Next to Dr. Ibrahim and Helmy Abouleish, the SEKEM Board of Directors has seven other members. Four times a year, the board meets in SEKEM to discuss the situation of business and strategic issues. The board members are nominated by SEKEMs owners and elected for three years. They bring a wide range of experiences and expertise in different fields. SEKEM News will introduce the board members by individual portraits.
Powerful, responsible, precise and fast – this is the impression that Elfrieke van Galen gives after talking to her for about one hour. From where does the successful business woman take her energy?
Nature plays a huge role in Elfrieke van Galen’s life. One of her earliest childhood memories: Getting up at six in the morning by only the sounds of the birds in pure nature. In High School, Elfrieke van Galen was engaged to an environmental organization, later on she initiated trips into the nature for managers and today she grows her own vegetable garden in central Amsterdam. “Nature gives me energy, no matter if big scenic attractions or the beauty of a tiny little flower in my backyard.”
Successful Entrepreneur and Expert for Sustainability
Since almost one year the grounded business woman is a member of the SEKEM Board of Directors. Nominated by SEKEMs shareholder Triodos, Elfrieke van Galen contributes with a wide professional experience, especially from a commercial background but also as an expert for sustainability and the activity in various boards. “I knew SEKEM from the Organic business sector and was always impressed by the story, how it was built and how it functions today”, she tells. “I admire what people do in SEKEM and I feel privileged that I can now also contribute to its development.”
“Everything is connected. We cannot act isolated and have to take over responsibility.”
The Dutchwoman made a successful carrier – business wise and in the field of sustainability. While she was studying law in Amsterdam she already joined the flag carrier airline of the Netherlands, KLM, where she spent 24 years in many different positions. From the cargo warehouse to the Managing Director of KLM Cityhopper, to the CEO of KLM United Kingdom and finally Head of Sustainability and Communications – van Galen gained a huge variety of professional and social experiences during her time with the Royal Dutch Airlines: “The most important thing I learned is that everything is connected. Whatever we do, it impacts something else in the world. We cannot act isolated, means, we always take over responsibilities if we like it or not.”
Additionally, the ambitious woman got aware of the fact that we always have to consider that people look to each other’s through different roles. When she worked in the KLM cargo warehouse she met people with a low educational background, who take over huge responsibilities in their free time or private life for instance as the president of a football club or by caring for a big family. This contributed to her understanding of social responsibility and helped her in the positions that she owned: always be mindful of the whole.
Actually, Elfrieke van Galen was the one who create the Sustainability Department at KLM. “After travelling a lot and seeing the poverty in this world I developed the strong believe that companies can make profits and in the same time contribute to a better world.” Hence, she embedded the idea of sustainability into all processes of business. And, the result of her efforts received international recognition: KLM is listed in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI), the most important international index measuring companies’ sustainable business performance, as world’s most sustainable operating airline since many years.
Finding the right position for SEKEM in the future
Great achievements and knowledge that made her a perfect candidate for the SEKEM Board of Directors. However, the responsible and successful entrepreneur recognizes: “SEKEM was one of the first initiatives that published a Sustainability Report, which is now taken for granted by almost every large scale enterprise.” By being critical, asking questions and first and foremost passion, she wants to support SEKEM now in staying ahead and being a leading example in regards to sustainability. “Times are changing, the organic sector is expanding and we have to find the right position for SEKEM in this transforming environment by grapping its potential for the future, which SEKEM absolutely owns”, she says. “We rather need practical, inspiring examples, like SEKEM, than theory.”
Six years ago, Elfrieke van Galen realized that she had spent already have of her life with KLM and that “the world is much bigger than the airline.” She was curious about the rest of her life and now, that she founded her passion in promoting sustainability, she set up together with two colleagues a new company that is supporting organizations in implementing sustainability and thereby accelerating the transition towards a sustainable, fair economy and a better society: TheRockGroup.
Recipe for Success: A Visionary Goal Combined with Short-term Attention
The combination of a visionary goal, a long-term mission and short-term attention is the recipe for success – this is what Elfrieke van Galen learned during her career and what she tries to convey now in different non-executive board positions as well as to the youth. “I see so many young people with great entrepreneurial skills, which is very promising”, the supportive lawyer, who is helping students for instance by setting up a business plan, tells. “Once, sustainability was only about not harming the environment. Today it’s a much bigger combination of making money and having in the same time sustainable impacts to nature, culture and society.”
“Women are a key factor for getting a country out of poverty.”
The first woman in SEKEMs Board of Directors (just recently a female colleague joined) appreciates that she does not only read board papers in SEKEM but is also able to “see, feel and smell”. Hence, she experienced for instance activities in the context of empowering women in SEKEMs company NatureTex. “I never faced any obstacles because of the fact that I am woman, but unfortunately I have been many times the only female member in a team, which was quite a challenge. Women and men are different and it needs efforts from both sides to create a good understanding”, Elfrieke van Galen recounts.
Needless to say, that she knows about the demand of women in business not only since many studies have proven that mixed teams work much more efficient. “Working women are also a key for getting a country out of poverty. If women are working they get less children, who thereby receive better education and health care”, states the sustainability expert.
The Power of Nature
It seems that Elfrieke van Galen knows precisely what she is talking about and, very admirable, she owns the rare talent to give each of her sentences a concrete statement, avoiding beating around the bush. Maybe her formula for success is also connected to the fact that she does not make a difference between private and working life: “I have only one life and my work gives me the same energy as others might take from their leisure time. What is meaningful to me is to always consider the environment that we are living in. Nature can teach us a lot.”
Elfrieke van Galen initiated trips for business people to the South African wilderness. “One week in pure nature, without technic and communication helps us to understand that we are a part of a nature we rely on and that we are not on top of the mountain.”