Checkin’ in at your hotel at 2 am in the morning in Dar es Salaam and finding a bar of the best Dutch chocolate waiting for you at the reception, is just such an amazing way to start your work week.

Meeting millionaire female traders at Kariaako market in Dar es Salaam and smallholder farmers in Embu county in Kenya last week has been a humbling experience. It makes me reconsider my decisions. My take on life. My need for luxury. My complacency? These women are prepared to reinvest everything they earn into their family, their business and into their respective communities.

As much as my children believe I give away a lot of the family capital, little do they know that it still does not add up to the 10% I believe we should all share once we have our basic needs covered. Which brings me to the question – what are basic needs? Is it my morning cappuccino overlooking the Atlantic on my way to work? Is it the massage I indulge in occasionally? Do I share enough of the incredibly lucky hand that fate has dealt me? Most of all, do I do enough for my sisters globally?

Following my passion, unlocking the potential of women and girls to create a better world, is what I want people to remember about me. That I made a difference. A difference to the lives of others. Other women in particular. They move me. Their bravery. Their stamina. Their struggle. Their sacrifice. Their resilience. Their power. Their natural contribution to society. At the same time, I think the power these women demonstrate sometimes defeats their purpose. It defeats their purpose as they look after everyone except themselves.

Is it then my role to remind women to look after themselves as much as they look after everyone else? Is it to remind girls that good is good enough and that they no longer have to prove themselves because they were born female? Surely, I am good at enjoying life, doing the things I believe need to be done and not give in to pressure, whether real or imaginary. Choosing to thrive not to succeed. Choosing to contribute not to compete. Choosing to celebrate not to dash on. Can it be that simple? Am I allowed to do what I do best? Having others believe in themselves without losing themselves? Then again who do I need permission from?

Passion comes at a cost – as it can become all consuming. Power comes with a cost as the responsibilities might seem crushing. Can partnership be the answer? We need to remind ourselves that we are not alone. We can build on each other. We can trust our sisterhood.

I guess this blog turned out as a somewhat emotional reflection and introspection. But guess what? I love emotions. I love to observe. I love to be moved and I love to move others. I believe together we can create this better world for all who yearn for it.

Let’s remember to welcome, support and encourage one another, whether it involves great-bars-of-chocolate-at-reception-desks or not.


Visiting our clients is always such a treat! Especially when our client is using finance to solve world problems. And that is exactly what IFMR capital does. They use sophisticated financial instruments to tackle financial inclusion. In India 75% of the population has no access to finance. Given the population of 1.2b it is not difficult to follow IFMR’s reasoning that financial inclusion must be core to the financial system.

As I take off from Goa airport the charming Indian voice of Kshama Fernandes keeps ringing in my head. “Concentrate on the big problems, solve those and don’t worry about the little ones.” For the past 7 days she allowed me to probe into her life to an extent she did not deem possible just a week ago. But somehow we connected, somehow all the elements fell in place for us to meet and that is where the story starts.

In a little green valley in Goa, in a small hut with a cow dung floor, a father holds his daughter to protect her from the monsoon rains that seep through their palm tree leaf roof. On the other side of the valley, in a big glass house on top of a hill, a man worries about his iron ore mining business as he listens to the monsoon rains crashing down the roof of his beautiful grand mansion. The man on the hill lives an entirely different life than the girl in the valley. While he enjoys the privileges of India’s elite, she goes to school with the help of a scholarship from the Goan government and cannot afford the monthly payment of 50 rupees ($0.35ct) required to pay for extra French or guitar classes. As I fly out of Goa, many decades later, these two people are invitees to the same board meeting. Today the little girl from the valley and the big man from the hill meet as equals.

“I have done many crazy things in my life but I have never done anything close to this” says Kshama Fernandes, CEO of IFMR Capital, as we meet in her office on the 10th floor of a nondescript building in Chennai, India. I decide to take this as a compliment as Kshama has done many, many crazy things in her life. As we get to know each other better during the week I spend with her, I start to appreciate what it is she means when she says this is the craziest thing. Kshama chooses very well who she tells what about her life and when. She truly is the master of her fate and the captain of her soul. Only in case it helps someone else will she offer a story amongst the many she has to share. The rest she keeps to herself. And here I am, an anthropologist working at a bank, wanting to know her every single little story. A technique called a “life history”. An ideal methodology for chronically curious people like myself.

Kshama’s story is the first of a series that I will be making to portray female leaders in the financial sector. I am looking for the unsung heroes and choose to write about women only as many, many portraits of male heroes already exist…. I am looking for female role models and did I choose well when I asked Kshama if she would be my first victim 🙂

Allow me to introduce to you a most remarkable woman. The introduction will have to be brief. It will give you just a glimpse of a rare all-round human being. Eventually all stories will be published for those of you interested to read more.


She is a quant and an empathic leader

She is a professor and a business woman

She is a survivor and a life artist

She is a rebel and an introvert

She is a friend and fiercely autonomous

She is a mother and a tough negotiator

She is a biker, a parachutist and a sailor

She is a daughter and a pioneer

She is a lover and a mountaineer


“Boys focus on the ball, girls on the game.” This remark by my sorority mate, who also manages a girls’ soccer team, vividly describes how men and women approach life and therefore end up making different choices.

According to data on the best-performing companies, business success is a balancing act. Mixed teams and mixed boards make the best decisions. What fascinates me is that we have known this fact for years but we don’t seem to apply this knowledge. In the Netherlands, 9 out of the 10 executive board members to date are men!

Why on earth, I wonder.

The unwritten rules of the workplace have been formed by men over the years. My viewpoint is that women do not recognize themselves in these rules and consciously or unconsciously choose not to conform and sometimes end up not wanting to play at all. It is high time to rewrite the rules of the game called work, in a way that both men and women can continue to play and to thrive. We need to find a way that men and women can equally play their own role in boardrooms, that they can create startups and manage their lives in other meaningful ways.

To better understand how, we should perhaps ask ourselves a few questions: who are the women that are thriving in today’s game? Who are the women that gain positions of power and influence? Who are the women that bring something different into the game and are not marginalized doing so? What choices have they made? What has been their path? And what can they teach other women?

Role models, inspirational female role models, are the key to answering these questions. Stories of their successes and failures, of their vision and of that special resilience that makes them persevere will help us understand how they are busy rewriting the unwritten rules.

I am a corporate anthropologist. I have never identified myself as such, but now I know that I am just that. I naturally take the role of the observer while I participate. And I always question the status quo. I never take culture for granted. I am a fundamentally curious person.

In a series of documentary films and articles that will shortly be launched, I delve into these questions, and try to understand what makes these aspirational women tick. My source of inspiration are FMO’s clients. Look out for the FMO role model series that will soon be launched.


In 1967 a little girl named Karla was born in ‘Hopital el Retiro’ a few years before it was destroyed in the devastating 1972 earthquake. Today the regional retail banking group where Karla works, is built on exactly the same spot. During the earthquake Karla remembers roof tiles falling down like rain and her dad putting her brother’s fire helmets on their heads, as he brought his wife and their four children to the relative safety of their garden. Luckily, other than a couple of cracked walls, their house was not affected, but downtown Managua almost completely disappeared.

I truly enjoyed my week of participatory observation, by far my favorite invention in the field of anthropology. Staying at Karla’s home in Managua, Nicaragua and sharing her daily rituals whilst extracting her life history was a truly amazing experience! It allowed me to get a glimpse of an exceptional human being; her equanimity, her intense and personal relationship with God and her ability to visualize and strive for a future she believes in. By giving you a bird’s eye view of her story, you may start to understand my awe.

Her mother an idealist and a well-known poet, her father a lawyer with a rather conservative background, Karla’s parents met, married and contributed to the Sandinista cause in the 70’s. A fall-out over political choices led to their divorce and Karla eventually had to leave Nicaragua for the U.S. at the tender age of fourteen. It was summer, June 1982. She was on her own, despite the loving care of her uncle and aunt. For a long time she was bitter towards both her parents as she felt abandoned.

Having learned English through bilingual episodes of Sesame Street, Karla’s dream was always to become a medical doctor. However, after she finally graduated from High School in Miami there was nobody to advise and guide her on next steps. Karla had a political refugee status which did not allow her to apply for a scholarship.

Over time, Karla’s determination to become a doctor transformed into a passion for finance and banking. Banking as an alternative way to help people achieving their dreams of a better life. It was a world that started to fascinate her and it was a pragmatic love as this career path allowed her to combine her studies with paid work therefore no longer needing a scholarship. Karla decided she wanted to work for a bank, even if she had to clean floors!

Karla remembers a bumper­ sticker that said: Temporary home of a rising executive. She stuck that sticker on her computer. She was determined and kept envisioning her future. She saw herself at age 30 in an executive role at Bank of America. Instead at 30, she played a crucial role in stabilizing the banking sector in her country Nicaragua, by liquidating four out of nine commercial banks, in her role as the Intendent of banks. She was permanently escorted by bodyguards and testifying in court became one of her routines.

Today, besides being a loving wife, a mother of 3 talented youngsters, a devout Christian, a cancer survivor, a sister, a daughter and a dear friend Karla is a dedicated professional playing a crucial -yet largely invisible role- as the trusted advisor to the founder and president of a big retail banking group in Central America.

Karla is yet another remarkable woman and an inspiring role model to many. Her story is the second of a series that I am making to portray female leaders in the financial sector. I am looking for the unsung heroes and choose to write about women only as many, many portraits of male heroes already exist…


Today I wish to share this incredibly beautiful, inspiring and touching e-mail I received from Kshama Fernandes, CEO of Northern Arc in India.

“When I was born,  I was the daughter my parents craved for

When my brother was born, I became a sister to him

When I got married, I became a wife

When I had children, I became a mother

When my niece was born, I became an aunt

Someday I will become a grandmother


In the changing kaleidoscope of roles I’ve played in life

The one I’ve cherished most – is that of a friend

A friend to my parents (who keep insisting I grow up but are really glad I never did)

A friend to my brother (despite the fact that I’ve bullied him all his life)

A friend to my then husband (I ceased to be his wife, but continued being his best friend)

A friend to my sons (I hope I will always be so)

A friend to my niece (who recently taught me how to air board although I’ll never be as good as her at it)

A friend someday to my grandchildren (I have so many stories to tell them…)

And really – a friend to anybody who will have me for a friend


A friend is like a full stop, a period “. ”

Nothing more and nothing less

A friend is just simply  – a friend

A friend is never a woman or a man

A friend is the armor we all need in life

Wear it when needed, and set it aside when not

Always handy the next time round

In my world of finance, a friend is an “option” with a non-linear payoff

A limited downside and an unlimited upside

And that’s the role I cherish the most


Today – I wish you a friend!”


On my way to Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka, enduring the country music of my gentle driver, I truly start to sink into the sisterhood experience. The magnitude of what I have witnessed the past week slowly starts to dawn on me.

As I take my sunshine walk towards the South African Airways plane I am greeted with a smile and a compliment: “You look so beautiful madam”. You just have to love Zambia. The kindness of its people. The beauty of its nature. The potential of its women. Their potential to change the world. The potential, and after this week, the willingness to change not only themselves, but their workplace, their business, their country and therefore the world.

What happens when you bring a group of eager, exhausted and very talented women together is phenomenal. Eager to be seen and heard, exhausted due of the insane amount of responsibility and talented by virtue of who they are and what they have achieved. Offering a safe space for reflection, a challenging space to unlearn and an exciting space to grow – we, as dialogue makers, witnessed a metamorphosis amongst our beautiful group of participants.

What has shifted for me? That is the question everyone reflected on, every evening during this week. The answers were harvested at breakfast tables by the dialogue makers. The shift invariably spoke to the realization of one’s own potential to make a positive contribution to changing others’ lives, as expressed on the promise wall during the week.

The sense of excitement, possibility and purpose has been vibrant the entire week. The feeling that we can and will make a difference for our fellow sisters and brothers was palpable.

Female bankers and female entrepreneurs coming together – understanding each other and collaborating to create access to financial knowledge and access to finance for women is commendable and necessary.

As leaders in our own right we know we are a role models. I urge you all to also see yourself -and therefore behave- as role models and encourage the participation of women wherever you go. Whether it is to employ women, promote women, finance women, mentor women or just encourage women to believe in the best version of themselves!

Remember your words matter. Remember your deeds matter. And remember your dreams matter.

Dear sisters, thank you so very much for your participation this week. Going forward, I hope and expect to see the results of your actions, so we can collectively improve the lives of women and therefore benefit our society as a whole.

To end with my notes to self:

·        To myself – I will look after you.

·        To my fellow dialogue makers – I love working with you.

·        To my sisters – I believe in you.


There is an alchemy that goes on in the best boardrooms – as well as in the best teams. An alchemy that creates value from the combination of diverse individuals with differing views. It amazes me that anno 2019 we still need a BalanceforBetter hashtag. This beautiful hashtag is used globally in celebration of March 8, International Women’s day 2019. Meanwhile research is piling up confirming that balancing our boardrooms, and for that matter balancing any table at which decisions are being made, significantly boosts financial and non-financial performance. So, what are we waiting for? Why is this not top of mind for everyone? How do we wake up every morning to a world where half of the population makes decisions on behalf of the collective? And not always the best decisions that is.

Why do so few women have a seat and a voice at our global decision-making tables? Seen through my anthropological lens I distinguish two belief systems where we can and must make a difference to truly empower women to unlock their full potential – the psychological and the cultural. At the psychological level we must bring out limiting beliefs to be able to change them and we must build confidence. Confidence to take up our seats at the table and the confidence to make our voices heard. Culturally, we need to challenge the current beliefs around gender and power. To name a few. Women lack leadership skills. Women in business are bitchy. Women lack ambition. Really???

My reality, working alongside the FuturewomenX team, is women are ready to step into the ring. Women in business simply makes for better business. We work with these women, so they experience their full potential. We build a global sisterhood, so these women are no longer alone. And, we enact systemic change as our women bring their future maker qualities to the global decision-making tables. #Balanceforbetter is #Businessforbetter.