Your partner in British Dutch Business

Congratulations on winning the NBCC Woman of the Year award!

Thank you so much, it’s special to win an important award like this one. It’s also very special for Unilever to win this award because of our long history in both the Netherlands and the UK, after the merger between Lever Brothers and the Margarine Unie over a hundred years ago. We hold both countries near and dear to our hearts and it’s great that NBCC recognised this by giving us this award.

Did you recognise what the jury said about you: “an exceptional business leader, who walks the talk?”

I try to walk the talk and inspire others on diversity and inclusion. For example, I'm on the Advisory Board of LEAD for many years, a European organization leading executives to advance diversity. We try to inspire many companies and customers to drive gender diversity.

I also try to speak about gender diversity externally. We do great things and people need to know about it, so we can inspire other to do it as well. I always tell about the things we do at Unilever, so this award is not really about me, but what I’m able to because I’m wearing the Unilever badge.

What did you think about the North Sea Neighbours Event, now in a hybrid form?  

I loved it. It felt very glamorous. Of course it’s not easy nowadays with these virtual events and we're all hoping that will be back in person, but it was very engaging and it was great to see all the winners.

What is your secret for success and what advice would you give to other women?

I’m afraid I don't really think I have a secret. I do my best and really believe that businesses have responsibilities. We have responsibilities to our shareholders, but also to our customers, the community and the planet. And by serving all stakeholders our results are not just short term, at Unilever our purpose is to be sustainable over the long term. We only live once, so we may try as well to do it right by everyone.

What do you think are the advantages of having women in an organisation? 

There is a huge advantage to diversity and to have both men and women at the top. When you have a mix of men and women, you get better ideas. You get more creativity, and you get more fun as well. And you know what? Life is too short to not have fun at work. 

How did you manage to have such a fantastic career in combination with three children and a husband?

A great husband. That's the first answer. It's all about teamwork, it’s like business, he’s been great throughout. He's a great support and at home we really are a team. And we've been very fortunate that our kids are really adaptable and flexible. They're grown now, or at least two of them have left the house, the little one is still with us. They've had to move many times, different countries, different schools, but they've always seen it as an adventure. I realized that's maybe not for every family, but we've been lucky in that they've enjoyed it as well.

Who is your own role model an why?

I have to give you a list here, I've been very fortunate with many great bosses and them being role models. Paul Polman at Unilever who called for businesses to fight climate change back in 2010 when it wasn't fashionable, when it was kind of frowned upon. Though I learned from him, as a youngster at Procter & Gamble, a simple but powerful business strategy model which I still use today. How deciding really fast, which I like to do, is not always the best. Sometimes you need to be patient and wait, and he really taught me that. 

Gina Drosos at Procter & Gamble, who now is the CEO of a big jewelry company in the USA. She really showed me how you can be a great leader and also a wonderful mom, and you don't have to make any tradeoffs. 

My current boss, Alan Jope at Unilever is an absolute role model. For his humor and for putting people first, especially in these very challenging times. He is also being a real inspiration, so again I've been lucky. I've just worked with some really great people and I was able to learn a little bit from all of them.

And then at a personal level, my father. He had a very clear purpose and a very clear moral compass. And times have changed, but the way he approached his moral compass, his activism. Definitely. 

How does diversity and inclusion and building equal workplaces impact you personally? What changes have you made of your own? 

At Unilever we have good practices with 50:50 at all management levels. But we realised we needed to do more to get to 50:50 at the absolute top levels in the company. And the other thing we've realized is that gender diversity is super important, but we should not forget the other types of diversity: race, disability, LGBTQ. So I've done two things on diversity at the highest levels. 

I always think you need to start close to you so I have lent in on hiring on my own team and the leadership team of the Foods and Refreshment division. When I came in two years ago, it was about 30:70 female-male, and in two years I've changed that. So we're now about 50:50 and it's really is a balanced team. For example, I have a guy in HR, and my top leaders in like R&D and supply chain are women. I've got a great Dutch woman in R&D and a great Chinese woman in the supply chain. I hope by starting close to home and leaning in I have a better team, but also inspire others. 

And then on the other areas of diversity: race, disability, LGBTQ. We've really made a big effort as a company, and we've hired more people. We've hired a new head of D&I, Evelyn Espinal. She’s been great at putting plans in place to get us also to the right representation, and the right inclusion for the other underrepresented groups. A lot of action in the last couple years.

We know at Unilever your organisation has created many innovative products around D&I, as well. The Degree inclusive deodorant, for instance. Is there any new innovation coming from foods and refreshment on diversity and inclusion?

The degree deodorant for disabled people is excellent. I would say ours are bit more conceptual rather than actual products, so there's a couple of things I've liked in the last few months. You know, Miley Cyrus collaborated with Magnum this summer. She is a real role model, being a creative disruptor who's really true to herself and doesn't really care about some of the traditional gender boundaries, so I think that was a good collaboration, hopefully inspiring people to really be their truest selves. And a bit further away in India, the Brooke Bond tea brand, which is by far the biggest tea brand in India. For a number of years, they run a beautiful television campaign that champions underrepresented groups such as Muslims women and recently people with COVID. And their most recent campaign is about transgenders, which is a really marginalized group in India. So by championing them up, I think Brooke Bond has been really brave. I think it is the right thing to do, but it's also incredibly impactful. I'm so proud of them for doing that. 

Obviously, we want to learn from you and we want to inspire other NBCC Members with what you and Unilever have done. Can you say something about what has worked and what didn't work?

I think the first thing that you must do as an organisation is set a target. Because without a target, nothing happens. Ideally you commit to that target publicly so people can hold you accountable. Unilever did that very well back in 2010 and they set a public target for 2020 for male-female equality at all management levels. They measured it and they reported every year, and they got there by 2020 when they said they would. I've also been in organisations that haven't been so clear about their targets because they said things like, we don't need it or women will feel marginalized. But you know, if you don't have a serious target, it's not going to happen. 

The second thing that's really important is of course senior leadership and accountability for target deliveries. Our CEO Alan Jope chairs to Global Diversity Board and it's really his thing. Progress is reported monthly. It's in all our scorecards. When we have our annual performance review we get judged on if we are making progress in our teams. Alan has called out D&I as one of his top three priorities, I think senior leadership and accountability is absolutely key. When that's not there, it's highly unlikely you'll make progress.The third one I call sponsorship, not instead of mentorship. Mentorships are not wrong, but it's assuming that women or other underrepresented groups need help and are weak, but we need to be helped somehow. I think what we need to do is sponsor women and other underrepresented groups, really putting them forward for pivotal roles. I've looked at my own team and I've gone out of my way to find the right women, so that I could get to a balanced team. 

The fourth is of course policies. You know you need to have the right policies, and those policies can be different for different groups, but certainly for women we need things like flex working and paternity leave.  We are progressive in terms of those at Unilever. Networks are important too, because there's power in numbers. I actually lead our LEAD network, which is both an external network and an internal network at Unilever and many other companies, where women can get together. But we also have a really strong network in for example LGBTQI at Unilever. It's just good to be able to speak to people who are like you, especially when you're a smaller group. 

Finally, and this is very specific to our industry at Unilever, you know we've made a big effort to #unstereotype campaign. We're one of the biggest advertisers in the world so it is really impactful. If you show in advertising only women in the kitchen or women doing laundry, the world isn't going to change because we just emphasize those stereotypes. So it's up to us to change that picture. You can't be what you can't see. So we've made a real effort over the last 10 years around the world. But we probably need to do even more. So that continues to be a real important focus for us and we have a team dedicated to that, working from product development to advertising to make sure we unstereotype. Because if we can show diverse people and progressive ways, our brands can really make a difference when it comes to D&I. For example the Calvé advertising with the female footballer Lieke Martens. That was fantastic. It's given little girls a license to play soccer.

Do you feel multinationals can be seen as an important voice? While you already said things regarding advertising and you were speaking a lot, you're active in our network so would you like to add anything?

I would say a resounding yes. And we try to do that. At Unilever by talking about our purpose by setting public commitments. By unstereotyping or advertising. And we need to do this together. Not just only Unilever should do D&I or sustainability, we only help the world if we can inspire others as well and continue to do the right thing ourselves.

At the Netherlands British Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) also have an objective within our network to promote D&I. What new activities or topics would you recommend?

One thing that would come to mind is creating coalitions, for example with LEAD as they have big chapters in both the UK and the Netherlands. Maybe you can learn from one another and even do some co-organised Dutch UK events, which will be fun.