Women On Wings: Creating Jobs In Rural India


Maria van der Heijden, Founder of Women on Wings and MBA alumna

As part of our interview series with the female heroes of the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) we spoke to the Managing co-founder of Women on Wings and MscBA alumna, Maria van der Heijden.

After graduating in business, Maria van der Heijden embarked on her career with a role Communications Manager for FloraHolland (the largest auction of cut flowers and plants in the world). She then moved on to become the Corporate Governance and Corporate Communications Manager at Rabobank Netherlands.

Maria has been an entrepreneur since 2001, guiding her ventures through major change. Since 2007 she has worked alongside Ellen Tacoma as the driving force behind Women on Wings, a foundation whose purpose it is to provide assistance in rural India and create 1 million jobs for Indian women. Maria van der Heijden is a wonderful example of a woman who uses her heart and her passion as a guide in both her life and her business.

We spoke to Maria about the inspiration behind Women on Wings and how her Masters of Science in Business Administration has helped her business.

TNW: Tell us about your social enterprise, Women on Wings. What led you to launch this venture?

MVDH: Women on Wings’ mission is to create 1 million jobs for women in rural India in 10 years’ time. With a clear and simple vision: when women have a job, it means they have an income, which offers them the chance of economic independence. An income helps them to break the cycle of poverty. Experience shows that women spend their income on their families. Children are able to go to school and therefore have a chance for a better future. The cycle of poverty is broken.

India’s economic growth will critically depend on job creation.

Accelerating urbanization will be necessary for India’s growth, development, and poverty reduction, but it cannot be done without an equally pronounced focus on rural development.

It requires the effective development of the rural economy through the expansion of farm and non-farm employment and income opportunities with a growth strategy that focuses on labour-intensive sectors, and on the development of small and medium-size enterprises, currently the “missing middle” in India.

I was – together with Ellen Tacoma - inspired by an exchange programme involving experienced managers and entrepreneurs in 2006. I realised that women in the West have all the opportunities in terms of education and I wanted to share my knowledge and give Indian women and their children a better future.

I was born on a farm in the Netherlands. My parents gave me all the opportunities to create my own future. In my family I was the first member who went to university. The study I have completed and my career in business management positions gave me the opportunity to develop my skills.

For me freedom is the biggest asset of life; all opportunities I got in life I like to share with women around the world who have less opportunities because of the circumstances they live with.

TNW: What kind of ventures does Women on Wings support?

MVDH: Women on Wings offers Indian social entrepreneurs – Small and Medium Enterprises (SME’s) operating in rural India - professional business consultancy. Our experts have 15-20+ years of experience in the field of  marketing, finance, PR, product development, production, retail and supply chain management. The experts work temporarily for an Indian company. Together with the entrepreneur and the team they develop suitable and realistic business models. The impact is a growth in jobs and turn-over.

In addition to our consultancy services, we develop new business models with multiple partners, brought together by Women on Wings.

Women on Wings supports (rural) producer companies in their growth. We act as an accelerator and guide on a strategic level as well as on operational implementation. We work on all parts of the value chain in the company. We found that in a lot of rural Indian manufacturing companies supply chain management is the weakest link in the value chain. We optimize the supply chain with a lower inventory, more cash flow, better products and a higher turn-over as a result.

Growing companies need strong management with the right competences. We guide and coach management teams through the various stages of growth; individually and as a group. We offer advice on how to deal with personal strengths and weaknesses, and how to get the maximum out of the team.

We have created 95,200 new jobs for women in rural India to date. Women on Wings will create 1 million new jobs by 2018 if the number keeps doubling each year. We work with 20 SME’s, which show a constant growth every year. Women on Wings has a small Indian and Dutch team plus 55 experts, experienced managers and entrepreneurs, who share their time and efforts pro bono.

TNW: How do you divide your time and attention between Women on Wings and your other business, ComVerander?

MVDH: Women on Wings was launched in September 2007 and I invested 150,000 euros of my own income from ComVerander; a communication and change management business. We created a self-sustaining social business within three years and until January 2011 I shared my time between ComVerander and Women on Wings.

Since then I have worked full time on the goal of Women on Wings.

It’s about believing in something; having a mission and a vision. And about thinking big and acting small; small steps to reach your goals and being very flexible along the way. I find it incredibly rewarding.

TNW: What was your motivation for undertaking an MscBA?

MVDH: My motivation for undertaking an MscBA was to add strategic knowledge to my practical skills gained through 15 years of working experience for corporates. It inspired me to fulfil my dreams and to take chances.

TNW: How has your MscBA helped you in your own business?

MVDH: I really benefitted from the change management and strategic management majors I followed and combined this with my work. For example, the theory of change management supported me to develop my own shared value approach with a multi stakeholders’ approach. With Women on Wings we developed a new business model with shared values; not only profit based, but also with a sustainable people and planet approach.

TNW: Have there been any difficulties/obstacles you faced because you have an MscBA, and if so, how have you overcome them?

MVDH: No, none.

TNW: What aspects of RSM culture or composition have been helpful to you in your career?

MVDH: The RSM Culture is about creating opportunities with education. RSM has a wide network of business oriented people with passion and power.

TNW: In what way do the relationships you have with classmates or other RSM alumni add to your professional life?

MVDH: I participate in the I Will campaign with my new business model to reduce poverty and create more equality in the world. On October 10, 2013 I participated in the launch of the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship, a great initiative to bring entrepreneurship into the network of the Erasmus University.

TNW: What advice would you give to a woman choosing to do an MBA or MscBA programme today?

Follow your heart and fulfil your dreams. An MBA / MscBA programme is an investment in yourself; the best investment you can make.

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