October 9, 2013 — Welcome to the latest in our series of #WomenCan profiles, highlighting executives and experts who are Catalysts for change within their companies and fields.
Meet: Josefine M.C. van Zanten, Senior Vice President, ONE DSM Culture Agenda, DSM, The Netherlands
Early experiences with diversity: I was raised by a Dutch father and a Swiss/Polish mother. This wouldn’t set me apart today, but back then it was highly unusual. My family moved from The Netherlands to Switzerland when I was still very young, and I moved to the United States on my own when I was in my late teens. My early exposure to different cultures and languages equipped me with tools I apply every day in my professional life, especially in our increasingly global world.
An MBA opens doors: In my thirties, while raising two young children, I got my MBA, which led to an outstanding position with HP, where I moved from finance to communication to customer experience, ultimately becoming the EMEA Director for Diversity and Inclusion. During this time, Royal Dutch Shell contacted me and offered me the role of Chief Diversity Officer for the entire corporation. This was a once-in-a-life time opportunity which I readily accepted. After over five years in the role, and what I would consider impactful change, I had to move back to my home country of Switzerland. DSM offered a new challenge, and a broader scope than my previous positions. It’s also a global company with two key locations in Europe, The Netherlands and Switzerland, so I’m able to spend time in both places.
Breaking through invisible barriers: My biggest surprise along the way has been just how hard women have to work to fit in. I often see barely qualified men in senior positions and wonder not only how they got there in the first place, but also how they’re able to stay put! What men take for granted (the bantering, bonding, and informal networking) is new to most women—and we have to embrace it to get anywhere. There are very few role models for Europe-based businesswomen; I’m constantly surprised that so little has changed in this region in the last 50 years.
Get ahead by following your passion: I’ve been lucky to be able to bring focus and drive to roles that interest me. I’ve always done things I felt passion for and believed in, most often supported by great leaders who taught me important lessons. I’ve also worked for top companies that treat people with respect. I work hard and focus on developing my personal strengths. As a leader, I do my best to develop my team members as well by stretching them on the job—and giving them wings to fly on their own.
Straight talk for ambitious women: Change companies if you’re not advancing where you are. When starting a new job, you have an opportunity to negotiate a better position, title, and salary to begin with.
Especially for women in Europe, where there are so few role models, I recommend connecting with women role models in the United States. Find an American mentor or sponsor—preferably a woman—and try to visit the United States as early as possible in your career. It’s empowering to spend time in a country where there are more women role models in government, business, and media.
Mistakes happen—learn from them and move on: I’ve made some good decisions in over 25 years on the job—and some not-so-good ones. I learned the most when things were toughest. My advice is to stick with it and never give up. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible: reach for the stars and make it happen!
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