Influencer Elgenia Pieternella

Interview December 2018

Elgenia Pieternella is born in Curaçao, and is very fond of her family. She studied at the UNA (now UoC), has a Masters in Economy at the university of Maastricht and a few years back also got a Law degree at UoC. She worked at ABN-AMRO bank and MeesPierson Bank before becoming a policy advisor at the Ministry of Finance. In addition, she was involved in local organizations like ABVO, ACU, Toastmasters and youth groups as advisor or a leader. In the Netherlands, she contributed to organizations like GroenLinks, Unicef, Environmental Economist and to different youth groups. She is now a board member of the Foundation Johannes Bosco and is very connected through different networks in our community. Elgenia is also the chairperson of ‘Fundashon Negoshi Pikiña’, a foundation aimed at promoting entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial education among our youth/students. 

Elgenia, when did you start getting interested in enabling entrepreneurship?
“I think I discovered it, when I was around 16 years old and I needed money to buy a Christmas gift for a young guy, who was in our youth group. We had a program and everyone drew someone else name to offer them a gift. It needed to cost no more than be around Naf 10,= . I think, if I can recall correctly, I got Naf 5,= from my parents. At that time, they couldn’t afford more. I needed to double that amount and fast. After giving it much thought and reflection, I invested the money in clothing pins and made two products to sell to some ‘wealthy tourists’ staying in the house of a neighbor. My selling skills were so bad, I ended up giving them the product as a gift. There is where my parents stepped in and took money out of their grocery/month savings account and gave me money to buy the gift. But, that experience was the turning point in my life, because it taught me that I needed to educate myself to become more skilled, so to never end up like that anymore.

So, I started reading the Financial Times, the Economist and Caribbean Newspapers like the Guardian, but also the Bible as part of the youth group of which I was part of. By the way the newspapers and magazines were “used leftovers” from the ALM flights. My father, who was working at the airline at that time, took this home for us to read. Via these papers and magazines, I once saw an advertisement from International Pen-friends (A kind of Facebook at that time) and I became their representative in Curaçao.

Everytime someone became a member through me, I got a commission of $3 or $5. That was awesome.
In a week, I sometimes made $30 dollar. That’s how I learned to become a real entrepreneur at the age of 17. Afterwards I created our first family business called “Rodeko” (derived from Robeco in Rotterdam. I saw the name on a building when vacationing). With this additional stream of income, my family became more self-sufficient and we could do and buy things we needed and help others.”. This additional source of income replaced the salary of my parents when at a certain moment in time the monthly income from business was around Naf25.000,=. More business followed from Rodeko and when the 3 of us went to study in the Netherlands (Erasmus and University of Maastricht) we set up a business to cover our costs. “Dimasy” was created for this purpose by me and my brother Ethsel. Some highlights of this “student company”. One of our products made it to the inside of a Mazda car at the European Head Office of this company. The “conservator” of Boymans van Beuningen museum, one of the largest museums in The Netherlands, surprised us one day by calling us up and requested a demonstration of our product. Our business partners were companies from Italy, Taiwan and United States.

This interesting and challenging period in our lives made us realize that had we had “entrepreneurship/financial education” in school, it would have prepared us much, much better. How to be an entrepreneur, we learned the hard way, with ups and downs, by teaching ourselves and learning by doing…..alone.

Going through this experience, we decided we will set up an organization in Curaçao that would inspire and teach children and the youth to become entrepreneurs, since through this you will receive essential life skills. These acquired knowledge base skills via entrepreneurship is, we believe, important to reduce poverty and for a person to have (additional/passive) streams of income. But most important, they did not have to learn it the hard way as our family did.

In the end we did it, we survived and I am now an investor and also advisor to some of our family business endeavors.”

What kind of programs have you rolled out as the Fundashon Negoshi Pikiña over the years? Which one of the programs has been the most successful?
We have done the following programs:
• Company Program;
• Our Community;
• Festival di Lamunchi (together with a local Bank);
• Economics of staying in school;
• Roefeldag (together with the organizer FAJ and Desaroyo i Progresso)
• Global Entrepreneurship Week;
• Youth Biz Startup;

We got the most publicity via ‘Festival di Lamunchi’ and we mobilized the most students and schools via the project ‘Our Community’. In 2017 directly via training and the lessons we taught 2.332 students from over 30 schools in Curaçao from the primary school level till the University of Curaçao. This year we reached over 2000 students again. The exact numbers are now being collected. Over 25.000 students have been reached and inspired by our programs in these last 10 years. The coming years this will be doubled in less than 5 years. The programs have been exported to Bonaire and in 2019 we will reach out to Aruba and Sint Maarten.

Does the foundation has employees employed?
“Yes, for 0.75 FTE, two working 30 hours overall a week.”

How many volunteers are helping you achieve the goals of the foundation?
“Approximately 25 volunteers a year.”

With which international and local organizations does the foundation work with?|
“Internationally, we work with Junior Achievement and Global Entrepreneurship Week.
Locally, we collaborate with the Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Economic Affairs.”

How important are these link with the international organizations which you work with?
“These links are very important. We get expertise, we have access to their network and it gives exposure for ourselves and also for Curaçao.”

Can you give me some examples and what this collaboration entails?
“We consider it to be very important to be locally based and locally focused first and have a significant impact as a foundation and then use this foundation and these experiences, to export ideas and knowledge to, for example Bonaire. Branching out to Aruba and Sint Maarten to get also economies of scale for the translations we have to invest in, is also important to us.

The Government is important, as it will cover our basic and initial costs, that the private sector is not willing to sponsor. All our programs are offered free of charge to our attendees, so we need the Government to facilitate “financial and economic”- education to our people. This starts in school. Most schools, parents and students can’t pay or are not inclined to pay for these type of programs, since they don’t have the resources or don’t (yet) see the benefits to be gained out of these programs.”

You have just been involved actively in the Global Entrepreneurs week in November? What is the intention of this week and how has it developed itself over the years?
“We promote the Global Entrepreneurship Week in Curaçao and Bonaire. 2018 was our 4th consecutive year. Changing mindsets is an uphill and long term “battle”. We believe that an increasing number of people, especially young people are starting to see entrepreneurship as a career option. This is being confirmed by the Chamber of Commerce. We are still aiming to:
• increase the interest of our youth and others to start a business:
• scale their business up and
• even aim for export as an explicit goal, that can be accomplished by more of our local entrepreneurs (Yu di Kòrsou) either together with others locally or non-locals or on themselves.”

How is the youth reacting on the services that you offer in the schools?
“We work and approach schools. So, schools are seeing and recognizing the benefits of entrepreneurship education in their schools and are welcoming our experienced based programs. In the beginning, we had to approach schools. Now they are approaching us. So, the momentum is definitely changing.”

How many youths do you believe you have touched over the years? Can you mention some of the best examples of youth whom have taken your courses and started as entrepreneurs with success and they are still successful?
“I think there are several. Look at a few examples in the picture below.”

You are of the opinion, that you can master your own destiny and should not wait things to fall in your lap. By deciding to be like this, it also means working long hours at times. Where did this drive come from?
“I suppose, it is within me, but I believe that my upbringing has inspired me to think that a lot is possible and that you need to learn new things and meet new people all the time, to keep up with this rapid changing world. During my whole life, others have helped/assisted me (opened doors for me) on my path. Sometimes, I recognized that they were there to help me and I welcomed them, but sometimes I didn’t even notice them and couldn’t see what their purpose was in my life. So, I too have made mistakes and I try again to learn from them and strive not to repeat my mistakes. But then again, that is easier said than done. I am NOT perfect, I am human.

Having a belief system and basic core principles will help you make better choices in life. That is also easily said, but difficult to apply. Although sometimes painful, people and experiences combined with my belief system have shaped me and make me who I am today. I liked to thank all that had deliberately or unconsciously contributed to this.”

You are trying also to keep up with your skills and you enable others to grow. In that sense, you attend conferences regularly. You can connect with people and you can connect dots and align as part of a deliberate effort. You like to meet different kinds of people. Why is this so important for you?
“I try to attend conferences 2 or 3 times a year, this depends on the funding of the attendance to these conferences. If I visit a conference three times a year, usually one conference is paid by the organizers; one by Fundashon Negoshi Pikiña and one I cover the costs myself. They are important because you learn new ideas and skills, but also for the networking and the sharing of experiences with others.”

You have very good people’s skills. Where does this interest come from?
“I don’t know if I am good with managing people. Seeing the results reached I suppose I do motivate and inspire people. I am starting to realize and recognize that I am a very creative and talented person. I do see possibilities where others only see problems and waste.
But going back to managing people, actually, I am a very shy person. If I need to connect with people I will, to reach my goals and be useful to them. So, this drives me to go beyond my fears and do what has to be done in a positive way. It isn’t easy, but I keep trying.”

What are your other strengths?
The biggest strengths that I have is, that I try to be honest and real. That is what others tell me they see in me and appreciate. In addition to that, when I am passionate about something, I will go for it and sometimes losing myself and the sight of my family in doing this completely. I need to put more attention to this. Since it can become a liability or weakness.”

Do you have other hobbies or interests that you are passionate about?
“Of course. I love being in nature, l enjoy walking, traveling, reading, coaching and motivating people and being in a creative environment with like-minded people.”

If you as Elgenia would meet a stranger in the bus (let say in Holland or the US) and they would ask you to introduce yourself, what would you answer?
“I was never asked this question before, but I think I would answer: I am a world citizen living in Curaçao, trying to change the community and the world from there. Here is my email/app if you want to contribute, from where you are or where you are going, here is the information you need. Many many thanks.”

How would you describe Elgenia in one word or one sentence?
“A very talented, modest and honest person with a big heart for the community.”

Whom are the persons that have inspired you the most in your career? Where they always positive role models or where their also negative role models that you didn’t want to identify with?
“There have been a few including my family especially my mother. But one of the first I can remember , outside the family circle is a woman I met at my first “vakantiejob”. We were 3 or more “vakantiejobbers”. And they needed to choose someone to do a difficult job and since I was modest and a little shy in those days, everyone else thought that the ones with the more outgoing personality could do the job. She told them all, she wanted me and not the others because she believed I am the one that could do the job. I did more than what she expected from me, immensely grateful for the confidence she had in me that helped me in all the future “jobs” I had since then!!!”

What are some challenges, lessons learned, that you have encountered in your life when you ultimately discovered your talents and strengths?
“Resilience and creativity, and I gain lots of strength from my spirituality and family.”

What was a defining moment in your life, a setback that later turned out to be a great blessing?
“I guess that is “Not selling a product” I thought was the best product I had at that moment!”

What is your BIG WHY or driving motivation to be whom you are right now? Is it spiritual or something else?
First of all, I believe in God and in creation. I think all of us have been created with a purpose and we should leave a (positive) footprint behind in this world. You have to look or search for it, we are more than just animals and plants. We have a mind and a consciousness. We have the freedom to choose our path in life;

Secondly, family is also important since they teach you the first “steps” in life and make the first decisions for you. My BIG WHY is: “Will I get enough time or do I live enough to accomplish my mission”. The motivation for me is “so much blessings have been given to me and my family, so it is my obligation to give back.” I have chosen the path of changing the mindsets of young people and their environments, so that the community as a whole will be a better place to live in. So my BIG mission in life is, to invest in and inspire the youth to change our community using all the talents and years they have been blessed with. The real challenge is to convince them to believe in themselves and that they can be a change agent and change themselves and our community and the world at large.”

I want to be alive and healthy and still be contributing to change things that are important to me. For the next generations, I would say: “Look at the upside of live and make it better.”

What would you want your Loved Ones, family, friends and others to say about you let’s say 25 years from now?
“Great inspiration, we will follow in your footsteps and leave a legacy behind for others to continue to create ripples.”

What makes you stay optimistic about the future of Curaçao?
We have a talented population with a lot of hidden treasures among them, many of us are just looking at the wrong place to discover our talents. The younger generations (sustained and inspired by the experienced older generation), will lead the way, if those of us with experience will honor them with our confidence and hand over to them the torch to our future. Remember the young are part of us, our production. If they do not make it (happen) it is in part our responsibility.
So, I am optimistic looking at the future and I am able to contribute, because we know how to connect with our youth. I want to playfully teach them, that when they look in the mirror, they will see their real value.”

Do you want to share anything else that might be relevant for those reading this blog?
“I would like to speak directly to all those reading this blog, to stand up and do their part to make this a better place, a better world to live in for you, your family and our community. You are your brother’s keeper as part of our society and of the world. All of us, have the power in us to change (part) of this big world. We can do this by inspiring ourselves and others. We just have to start, get up, stand up and start doing what we need to do. We were created with dedication and talents, it would be a pity to waste it and not to use it.”

One of the 250 Influencers
As the core group of Share2Uplift we love and deeply respect Elgenia Pieternella who, as a (social) entrepreneur, is serving our community especially our youth for years now. We definitely consider her one of the 250 ethical leaders of our Island, that continuously works at creating value for the whole of the society.

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