listen and being open to the opinions of others and the difference between convincing others of a certain point of view and mobilising them to help you realise it.”

When I point out that she was one of the first women to be appointed to the board of directors of GIMV, long before gender diversity became a part of the mainstream business lingo, Reynaers is quick to give credit to chairman Daems, who she describes as “a person of very good will who has always placed great importance on having women adequately represented in the organisation”.

Thumbs up for quotas
Women – or the lack of them – in senior management functions has been high on the agenda throughout Europe of late, with EU Vice President Viviane Reding urging businesses to ensure gender balance throughout their organisations – as well as at management and board levels. What does Reynaers, one of only a handful of women to inhabit the uppermost echelons of Flemish business, think of the hotly debated quota system?

“I completely support it,” she states without hesitation. “Far too few women are making it to the top because they are not given the opportunity to get top management functions. All too often one still hears the excuse that there were no suitable candidates to be found, which is simply not true. Yet including women in the talent pool makes simple business sense. By including women we expand the pool significantly, and, as most business people will tell you: Talent is in short supply.”

Finding enough talent, according to Reynaers, is one of the great challenges of the 21st century, and if we continue to exclude women from the talent pool, we are setting ourselves up for failure. “Talent remains scarce,” she continues.

“People who have the combination of knowledge, ambition and the drive to deliver results – that is not easy to find. If we don’t consider women, which is only the first step in diversity, how will we ever consider people of different generations, or from ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds?”

The 21st century is fraught with challenges for Belgian business, from sky-high wage costs and an unstable European economic climate to the continually changing demands of boisterous emerging markets and the constant pressure on innovation and production costs. What makes a good leader in these uncertain times?

“A good leader remains calm and focused and doesn’t lose sight of the long-term goal,” says Reynaers. “But that’s not always easy, especially in the face of massive financial unrest such as we saw in the second half of 2008. When the global economic crisis first erupted to shake the foundations beneath our feet, there was so much uncertainty. Nobody knew what to expect, and many companies probably focused too much on short-term profitability at the expense of long-term vision.”

Keeping the company on course through uncertain times and making sure it continues to flourish is a personal commitment Reynaers appears to take very seriously.

“It is part of who I am,” she confines. “I am very result-driven. I don’t want to disappoint anybody. Most of our clients are entrepreneurs, hard-working and completely committed to their businesses. I don’t ever want to disappoint the trust they have in this company.”

Although her company is global, they are still based in Duffel. “I think Flanders is a very interesting region, with many talented people,” says Reynaers, “and I want to make a positive contribution to that. This is my heritage. This is where it all began, and I want to give something back to that.”

(April 20, 2011)

Written by sabineclappaert

April 25, 2011 at 5:21 pm