Looking around the EU, we can find numerous grassroots associations organized with the purpose of supporting women entrepreneurs. Many of these are registered on the WEgate platform. Through these organizations, and particularly in times of difficulties when the need for affiliation is paramount, women entrepreneurs are able to come together, learn from and share experiences with each other, and expand our networks. I am not aware of any formal research available, but my guess is that many of these organizations –at the frontline of women’s business and entrepreneurship networks – were started and are run almost completely by volunteers.

One of the oldest European organizations that I am aware of is the network of Women Business Managers of France (Femmes Chefs d’entreprises – FCE France), which has been in existence since 1945. Its history is linked to the Second World War, when the French economy and industry had to rely on women to run the businesses because the men were being called up for military service. At that time, women had to take charge, and found that they were managing to succeed with a great deal of talent, and intuition (because they were not trained to run a business). The FCE’s motto (translated) is: “On our own we are invisible, together we are invincible!”, and the organization is still going strong today, with over 2000 members and 60 regional delegations across France.

The WBII joined the NVR (Dutch Women’s Council) to support women’s empowerment in the Netherlands, and to be part of this community. In doing so, we are continually delighted to get to know women from organizations across the country, and from many different walks of life. I was particularly pleased to meet NVR members from associations representing (international) businesswomen and entrepreneurs. In this month’s article, I’d like to highlight one of these organizations.

The EZVN – Ethnic Businesswomen in The Netherlands

The EZVN – originally a chapter of the UK based Black Businesswomen Owners – was founded in 2004 in Rotterdam by Maritza Russel. The purpose of the organization was to support Black women entrepreneurs and professionals, and those with different cultural backgrounds, to connect with the broader Dutch business world. Maritza told me that Dutch society was not ready at that time for this organization’s name, and it was rebranded to the EZVN, translated as Ethnic Businesswomen in The Netherlands. She believes that women have a wealth of knowledge, skills and experience, but often have difficulty breaking into the business world as entrepreneurs, in managerial positions, and as supervisors. A key barrier is the lack of good networks.

The EZVN envisions a future in which women in the Netherlands can expand their businesses, and use their networks, so that they are seen and heard, and can be role models for future generations. The EZVN currently has a large mailing list, approximately 70% of whom are entrepreneurs. Their organization has never received a subsidy, but is supported by sponsors, including by the City of Rotterdam, for some of their events.

Not only do the EZVN members support each other, but they also have initiated mentoring projects with primary schools, students, professionals and startups, in collaboration with educational institutions and the business community. In doing so, and by using themselves as role models, the EZVN contributes proactively in support of entrepreneurship actions with young women and girls.

They also embrace diversity and encourage action. By entering into discussions with Dutch government ministries, and organizations such as VNO-NCW (Dutch industry association) to promote diversity and inclusion, they use their position to bring about change.

Entrepreneur in specialized daycare

Maritza is herself an entrepreneur, and owner of a number of daycare centres whose sole purpose is that of caring for disabled children. She worked earlier in general childcare, and started her business when some parents approached her and made her aware of this special need. Only 10 years ago, she was shocked to learn that no one was looking out for disabled children, and there was no special funding in place to care for them. Her initiative also involved getting the government and insurance companies onside to recognize that care facilities were necessary. Well-educated younger women, who helped to raise awareness for the situation and would no longer put up with the status quo, were part of the societal shift.

Double and triple layers of intersectionality – the importance of networks

Intersectionality is the recognition that we must consider everything and anything that can marginalise people – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc. As internationals and women living in the Netherlands, we may recognize barriers that need to be faced in accessing networks, getting finance, etc. Ethnic women have to deal with yet another barrier, which is that of race.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, 17% of Black women are in the process of starting or running new businesses in the United States, compared to just 10% of white women, and 15% of white men. Unfortunately, a higher number of Black women are not able to scale up. The HBR article states:

“This disparity between high startup, and low established business activity among Black women, suggests potential issues with sustaining a business. Enabling access to entrepreneurship for all groups in society benefits all of us by creating employment opportunities, increasing innovation, combating income inequalities, and bringing a diversity of ideas into fruition.”

Better access to networks and finance could make a difference when scaling up your business. For more information on this topic, the complete article is available here.

WBII is regularly reaching out to meet new groups and networks, and we are very pleased to be in touch with Maritza and the EZVN. We are already talking with her about sharing information and activities, and getting together in the new year. If you have a special interest in this collaboration, please let us know. This is the power of our grassroots networks!

Cover Photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com