Jeanette Dijkstra leads the Mines Advisory Group in Angola, a country with a traumatic history of Civil War. In the first part of this series, Jeanette throws light on the magnitude of the problem, the role of women and the effect of continued humanitarian efforts in local communities.
In this article, Jeanette shares her personal journey in Africa. Her story takes us around the world, with an amazing woman who became the CEO of a pizza business and then the Country Director of a NGO, breaking stereotypes along the way.
I am an anthropologist by training. I finished my education in the late 1980’s and I came back to the Netherlands from Senegal, where I did my thesis research in a development project there. I needed a job, so I started working in a restaurant serving pizzas and pouring beers for clients.
I’m going to do the very quick version: in 3 months I was managing the restaurant and in 6 months I was managing the hotel above! 15 years later we had businesses in 4 European countries and I was the CEO, so I was basically running the whole show!
But I always kept travelling to the African continent, going on safaris, and I always remained an anthropologist, I always wanted to see how other people were living.
I’m not afraid of starting new things, or figuring out everything from scratch. I basically learned everything as I went. But it always kept itching my mind that I never chose to be in the international hospitality industry. Yes, I was good at it, even if when I started, I made all the mistakes in the book and I invented a few new mistakes!
But when I became 30 I thought, “Is it what I want with the rest of my life?”
I was making really good money, my boss was really happy with me, I worked my ass off, the business was doing really well. But I kept thinking, “I want to go back to NGOs”, that is what I trained for. Somehow, I wasn’t paying attention and 10 years later all of a sudden I’m a big boss in a company I basically started serving pizzas in, once upon a time!
But then, silly enough, I thought for a very long time, “What do I have to offer to NGOs?” What I have to offer is the fact that I think like a businesswoman, I know how to run teams and solve problems. And I’m not afraid of stepping into something that I know nothing about.
I started in Angola as a consultant. I got hired by a donor from the Netherlands to go check on the program, more as a crisis manager. It wasn’t going very well and there was money missing in action and they weren’t getting the results that they said they would get. So that’s how I ended up here in 2009. That’s where my previous experience in running teams and getting team dynamics to function kicked in.
So I got here and the problems were big, definitely, I worked with the donors and all the other stakeholders to get them to give us a little bit more time so we could deliver what we said we would.
And that worked really well. It’s about getting the whole team to function as one. Then that same organization kept asking me back to Angola to come and solve other issues. So I began as a program manager for that organization.
I knew the previous country director for MAG in Angola and when she – also female – wanted to leave to go back to the UK, she said “Would you be interested in my job?” and I thought about it for 5 minutes and I went “I know nothing about landmines, other than what I’ve seen on television and read in the newspapers, so I think I can!”
So I sent my CV and it clearly shows that I’m not afraid to do new stuff and they thought, “let’s take a risk!” And here we are!
And I now obviously know everything there is to know about mines and I can hold my ground. But I got hired because I know how to run an organization. My management skills were more important than any technical knowledge about landmines, because I have other people in charge of that. I’m good at dealing with the Embassy people and the government people, getting our accreditations and this and that and the other.
And that’s what I brought to the NGOs, to look at things as a business. You can spend your dollars only once, I don’t like waste. I’m a process manager more than anything, I think in timelines. I don’t just have the idea, I operationalize it as fast as possible and if I see something that I can’t fix because the timeline isn’t long enough, then either that changes or we stop developing the plan. You can only focus on so many things in a day, so focus on the things that you can actually achieve.
I can dream the big dreams but what’s the point if I can’t make them happen?
Now I am taken seriously. It helps that I’m 51 years old. I think until my forties I definitely had to fight harder to be taken seriously. Because I was too young, and a female. Now, I have established myself and people know me, so now I will come into the room with recommendations from others. If I had to start over in a new country, that would be complicated again. But I have done it before and I would do it again if needed.
This is a position that you have to build, very slowly and very carefully. I lead a very boring life in the sense that I work, and that’s it! If I was going to nightclubs and living the high life, I wouldn’t be taken seriously.
At some point I was writing business plans to go to banks and get massive loans to furnish a complete hotel, and the first five times I got thrown out of the bank. I was 25 years old and I asked for 10 million euros, and the bank manager just laughed at me and told me to get out of his office. But you know, 3 weeks later I was back with a better plan and he threw me out 5 or 6 times, but the 7th time he said: “Okay, sit down and show me”. I am very persistent, I just think “Okay, it’s going to take a bit longer”, but “no” is definitely never the final answer.
I never step back, I got thrown out of banks and whatnot many many times. But I would just dust myself off and make a better plan and go again! You need to be stubborn as hell, that’s for sure!
Working for MAG in Angola is a lot of work, but I love trouble! And I’ve always worked in male dominated organizations. I come from a business background, in the kitchen it’s always a male chef, half the other managers we work with were guys. I’m 51, I’ve been playing the male dominated game for more than 30 years now!